"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.
The number of his countrymen with access to a fencing sword — much less the skill to use it — is vanishingly small. Indeed, all the clues point to one person, a too-tidy coincidence that Siri finds deeply disturbing.
Siri is on the verge of explaining to the investigating officer, Inspector Phosy (who is Nurse Dtui's husband as well as Siri's protégé), why he thinks they don't have their man when Civilai announces that he and Siri will be going abroad for four or five days. Civilai has been drafted by the president of Laos to attend a "reception of some kind" in Phnom Penh, the capital of Democratic Kampuchea (formerly known as Cambodia), and he has chosen Siri to accompany him.
But why send a Politburo has-been like Civilai? Politics are fraught among the countries of the former French Indochina, and no one knows quite what the Khmer Rouge have been up to lately, so the Lao government is reluctant to send a top-level delegation; Civilai is the B-team. A little junket, all expenses paid, some good food and wine — why not?
Siri is loath to leave in the middle of a serial-murder investigation, but he does, bidding a casual farewell to Madame Daeng, his beloved wife of only three months: "See you in a few days." To which the 67-year-old Daeng replies, equally casually, "Don't forget your noodles for the flight."
But the ruined Cambodian capital that Siri and Civilai land in bears little resemblance to the vivacious city Siri had visited 40 years earlier. Under the oppressive and paranoid Khmer Rouge, once-bustling streets are deserted — and at every intersection stands "a sentry in black pajamas with an AK-47." A few days later, only Civilai returns to Vientiane, with no idea what has happened to Siri.
Unknown to anyone outside the Khmer Rouge, Siri's unquenchable curiosity — and his rash decision to bring along a book, in French, by Albert Camus — have marked him as a spy and landed him in the hell that opens the novel.
Love Songs from a Shallow Grave alternates between the hunt for the serial killer in Laos and the horrors that Siri endures in Phnom Penh. Will a framed suspect be condemned to die, or will Inspector Phosy find the real murderer? In Phnom Penh, Siri learns the source of the song that has been plaguing him, and he finds the shallow grave of its composer — but will his knowledge of both be buried in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge?
As always, Cotterill spins his yarn with a light touch and unfailing humanity. If you haven't met Dr. Siri Paiboun before, consider starting with The Coroner's Lunch, his debut as coroner-cum-detective. The more familiar you are with Siri, Madame Daeng, and their friends, the sweeter this love song will be.
Roberta Conlan, an editor and writer who founded the book packager EdiGraphics, divides her time between Virginia and Hawai‘i.