Slash and Burn by Colin Cotterill: A review

The 74-year-old Dr. Siri has been trying to retire for years, but his country, 1978 Laos after the Pathet Lao revolution, just won't let him go. Now, though, it seems as if he might actually be able to achieve his long-held dream of retirement to spend his final years relaxing with his new wife and famous noodle shop owner, Madame Daeng. He shouldn't be counting the days, however, because his country has just one last assignment for him.

In 1968, there was a helicopter crash somewhere in the northeast of the country. The pilot was never found and is listed as MIA. It was an American helicopter from Air America, a CIA operation. Ten years later, the Americans are still seeking those lost in their Southeast Asian wars and, for some reason, they now seem focused on this one pilot. Could it be because his father is now a powerful United States senator?

At any rate, an American delegation, including another senator, arrives to conduct the search for the pilot and they must, of course, be accompanied and aided by a Laotian delegation. Who better to head that group than Laos's national - and only - coroner, Dr. Siri Paiboun?

Dr. Siri agrees to go on one condition; that he is able to select his companions and helpers. As usual, he has his boss, the odious Judge Haeng, at a disadvantage and Haeng agrees to the condition. Thus, Siri takes to the road accompanied by his wife, as well as nurse Dtui, policeman Phosy, morgue  assistant Mr. Geung, and old friend Civilai. Unbeknownst to him - at first - he is also accompanied by Auntie Bpoo, the transvestite fortune-teller of Vientiane who has foreseen Siri's imminent death, which she is determined to try to prevent.

This very mixed group, along with translators, heads out to the wilds of the country where unexploded bombs still lurk to take the limbs or the lives of the unwary. Very soon, Siri suspects that all may not be well with the group of Americans especially when a pack belonging to one of them, Major Potter, explodes, nearly killing a porter. Was the explosion meant for the major?

Soon after, the major does indeed wind up dead in what is made to appear to be a very embarrassing accident, but our intrepid coroner quickly determines that it was no accident. It was murder. In order to entrap the murderer, who surely must be one of the group, he allows them to think that he believes it was an accident. As other "accidents" and unfortunate events begin to pile up, Siri begins to think that maybe Auntie Bpoo's prediction was correct. Maybe his "retirement" will be to the grave.   

Slash and Burn is told with Colin Cotterill's usual blend of ironic humor and deep respect for the Lao culture. It is a winning combination. I always enjoy spending time with Dr. Siri and his friends. 


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