Cotterill, Colin - 'The Woman Who Wouldn't Die'
"Were you lovers?"
Laos, October, 1978.
In Vientiane a group of old friends are chewing over events. In particular they listen with delight as Dr Siri Paiboun, recently retired National Coroner of Laos, describes a night-time raid by Housing Allocations on his official residence. Instead of the eleven illegal transients they hoped to ensnare, they found only a naked and indignant septuagenarian, Dr Siri, standing in his zinc bath tub. Siri remains silent on where he stowed his eleven guests. He sees no reason to place his friend Police Inspector Phosy in an awkward position by revealing the identity of the eleven people currently staying in the defunct French Embassy. But Siri's enjoyment of his retirement is interrupted by Judge Haeng who asks him to join a party travelling to the Mekhong village of Pak Lai, a group which includes General Popkorn, his Vietnamese wife – and a witch. The witch, Madame Used-To-Be, is a ba dong, one who can reveal the whereabouts of the bodies of the lost dead and the group are hoping to recover the body of General Popkorn's brother, killed some ten years ago. It is only appropriate that the retired National Coroner accompany the party. The witch will find the bones and the coroner will identify them – courtesy of the dead man's distinctive jaw injury received some years before his death. Siri is dubious about the trip but several things persuade him. One is the prospect of an all-expenses-paid jaunt accompanied by his wife Madame Daeng, enjoying the good food and drink at the village's boat-race festivities; another is the possibility that the witch may be able to help Siri with his own communication problems with the spirit world – he is tired of his inability to speak with the spirits directly, the years of vivid dreams and visions like so much spiritual dumb-show. Finally there is a reason for going to Pak Lai that is not so pleasurable; the recent appearance in Vientiane of a tall Frenchman in his 60s who claims to be searching for his "old friend" Daeng Keopakam. Siri is beginning to think that the woman the Frenchman seeks is Siri's own wife, a few days away from Vientiane might be good for his wife's health in more ways than one.
Colin Cotterill's "Dr Siri" series successfully interweaves tales from the country's French colonial past, the Indo-Chinese wars, and the series' setting of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos in the late 1970s. London-born Cotterill, who now lives in Thailand, spent several years in Laos during his career as a teacher and NGO worker and in a broadcast interview with NPR he describes how the series grew from the people's stories which he listened to whilst living in Vientiane. THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN'T DIE is the ninth book in the series and is a trademark Cotterill portmanteau of mystery on many levels. Siri, called upon to assist the identification of a General's dead brother with the help of a witch who can locate the bodies of the lost, becomes fascinated by this woman who was shot dead twice but is still walking and talking. His obsession with Madame Used-to-Be is a great annoyance to Siri's wife, Madame Daeng, who has a mysterious past of her own – recounted throughout the novel in the form of an autobiography – and someone from that past has returned to Laos and is looking for her.
Cotterill has referred to his books as "cozies". They are certainly written with plenty of dry humour and usually some kind of justice prevails. But does this makes them cozies? Not for me to argue with their author. What I will say is that the settings are exotic in time and place for many of us in the West, his characters are human, painted with a dry wit "warts and all" and the socialist bureaucracy of the day is portrayed with a satirical barb. Then there are, for some, the dreaded supernatural intrusions. For those of you who regard the supernatural element as "cheating", don't worry. So far Cotterill has ingeniously kept the spirit of mystery-solving pure; Siri's ongoing problem with the spirit-world is that he cannot speak to his visions and they cannot make themselves heard by him, so any progress he makes in solving a crime or mystery is by his own scientific deduction. And personally I like Siri's spirit-world; it has more the earthy, rooted quality of the imagery of the Mexican "Day Of The Dead" than an ethereal western chiller, THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN'T DIE for instance includes the puzzling vision of six naked Frenchmen waving frantically at Dr Siri.
Introduced a while ago to Colin Cotterill's books by Euro Crime, I have become a devoted fan. I was initially worried by this latest book opening with Dr Siri in retirement from his role as coroner, but I need not have. Ingeniously plotted and stuffed full of little jewels, I really do recommend THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN'T DIE – and indeed just about any in the series which, to my joy, contains many books that withstand re-reading. Long live the exotic "cozy".
Lynn Harvey, England