Dr Siri investigates

2010-03-31 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Curse of the Pogo Stick

Colin Cotterill

Quercus

COLIN Cotterill, a Londoner who, ­after buzzing round the world for a while, settled in Thailand, now writes full-time, opting to set his crime novels back in the seventies and in the small neighbouring country of Laos.

There, his detective, Dr Siri Paiboun, national coroner, unwilling shaman and disheartened communist, plies his trade. White-haired, green-eyed, very attractive even in his 70s, he’s looking forward to marrying his beloved Madame Daeng, when work compels him to go on a road trip with callow, spotty and cowardly Judge Haeng. But they never arrive, for Siri is kidnapped en route, while Haeng is left to wander dementedly in the jungle as a group of Hmong tribespeople take Siri to their village, expecting him to use his shamanistic powers to exorcise a resident demon — which may or may not require the lifting of the curse of the pogo stick, abandoned earlier (among other things) by departing Americans, and now feared and venerated by the villagers as an object of magic and mystery.

Meanwhile, back in the capital ­Vientiane, morgue staff have to contend with a booby-trapped corpse, surprise parcels of poisoned cakes, and geriatric gunslingers.

Cotterill’s five Siri Paiboun novels have been likened to Alexander ­McCall-Smith’s Botswana-based tales of Mma Ramotswe. The comparison is inappropriate. McCall-Smith’s books, in my opinion, make uncomfortable reading: his characters often seem more like pets than people, whereas Cotterill, though his approach, too, is whimsical, writes with genuine feeling and respect for the people of Laos. These include the more sophisticated city-dwellers as well as those sparsely distributed hill tribespeople, such as the Hmong, who fought on both sides of the political battlefield and who, odiously betrayed in the process, faced extinction afterwards. He makes clear, also, the differences between the Laos of the time, grindingly poor, cruelly and incompetently governed, and the plumply prosperous Thailand visible to Laotians looking across the Mekhong River. Unlike McCall-Smith, who, these days at any rate, writes with his eye on his bank balance, Cotterill writes with love. A good read, a pleasant detection, a touching and informative tribute to a country we in the rest of the world know almost nothing about.

Stephanie Alexander

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