The discovery that his wife has a tail is not the most disconcerting news received by Dr. Siri Paiboun, former national coroner of Laos, who next finds that his dog, Ugly, bears a message containing a death threat.
Welcome to another rollicking chronicle from Colin Cotterill, source of fun and games and mayhem in the otherwise tightly controlled Communist community of the Laos capital Vientiane, which he describes as “a place waiting for something to happen.” It is not a place where individualism is encouraged, which has got Siri and his comrade Civilai in trouble more than once with the bureaucracy. Not only that, but they continue to exist on two levels, making occasional visits to the Otherworld where Siri answers to a bad-tempered shaman called Auntie Boo.
A man of philosophical bent Siri has learned to cope with his life as it happens, and he is not disturbed when his wife, Daeng, confides that she has acquired an unobtrusive tail from a witch as a cure for arthritis. He rather likes her tail, he assures her.
But that is before he finds a pink ribbon tied to his dog’s tail with a message containing a really nasty death threat.
The writer of the threat is explicit, reminding Siri of a previous warning and announcing, “My desire to destroy you and your loved ones has burned in my heart without end. Before I leave I will have ruined the life you have established just as you did me. I have two more weeks. That should be sufficient.” The fact that neither Siri nor Daeng understands English and the fact that they delay in having this missive translated seems to show that they are less worried than their friends are. However, they speculate that a group of 64 foreign journalists due to arrive in Laos could include the would-be killer. The reporters are intended by the government to improve the soured relations with the West that have simmered for at least 50 years. The journalists come complete with Russian interpreters and are instantly escorted by locals to bars and other haunts similar to those disapproved of by the authorities.
Siri has skated on thin ice for much of his life and has a cynical view of his memories of national politics. He reflects that he has spent about 30 years fighting for something to believe in and he seeks a reason why Vietnam veterans were told they had been involved in a war that is “the second biggest nothing in American history.” That hurt and offended Siri, who charges that this “appearance in a fifty-act play killed more of us than we murdered in the entire century and you called it nothing. For us it was survival and hope.”
Siri’s anger is ultimately drowned in the humor of “The Second Biggest Nothing” since it is part savage satire. It is also a wild combination of descriptions of life as it was for the coroner compared to life after the time when Civilai departs this life to embark on another existence. This mystery set in Communist Laos in the early ’80s is at its core powered by the death threat Siri receives. But it is amplified by the images of Paris in the ’30s to war-torn Vietnam in the ’70s that he recalls in order to sort out who is trying to kill him. The unveiling of the rather inefficient assassin comes as no surprise to Siri, who has suspected the culprit all along. It is just the latest success for the intrepid coroner, and a delight for the reader who stays the course.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.
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THE SECOND BIGGEST NOTHING: (A DR. SIRI PAIBOUN MYSTERY)
By Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime, $27.95, 264 pages