Anarchy and Old Dogs is the fourth book in Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery series. Siri is the national coroner of Laos, albeit reluctantly. At 73 years of age, he wants nothing more than to retire and live out the rest of his years in peace. That does not prevent him from taking his job very seriously or
from following the leads to wherever they may lead.
When the body of a blind man is brought to the morgue after being hit by a runaway truck, Siri and his team set out to identify the unfortunate man. They discover what appears to be a blank note in his pocket, only to learn the message is written in invisible ink. To complicate matters, the letter is in code. Joined by Phosy of the local police, Siri sets out to the town believed to be the blind man's residence. They learn the man was a dentist and are directed to his wife, who explains her deceased husband liked to play chess through the mail, suggesting the code might be chess moves. It all sounds very logical on the surface, but Siri isn't willing to let it die there. Is it really as simple as it sounds, or could there be something more worrisome afoot?
Set in the mid-1970s, Cotterill's novel captures Laos at an interesting time
in the country's history. The new government, the Lao Democratic Republic, has only been in place for 18 months. Soviet and Vietnamese influence is strong,
and there is much political turmoil in the country. In his younger years, Siri
was among those who sought the change in government, fighting alongside the resistance in favor of a more
fair socialist government. Youth's idealism was dashed many times over as reality set in:
the situation in Laos continued to be fraught with tension and strife. The author adeptly offers the reader a feel and taste for the environment in Laos during that period
and takes the reader into the hearts and minds of the people.
Dr. Siri Paiboun proves to be an interesting character. Charming and funny, he is both old-fashioned and forward-thinking. Despite his age and desire for a quiet life, Siri has a spirit about him that is contagious. Although not explored fully in this particular novel
(most likely an ongoing feature in the series), a thread of mysticism runs throughout the novel. Siri hosts the spirit of a Shaman, which sometimes allows him to communicate with the dead. It fits nicely into the story
without coming across as over-the-top. If anything, it offers a good balance between the doctor's strong scientific preference and his spiritual side. The other characters in the novel are well-crafted and
equally intriguing. They are clearly devoted to Siri and to doing what they believe is right.
The story itself takes a convoluted route to reach the end. It seems to meander a bit but
provided me as a first time reader of the series with the opportunity to get to know the characters and a bit of their history
- particularly Daeng, Civilai and Siri, old friends whose idealism and political leanings helped bring them together years ago.
Colin Cotterill weaves a complex tale of political intrigue, friendship, dreams, and disappointments. I look forward to reading more
by this author in the future.