Even with a trippy opening scene of a stoned helicopter pilot crashing in the jungles of Laos, I still have a little tingle of delight every time I start a Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery. It is a hopeful tingle, too, since I don't really know what is going to happen in this one and who knows, maybe it won't live up to its predecessors in this marvelously original series.
Happily, Slash and Burn (2011, Soho Press) is a fine extension of the Dr. Siri brand, so no worries there. Although you have to wonder how much longer Colin Cotterill's aging communist and reluctant coroner but still game amateur detective can stay in the hunt. And you also have to wonder how many more plot lines Cotterill can come up with that will accommodate Dr. Siri's delightful but growing group of crazy-like-a-fox comrades-in-arms. Because the gang is all here in Slash and Burn, and they meet up with a bunch of similarly eccentric Americans in the search for the remains of the aforementioned pilot, or perhaps even the pilot himself.
The premise is really that simple: an American team needs a Laotian counterpart in order to search in the hills of north Laos - where conflict is still live between the Pathet Lao and rebel Hmong - for the remains of the downed craft and its pilot. It is apparent almost immediately to Our Hero that the US mission is murkier than its apparently clear objective, and that's where the plot thickens. Cotterill piles on the atmosphere in a slightly heavy-handed fashion, with an awful lot of actual smoke literally and figuratively obscuring things, the apparent result of an annual local agricultural technique designed to clear space for planting. The resolution is a bit more dramatic than maybe might happen in reality (OK, it is a novel), but Cotterill is clearly working from a non-American, one might even say anti-American point of view here. There are a couple of good Yanks on the US team, or at least some thoughtful ones, but for the most part they all harbor nefarious intentions. The story is not entirely anti-US, but you know, we're not ALL bad, and one feels that it casts a fairly negative light on even domestic US politics, not to mention US policu in SE Asia. Of course, this would have been the prevailing opinion in the region in 1978 so maybe I should stop being so sensitive.
Slash and Burn does depart from the Dr. Siri norm in a pretty big way, which is that his spiritual connections do not play a major role in this story. There is one episode where he departs from reality, and it is only vaguely explained later, so one wonders if Cotterill had perhaps been trying out an entirely different plot thread there, but abandoned it later without developing or completely excising it. And the spirits do play a key role in the denouement. But perhaps the mortal team - which now includes Siri, Madame Daeng, Civilai, Dtui, Phosy, Geung, Comrade Lit, Auntie Bpoo, very reluctantly Judge Haeng, and now a dog named Ugly - is just too big and unwieldy to allow for any spirits to tag along as well. This series should be read in order of publication, to get the full story on each of these charming additions to Dr. Siri's circle.
But as kookily effective as his human pals are, how long can Siri count on his spirit allies and shamanic expertise to save the day? One of these missions they are going to come calling for him to join them permanently, and then I guess things could get really weird if Cotterill tries to continue this series from Siri's grave.