Anarchy and Old Dogs

Written by Colin Cotterill
Review by Sarah Bower

This is the fourth in Cotterill’s much-praised series about Dr. Siri Paiboun, national coroner of The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, first introduced to readers in the best-selling The Coroner’s Lunch. When a blind, retired dentist is run over and killed, it looks like a straightforward job for Dr. Siri and his team, until he finds a letter in the dead man’s pocket, encrypted and written in invisible ink. The coroner’s subsequent investigation tests long friendships, re-awakens an old romance, and leads to a surprise marriage which is possibly—or possibly not—the one foreseen by Auntie Bpoo, the transvestite fortune teller who plies her trade outside the Aeroflot office.

The novel is set in 1977, and Cotterill displays a sound grasp of the complex politics of South-East Asia at the time as well as telling an entertaining story full of wonderful characters who, while excessive and eccentric, always avoid falling into caricature thanks to Cotterill’s skilful and subtle development of their interior lives. I found the plot a little on the thin side, but this was more than compensated by the unfolding of Dr. Siri’s equivocal relationship with his past, with communism and with patriotism. Beneath the good beach reading froth this novel grapples with serious and absorbing questions about the relationship between the individual and the state, and about what comes to fill the vacuum left by the pulling out of a colonial power. There is also some very fine writing, particularly about the weather. Cotterill himself lives in Thailand and clearly has a feel for the tropical climate and the talent to convey it almost physically on the page.

Although Cotterill has been compared with Alexander McCall Smith, I think this does scant justice to his abilities. This is the first of his novels I have read and I shall certainly be looking out for the previous three in the series. A lovely read—entertaining, thoughtful and full of style. Recommended.