Colin Cotterill’s Anarchy and Old Dogs is another in his Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery series.
Set in the 1970s, the series follows two old revolutionaries in what is now Communist Laos.
The nation is falling apart. The revolution hasn’t worked. All the new government can do is blunder around inefficiently.
As the story starts, the 70-year-old Paiboun, the national coroner of Laos (the only one!), autopsies a blind dentist run down by a driverless truck. The autopsy would be routine, except he finds a coded note on the old man’s body.
Working out the code leads Paiboun to learn about a conspiracy to overthrow Laos’ fledgling Communist government. And Paiboun works to keep the overthrow from happening.
Dr. Paiboun does his work in a quiet way. Along the way, he learns that sometimes your best work happens in “small” things.
At one point, a friend from the revolution, a woman who makes the best noodles in Laos, asks Paiboun, “‘Is leading an army that wins a war really that much more satisfying than teaching a four-year-old to ride a bicycle? At our age,’ she said, ‘you go for the small things and you do them as well as you can.’”
The small thing Paiboun does is to try to unravel the cause of an impoverished child's death. His family found the boy drowned in unusual circumstances. But Paiboun also works to thwart the planned revolution with the help of his assistants at the mortuary.
As always with the Paiboun books, the reader comes to love several of the characters. The setting is so clear. For those of us who grew up in the Vietnam War era, the book clarifies what the people in the region thought they were doing when they fought that war.
But the book doesn’t glorify Communism. Even in its early stages, the Laotian government is a failure. It is people like Paiboun and several others who do the good and reasoned work to make things happen. Most other government officials bumble around.
At first, I thought the book was slow. I prepared myself to be disappointed with the first weak Paiboun book I’ve read. But did it pick up! By the end, I was more-than-intrigued by the characters and more-than-hooked by the book’s unexpected ending.
Paiboun has prescient dreams. He communes with spirits, and he consults a card-reading fortune teller along the way.
If you like mystery stories set in strange places, the kinds of stories where you learn about a foreign country while you pursue a well-written mystery, the Siri Paiboun mysteries might be good books for you.
These books, with their interlocking characters, build on one another. You would get even more out of this book if you read a couple of the earlier ones first.