August 13, 2015
By Muriel Dobbin
By Colin Cotterill
Soho, $26.95, 256 pages
Colin Cotterill’s “Six and a Half Deadly Sins” begins with the explosion of a concrete public address system, a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and the mailing of a skirt with a severed finger sewn into the hem.
And that is only the beginning of Mr. Cotterill’s latest chronicle of the lives and times of Dr. Siri Paiboun, ex-national coroner of Laos and his wily diplomatic sidekick Civilai Songsawat. What is irresistible about this book is that the elderly pair remain unruffled and analytical about the disasters that befall them in a world where corruption is the least of your troubles. The worst of the villains will cut off your feet.
Siri and Civilai remain philosophical about the problems of advancing age as they move out of their seventies. They surmise that whiskey distillers in their town have added ingredients that increased the odds of a raging hangover, and that bicycle manufacturers have removed the gears that allowed one to climb hills without becoming winded.
But they are both “bored to hell and back” so they embark on solving the case of the severed finger that was found in the hem of a traditional Lao skirt. The criminals had mailed the skirt in a package that has no letter and bears no return address. Siri’s wife, Madame Daeng, is as bored as the two sleuthing friends so she offers advice on the origin and history of the skirt as her contribution to the investigation. Encouraged by the prospect of getting into a new case, Siri takes off on his old motorcycle with his dog Ugly. One of the reasons for Siri’s boredom is that his noodle shop and library have been burned down by a arsonist so solving the mystery of the severed finger looked as if it would take his mind off his humdrum life and its challenges.
Madame Daeng, Siri’s wife, is no slouch at getting attention when the former coroner undertakes his latest adventure. Asked by her husband what she has been up to, she tells him demurely, “I killed one man and have another tied to a post.” She isn’t bragging either. As she explains it, she was rescuing a weaver who was killed by drug traffickers on the trail of a large amount of heroin that the weaver did not have in her possession. Angered by the injustice shown the weaver, Madame Daeng buried one trafficker behind the latrine, choosing that location “because the ground was softer there.”
She notes that when the surviving trafficker threatened her she “hammered him.” Her hands were no longer strong enough to use as weapons, she admits, so she used a book. “There was a bear on the cover and a little boy in boots.” It was, she confided to her husband, her way of explaining that not all Laotians kowtowed to the drug barons
As usual, Mr. Cotterill manages to mix the horrific with the hilarious to tell a story that winds in and out of Asian politics in the turbulent 1970s and doesn’t let fact stand in the way. What begins as minor chaos winds up in an uproarious funeral. Playing politics or anything else in that part of the world was – and perhaps still is – a risky business, especially with Siri’s reputation as a troublemaker and the sound of Chinese feet marching into Vietnam. But Siri is never happier than when he is communing with half-dead spirits, and his quirky sense of humor saves his mind as well as his life.
In this book as in others that came before, Mr. Cotterill’s bad guys are spectacular. Readers will take note, especially, of an evil and toothless foreman called Goi who specializes in sadism and takes joy in torturing Captain Phosey whose sufferings are painful to read about. Then, of course, there is the man whose feet are cut off in order to prevent him from running away from the thugs he’s antagonized.
Probably the most wicked – and wickedly funny – scene in “Six and a Half Deadly Sins” is the “funeral” of Siri, who enjoys it more than anyone else, with the probable exception of his wife and a female monk known as Lizard who decidedly gives religion a bad name.
For readers looking for a rollicking summer reader, set in a faraway and mysterious world, Colin Cotterill’s latest does not disappoint.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.