Laos may seem an unlikely setting for a series of terrifically beguiling detective novels steeped in local color and history. But look at what ingenious use Alexander McCall Smith's No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency books make of the equally exotic culture of Botswana.
Now look at Dr. Siri Paiboun, the septuagenarian coroner at the center of an outstanding string of books by Colin Cotterill. Dr. Siri, as he is called, is every bit as eccentrically winsome as Smith's Precious Ramotswe, and neither is a sleuth in any hard-boiled sense.
It's just that, as his country's national coroner Dr. Siri often finds himself on an intimate basis with the dead. And inevitably certain questions arise. That Dr. Siri's body is host to the spirit of a thousand-year-old shaman only makes his intuition that much stronger.
This series first appeared here less than three years ago with The Coroner's Lunch, which is set in 1976. (The British-born Cotterill, who has been a cartoonist and teacher and worked in refugee camps, has written assorted other books that have not reached American readers; some are available only in Thai. He lives in Thailand.)
By the time of Anarchy and Old Dogs, the fourth Dr. Siri book, it is 1977, and Laos has not changed for the better. Dr. Siri lives in the historian's nightmare: interesting times. In 1975, in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Pathet Lao overthrew the country's monarchy and assumed control. In the language that makes these books so attractively sardonic, Cotterill writes that "the government was starting to look like a depressingly unloved relative who'd come to visit for the weekend and stayed for two years."
Dr. Siri's long experience has inevitably left him skeptical. Educated in Paris in the 1920s, he returned to Laos in 1939 and joined the Free Laos (or Lao Issara) resistance against French rule. By now, as Siri's best friend puts it, "80 percent of our topic of conversation is about the inadequacy of our government, the government we fought for 30 years to install." Cotterill's Laos is populated by bureaucrats, deflated revolutionaries and covert royalists who secretly lament socialist rule.
Cotterill has a deft way of weaving these circumstances into whimsical, more personal stories that feature Dr. Siri and an equally memorable set of supporting characters. It is not unusual to find a renegade Thai forest monk or a transvestite fortuneteller wandering casually through the capital city, Vientiane, where Dr. Siri works. And no one seems wildly surprised when, in the event that kicks off this book, a blind dentist on a bicycle is run over by a logging truck. But when it develops that the blind dentist was en route to a post office to pick up a coded message written in invisible ink, curiosity becomes impossible to avoid.
The anarchy of the book's title is a prospect raised once the message is deciphered: It appears to signal an imminent military coup. And one of the old dogs is, of course, Dr. Siri. The other is his best friend, Civilai, a senior member of Laos's Politburo. Together they are "undiplomatic old coots" wisecracking about the discouraging and volatile state of their nation.
"The nice thing about socialism," Dr. Siri says at one point, "is that everyone - no matter what their physical or mental state - gets treated equally." But Cotterill amends this: "He didn't bother to add the word 'badly."'