Book: The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, a Dr. Siri Mystery Novel Set in Laos by Colin Cotterill
It is not often that I get to feature a book set in Laos. Thailand–yes, Cambodia–many, but Laos–well, actually never. Until now. A new Laos mystery novel caught my eye. I jumped at the chance to give you a taste of Laos through the latest in the popular Dr. Siri Laos mystery novel series by Colin Cotterill. Since Colin Cotterill lives in Thailand and he’s British, with dual citizenship that includes Australia there is deep irony in the fact he writes these books. The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die is salted with sarcastic references to the way that foreigners do not understand Laotians and digs at everything that has to do with Thailand. At one point Dr. Siri describes a woman’s voice by saying,
She was loud, too, and spoke Lao with the same linguistic prowess as Yul Brynner speaking Thai.
The complex plot revolves around a bevy of fascinating characters. Dr. Siri, the coroner, is married to Daeng. It is a 2nd marriage and the older couple are deeply in love. Daeng’s past includes killing people as a soldier for independence in the war against the French, which Siri also participated in. Other characters are aligned either as pawns of the Laotian Communist government or as scoff laws who simply get along. Making this as much a political mystery as a police procedural.
An old lover of Daeng’s shows up in the shadows, Dr. Siri gets a mysterious assignment that takes him to the Lao northern border with Thailand, and as we have seen in other books about other countries, the wounds of the civil war still influence actions today. And then, of course, there is the title character–a fortune teller of sorts who claims to have gotten her powers when she was killed and came back to life. Since Dr. Siri has mystical leanings, he buys into her story.
Although the plot of this Laos mystery novel is appealingly complex and generally held my attention because of the odd assortment of characters, it develops slowly. I learned a lot about Laos political past and present, but the unfamiliarity of it all inevitably interfered with my enjoyment of the mystery. Motivations and even solutions depend a great deal on who did what in the past and the continuing animosity between old enemies. Besides great touches of humor, particularly in descriptions, there are little aphorisms here and there that appealed to me. Dtui, a nurse married to a policeman. They are tracking some information in a remote village, and Dtui says
She believed that somewhere in a sixty-people grass hut village in Kenya whtere was a lei-threader and a bicycle repair man and a seller of zinc watering cans, and if some cosmic lightning strike were to magically transport her there, she’d know exactly how to act and she’d be accepted. Villages were about people. [my emphasis]
While the book is packed with cultural information that is helpful to the traveler (armchair or airplane), it does not stop with traditions, but also tells us how modern adaptations work in the society. Here’s a perfect example.
Dr. Siri had supervised the overnight stowage of Madame Peung. Tobacco leaves were the wrapping of choice for a dead body but Pak Lai had none. Instead she was laid in a half section of concrete piping and garnished with hay and marijuana.
The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, or, I assume any other Dr. Siri Laos mystery novel, would serve as a good cultural introduction to Laos, and therefore belong in a traveler’s library. It is witty and original, and truly could not take place anywhere other than Laos.
If you want to have some fun even before you pick up The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, his latest Dr. Siri mystery, take a stroll over to the Coterill website for entertainment. Besides being a writer, he is a cartoonist, and the site reflects the whimsical side of him. That also emerges from time to time in his books.
Note: The publishers provided a review copy of the book. My opinions are still my own. The links here to Amazon are for your convenience, but you should know that they are affiliate links meaning that when you shop there, you are helping A Traveler’s Library continue to exist. THANKS!
Photo Credit: The beautiful Laos photographs are by Barbara Weibel. You can read about her travels and see more of her artful photos at Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel.