Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thirty-three Teeth by Colin Cotterill

In Thirty-three Teeth, Laotian national coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun is summoned to investigate the deaths of two men in Luang Prabang, a city in northwest Laos. There, he spends an intoxicating evening with the deposed Laotian king, earns the gratitude of a noble elephant, and is almost pulled down below the surface of the earth by evil spirits. Meanwhile, back in Vientiane, the capitol, his ambitious assistant Nurse Dtui follows the trail of a weretiger who may be committing a series of grisly murders.

Thirty-three Teeth is the second book in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series, which takes place in 1976, shortly after the socialist revolution. Dr. Siri is seventy-two years old, a dignified and compassionate man with a fine sense of the absurd. Although he devoted much of his life to bringing the Party into power, he cringes at the increasingly bizarre evolution of its bureaucracy. As a skeptic and a medical doctor, he was amazed to learn in book one, The Coroner’s Lunch, that his body is also host to the thousand year old spirit of shaman Yeh Ming.

The juxtaposition of the poverty-stricken and struggling newborn socialist nation and the elaborate and powerful ancient spiritual beliefs of the populace is a fascinating thread that runs through the whole series. Dr. Siri is a trickster-like character, at one hapless and wise, and his friends and compatriots are generally well-fleshed out and complementary. The actions of mischievous spirits give a supernatural dimension to the plotline, but please do not be put off if you normally avoid the ‘paranormal’ genre. In this case, the spirits are not gratuitous but part of the local culture, and part of what gives the books their truly foreign flavor.

I listened to this book through Library2Go, and found that the reader, Clive Chafer, channeled Dr. Siri’s wry observations perfectly. Thirty-three Teeth is also available on the shelf at Newport Library. If you enjoy Cotterill’s work, check out his website and learn more about his writing, cartooning, and philanthropy at http://www.colincotterill.com/.

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