Cotterill, Colin - 'Love Songs from a Shallow Grave'
This is the seventh book featuring Laos' only coroner, Dr Siri Paiboun, set in the 1970s. Three women are killed in quick succession, each by a fencing sword that was plunged through their hearts. Although it later turns out that the heart of the third woman was on the right (dextra cardia) and she actually died of a cut to her femoral artery, obtained as the murderer carved the signature 'Z' onto her thigh. Siri's police colleague Phosy is in charge of the investigation and soon appears to discover the identity of the culprit, but Siri is not so sure he's found the right person, and suggests he looks again.
However, the murder story almost seems to take a back seat against the interspersed glimpses of another; that of Siri, locked up in a jail somewhere, starved and tortured in an attempt to make him confess to being a spy. Is this one of his dreams? Or is it something about to happen to him when he accompanies his politboro friend Civilai to Cambodia, on an official visit? It turns out to be the latter. There is a gruelling account of the appalling atrocities that are taking place there, told to Siri in secret, by a girl who watched as her a soldier decapitated her father in front of her. Siri escapes his minders and goes for a walk himself in the neighbourhood, where he finds houses desolate and abandoned, as a result of the massacres, and the mass exodus to the countryside, before he is captured and taken off to jail.
Siri's escape back to Laos seems just a bit too felicitous, but if the main point of the book is to remind us of just how bad Cambodia was and how none of us realised, it certainly succeeds. All in all, less of a murder case for Siri to solve, and more a strong social comment on communism in Eastern Asia, and how the different countries (Cambodia and Laos) took completely different approaches, while apparently following the same creed. There are a few comic asides, and one or more poignant tales that make up the novel, but overall, it is a less comedic book than previous ones. It is always difficult to keep the momentum going with a long running series featuring the same cast of characters, but the author appears to have found a new twist yet again, and this latest edition to the saga is a fascinating read.
Michelle Peckham, England