Cotterill admits he wasn’t writing “mysteries” or crime fiction or suspense or when he started out. He thought he was just writing “ripping yarns,” as he told Publisher’s Weekly.
A few pages into “Slash and Burn” or any of the Cotterill stories (“Slash and Burn” is only my second) and you’ll realize you’re into a whole new realm with all new rules.
Our “hero” is Dr. Siri Paiboun, a Loatian coroner who is pushing 80 years old. Not just a coroner, the country’s coroner. And he doesn’t exactly relish the role. He’s feisty and irascible about just about everything, however, and that gives him the everyman quality that’s easy to latch onto. (The stories are set in the late 1970’s.)
Cotterill on how he developed the character: “I needed a character who was Lao, yet tainted by the West. As many Lao have done, Siri spent a great chunk of his life studying in Paris. He returned to his country with a pretty Lao nurse, a lot of Western ideas, and membership in the Communist Party. From then on, most of his life was spent fighting the French, the Americans, and the Lao royalists. By the time the wars were over, he was in his 70’s and expecting to retire. But the old generals had something else lined up for him. He retains his Lao sense of humor, his staunch defense of Lao tradition, and his conviction that communism, in the hands of human beings, cannot possibly work. And as an elder statesman, he gets away with voicing such opinions.” (Again, from the Publisher’s Weekly interview.)
Dr. Siri is free to think or say anything—and he does. There is something loose and breezy in “Slash and Burn,” a dollop of carefree, free-form fantasy with every page, thought, turn. Aiding and abetting this mood is the thousand-year-old Hmong shaman spirit who shares space with Dr. Siri. “I’m afraid we come as a set,” he says.
Dr. Siri is pure attitude—still questioning authority with a youthful, feisty edge. He’d just as soon not play a Laotian version of charades as an ice-breaker. “For charades to be fun—if it ever truly was—you had to be three sheets to the wind, not hungover and stone cold sober at breakfast,” he thinks. A few minutes later, he observes an American sergeant who leans into his walk “like a meatless Nebraska Man in a hurry to catch up with evolution.”
Cotterill doesn’t adhere anywhere close to the standard mystery arc. Wikipedia defines his stories as crime fiction stories and reviews refer to them as “whodunits,” but the plot doesn’t begin with clue-finding; it’s more situational.
The writing is energetic and carefree. Cotterill says he writes each book, after he’s done all his homework and research, in three or four weeks. (Yes, weeks.) The result is a rushing, breezy quality.
In “Slash and Burn,” it takes quite awhile, however, for the gears of the plot to start grinding together. It’s summer in Vientiane, Laos. Dr. Siri is chosen to go on a trip with a delegation from the United States in search of a downed American pilot. The “mystery” mounts as it’s clear that something other than an unfortunate landing spot killed the downed pilot but even as events start to mean increased jeopardy for Dr. Siri, there are detours to make tea and deliver observations on marijuana as additive for food.
Don’t be deceived by the “Slash and Burn” title. Yes, bullets fly at the end but the “slash and burn” here refers to villagers who burn off the top growth to prepare fields for planting, to allow the ash to fertilize the soil.
There are secrets, there are “mysteries,” there is truth to be discovered. Just in a unique fashion with a unique, somewhat reluctant sleuth in an unusual setting. Call it a mystery or just call it a light, fun read. It’s no wonder Dr. Siri has lasted so long.