Monday, September 2, 2013

Review of Love Songs from a Shallow Grave by Colin Cotterill (Quercus, 2010)

It’s 1978 and Dr Siri Paiboun, Laos’ only coroner, is approaching his seventy fourth birthday.  After a lifetime of serving the communist party and finally witnessing the Laos revolution he would like to retire.  Instead, he is tasked with examining the body of a young woman found dead in a sauna on a former American base that now houses many of the present ruling elite.  The woman has been stabbed through the heart with a epee, a small z carved in her thigh.  Siri’s friend, Inspector Phosy, is tasked with investigating the case.  The following day another young woman is found dead, similarly with an epee through the heart and a z cut on her thigh, shortly followed by a third case.  It seems that there is a serial killer on the loose.  As usual, Siri can’t help becoming involved in the investigation, but initially he’s baffled.  He’s also distracted by disturbing dreams, Nurse Dtui’s domestic problems, and the endless rain.  Just as he starts to make progress he’s asked to go on an official trip to Kampuchea controlled by the Khmer Rouge, which is when his real troubles start.

Love Songs from a Shallow Grave is the seventh book in the Dr Siri series.  Of the four that I’ve read it’s the strongest in terms of the plot, which is very well constructed and executed, blending a nice mystery puzzle with a strong sense of place and fascinating historical and social context.  Whilst the tale still has some of the comic charm of the other books, both of the intersecting storylines are dark, especially Siri’s time in Kampuchea, which is quite harrowing but well handled.  And although the story principally follows the investigation and the official trip, Cotterill advances the personal lives of the stable of main characters Siri, Madame Daeng, Nurse Dtui, Inspector Phosy, former Minister Civilai, and Mr Geung.  Indeed, a real strength of the book is that the full gang are present for nearly the entire tale, each with their own interesting subplot.  Overall, a clever, dark and enjoyable tale with a fascinating geographical and historical context.


Anonymous said...

Rob - I like Cotterill's work very much, so it's good to hear that this one worked for you as well as it did.

w said...

I love Colin Cotterill. I have read all the books in the series. This is a consistently strong series, too.