Shamans, Communists and Crimes: The Dr Siri series (Column: Bookends LXIII)

By Vikas Datta (08:28) 

Devices for travelling instantly to any corner of the world and any time period already exist – they are called books.

Though Western Europe and North America may form the most frequent settings for English fiction, there is at least one writer who will use unconventional locales – Africa’s arid wastes or trackless bush, Central America’s steamy forests, South Pacific’s laid-back but isolated islands or elsewhere – and any time of recorded history. Like this author who brings into focus a landlocked Southeast Asian country amid the throes of revolutionary change in a series of mysteries, which incorporate both the unseen world of spirits and an absurd Communist bureaucracy.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri novels (nine out so far and the 10th expected next month) are set in Laos of the late 1970s – when Southeast Asia was far from the tourist paradise of today – and star the septuagenarian but spry Paris-trained doctor, reluctantly serving as national coroner after the communist takeover. Cynical, outspoken and irreverent, Siri Paiboun also turns out to host the spirit of a 1,000-year-old shaman, which enables him to see ghosts of the unhappily-departed – but not communicate with them.

His creator, the London-born Cotterill (1952-) is a man of many parts. Trained as a teacher, he set off on a world tour, which never ended, and saw him working as a physical education instructor in Israel, a primary school teacher in Australia, counsellor to educationally handicapped adults in the US, a university lecturer in Japan and eventually ending up in Southeast Asia where he trained teachers, and worked for child rights and protection as well as writing and drawing cartoons.

Becoming a full-time author in 2000, his first work was “The Night Bastard” (2000), dealing with child trafficking, but Cotterill is not particularly enthused about it, advising visitors not to buy it since “the publisher is a crook”. There were a couple of others before he began the Dr Siri series, drawing upon a four-year stint in Laos in the early 1990s.

All of Siri’s adventures deal with multiple – and artistically convoluted – plots of murder and mayhem and their skillful resolution. They are also an (unflattering) portrayal of a repressive-minded communist polity and its rule-bound officials but also of the resilience and enterprise of the people. Along with Dr Siri is his staff – nurse Dtui and oddjob man Geung (who has Down’s syndrome), friends – politburo member Civilai, police inspector Phosy, noodle-seller with a chequered past (and later wife) Madame Daeng and an influential Vietnamese adviser or two, while he has to contend with his pettily vindictive unqualified boss, Haeng.

“The Coroner’s Lunch” (2004) brings on stage Siri, whose desire to go offstage now the revolution has succeeded and Pathet Lao is in power is rudely dashed when he is made coroner (his predecessor having fled to Thailand) despite no expertise. But any hope the job may be a sinecure is dashed when he has several mysterious deaths to solve – including some literally out of the world!

“Thirty Three Teeth” (2005) also has a brace of plots but offsetting its grimness is an episode of superlative satire where officials seek to impose regulations on the spirit world, and a poignant one where Siri met a gardener at the royal place who turns out to be someone more exalted.

“Disco for the Departed” (2006) again has all sorts of skulduggery including a touch of voodoo, a Cuban specialist who is not what he seems, while Siri’s boss schemes to remove Geung. Next up, “Anarchy and Old Dogs” (2007) adds an attempted coup to a spate of unexplained deaths and the unwelcome act of confronting an old friend in the wrong, while “The Curse of the Pogo Stick” (2008) deals with the plight of the Hmong people, used by Americans as mercenaries in neighbouring Vietnam and then abandoned.

“The Merry Misogynist” (2009) is a relatively straightforward race to find a serial killer of young women, but more harrowing is “Love Songs from a Shallow Grave” (2010) which combines a fiendish triple murder (all women) with a fencing blade while Siri goes missing in Phnom Penh where Khmer Rouge under Brother No.1 (Pol Pot) have begun their murderous reign. A bruised Siri is then joined by several old associates on an ostensible mission to search for a missing American aviator in “Slash and Burn” (2011) which seems a send-off but the good doctor however returns in “The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die” (2013), whose title says it all. “Six and a Half Deadly Sins” is due to be released next month.

Much more than a mystery, what makes Siri’s adventures stand out is the master blend of varying elements, especially the subtle, ironical political critique of a system promising paradise but by imposing a regimen, and the depiction of an indomitable country with several overshadowing neighbours (including China) in a time of flux – if you compare with the present conditions. That was the Asian miracle!

(26.04.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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