Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill: A review

After reading the first book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series, The Coroner's Lunch, I decided that I had not had enough of the good doctor and so I immediately started this second book in the series, Thirty-Three Teeth. It is another charming study of Colin Cotterill's unique character, the 72-year-old Pathet Lao revolutionary, who, upon the success of the revolution in 1975, was drafted by the Party to become Laos' one and only coroner.

In this entry, it is 1976 and something is killing women in Vientiane. It seems to be an animal of some sort, one which leaves the marks of its huge bite on the bodies. At first Dr. Siri suspects a bear, partly because he has recently seen a bear in one of his visionary dreams. Then he learns that a bear that had been housed in inhumane conditions in the city has escaped its cage and he feels that his surmise must have been correct.

But his assistant, the redoubtable Dtui, begins to have her doubts and she learns from a Russian animal expert that the cast of the bites on the bodies does not match the mouth of a bear, but rather that of a cat, most likely a tiger. Could there actually be two large carnivores loose in the city even though neither has actually been seen by anyone?

Once again, in the middle of an investigation, Dr. Siri is sent away from the city on government business, this time to Luang Prabang, the former seat of royalty. One evening while walking in an orchard full of ripe fruit there, he happens upon an old gardener. An old gardener who turns out to be the deposed king.

Siri must autopsy two bodies in Luang Prabang. He discovers that they are the bodies of two helicopter pilots. They were trying to rescue the king and his family and fly them to safety. Siri learns that they were shot down and their bodies burned to a crisp in the resulting explosion. He believes that the plot to save the royals was betrayed by someone close to the king. But who? And who will answer for the deaths of the pilots?

On returning to Vientiane, Siri finds that Dtui has been busy in his absence and that her investigation has exonerated the bear from guilt in the women's deaths, but before the mystery can be resolved, Dtui goes missing. Is it possible that she, too, has fallen victim to the beast of the night?

Cotterill gives us characters that we can care about, characters who are doing their best to live with dignity and to perform their jobs under very trying conditions of poverty and want. Siri's morgue has only the most basic equipment, but still he and Dtui and Mr. Geung, his other assistant, manage to treat the bodies in their care with respect and to work to see that justice is done for them. They do so with a little help from their friends, a local policeman and a Party official who is sometimes able to pull strings to make life a little easier for them. It is an altogether believable cast of characters and it is a pleasure to spend time with them.


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