My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Finally! Another Dr. Siri mystery. It seems like I've been waiting for this forever.
We rejoin Dr. Siri Paiboun and his cohorts in late 1978. Dr. Siri's second resignation from the position of national coroner of Laos seems to have taken. The up side of this is that Dr. Siri is now retired. The down side is that Laos now has no national coroner.
Retirement has not in any way dulled Dr. Siri's curiosity or his appetite for solving mysteries, so when the postman delivers a package to him that contains a traditional Laotian skirt that has a severed human finger sewn into the hem, he is, naturally, intrigued and determined to find out who sent it and what it means. From the pattern woven into the skirt, he is able to deduce that its origin is somewhere in the north of Laos. He proposes to his wife that they go on an adventure to the north of the country and trace the source of the mystery.
Travel in Laos in the late 1970s is not easy. Neither is communication. Two elderly people heading out from Vientiane to the north face many challenges, but these two have long experience of the newly established socialist society that they fought for throughout decades and they are talented "fixers." They make the trip, arrive in the north, and begin following the clues that they have.
This is a time when Vietnam (at long last) has just invaded Cambodia to overthrow the Pol Pot regime. China, Pol Pot's ally, has, in turn, invaded Vietnam and, possibly, Laos, as well. Things are very confused in the north.
Coincidentally (or is it?), Siri's friend, the policeman Phosy, has been sent to the north to investigate the deaths of two headmen from two neighboring villages there. After Siri and his wife leave Vientiane, Siri's oldest friend, Civilai, the former government functionary and erstwhile spy, is also sent north to gather intelligence regarding the possible invasion by China. Soon enough, the entire Dr. Siri team, except for Nurse Dtui, is in the north, pursuing clues of various mysteries, which gradually coalesce into one single mystery. The mystery of human depravity.
These stories are such a joy to read. It's almost impossible to pick a favorite part, but, if pressed, I would probably say that my favorites are the scenes between Siri and Civilai as they sit on their favorite log by the Mekong having their lunch. Talking over the events of the day and the past and philosophizing about the state of affairs and the future of Laos - priceless! The humor is often laugh-out-loud funny.
Also, I have to say that I very much appreciate the way that Colin Cotterill weaves the troubled history of Southeast Asia into these stories, much as those weavers of the traditional fabrics at the heart of this mystery weave different strands and colors to make a whole picture.
Cotterill also is very skillful in giving us sketches of his characters so that, even if you haven't read the previous nine books in this series, you are not lost. You are able to follow along with the action and get the gist of the personalities involved. That being said, PLEASE read this series from the beginning and read the books in order. It will make the stories much more meaningful, and you don't want to miss a single minute or a single sentence of Dr. Siri and friends.
Six and a Half Deadly Sins starts as an interesting jaunt in the country for Siri and his wife. Before the end, the story turns really dark and dangerous and we are reminded of some of the sadder bits of history. In that regard, China, Siri says, "win(s) wars by sending in wave after wave of expendable militia until the enemy runs out of bullets. It's like Stalin said, 'One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.'"
In Dr. Siri's world, any death is a tragedy and a mystery waiting to be solved.
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