"I celebrate the dawn of my 74th birthday handcuffed to a lead pipe." That's not how Dr. Siri Paiboun had planned to spend this day, and it makes for an unsettling start to Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, Colin Cotterill's seventh mystery novel starring Siri, the national coroner of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos. (Every book in the series takes place in that country in the mid- to late 1970s.) The spirited septuagenarian has been in plenty of dicey situations before, but this is the first time we've heard him express such intense regret. Who is holding Siri, and why?
Working out of a poorly equipped office in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, Siri is no stranger to the unfailingly humorless bureaucrats who run his country's communist government. Could Siri — notorious for his tendency to question authority and his snappy repartee — finally have made one wisecrack too many?
Apparently not, for the government is actually on the verge of declaring Siri and his good friend (and retired Politburo member) Civilai national heroes — but only after their deaths. In anticipation of that "honor" — and 12 days before Siri winds up shackled to that pipe — the Department of Hero Creation (DHC) had called the two aged gentlemen in to review a draft of Siri's obituary.
As lifetime members of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party and veterans of the struggle for independence from the French, Siri and Civilai have been tolerated thus far by the authorities, who dismiss their rants against the system as senile gibberish. "But there was nothing senile or gibberitic about these two old Comrades," writes Cotterill, a Brit who worked in Vientiane himself from 1990 to 1994 (and has lived in Thailand for years). "Their minds sparkled like a March night sky. Given a chance, they would outstrategize any man or woman on the Central Committee."
The good doctor soon gets swept up in the dramatic investigation of a young woman murdered by an épée through the heart. When a second and then a third young woman are dispatched the same way, it's clear that a serial killer is on the loose.
Forced to conduct his investigations without benefit of modern forensic equipment, Dr. Siri borrows techniques from his idol, Georges Simenon's fictional Inspector Maigret of the Paris Sûreté. He uses a homemade mix of chalk and magnesium to dust the first épée for fingerprints — but when a print materializes, he has no way to process or preserve it. "So he put the épée on the top shelf in the storeroom," writes Cotterill, "and hoped the ceiling lizards wouldn't lick away his evidence."
Siri is loyally supported in the coroner's office by his assistant, Nurse Dtui, and by Mr. Geung, a young man with Down syndrome who had aided the previous coroner. Siri is also accustomed to receiving the occasional occult clue from the spirits of those whose murders he is investigating. In this particular case, however, the spirits stay silent — except for an unfamiliar tune that he finds himself humming.