A lovely young woman is drugged, brutally raped and murdered. That hardly sounds like a scenario for a funny, sweet and devilishly complex mystery story, but that’s because novelist Colin Cotterill is a master of sleight of hand. He’s a master at balancing brutal crime, which he depicts with heart-wrenching empathy, and the comic milieu of Dr. Siri Paiboun.
The Merry Misogynist is Cotterill’s sixth novel featuring Dr. Siri, national coroner, 73, libidinously alive and well, and married to Daeng the noodle shopkeeper. It’s 1978, the Khmer Rouge have taken over Laos, having ousted the 600 year-old monarchy, and the “novice socialist administration is starting to realize its resume didn’t match the job.”
Siri is on the case, along with the local Vientiane detective, but Laos is impossible: what clues the bureaucracy doesn’t ingest the jungle does. The cantonized villages of Laos, further alienated and isolated by a ridiculous but deeply ingrained bias of hill vs. low-land peoples (ridiculous because they’re the same people speaking the same language, but would we be human without racists drawing arbitrary lines between us?), prevents any sort of record sharing - so who knows if similar crimes have been previously committed?
Undeterred by - or, rather, inured to - such impediments to investigation, Siri and crew can rely on the Lao people themselves, hill and dale, on the oral culture that grounds this novel with its exotic setting and tongue-twisting names. It’s the grapevine, or jungle line, that communicates the clues in this novel, at least until we realize at the very end that we’ve been misdirected, suckered by a wonderful bait-and-switch plot that leaves us nodding in bemused agreement and admiration.
No spoilers here, though: Cotterill spins a vivid yarn that is worth reading just for the color and authenticity of the characters and their setting. Bo ben nyang, we go with the flow (to loosely translate the Lao phrase that means just about everything anyway), and are willingly misled by the author, following Siri on hands and knees as he and wife Daeng machete through the underbrush in pursuit of a clue. Here, she says, I’ll go first; that way you can look at my bottom.
To an aging Boomer, that’s perhaps the most charming thing about Cotterill’s novel: the erotic plentitude of the elderly couple at the center of this tale. Close behind, though - no pun intended - is Siri’s burning intelligence and his biting humor borne of brutal experience, all communicated by Cotterill’s lucid and compact prose. That we’re pursuing a dastardly serial killer is all well and good and, when justice in the end is served, we’re satisfied, but it’s the characters we’ve come to love and that will addict us to the series.