By Colin Cotterill
NEWTON'S Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Something similar happens in literature. Take the current vogue for detective fiction: for every move towards the raw, the naturalistic and the nihilistic, we get a swing towards the knowing, the exotic and the absurd. Henning Mankell is balanced by Nury Vittachi; McCall Smith's Mma Ramotswe is the logical counterpart to Rankin's Rebus. Colin Cotterill's novels are very much on the "bright" side of the spectrum. Foreign location, quirky detective, ironic tone, fundamental decency: check, check, check and check.
Dr Siri Paiboun, the 70-something chief coroner in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is our hero. His high position within the Communist hierarchy belies his disaffection (as an old, idealistic guerrilla, suffering from personal grief and bureaucratic frustration). He has Sherlock's logic, Quincy's forensic skills and Rumpole's ability to stick to the letter of the law, when expedient so to do. He is also the bodily host of a great shaman, Yeh Ming. Siri not only has to riffle through the mortal remains by day, but meet the immortal ghosts by night.
This time round, Siri has a regular charnel-house of corpses to examine. There's a pair of men, with multiple fractures and internal traumas, found on a single bike in a traffic-restricted district. There's an accumulation of people who seem to have been killed by a wild animal; or even a weretiger, as some superstitious types claim. And then there's a pair of charred bodies, with plenty of bullets in them, near the old King's palace. The plots don't connect - but the characterisation, the mutual helping and the winking style keep these disparate elements suspended in delicious aspic.
For fans of "series crime", this gives a big nod to the back-story, and a major revelation towards the end. The minor characters' histories swell and itch like a soon-to-burst boil. For real aficionados, one subplot is a little too obvious: in fact, it's identical to Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas. And Siri often seems to have too many aces up his sleeve.
What makes Cotterill more than just a clone of previous experiments is the attention to detail, history and language. The Communism of Southeast Asia used a particular blend of local mythology and over-arching rhetoric: this was a world of capitalist running dogs and pig-demons. Siri inhabits both worlds, the supernatural and the ideological; and both are a little bit lunatic, especially in a single body.
It's also the characters. The rest of the cast - particularly Nurse Dtui - are all given the glint of complexity. So too are the politics of the region, that are made parallel to Siri's own double-nature: little Laos, tugged between Russia and the US, Thailand and Vietnam, Mao's China and Old China. It's a quick, easy read, which needles your ignorance, and makes you want the next one sooner.