I’m not a big fan of mystery novels but I am a huge fan of author Colin Cotterill and his septuagenarian mystery solver, the reluctant coroner Dr. Siri Paiboon. I’m also not a big fan of supernatural heebie-jeebies, and Dr. Siri has plenty of it as his body hosts a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman.
That said, I’ve been wanting to write about the Dr. Siri mystery series because it’s set in Laos, or more properly, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Dr. Siri’s sleuthing takes place in the chaotic years after a Marxist-Leninist state succeeds an unconventional kingdom stage-managed by Americans, who illegally and immorally bombed the hinterland while luxuriating on the riverside. By 1976, when the Dr. Siri series begins, the Americans were gone, so there aren’t many Americans in Cotterill’s spot-on depictions of post-Liberation Laos.
An Englishman who once worked for the U.N. in landlocked Laos, Cotterill now lives on a beach in Thailand. He had me at sabaiidee with his first novel, The Coroner’s Lunch, wherein a logging truck runs over a blind dentist pedaling his bicycle to the post office.
Recently, I came across Slash and Burn, Cotterill’s eighth Dr. Siri mystery, which features a cast of Ugly Americans at their ugliest. It is July 1978 and a U.S. diplomatic mission has arrived in Laos to investigate a possible MIA sighting. Now, Dr. Siri, his coterie of old-coot Communist comrades and his ragtag assistants will be joining Uncle Sam’s team of self-interested investigators on an MIA mission to Xieng Khouang province. Their research will take them to the mysterious Plain of Jars and along the way, someone will die a mysterious death. Whodunit is no concern of mine. I’m here to talk about the behavior of Americans mucking about in Laos.
Published in 2011, Slash and Burn opens with a description of how the weather over Laos was changing 40 years ago. As the story goes, Lao meteorologists educated in East Germany had already concluded that the cause of climate change is Capitalism. The narrator observes that the same Americans who decades earlier planned the roads and red-dirt lanes of Vientiane, were now screwing up the weather. “There was very little the Americans couldn’t be blamed for in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, and to be fair, most of the accusations were warranted.”
In 1978, there was no U.S. ambassador in Laos, only six low-grade diplomats toiling away in a U.S. Consulate. The Soviets who were brother Communist allies at the time, rebuffed Washington’s attempts to sneak in two CIA sooks as cleaners or bookkeepers. Prodded by the powerful MIA lobby, Washington was telling Vientiane that there was now a need to investigate whether there were indeed ex-U.S. servicemen on Lao soil. Of course the new Pathet Lao government reminds the Americans that under the Geneva Agreement of 1962, there never were any U.S. servicemen on Lao soil.
“As there were officially no ground troops or U.S. Air Force personnel active in Laos, with tongues in cheeks, the P.L. had asked how these MIAs had been clumsy enough to find their ways into prisoner-of-war camps in the middle of a neutral country.”
Conscripted by the Minister of Justice to join the MIA mission with Americans, the caustic coroner Dr. Siri asks acerbically: “They’re back? Did they forget something?”
After an uncomfortable meeting with an impatient congresswoman they’ve dubbed Sumo in A Sundress, the Lao agree to form a joint delegation to investigate the disappearance of a civilian helicopter on a what the Justice Minister calls “a (cough cough) humanitarian aid mission.” The pilot missing for 10 years turns out to be Capt. Boyd Bowry, who turns out to be the son of U.S. Sen. Walter Bowry, R-South Carolina. The mission is being mounted after someone sent the Senator photos of his son purportedly peering out of a bamboo cage. purportedly in Laos.
Six Americans are assigned to the mission: a retired and alcoholic Army major as team leader, a black U.S. Marine from the Vientiane Consulate, the second secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, a Japanese-American forensic pathologist from the University of Hawaii, a journalist named Rhyme from TIME, and a 17-year-old missionary’s daughter named Peach as an interpreter. Unexpectedly, the young Peach with her “impressive display of dentistry,” speaks Lao like a local. However the narrator notes, “despite her fluency in Lao, she was alien.” Besides, she smelled like bubble gum. On standby at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, awaiting a bona fide public relations opportunity to join them, is the wealthy U.S. Senator Ulysses Vogal III, aided by his unusually attentive Chinese-American aide Ethel Chin.
Before the story is done, one of the Americans is murdered in what appears to be a perverted sex act, another gets a fingertip shot off and yet another is shot by a lover who has lots to hide. There are lots of questions about why civilian pilots working for CIA-owned Air America during the war were dropping bombs and super-napalm on a mountain near the Thai border, and why Xieng Khouang Province is being smothered by smoke that’s not caused by traditional slash and burn agriculture. It’s finally revealed that a bad guy is really a good guy, and the good guys are part of a cabal of greedy Americans who are willing to eliminate a score of people (one is even willing to engage in filicide) to protect a secret source of wealth, And, good for you Colin Cotterill, for once, it’s not heroin.