A Remarkable Detective Living in “Interesting” Times

Six and a Half Deadly Sins: A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery Set in Laos, by Colin Cotterill, (Soho Crime), release date 19 May, 2015

The Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries first appeared in 2004 and have been coming out regularly since, so I’m a bit late to the party—but I am very, very glad I made it. The novels are set in late 1970s Laos. Vietnam has invaded Cambodia (after years of supporting Pol Pot), China is about to invade Laos, and Laos is attempting to rebuild itself as a communist nation after its own civil war.

Six and a Half Deadly Sins is peopled with a marvelous array of characters. Dr. Siri Paiboun is a retired ex-national coroner for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. He’s married to Madame Daeng, a former operative for the rebel forces and, until recently, owner of a noodle house. Siri’s best friend, Civilai Songsawat was formerly a member of the Democratic Republic’s politburo, and is still called in on special projects from time to time.

This trio find themselves tracking down a series of sins (traditional woven skirts), the first of which arrived unexpectedly by post at Siri’s home with an amputated finger sewn into the hem. The search takes them north to a region near the Chinese/Lao border where tensions between the two peoples are constant, where contact among them is frequent, and where they are often working at cross purposes.

The real delight of this novel (and, I assume, the series) is that it functions on multiple levels. The history and politics are detailed, easing readers into a clear timeline of a period and region they may (or may not) remember, but which they probably never understood in detail. Characters from the spirit world appear occasionally, especially a number of restless souls who inhabit Siri—chief among them the transsexual Auntie Bpoo. Cotterill is particularly good at providing back story in ways that don’t interfere with the current narrative, which allows new readers to become acquainted with the characters quickly.

Whether you go back to the beginning of the series, The Coroner’s Lunch, or jump in midway with Six and a Half Deadly Sins, this series will provide you with entertainment, history, and a wonderful cast of characters.

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