Dr Siri lost in the Styx
Love Songs From A Shallow Grave by Colin Cotterill (Quercus)
The cover design of Love Songs from a Shallow Grave—Colin Cotterill’s seventh Dr Siri mystery—features a trio of temple dancers, eyes demurely downcast, floating on a lotus-blossomed pond. But take a closer look. They have been skewered through the heart to form a macabre human kebab. No dancers, these. They are the “Three Epées”—the latest guests to grace the Laotian coroner’s Vientiane morgue.
If you’re a fan of Dr Siri Paiboun, you’ll feel the sword twist in your own heart when you read the first page of this eagerly awaited novel. Not because of the fate of the three young women—they appear only later—but because the opening scene describes Dr Siri celebrating his 74th birthday in hell.
It is 1978 and he is handcuffed to a lead pipe in a Cambodian jail, witnessing the dying moments of a fellow prisoner: “When the sun finally sneered through the wire mesh of the window, it cast a shadow like a fisherman’s net across the body ... But his soul was free. I envied him that.”
We’re in unfamiliar terrain. Surely Dr Siri has survived worse than this?
Cotterill’s tone suggests not. Is he really going to allow his acerbic, green-eyed hero to die in Phnom Penh at the hands of the Khmer Rouge?
Flashback to Vientiane, where not much has changed since The Merry Misogynist, the most recent mystery solved by the people’s coroner and his trusty team. Dr Siri and Madame Daeng (former freedom fighter turned noodle super-chef) have been married three months. Nurse Dtui is revelling in motherhood (even though her relationship with Inspector Phosy has hit a pothole) and mentally challenged morgue assistant Mr Geung is experimenting with a new hairdo. There are still no chemicals for postmortems and nobody has yet figured out how to adjust the temperature setting on the Soviet-made fridge.
In other words, all is “abnormally normal”.
That is until Dr Siri is asked to investigate the mysterious deaths of three young Laotian women who have returned home after studying in Eastern bloc countries. Then, just when he is on the brink of unmasking the murderer, the doctor is ordered to join a People’s Party junket to Cambodia, now in the grip of Brother Number One (alias Pol Pot).
‘“utting a man with your character in Phnom Penh at this time is like dropping petroleum on a bush fire,” says one of the ubiquitous Vietnamese advisers, for once offering worthwhile advice.
Dr Siri decides to go anyway. Ignoring all warnings—human and supernatural—he evades his Khmer Rouge minders, squeezes through a hole in the hotel fence and enters his worst nightmare.
Phnom Penh has become a ghost town, its inhabitants removed to the countryside in a bizarre collectivism experiment.
Wandering amid the detritus of lost lives, Dr Siri comes across the “soggy remains of thousands of books. Tens of thousands ... providing mulch for the next generation of plants.” At once he understands that if “Big Brother could destroy literature and history”, anything is possible.
It is almost unbearable to read what happens next. Arrested for spying, Dr Siri is taken to a “prison”, which Cotterill has modelled on the notorious Tuol Sleng torture centre that claimed more than 14 000 lives during Pol Pot’s regime.
For the first time in his life the coroner’s most powerful enemies are not the dreaded phibob (those malevolent spirits of the underworld) but other human beings.
“I’d been waiting for the phibob, baffled as to why they hadn’t come for me. But it’s obvious, isn’t it? What worse could they do to me?” he asks.
Cotterill dedicates Love Songs from a Shallow Grave to “the spirits of the Khmer who perished under Pol Pot, and the resourceful souls who survived”. It is his most ambitious book yet: a fine narrative balancing act between the horrors of Phnom Penh and the gently surreal world of Laos where human kindness somehow manages to triumph in spite of the odds.
“All you need is love,” says Nurse Dtui, recalling a Beatles song she has heard on Thai radio.
Dr Siri prefers Albert Camus, whose writings he hides in an upstairs room, with other subversive volumes: “I know of only one duty and that is to love,” he quotes to Madame Daeng, who wonders if “Mr Camay” is related to “the soap people”.
The Laotian capital, Vientiane, is always a vibrant presence in Cotterill’s writing.
But now, lashed by monsoon rains, it seems in danger of dissolving into the Mekong river: “That same Vientiane, which had once been consumed by jungle, was being washed away by unseasonal and unceasing rains. Like ice-cubes in a sink, the buildings seemed to be melting away, first their mustard colours, then their shapes.”
Early in the book Dr Siri and his beloved Daeng swerve through the monsoon mud on an ancient motorbike. Instead of sheltering from the deluge, they embrace it, because “it made the city they lived in a wonderfully unpredictable place”.
It is this resilience, Cotterill suggests, that may ultimately save them—at least for a while.
Love Songs from a Shallow Grave is in a class of its own. It won’t please everyone and it may upset some: especially those who still insist that Cotterill is South East Asia’s answer to Alexander McCall Smith. Read it—and thank the ancestral spirits that he isn’t.
And, the 64-trillion kip question: Is Dr Siri Paiboun about to make the final border crossing between life and death?
Pour yourself a large tumbler of Mekong rice whisky before you find out.