Something a Little Different with Colin Cotterill
The setting in which a story takes place is one of the main dictating factors as to the people and events you are going to encounter. In general, authors tend to stick to what they know in real life, either reproducing or expanding upon the places they have visited or live in. For this reason, many books written in the English language take place in the anglicized world of North America and Western Europe, and while there is certainly much fodder for interesting stories, it's a setting that's starting to feel a little too common. After all, isn't there a world out there beyond New York, London, Paris and Rome?
The good news is that there are writers who strive to offer something different and unusual, a group that certainly includes Colin Cotterill. Living in Southeast Asia, Cotterill has spent many years observing the people, culture and history around him, and through his writings he shares his appreciation, thoughts and meditations on those. For the English-speaking audience, Cotterill represents an invaluable window into what life is like on that side of the globe, one that's been open for a long time thanks to instant classics like I Shot the Buddha and The Woman Who Wouldn't Die, featuring the ever-popular Dr. Siri Paiboun. More recently, he released another novel to add to the good doctor's series, titled Six and a Half Deadly Sins .
The Finger of Mystery
The year is 1979, and the events take place in Laos, following the afore-mentioned Dr. Siri. He is the country's retired national coroner and is simply trying to enjoy his life alongside his wife and idiosyncratic entourage. But of course, we know that such goals are an exercise in futility for a good protagonist: one day, he receives a traditional pha sin skirt at his doorstep. There is only one slightly alarming detail about it, and it's that it came with a severed human finger stitched into its lining.
Needless to say, the doctor never could resist a good mystery, especially one where someone's life might be in danger. Thus, his cohorts and him set out on a trip up North where he believes the skirt was made to try and unravel the web of intrigue surrounding it. However, not only are sinister forces working against him, but the Northern part of the country is about to descend into turmoil as violent eruptions occur along the border. The odds are certainly stacked against him, but that's just how the doctor likes it.
Strangers in a Strange Land
While I have no doubt that for many readers Laotian culture holds few surprises or mysteries, the same cannot be said for the countless ones among us who spent their lives immersed in the Western world. If, like myself, you are a stranger to Southeast Asia, then for that reason alone the book promises to be a kind of eye-opening excursion into a part of the world we seldom hear about (despite being the country which the United States bombarded the most). Cotterill takes the time to explore, describe and explain a world that feels very strange and different, almost becoming something akin to a tour guide.
In turn, this impression of being a stranger in a strange land has a palpable effect on the plot itself, always making you feel like you're stuck somewhere between the realms of logic and magical realism. There are times when you can't be quite sure of what's happening, or more precisely, whether an event is real or shrouded in imagination and impressionism. This only works to heighten the atmosphere of mystery surrounding the skirt, the finger in it and the identity of its owner.
A Chase Better than the Catch
For those who aren't familiar with Cotterill's works, I'll just say that the main attraction is the process of unravelling the mystery, rather than the ultimate revelations it brings along. While the ending is doubtlessly powerful and surprising to a certain extent, it's more about how we get there. In the process of finding out the truth the quirky characters we've come to respect and care for go through many unusual and testing ordeals, and seeing them use their wits (and on occasion, luck) to wade a path across complete chaos is its own reward. Even if you do know that ultimately there will be a resolution that puts everything in place, you will very rarely, if ever, be able to guess exactly what's coming on the next turn.
Speaking of the characters, they are another strong aspect of the book, all unique and memorable in their own rights. It feels as if the author specifically tried to differentiate them and make them stick out in your mind. He develops them at the right pace and knows how to make us care for them, revealing the right information at the appropriate times. As you get to the end, you'll find yourself feeling something for people that don't exist in a place you've likely never given much thought to... which just goes to show how skilled of an author Cotterill is.
If you're a fan of the author and his Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries then you don't need to think twice about getting this book as it continues with the proudly-established traditions without a hitch. It's everything you'd expect from a book in this series and does the author justice. If you are new to Cotterill and know nothing about the series, I'd say that this is a pretty good book to start with if you're looking for an exceptionally well-written quirky mystery with screwball elements, memorable characters and taking place in an unusual as well as under-explored setting.
Article written by David ben Efraim (bookwormex.com)
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