Monday, May 13, 2013

Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill

Thirty-Three Teeth
by Colin Cotterill
Soho, 2005
195 pages

This book grew on me. It had to; at the beginning, I wasn't at all happy with the direction things were taking after the first scene (which was excellent). I wasn't exactly bored, but I wasn't getting what I wanted to get out of the book. And yet, something kept me reading. By the time I was done, I was totally, happily satisfied.

Thirty-Three Teeth is the second in Colin Cotterill's series about Dr. Siri Paiboon, Head Coroner in Communist Laos in the seventies. We start with the disappearance of an old, abused bear from her cage at the local "luxury" hotel (the scene I loved) and subsequent maulings -- an open-and-shut case, one might think, except that nothing in a Siri Paiboon mystery is as it seems. And just when things are getting interesting in Vientiane, Siri is spirited off to Luang Prabang in the north of the country to investigate a couple of very, very crispy corpses under the direction of one nasty, rude governor. Then it's back to Vientiane to save his friend Inspector Phosy, Dtui the nurse gets to do some investigation of her own, a close call with the fledgling justice system, and righting various wrongs, both spiritual and mundane.

What worried me at the beginning was twofold: there was some rather clumpsy recapping of earlier events (necessary, perhaps, though I'm not even sure of that; I think Cotterill could trust his readers to hang on even if they're not quite sure what's going on, because he writes that well.) The second problem is that a chunk of this book is spent with Siri learning more about his newfound spiritual powers, and we edge pretty firmly across the line from magic realism to outright fantasy, except that... well, I don't want to spoil much for you, but the explanations for many of the happenings turn out to be less magical and more mundane than I expected. And where they are magical, they are still rather mundane, and always deeply rooted in the culture and beliefs of the Laotian people. A favourite scene: the obnoxious general in Luang Prabang tries to get the shamans to let the royal spirits know that they're expected to conform under the new communist rules (take up residence as working spirits in designated temples, that sort of thing, or be exiled to the north) -- which simultaneously says an awful lot about how seriously the spirits are taken, as well as how ridiculous politics can get very quickly. The scene is also very funny and full of tension.

It's that kind of twisty unravelling, dry humour, and mixture of melancholy, darkness, and light that kept me reading, even when I was feeling like we were spending a lot more time on magical shenanigans than I wanted to in a mystery novel. Cotterill knows how to balance the distressing with the amusing with the moving with the absurd, and he can keep the plot moving, and he provides wonderful, full characters to boot. I have never really read anything quite like these novels and I am tremendously glad there are more of them out there for me to dig into.

A note on the writing itself, too: Cotterill has a knack for a marvellously odd turn of phrase, particularly metaphor. I am sure some of this comes straight out of the Laotian language and the culture, and I am also sure that Cotterill comes up with a few of his own; he uses them unashamedly, and even though some of them are odd and perhaps a bit too florid, they also cause this reader to stop and think -- "huh, I know exactly what he means." Another example of Cotterill's ability to make wonderful connections are his titles. The man knows how to title a book. The titles are odd, attention-catching, and perfectly, perfectly apt. It's a small thing, but very pleasing.

As with the previous book in the series, highly recommended. This one is not quite as good, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded. For armchair travellers, mystery lovers, fans of the tangled and complex, those who love a good, observant, level-headed, kind, and charming lead character wrapped up in excellent writing and really interesting plots. I'd start at the beginning, just because The Coroner's Lunch is the better book. Looking forward to Disco for the Departed, when the chance arises.

Other books in the Dr. Siri Paiboon series:


Nan said...

Wow, what an excellent review. It could be published somewhere - it is so well written. This is a completely unique series. I think Disco might be my favorite. There is a wonderful image of the spirits
in that book. I did stop reading the series. One book had a subject matter I didn't want to read. And I think too, I just began to feel weighed down with the country during that time. Siri is great, as are the other ongoing characters, but there is such a depressed atmosphere that I could almost feel it. He is a very good writer. He has another series I haven't tried yet; also with terrific titles.

Unknown said...

Aw, thanks Nan! Yeah, one suspects that things are going to get worse, not better with the political situation as the series continues, and I can totally see that being a turnoff.

It was a toss-up whether I was going to start this series or the Jimm Juree series (Killed at the Whim of a Hat being the first of those, which, yes, fabulous title) but The Coroner's Lunch was the book I could get my hands on faster at the crucial moment. :)