Investigating deaths in Laos in the 1970s

Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill is the second in a series. I review the first book here. The stories are set in Laos in the 1970s following the Communist takeover. In the first book Dr Siri Paiboun became the country’s coroner despite being very elderly and with no experience of the role. In this novel he has settled into the job and is now working with his nurse, his morgue attendant and his equally elderly friendto try and find out what has happened to those who have suffered unexpected deaths.

Siri can see into the spiritual world both when awake and when dreaming. He is surrounded by the dead who often can’t tell him what happened to them but haunt him until he finds out. He works in an atmosphere of suspicion where the new authorities want everything to show how great communism is and deny the reality. Siri worked for years in the jungle to bring communism to Laos and overthrow the monarchy and you can see that he has doubts which he is trying to overcome – he certainly doesn’t enjoy the loudspeakers blasting out government messages at all hours in the streets near his home.

Several things are happening in this book including something which is mauling to death people around the city. Is it a bear that has escaped or something more sinister ? Siri is also asked to investigate deaths in the country and he finds himself very close to the deposed king and possibly involved in a government cover-up. The book is not really a mystery in that you can’t work out what is happening yourself with the information provided and you just have to learn what is happening as Siri does and read about how he responds.

Siri and his friends become involved in events which can only be understood if you allow for the working of the supernatural and accept the folklore of the country. This makes the novel a little unusual and different from much of the crime fiction I normally read where everything is very real and gritty. The author shows us that there is a lot about what happens that can only be understood spiritually and that characters who perpetrate crimes often do this for reasons which are not immediately understandable to others. If you have problems with the inclusion of the supernatural and spiritual then you are going to have problems with this book, especially as they are more prevalent than in the first story.

This is a light book which is easy to read but it deals with quite serious issues. The author obviously loves the country of Laos and has a great affection for its people. The story is told with a gentle humour and great humanity. I would read more in this series.

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