Tuesday, January 20, 2009

REVIEW: Disco for the Departed

Title: Disco for the Departed
Author: Colin Cotterill
ISBN: 9781569474648/ Soho Press, 2006
Mystery, #3 in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series set in 1970s Laos
Rating: A+

First Line: Dr. Siri lay beneath the grimy mesh of the mosquito net, watching the lizard's third attempt.

I have to admit that, although I'm a character-driven reader, location can also play a large part in my reading enjoyment. I love books set in Arizona. The allure is not only because the book is placed on familiar ground, but also because I love this state and have a chance to see if the author "got it right". I was born under a wandering star, however. Often familiar places just don't cut the mustard, and it's times like this when I choose to read something off the beaten path. Due to Colin Cotterill's skill, Laos has become an exotic and favored locale to visit.

Cotterill's mystery series is set in Laos in the 1970s shortly after the Communists assume power. His unlikely hero is seventy-something Dr. Siri Paiboun, who's made the National Coroner of his country. Dr. Siri spent many years fighting for the Communists, but now that he's achieved his goal and has had a chance to see what the new government is doing, much of his ideology seems to have disappeared. He runs his morgue with a staff of two: a female assistant, Nurse Dtui, whose nickname means "Fatty", and a young male assistant, Geung, who has Down's Syndrome. Both are Dr. Siri's valued associates and friends, which tells us just as much about him as it does his two assistants.

In this third book in the series, Dr. Siri and Nurse Dtui are sent north at the behest of the Laotian president to investigate the discovery of a mummified body at the president's compound. While dealing with the endless red tape that now surrounds everything in Laos, they meet Dr. Santiago, a Cuban who uncovers crucial information about the victim's identity. Siri and Dtui have to work fast, since there's a big shindig scheduled in a week, and that's a good thing. Dr. Siri is sick of hearing the raucous disco music every night, although no one else complains of it.

Dtui was breathless with admiration for these people. Her own mother had been one of their kind. Dtui had been born in such a village but had no recollections of it. This was Laos. These were Lao people. Her people: kind, selfless, and honest. Ninety percent of Lao tilled the soil and cared for each other just like this. Dtui sat under an awning in the central square of this thirty-hut village, and saw what her country could so easily become if it was left to manage itself.

I love this series. It gives me a glimpse into a world totally foreign to me. There is a mystical element to each book, but it blends perfectly into the lives of the characters and their beliefs. And speaking of the characters--they are superb! The secondary story concerning Dr. Siri's assistant, Geung, was just as engrossing to me as the main plot. Dtui is a gem of no nonsense, and Dr. Siri is a delight-- especially when he's dealing with his obnoxious boss.

Luang Prabang, Laos
Photographed by Mat Honan

If you'd like your reading to take you further afield to a foreign land filled with amazing characters and intriguing plots, consider setting sail on Colin Cotterill's ship to Laos where you can meet Dr. Siri and his colleagues. You won't regret it! The only suggestion I would make is to start with the first book in the series, The Coroner's Lunch. Each book can be read on its own merit, but you won't want to miss a second of the character development.


  1. Fantastic review - I stumbled it.

  2. Thanks, Kathy! And thanks for reminding me to head on over to the Stumble group at Book Blogs with the URL!

  3. I enjoyed this one, too. I have Arsenic and Old (? Bones?) to read on my shelf upstairs. Looking forward to it. The author was classified as "cosy" crime at last year's Harrogate festival, and had enormous fun with that definition, in a great session with some other "cosy" authors (eg Jill Paton Walsh).

  4. Gosh, that sounds like a great series. Thanks for the heads up.

    "It gives me a glimpse into a world totally foreign to me." Few better things can be said about a book, can it?

  5. Maxine--I've been trying to hold my book buying down to as little as I possibly can, but one thing I've noticed with Cotterill's Dr. Siri books: the people on the book swap sites don't want to turn loose of them! Good sign, isn't it?

    Caite--It's so easy for American readers to dismiss someplace like Laos..."Ah, it's just one of those Communist countries!" Cotterilll has done so much in these books to give me an awareness and appreciation for the land and its people. I hope you give the series a try and enjoy it as much as I do.

  6. Thanks Cathy, I stumbled upon you and glad I did. Happy to hear your review and recommendation. Sounds interesting.


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