Thanks to some of my reading friends on LibraryThing.com, I've recently discovered Colin Cotterill's fabulous mystery series: Dr. Siri Paiboun Mysteries. Set in Laos in the 1970's, the stories feature an eclectic, engaging set of characters led by Dr. Siri, the 73 year old coroner. He is coroner by virtue of the fact that he's the only doctor available at the time the appointment needed to be filled. He works in a woefully understaffed, under-equipped morgue, assisted only by nurse Dtui, and Mr. Deung - a 30 something Downs syndrome lab tech. Their "guests" are stored in "room no. 1" - an asthmatic old refrigerator that will freeze bodies if they are not monitored constantly. His best friend from his revolutionary youth days, now Comrade Civilai of the Politburo, lunches with him sitting on a log by the Mekong River watching "Crazy Rajib" who rarely wears clothes but who smiles a lot while performing a variety of unmentionable acts.
In addition to a delightful and eclectic assortment of politicians, communists, Hmong natives, aging revolutionaries, Vietnamese "advisers", incompetent bureaucrats, and a transvestite "auntie" fortune teller, Cotterill adds an element of the supernatural by having Siri channel a 1000 year old Shaman, who is beloved of the locals, and often called upon to help the spirits as they grapple with the Communist regime. Siri is expected not only to perform autopsies, but to solve mysteries; he rescues damsels in distress, performs exocisms, thwarts a coup, helps a group of Hmong natives escape Communist rebels, delivers babies, and eventually even finds love after decades of widowhood.
All of these adventures frame insightful and enlightening pieces of Laotian history. Siri's background as a revolutionary, his eventual disenchantment with "the regime" and his now late in life skepticism all combine to give us a robust, irreverant, humane, and down-right lovable old man who is a protagonist without peer.
The series is reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith's 1st Ladies Detective Agency for its powerful sense of place, but also reminds me of Andrea Camillieri's Inspector Montalbano in his characterization and cast of characters. They are absolutely laugh-out-loud funny, endearing, horrifying, quirky, bizarre, and totally captivating. I can't wait to read the four remaining titles.
A final note: I listened to these in audio format and found Clive Chafer's narration to be top drawer. I would never had known that "Siri" is pronounced "silly" for instance. His ability to give us such an incredible variety of voices and personalities, accents and dialects added so much to my sense of place that is such a large part of the stories. Whatever your format, you will not be disappointed. They are definitely going to be on my top of the year list.
The Coroner's Lunch (2005)
Thirty-three Teeth (2006)
Anarchy and Old Dogs (2008)
Curse of the Pogo Stick (2008) -- all published by Soho Crime. Audios by Blackstone Audio.
Source: Public library