Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Second Biggest Nothing by Colin Cotterill

First Line: Dr. Siri was standing in front of Daeng's noodle shop when she pulled up on the bicycle.

Life in 1980 Vientiane is good. Dr. Siri Paiboun, the 76-year-old former national coroner of Laos is doing very well... until he finds a note tied to his dog's tail. Once interpreted, Siri learns that the note is a death threat addressed to him and everyone he holds dear that promises the "job" will be carried out in two weeks.

At first, Siri doesn't take the threat all that seriously, but once his wife and friends talk sense to him, he now has to figure out who wants him dead-- and when you've lived a long and adventurous life like Siri-- that's not easy.

Three incidents come to mind. One, a meeting with his lifelong friend Civilai in Paris in the 1930s. The second, a disruptive visit to a Saigon art museum in 1958, and last, a prisoner of war negotiation in Hanoi in the 1970s. Will Siri arrive at the truth in time to save the people he loves?

The Second Biggest Nothing is another strong entry in a series that satisfies on so many levels. First and foremost, Cotterill has created one of the best casts of characters in crime fiction. He also gives readers a true sense of what life was like in Communist Laos in the 1970s and 80s-- including just a touch of the mysticism that is a part of the culture. He's also a dab hand at creating intriguing mysteries, and he certainly knows how to make us think, make us empathize, and make us laugh.

There are some very nice twists and turns in the plot of The Second Biggest Nothing. I'd narrowed down the incident at the heart of the death threat against Siri and his loved ones, but my deductive powers failed me at the very end. That's always fun for someone who reads as many mysteries as I do.

But no matter how good the mysteries and the evocation of a time and place are in this series--and this book-- the beating heart of it all is found in that marvelous cast of characters. Cotterill shows us that Communists are pretty much just like us, which is probably something not everyone wants to read (but should). This latest book in the series gives longtime fans a special treat by letting us visit with Siri and Civilai when they are young men in Paris. It's always good to be able to learn some of the backstories in an older character's life.

However-- no matter how good the stories are (and they are)-- it's what Cotterill has to say through his characters that means the most to me. Through the years, Siri and his wife Daeng have created their own tribe, their own family. This family contains doctors, police officers, nurses, politicians, and restauranteurs, but it also has members with psychiatric problems, others with Down syndrome, etc. The philosophy of Siri and Daeng's tribe is that everyone has value and should be treated accordingly. Seeing all these characters live, work, investigate, and laugh together is wonderful.

By all means, read this series. Read it for the mysteries. Read it for the characters. But read it to absorb what it has to say about the human race.

See what I mean about Cotterill's books satisfying on so many levels?

The Second Biggest Nothing by Colin Cotterill
eISBN: 9781641290623
Soho Crime © 2019
eBook, 265 pages

Historical Mystery, #14 Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery
Rating: A
Source: the publisher


  1. I couldn't agree more, Cathy. This is an excellent series on many levels. Along with the well-developed characters and the setting, I like the sly wit in the series. That's not easy to pull off, but Cotterill does it well.


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