If you've read some of Colin Cotterill's excellent Dr. Siri Paiboun series, set in post-revolutionary Laos in the late 1970s, you have a sense of what life is like in a totalitarian state. But man, you don't know doodly until you read his latest, Love Songs From a Shallow Grave (Soho Press, 2010) and follow Siri to the killing fields of Democratic Kampuchea. The trip to Kampuchea is not the main investigative plot of this story, but it is what remains seared into your memory long after the mystery of the three epées is resolved.
The whole gang is back here - Siri, Madame Daeng, Phosy and Dtui, Mr. Geung, and Civilai of course. And there are threads of love and loss and obsession - with an individual, with an idea, with a political ideology - that tie the plots together in a subtle way. The big story is the straight-up investigation of three separate murders that all involve an expertly deployed epée, but that otherwise have very little in common. As is usually the case, Siri's sprit friends don't have much to say about the investigation itself, despite his efforts to get someone to give him some help.
What the spirits do have something to say about, however, is his impending diplomatic trip to Cambodia (he doesn't yet get that it is officially Kampuchea now). And shockingly (for Siri) his spirit-mother actually speaks, warning him not to go. Siri and Civilai head out, transiting through Beijing, and come to discover that the Cambodia Siri visted in his youth, with his first wife, has disappeared, replaced by a menacingly quiet, deserted, and destroyed place. What happens after that, well, you can probably guess if you know anything about what happened in Cambodia in the mid-1970s. It makes Laos look positively congenial, and definitely bush-league when it comes to totalitarian regumes. What happens specifically to Siri does indeed involve his spirit friends, and if it has nothing really to do with the epée murders, is nevertheless completely gripping. Siri is taken the edge of existence in a far more compelling way than I recall in any of the other books in this series
What makes Cotterill's series so great? Where to start. The characters are beautifully drawn - complex and individual, but not to the point kookiness, they are eminently believable, and all likeable. Sense of place - the atmosphere is carefully described, with the rain and the mud and the river, and everyone's once-comfortable now shabby and threadbare lifestyle. Still, there is a underlay of positivity in this restricted world, which Siri attributes to an essential Lao lightheartedness, and I can only thing that Cotteril believes in it, too. It is in jeopardy at the beginning of Love Songs, but there is nothing like a trip to Democratic Kampuchea - and coming back - to make you look on the bright side of life.
One back blurb described the book's humor as "very subtle, very British," and while I wouldn't say it is subtle, it is definitely not of the madcap Braynt and May variety, it's definitely at a continuous chuckle level. The story opens with Siri being considered for Hero status, by the Department of Hero Creation, part of the propoganda section of the Ministry of Information. Here's how that whole world is explained:
"Following a Politburo decree, the words Minister and Ministry had been liberated from the dungeon of antisocialist political rhetoric and new ministries had mushroomed. There was infighting within each ministy as each department and section vied for its own ministerial status. Everyone wanted to be a minister. The secretarial pool at the new Ministry of Justice had put in an application to become the Ministry of Typing and head clerk Manivone had put her name down to become the Minister of Changing Ink Ribbons. Dr. Siri had helped her with the paperwork, and it had taken several bottles of rice whisky to get it right. Of course, they hadn't submitted the form. The system didn't have a sense of humor." (7)
Unlike Siri and co.
Cotterill's blog suggests that this may be the last in the Siri series. It makes sense, this story is darker and more profound, and you can't keep doing that stuff indefinitely at Siri's age. But while he does resign from his post as national coroner at the very end, I hope it is telling that Siri's re-hashing of the epée case with Phosy starts by noting "Police work? That was a different matter. That was fun. That wasn't messing with the dead. It was, in many respects, striving for the rights of the living. They couldn't keep a good closet detective down." (311) Gosh, I sure hope not!