RESTLESS IN THE GRAVE
By Dana Stabenow
Minotaur, $25.99 384 pages
SLASH AND BURN
By Colin Cotterill
Soho, $25 290 pages
That indefatigable Kate Shugak, Alaskan detective, is at it again, charging through a world she compares to what used to be known as the Wild West. She isn’t a gunslinger, but she has Mutt, a 40-pound half-husky, half-wolf at her heels, and there’s nothing Mutt likes more than playing the role of protector to the point that it sounds like a furred and fanged nanny.
This is Dana Stabenow’s 18th book devoted to Shugak and Mutt, and she writes with the kind of energy that suggests there may be 18 more in her head. Her thrillers are vividly characterized, full of complex Alaskan geography and their plots follow through so that quite often there is a rerun of various villains.
It is clear that Ms. Stabenow is devoted to her native state, and her Shugak, as an Aleut, is always alert to discrimination against those who can track their generations back to the founding and building of a state that still cherishes itself as the last frontier. Showdowns in Alaska still seem to smack of the OK Corral, although guns have become more sophisticated and more lethal because of the number of bullets that can be spat out at a terrifying speed.
Smuggling of weapons used by snipers to kill Americans in the war in Afghanistan is the focus of the book, and the author comes up with a bloodcurdling mix of Detective Shugak versus just about anyone who gets in her way. She is not at all unwilling to use feminine wiles to catch a killer, and of course, there is always Mutt, with yellow eyes blazing and fangs gleaming, to provide reliable backup for law enforcement.
For a little frivolity, Shugak has an encounter with a movie star who has made Alaska his home, but whom she rejects because of her relationship with Sgt. Jim Chopin. Alaskan troopers who populate Stabenow books tend to be devastatingly handsome and can give a movie star a run for his ego, if not his money.
Ms. Stabenow’s thrillers gallop along at the pace of a blizzard, and taking risks is what her characters do for a living. She also has a nice touch with the Alaskan “aunties” whose roots are well-planted in the early days of the rambunctious state, and the dialogue matches the plot in its speed. There is a melodramatic climax full of bullets and bloody revelations. And of course, there is a last-minute twist in case anyone thought the author didn’t have something else up her sleeve.
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Sardonic humor is what Colin Cotterill does best, and it is amply demonstrated in his latest chronicle of the world of Dr. Siri, the national coroner of Laos, during one of the more chaotic periods of its political history.
This is the eighth in the Siri series, and it takes a savage poke at the history of the American military in a remote Laotian jungle during a period when blowing up a mountain for gold was one of the assignments of cowboy pilots chasing CIA money. The plot is wild, and so are the characters, but as usual, what matters is the irrepressible Dr. Siri, who is only slightly distressed by the prediction of his imminent death by a local transvestite fortune teller.
Dr. Siri is a reluctant participant in a bizarre assignment for the Laotian government, in which he joins a party that includes corrupt American politicians, police and eccentric scientists, not to mention Peach, the 17-year-old translator who is old beyond her years. And of course, there is Daeng, Dr. Siri’s wife of a mere eight months, a famous noodle maker who turns out to be even better at stirring up marijuana tea. She is along because she wants to spend as much time as she can with her almost 80-year-old husband in case the fortune teller’s prediction is fulfilled. This unlikely crew is allegedly seeking the remains of an American fighter pilot who disappeared in the Laotian jungle during U.S. military exercises.
The current safari is fueled by large quantities of American canned food and even larger amounts of Scotch. A murder or two helps contribute to the sobriety level. Mr. Cotterill, who lives and teaches in Thailand, knows his territory and its people, and when he is not being droll, he paints the Laotian landscape and its brutal politics in haunting and sometimes painful hues.
The miracle of the Cotterill books, of course, is the continued existence of Dr. Siri, a marvelous creation of mordant humor and defiance of the kind of governmental authority few would flout. Dr. Siri keeps insisting that he wants to retire, but he is too useful to the relentless Laotian bureaucracy, as well as displaying considerable talent for blackmailing the judiciary. Long live Dr. Siri.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.