I am a big fan of Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun series. Dr. Siri is really one of the most charming characters in all of the mystery genre and I always enjoy reading about his adventures and absorbing his gentle wisdom and view of the world. That being said, I was disappointed in this particular book. In trying to analyze just why, I came to the conclusion that it was because it tried to do too much.
These stories take place in 1970s Laos, just after their revolution, as the new socialist government was trying to find its footing. Across the border in Cambodia, a much darker tale of transition was taking place. The Killing Fields were in full production. The population and the culture of the country were being systematically destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. In this book, Cotterill attempts to address that tragedy along with the more mundane events of Vientiane, if serial murders can ever be described as mundane. The contrast between Cambodia - Kampuchea - and the more benign society of Laos is stark. But the contrast is really too stark, too dissonant and disruptive and too difficult to take in.
Cotterill's device for bringing in the Khmer Rouge story is that Dr. Siri is lured to Cambodia, along with his friend Civilai, on an all-expense-paid diplomatic mission. There, Siri's natural curiosity and abrasiveness lead him to stick his nose in where his hosts don't want it to be and he winds up afoul of the Khmer Rouge and chained and locked in a horrible prison where he is tortured and starved and where he expects to be killed.
Before he went to Cambodia though, Siri had been involved in the investigation of a serial murder case in Vientiane. Three young women have been killed, skewered by epees and with a Z carved into their thighs. There seems to be no logical connection between the three murders, and Siri and his usual posse struggle to find the solution to the puzzle. Before he is able to reach a conclusion, the trip to Cambodia interferes. The story proceeds on two tracks, in Vientiane and in Cambodia.
We know that Dr. Siri will survive his horrible experience, because the series continues, but how he does so is more than a little incredible. After all, the 74-year-old national coroner of Laos is hardly James Bond, but his escape from Cambodia seems all too Bond-like.
Moreover, we know that he will solve the serial murder case. In this instance, the list of questions that he leaves for policeman Phosy before going to Cambodia leads to the surprising solution. But it's all just a bit too much, a bit too convenient.
My disappointment with this book is certainly not enough to put me off the series and I'll be looking forward to reading the next entry. I just hope it is a bit more narrowly focused.