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Book Review

A mystery among a misunderstood people

(Jessica Cotterill)
By Clea Simon
August 14, 2008
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Curse of the Pogo Stick
By Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime, 240 pp., $24

Everyone needs a vacation now and then, whether they know it or not. Dr. Siri Paiboun didn't want to travel north to Xiang Khouang for a Communist Party conference, and he certainly didn't ask to be taken hostage by Hmong tribesmen (or, in his case, tribeswomen) on his way home to Vientiane. But the enforced stay among the peaceful and much-maligned hill people turns out to be salutary for the aged doctor, Laos's national - and only - coroner. For Colin Cotterill's series, it proves a breath of fresh air, invigorating this new, fifth book, "Curse of the Pogo Stick," with humanity and relevance.

By late 1977, when this book opens, Dr. Siri has proven himself to be a survivor of the Lao Communist revolution and its bureaucratic aftermath: "At seventy-three years of age, he'd learned how to sleep through all variety of meetings and conferences undetected." However, when a social lapse at the conference - he points out that one of his elderly colleagues has died - lands the doctor in official disfavor, he is dismayed to learn that he'll be driving, rather than flying, back home. That drive will take him through unsettled Hmong territory. Even worse, it means at least a week with the officious Judge Haeng. Meanwhile, back at Dr. Siri's Vientiane morgue, his assistants Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung, along with Dr. Siri's fiancee, Madame Daeng, have discovered that the corpse of an anonymous soldier, delivered for autopsy, has been booby-trapped. Someone wants Dr. Siri dead.

Despite Dr. Siri's forebodings, his trip proves much more enjoyable than expected. Taken hostage by a small group of Hmong, who are considered hostile barbarians, he finds civility and respect in their ancient culture. He also understands their plight. Although they are essentially a gentle people, caught on both sides of the Vietnamese and Laotian wars, they were forced to kidnap Dr. Siri because they badly need his help. As we've learned in previous books, Dr. Siri houses the spirit of a 1,000-year-old shaman, and one of the Hmong young women has become possessed. Despite his nightly visits from the spirits of the dead, including two American servicemen, Dr. Siri takes a doctor's rational view of the daylight world, but, sympathizing with his hosts, he searches for a way to help the young woman, as well as the beleaguered remnants of the tribe. Somehow, he knows, he must find out what the American ghosts want, what is really bedeviling young Chamee, and how to help Elder Long and his wives to safety. What follows is a sensitive study of a persecuted minority group, delivered in the trademark dry humor that has made this series so enjoyable.

Cotterill's books have never been about wild adventure. Taking place in the early years of Communist Laos, they've focused more on human resilience, poking light fun at the messes we make of our lives and the means we find to survive them. In that way, they are more akin to Alexander McCall Smith's "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" books than, say, the Thai thrillers of John Burdett. And in the previous outing, "Anarchy and Old Dogs," it seemed Cotterill's usual formula - good people loving their country but outwitting its bureaucracy - was wearing thin. While "Curse of the Pogo Stick" is a return to form, it isn't perfect. The two story lines don't come together smoothly, and some of the personal plot lines (Dtui's pregnancy, Dr. Siri's engagement) are richest for those with knowledge from previous books.

But the adventure among the Hmong reveals Cotterill's real strength. His stories may glide by on their humor and wonderful characters, but the reason his books come alive, the reason his series continues to be worth reading, is the author's deep understanding of these people and their beautiful, troubled land. This depth enables him to bring us there for a brief vacation, make us feel, and still keep us laughing. Like Dr. Siri, Colin Cotterill has a touch of magic about him.

Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cries and Whiskers" (Poisoned Pen Press).

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