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The book moves between the real horror of the Khmer Rouge and its capacity for inflicting ghastly punishment for imaginary offenses and the relative levity of Dr. Siri’s approach to the problem of how young women died after a fencing weapon was used to impale them through the heart. His solution is as ingenious as the killings, demonstrating the author’s capacity to pose and prove the unlikely.

This is the seventh and most sardonic of Mr. Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series, and it is not easy to cope with the combination of misery and merry melancholy that he employs. His writing, as always, is skillful and smooth and his plot is artfully strung together. The book fascinates as it chills.

And, as usual, Mr. Cotterill keeps his sting for the last. Recuperating in Laos, Dr. Siri receives a communication from the minister of information that acknowledges his devoted membership in the Communist Party, but notes reprovingly that the authorities were “less than impressed” with his “poor attitude toward authority and blatant disregard for regulations.” Consequently, he was being denied “national hero status.” There is left only grim laughter, and the hope that Dr. Siri will return.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.