Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Anarchy And Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill: A review

Laos 1977. The Pathet Lao revolution has succeeded and the new Communist government is two years old. Unfortunately, it has not improved the lives of ordinary Laotians. The regime is bogged down in a mind-numbing welter of bureaucratic red tape. It seems impossible to actually get anything done.

Some of the old revolutionaries who brought the new order into being are disillusioned with its results. It seems that a few may be so disillusioned that they are willing to throw the whole thing out and start over again. A coup against the two-year-old regime is being planned.

All of this comes to light as the result of the death of a blind retired dentist. The man is run down by a runaway log truck on the streets of Vientiane. His body is brought to Dr. Siri's morgue. As the good doctor goes through his clothes, looking for identification, he finds a letter, written in code and in invisible ink. The enigmatic letters seem unfathomable. Siri and the local policeman Phosy take the letter to the man's home in a nearby village where his "wife" tells them that the letters refer to chess moves in an ongoing game that the dentist was playing, but Siri knows a little bit about chess and those letters don't refer to any moves he's ever seen. 

Eventually, enough of the letter is decoded to reveal that a plot is under way. Now Siri must decide how he feels about that and how he will react.

There's really no doubt, of course. Disillusioned he may be, but Siri spent most of his adult life fighting for this new government and his beloved wife lost her life in that fight. He can't give up on it after only two years. He has to find a way to save it. Those who know Siri can be fairly confident that he will find a way and, with the help of his old friend, Civilai, now a senior member of the Laos politburo; his faithful Nurse Dtui; Phosy, the police officer; and Aunt Bpoo, a transvestite fortune-teller, Dr. Siri manages to foil the plot.

Meantime, Siri has other mysteries to solve. A government official is electrocuted in his bathtub. Was it murder? An accident? A weird suicide? Then a grieving village woman comes to him begging his assistance in finding out how her young son died. His body was pulled from the river, the mighty Mekhong, but she's seen many drowned bodies and something about her son's is different. Can Siri find out what happened to the boy?

Along the way, Siri is given some advice by an old friend: Do the small things well. We can't always control or even affect the larger issues of life, but we can pay attention to the small things that confront us and we can give each of them our very best effort. Justice for the death of a young village boy is one of those "small things" to which Dr. Siri dedicates his efforts.

Colin Cotterill has given us another winner in this enormously attractive and interesting series. Last Friday morning on NPR's Morning Edition, Colin Cotterill was interviewed and he talked about the Siri series and how it began. Here's a link to that interview:

http://www.npr.org/2012/08/10/158544377/dr-siri-books-began-with-a-surprise-hospital-stay

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