It’s 1977 and the communists have recently come to power in the newly named, People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. Dr Siri Paiboun, a cynical party member for fifty years, a former surgeon who has served in the long campaign against the royalists, and who has recently discovered his shamanic powers, has become the reluctant state coroner, a role he serves with humility and humour, along with Nurse Dtui his independent but faithful assistant, and honest and patient Mr Geung, a young man with Downs Syndrome who looks after the mortuary. Following the discovery of a mummified arm in a concrete path leading the President’s new house in Vieng Xiu, in the north-east of the country, where the revolutionary army had made their base in caves below the karst hills, Siri and Dtui journey north from Vientiane, the capital. Their task is to help Comrade Lit of the security division, who is charged with investigating the find and closing any case before a special concert to celebrate the signing of a treaty with Vietnam is held a few days time. Dr Siri soon determines that the man in the concrete was black, that the only men of that colour in the area were two Cuban nurses, and that the victim did not die a natural death. Local rumour is that the two Cuban nurses were exponents of Palo Mayombe, a form of black magic, and that they had used it to gain power over people including the beautiful young daughter of a Vietnamese colonel, hence why they had supposedly been sent home a few months earlier. Soon Dr Siri is investigating whether the man in the concrete is one of the nurses and how and why the victim became embedded in the path. In the meantime, Judge Haeng has taken the opportunity of Siri’s absence to transfer Mr Geung three hundred kilometres to the north. Mr Geung had promised Siri he would look after the mortuary, so slipping away from his abductors he starts to walk south, undertaking his own eventful adventure.
Disco for the Departed is the third book in the Dr Siri series, and the first I've read. It is described on its cover as having ‘comic charm’ and I wouldn’t disagree. Whilst I only laughed out loud a couple of times, I found myself often smiling along to the story and its understated and sly wit. In Siri, Dtui and Mr Geung, Cotterill has fashioned three well drawn characters which are not only very likeable but wholly believable, and the supporting cast were also well depicted. The story is well crafted and plotted, rich in detail and insights, and snakes and twists to a satisfying end. In particular, Cotterill does a good job of setting out the history and geography of Laos in the 1970s without this contextual material swamping or detracting from the story. It is also to his credit that I never once questioned Siri’s shaman abilities; instead I simply accepted it at face value that he could interact with the spirit world. All in all, Disco for the Departed was a very pleasant read and I look forward to reading more of Siri, Dtui and Mr Geung’s adventures.