Slash and Burn
by Colin Cotterill (Quercus)
There’s something utterly endearing about the elderly, creaking, sole – and reluctant – coroner in Laos, Dr Siri.
He keeps trying to retire to spend more time with his beloved noodle-queen wife, Madame Daeng, but the Collective simply won’t hear of it.
Coupled to this is his unnerving habit of getting into serious trouble by asking too many awkward questions. But Dr Siri is learning his lesson slowly – don’t get up the nose of the authorities, instead use their demands as bargaining chips.
After all, who is going to replace him?
So when he’s ordered, just two months before his long-overdue retirement, to accompany an American delegation into the northern jungle of Laos to find the living or dead remains of a US senator’s son, he grabs the opportunity to take his devoted team and Madam Daeng along.
After all, living in Laos in the 1970s doesn’t offer much opportunity for travel. Needless to say, nothing turns out as anticipated.
The missing pilot has been flying covert CIA missions, and Dr Siri strongly suspects that the helicopter didn’t just blow up, but was deliberately sabotaged. But why?
Meanwhile, the modest “Friendly Hotel” they’re staying in is choking in swirling smoke.
The official line is that it’s the slash-and-burn method of agriculture – setting fire to the surrounding land to use the ash for fertiliser. But Dr Siri realises it’s the wrong season, and that there’s far too much smoke.
The Americans have brought along survival packs of food and crates of Johnnie Walker Red, which helps pass the time. For entertainment value there’s a cross-dressing psychic of deep voice and flamboyant appetite, Auntie Bpoo. And just who is Miss Peach, the teenage translator who speaks perfect Lao but seems too wise?
The whole wonderful, naughty muddle is eventually untangled by Dr Siri and his wrinkled, long-time buddy Civilai
This is the eighth in the Dr Siri series, and certainly one of the best and funniest. – Beverley Roos Muller