Slash and Burn, a Dr. Siri novel by Colin Cotterill – Part 1

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.

 

 

Slash and Burn, a Dr. Siri novel by Colin Cotterill – Part 2

Anyone who knows anything about Laos knows the Plain of Jars is a mystery itself because the origin of ancient jars strewn remains unknown after centuries of guesswork. In this eighth Dr. Siri mystery, a joint U.S./Lao MIA mission must fly through heavy smoke to reach the P de J.

The Lao and American teams are billeted in separate wings of the aptly named Friendship Hotel. It’s also something of a mystery that the hotel, which began life as the Snow Leopard Inn in the provincial capital of Xiengkhouangville, was still standing, because Xiengkhouangville was wiped off the map. The narrator notes:

There was nothing remarkable about the Friendship Hotel other than the miracle of its continued presence. It stood amid a landscape of craters in the most bombed area of the war.

From 1964 to 1973, Americans dropped 2.3 million tons of ordnance on Laos, and a third of it, including tens of thousands of small devices called “bombies.” didn’t go off . Years later, farmers and their children in Xieng Khouang are still stumbling upon the unexploded ordnance, and as a result the author notes, few residents of the area could claim a full set of limbs.

As an ice-breaker to melt the animosity that hangs like a shroud over their joint endeavor, the Americans suggest the former enemies play charades, miming what they do for a living. When Peach the translator moves her hands to symbolize two people talking (I’m thinking of France Nuyen’s charming hand movements in the song “Happy Talk”), the Lao participants guess that Peach is a duck farmer. That’s about the only laugh for about 200 pages.

The next day the mission sets up shop at the abandoned airbase at Long Cheng. The starting point for thousands of sorties the U.S. flew against Lao Communists, this was where the missing pilot took off a decade earlier. The MIA search team meets in the former home of General Vang Pao, the Hmong leader at the heart of the C.I.A.’s Secret Army. The home of the former hero is now “a two-story outer-suburb motel of a place, as incongruous as the shirt-and-tie spooks who’d built it.” The Americans bring with them a dozen cases of cold Bud. At the time of the MIA mission, beer was hard to come-by. Spearing hot dogs at Vang Pao’s place, the Laotiand are warming up to American hospitality, observing that “Americans had the art of seduction down to a fine point.”

Waiting for the visiting Americans are several hundred hilltribes people, They’ve come to the abandoned spy base carrying scraps of war materiel and bones in the erroneous belief that Uncle Sam will pay a reward for evidence of MIAs. Some have brought tin ration trays, bootlaces, Zippo lighters and shell casings; others brought non-matching bones that they laid out in full skeletons. Obviously, “There were a lot of desperate people in the northeast.”

On the second day, a group of ethnic Phuan from a remote village arrive with a litter carrying the horizontal stabilizer of a helicopter, and not just any helicopter but the one Capt. Boyd flew when he disappeared. Now the search for the pilot, live or dead, and his crash site begin in earnest. We later learn that TIME’s Rhyme, who looks like Woody Allen, has taken aerial shots of the Plain of Jars from the hatch of the American helicopter.

With the help of assorted gang mates and supernatural spirits, including the ghost of the recently departed (murdered) King of Laos, Dr. Siri unravels a history of intrigue among the Americans that is rooted in the Vietnam War and the thirst for money and power. Senator Bowry, for example, who is searching for his lost son, went to war to do good and did very well. He hustled teak from Thailand, made a lot of money, invested it in real estate, grew stinking rich and used his fortune to enter politics.

Senator Vogal the Third, who has come to join the search team, boasts that America was transparent and accountable when he was a clerk at the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam. Civilai, the ex-Politburo member who’s as cynical as his comrade Dr. Siri, brings his condescension to a boil.

“I imagine everything was open and above board,” Civilai says. “Not like in Laos.”

“You couldn’t possibly know just how much good the U.S. was doing for your country,” the G.O.P. senator says, adding that the vast majority of the U.S. budget for Laos was spent on aid. Civilai corrects his accounting.

“The vast majority of your budget went on B-52s and ordnance.” Alleging he has a copy of the U.S. Embassy budget for Fiscal 1970 in his room, Civilai continues:

Your total expenditure for that year was $284 million… $162 million of which was tagged as military assistance… (while) Only $50 million was assigned to aid.

“That’s still a considerable humanitarian effort in anybody’s book,” interjected the Senator’s aide Ethel Chin.

“Except in your book,” counters Civilian. “Humanitarian aid included feeding the Royal Lao Army and several thousand irregulars.” Some went to refugee programs.

When Chin says the refugees were fleeing “the atrocities you people inflicted against them,” Civilai says the U.S. bombed a third of Laos’s population out of their homes, and Ted Kennedy’s 1969 Senate subcommittee found that 40,000 Laotian refugees were “dispossessed as a direct result of U.S. bombing.”

Yeah, says Vogal, but “Kennedy was a Democrat with undisguised Communist leanings.”

The plot twists and turns crazily and so do the relationships between Lao and Americans. Quick at first to criticize each other’s cultural and political intricacies, they are ultimately, in a few cases, able to relish them.

On the other hand, Ugly Americans will be Ugly Americans, and Dr. Siri discovers that there are some bad apples, some very bad apples, in every bunch.

 

 

Hustle the East – by Mark Tawen, 2018

Black Rose Writing, November 2018

Hustle the East is a new novel that tells a touching story of love and loss while touching all bases of Ugly Americanness. Three narrators trace the tragic history of Laos as a pawn in the Cold War, shedding light on America’s immoral and inhumane bombing campaign.

In what the author calls “faux memoirs,” we witness the turbulent downfall of a centuries-old monarchy through the eyes of an American teacher and two Laotians of starkly different backgrounds. The future of the Kingdom of Laos and the lives of the narrators come under the shadow of reckless Americans back when America thought it was invincible. The repercussions of what happened in the Seventies last for decades, into the new Millennium.

The American narrator Paul “Benny” Bendit is a straight-arrow straight out of college in Illinois. As a newbie, he naively imagines he can help erase the image of the Ugly American in Southeast Asia. On his first day in Laos, Bendit glimpses Henry Kissinger on a historic peace mission that has dark implications for the 600-year-old Kingdom. Bendit also meets Jack Gaines, a feckless fellow teacher who’s siphoning money out of hopeless situations. From the get-go, Bendit marks Gaines as a charlatan. But seen through other eyes, Gaines is a complex con artist, a loathsome and lovable bad guy. In retrospect, Bendit recalls: “… It took me a while to figure out that in Laos the good guys were the bad guys.”

The second narrator is an orphan of colonialism who became a monk and a gravedigger. Sangkhom notes wryly that he and Gaines were born on opposite sides of the world and they started out on opposite side of the war. When East twains with West, their fates become entwined — but only as far as the next plot twist.

In the opinion of the third narrator, the enigmatic Lao ingénue Chansamone, Gaines is like a centipede: “The first two legs don’t tell the whole story.” A complicated love triangle arises out of chaos but the course of love doesn’t run true in a country on the verge of collapse.

Borrowing pages from The Ugly American, this new novel is like a Who’s Who of (Fictional) Americans Mucking About in Southeast Asia. Apart from Bendit and Gaines, we meet half a dozen Americans attempting to influence history or hustle the East. Tommy Mangold was a helicopter pilot and bona fide war hero in Vietnam before giving up his Air Force wings to work as a civilian in Laos. As an aid worker, he worked behind the scenes and below the radar to defend democracy in Asia. On the day Kissinger comes to Vientiane, Mangold curses all he’s done in the name of the democracy, and does a 180.

Mohawk Jones was born to missionaries in the mountains that merge northern Thailand with Laos. His knowledge of highlands culture and languages made him invaluable to America’s efforts to win the hearts and minds and military service of the Hmong and other mountain dwellers. Recruited by the C.I.A., Jones abandons the Gospel and trains the highlanders to kill for Freedom and Uncle Sam.

Ernest Leitner is a widower who landed in Laos after selling his farm. If he wasn’t so short, Leitner could have stood in for the pitchfork-wielding Iowa farmer in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Obviously patterned after one of the good guys in The Ugly American, Leitner is an agricultural adviser who’s spending his life savings to lift Hmong farmers out of poverty. A saint among the scoundrels sent by USAID, Letiner makes personal sacrifices to improve the lives of Laotians displaced by bombs.

Warren Rippington delivers the milk and hard rice (ammo) for the C.I.A.’s Air America. The fearless mercenary pilot admires President Nixon’s anti-Communist gumption. But when the course of history takes a wrong turn, even a gung-ho guy like Rippington can shed a tear. Unbelievably it’s not the Communists but Congress that brings Humpty Dumpty down.

Stanford Oh is a Korean-American Vietnam War veteran who serves as a Consular Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane. When a fellow American is arrested by Lao Communists, Consul Oh advises him to confess to everything. In a newly Communist country, the diplomat doesn’t know if it’s worse for an American to be charged with murder, espionage or anti-social behavior.

The author rejected the standard Disclosure Statement that states: “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” That’s because the fictional sweep of Hustle The East takes place against a backdrop of actual historical events. It’s no coincidence that readers learn more about the actual persons named Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Kissinger, Dr. Tom Dooley and a pair of American ambassadors who directed the bombing of Laos.

How many Ugly Americans can you count?

 

NOW AVAILABLE AT AMAZON.COM and BARNES & NOBLE