Friday, October 1, 2010
THIRTY-THREE TEETH by Colin Cotterill
In my comments about Colin Cotterill's The Coroner's Lunch, I used a passage in which one character says--
"Then there's the ongoing puppet scandal."
"The Party ordered the puppets at Xiang Thong temple in Luang Prabang to stop using royal language and said they had to start calling each other 'comrade'."
"Quite right, too. We have to show those puppets who's pulling the strings." Civili hit him with a lettuce leaf. "What happened?"
"The local party members locked them up in their box, and they aren't allowed out till they succumb."
"That'll teach 'em."
Little did I know that this silly episode would play a key part in the second book, Thirty-Three Teeth.
These books are different than any I've ever read. I love them.
In this one, Thirty-Three Teeth, Dr. Siri Paiboun, national coroner of Laos in the late 1970's, investigates two cases.
One is the strange suicide of a government official. The other one is the apparent tiger attacks on unsuspecting women. The women end up in Paiboun's morgue.
As with the first book, Paiboun works with his trusty assistants, one of whom plays a large part in this story. And he deals, even more deeply than before, with the ingrained superstitions of the native people.
Paiboun himself is a part of those superstitions. Some think he embodies an ancient shaman looking to inhabit one more body before the shaman finally goes to rest. For that to happen, Paiboun has to die a peaceful death, something this book puts him perilously close to failing to do.
One sign that Paiboun has spiritual powers is that Paiboun has thirty-three teeth. Having thirty-three teeth shows that you have a close contact with the spiritual world.
Paiboun and his friends are wonderful characters. They truly care. They refuse to let the callous society forget the murdered women. They fight for the rights of an abused animal.
And they struggle, in the strangest of situations, to find out what really happened even when they have to confront the spirit world.
But these comments make the book seem too dry. Paiboun fights the superstitions (and the terrible violence they occasion) as he himself is part of them. He has awful dreams. He understands, becomes enmeshed in, the multi-layered world in which he lives.
This book goes beyond setting. It shows something about a society hovering between ancient traditions and the so-called modern world. (We still kill each other. We just have bigger weapons and are more sophisticated about it.)
The government ignores the violence the setting engenders. You can't even look at a routine government record without signing several forms.
For a police officer to carry bullets in his pistol, he has to get nine official signatures, and this occurs in a nation where the criminals are loaded down with American submachine guns left over from the Vietnam war.
None of what I've said really gives a flavor of these books. To get that, you need to read one. If you do, and if you respond as I did, I think you will be wonderfully surprised.