Colin Cotterill’s Disco for the Departed continues the tradition of the two earlier books.
Set in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos in 1977, the book finds Laos’ only coroner, the aging Dr Siri Paiboun, investigating the murder of a man encased in concrete.
The man seems to be Cuban, one of a group sent over to aid the struggling Laotian Communist government.
The Laotian revolution has failed. The dirt-poor are still dirt-poor. Most of the Communist leaders are like the royals had been, entitled and seeking privilege. The government is mired in red tape. Every action, even permission to break open the cement block with the body in it, requires that you fill out a form.
The officer in charge of the investigation is incompetent. He depends on the old coroner to solve the case.
And all of this becomes involved with magic, some of it black magic.
Paiboun himself channels a spirit seeking to find rest. In the midst of the story, another spirit infects him. One of Paiboun’s main accomplishments in the story is to get the second spirit into a place where it can bring justice for the wrong committed on it.
There are spiritual marriages and human sacrifice. Places which were bomb shelters in the war have now been turned into sites for ritual magic.
Dr. Paiboun has trouble sleeping because every night he hears music from an amphitheater which has become the disco for the dead.
Paiboun reconnects with old soldier acquaintances and friends. And all along, he tries to bring peace and justice to the pain and grief of the crumbling world around him.
Meanwhile, the incompetent officer above Paiboun arranges to have Geung, Paiboun’s mentally-handicapped lab assistant, kidnapped and spirited away. Geung has to fight to find his way cross-country back to the lab.
I love these books. They tell strong stories. They take me to a unique place and into a unique culture. The main characters are good, but struggling, people. The setting is a setting I knew little about until I started reading Colin Cotterill.
My recommendation: If you think you might like to try the Siri Paiboun stories, start with the first one in the series, The Coroner’s Lunch, and then go from there.