Not only is Colin Cotterill pushing a punny envelope with the title Six and a Half Deadly Sins (2015, Soho Crime), he is also even more fantastical than usual in this story. The difference between this and earlier entries in the delightful Dr. Siri series is that here the fantasy isn't grounded nearly as much in other-worldliness. Rather, it is just normal, of-this-world, crazy coincidences that sometimes feel stretched.
Not that there isn't, as always, much to like in a Dr. Siri mystery. The favorite characters are all back: Our Hero Laotian war hero and former national coroner now turned creaky retiree Siri Paiboun, his spirited but tragically-diminished-by-arthritis wife Daeng, and their sidekicks Civilai and Phosy. There is less Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung this time around, and Teacher Ou makes just a cameo appearance. One thing to consider is how all of Cotterill's female characters are strong, interesting, and above all else, smart as can be. Even the evil ones. It's nice, and another reminder that however these books turn out, they can never ever be accused of having stock characters.
The writing is also as charming as always. An elder is described as a "ginseng root of a man" (75) and the combination of paranormal and rural Lao custom results in delightful dialogue such as this between Siri and a spiritual medium/weaver of pha sinh.
"'I make potions,' said Madam Voodoo. 'The ingredients come to me in dreams. Some say they help with minor spiritual problems. But you? You need a complete spiritual enema.'
'That sounds rather erotic. Would it help?'
'It might, but these things find a way to cancel each other out.'
'How do you mean?'
'Well, you might be cured of dipsomania, but you'd grow a tail. Do you know what I mean? You could be rid of a demon but lose the ability to speak your native language. That sort of thing.'" (140)
My favorite piece of humor here is the bit about the American doctors Bobby and Lola, from Physicians Eschewing Agendas. They are fully equipped and trained, but have nothing to do because the Lao government can't decide what kind of aid they really need, and they don't want to completely cut ties with a wealthy organization. So, the docs sit around making pancakes for the locals and drinking wine. Colin Cotterill, how do you really feel about Doctors Without Borders?
The plots of Dr. Siri mysteries are always complicated, but this one feels more so than usual. We start with Our Hero receiving a beautifully-made pha sinh with a gruesome little clue sewn inside. Never one to pass up a good hunt, and perhaps just a bit bored in retirement, Siri is immediately determined to figure out what it means. But to get started, Dr. S needs a travel permit for him and Daeng. There is a distracting chapter or so devoted to his cleaning up a mess of his nemesis Judge Haeng, so that the Judge will give him the permit.
Siri and Daeng travel around the north, collecting more pha sinh with clues in them, and having all sorts of adventures. Meanwhile, Inspector Phosy has been sent to "investigate" (read: close with no prejudice against our friends the Chinese) a pair of homicides near the Chinese border. It is pretty clear that these stories will intertwine at some point, but how? Who set up the elaborate pha sinh hunt? Who is the mysterious person out to get Dr. Siri in Vientiane? What does the Chinese connection have to do with anything?
While all of this is happening, friends of Dr. Siri's in Vientiane are getting sick, as are the good dr. and his wife, and the Chinese are invading Vietnam through northern Laos. And there is a lot of heroin floating around. Finally, will Siri ever learn to talk with the spirits lodging in him?
(The last one doesn't have as big a role as in past stories, probably good because as you can tell there is already a lot going on.)
To keep all of these possibly disparate tracks moving forward and eventually have them meet, Six and a Half Deadly Sins relies too heavily on the obvious and coincidence. Dr. Siri and Daeng need to travel around the north a bit but transportation is slow, unreliable, and hard to come by? How convenient that the docs happen to have a vintage Willys in perfect condition in their barn. They are running out of gas, and only government officials can get it? Why look, there is Civilai with his ministry-petrol coupons, hanging out at a gas station hundreds of miles from home, but conveniently where Siri and Daeng stop. Teacher Ou dies, leaving a volume on her desk conveniently open to a major clue. The whole sinh bit turns on the involvement of Madame Chanta, of the Women's Union, who also pops up again toward the end of the story when much is revealed and then explained in long conversations between the regular characters because there is no other way the reader could figure it out. And the illness? There is a story behind it, and it does factor in the ending, but it is wildly undeveloped unless I missed a chapter or something.
Of course I kept reading - there are various fates that, if you follow this series, you will want to know about - but I found myself laughing incredulously at times as some plot twist felt clearly to be an effort to get to the next stage, rather than a natural evolution of the story. How are these old people so charmed as to be able to get out of these difficult situations so often?
Well, there is the bit about Siri's carrier status, wherein he lives with the spirit of a Hmong shaman and hundreds of other dead people, many of whom have played roles in earlier stories. And the tricky twist at the end that may, or may not have something to do with this. I'm still trying to figure it out.
Overall, while I love this series, this one felt more disjointed than previous tales. You have the sense that Cotterill had several good ideas, none of which he felt could carry a story on its own, so he decided to toss them all together and then write his character's way out the bag.