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90: A NEW PLACEMENT OF CORPSES

#90: A NEW PLACEMENT OF CORPSES. When a genre has gone on as long as the detective story has, an arriving writer has to come up with some new way to dress the bird: either some catchy identity for the protagonist—a rabbi, a lesbian, a blind man, a Belgian, a monocled lord—or some spiffing new locale or period—a medieval Irish convent, a Navajo reservation, Paris, Venice. Then you have to choose the tone: brutal, lurid, tragic, cozy with cats and recipes, or the new Swedish bleak. It’s been Colin Cotterill’s ingenious stroke to set a series of mysteries in Laos in the nineteen-seventies, as the Communist revolutionaries have deposed the royal family and are stuck with the painful quotidian aftermath of having to run a country. Cotterill’s protagonist is Siri Paiboun, heroic battlefield-doctor veteran, who, now in his seventies, was hoping for retirement and instead has been “rewarded” by being made national coroner. This combination of period and place gives Cotterill not only a genuinely interesting and exotic locale—the unnaturally quiet city of Vientiane, which lacks noise pollution because no one can afford gas to run a car—but the opportunity for a kind of wry, wrung-out humor, the coping mechanism of a resilient people sobering up after the rhetoric of the Party. Cotterill does a dandy job of growing, deepening and varying his cast—including the coroner’s assistants, a quick-spirited and practical-minded nurse nicknamed Dtui (“Fatty”) and a Down-syndrome man Dr. Siri has inherited along with his laboratory. And he’s thrown in one more, rather daring element: like a certain child in a certain movie, Dr. Siri sees dead people. In the first story, while working in a jungle village, Siri discovers he is host to a shamanic spirit and is visited, both in dreams and daylight, by the dead. Cotterill plays fair by the genre’s rules—the main plot is always worked out rationally—but he deals out the supernatural details with surprising subtlety, ranging from the hair-raising—a dog whose spirit torments the man who killed him—to the comic whammy of an occult dance-floor scene in Disco for the Departed. Cotterill has spun his mix out in fifteen novels, the titles of which—The Coroner's Lunch, Thirty-Three Teeth, Disco for the Departed, Anarchy and OldDogs, Curse of the Pogo Stick, The Merry Misogynist, Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, Slash and Burn, The Woman Who Wouldn't Die, Six and a Half Deadly Sins, I Shot the Buddha, The Rat-Catchers' Olympics, Don't Eat Me, The Second Biggest Nothing, and The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot, all published by Soho—may give you some notion of the stories’ cheery strangeness.

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