Disco For The Departed by Colin Cotterill

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Disco For The Departed by Colin Cotterill

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: The period location of this book (in newly communist Laos) is unusual, the supernatural elements convincing, but it's shame that the plot is rather pedestrian.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Quercus Publishing Plc
ISBN: 978-1847245854

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It is always challenging to start a series with the third book, however much publishers claim the story is 'stand alone'. The characters and their raison d'etres have already been established and the setting explained. In Disco for the Departed this is particularly relevant, for the main character of this series is Dr Siri Paiboun. He is the National Coroner for Laos at the end of the 1970s, and crucially, has recently become the 'host' for the spirit of a dead Hmong shaman called Yeh Ming. So, we have a little-known newly communist south-east Asian country combined with indigenous superstition and the supernatural. It is a credit to the author that he has managed to produce a book that is witty and accessible and not dominated by indigestible chunks of exposition or whimsy.

There are two strands to the crime story. In the north-east of the country, at the old revolutionary headquarters, a mummified arm is found sticking out of a path after a landslide. The body, when it is uncovered, is found to have died a painful death ingesting liquid concrete. Dr Siri and his sidekick Nurse Dtui need to find out the identity of the dead man, who killed him and why before the President arrives to attend a valedictory concert in a few days time. This story introduces us to visiting Cuban and Vietnamese characters, dabbles in Endoke, a particularly dark form of Cuban black magic, and is set amongst the karst caves that housed an army of revolutionaries during the war.

At the same time, we follow the travels of Geung Watajak, a young man with Downs Syndrome who works with Dr Siri in the capital Vientiane. He has been left in charge during the coroner's travels north. No sooner has Dr Siri left than the new head of the Justice Department, Judge Haeng, decides that Geung does not conform to the image of the national morgue that the Party wishes to convey. However he has not reckoned with the persistence and endurance of Geung who believes he must keep his promise to Dr Siri at all costs.

The setting of this story is one of the best things about it. The author is obviously familiar with Laos, its history and its people. There is an authenticity about the writing that makes the book very real, and indeed insightful - the description of the hospital built into the caves in the mountains to protect it from American bombing was fascinating. The author's descriptions of 1970s Socialist doctrine felt spot-on. Cotterill's characters are also convincing. Nurse Dtui, with her ambitions to study in socialist Eastern Europe; Geung, with his devotion and dedication to Dr Siri and the morgue - both felt alive. Dr Siri is a lovely creation: a learned, elderly socialist surgeon with the wisdom of longevity and experience. A kind of less grumpy, Laotian Morse.

The supernatural element of the novel also felt embedded in the characters and the local culture. Belief in spirits who possess old women and make them speak in tongues, spirits who inhabit the body of a man and make him act uncharacteristically, a cave full of dead and dancing spirits – all seems to be taken in the stride of the characters and therefore the reader. It adds to the foreignness and flavour of the landscape. Perhaps it is uncharitable to wonder why the spirits, in some ways so helpful, do not just lead Dr Siri to the killer.

Given these two unusual elements to the novel it was shame that the actual plot was rather formulaic and mundane. Dr Siri, helped by his spirit and Nurse Dtui, follow a number of twists and red herrings to get to an answer which is not supernatural but all too human a situation – which is fine, but easily unravelled. If the author had managed to combine the excellent setting and the surreal elements with a truly unpredictable plot, then this would be an outstanding book. As a fan of Alexander McCall Smith and his Ladies Detective Agency, I think it is unfair, as many reviewers have done, to compare the two. Cotterill's book lacks the charm and the warmth of the Botswana series. However, what it does have is a compelling period and location, a group of convincing characters and an element of surprise. We will, I am sure, encounter a wealth of stories featuring Dr Siri in the future.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

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Buy Disco For The Departed by Colin Cotterill at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Disco For The Departed by Colin Cotterill at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Disco For The Departed by Colin Cotterill at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Disco For The Departed by Colin Cotterill at Amazon.com.

Colin Cotterill's Dr Siri Paiboun series in chronological order


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