Laos, 1979: Retired coroner Siri Paiboun and his wife, Madame Daeng, have never been able to turn away a misfit. Read more...
Laos, 1979: Retired coroner Siri Paiboun and his wife, Madame Daeng, have never been able to turn away a misfit. As a result, they share their small Vientiane house with an assortment of homeless people, mendicants, and oddballs. One of these oddballs is Noo, a Buddhist monk, who rides out on his bicycle one day and never comes back, leaving only a cryptic note in the refrigerator: a plea to help a fellow monk escape across the Mekhong River to Thailand.
Naturally, Siri can't turn down the adventure, and soon he and his friends find themselves running afoul of Lao secret service officers and famous spiritualists. Buddhism is a powerful influence on both morals and politics in Southeast Asia. In order to exonerate an innocent man, they will have to figure out who is cloaking terrible misdeeds in religiosity.
Whodunit: The evolving Hydra of crime and its investigation
Peter Robinson’s latest thriller, When the Music’s Over, finds beloved Detective Superintendent Alan Banks investigating a charge of sexual assault lodged against a popular entertainer. The alleged incident took place some 50 years ago, and the entertainer, now in his 80s, vehemently denies the charges. Pursuing the case will prove challenging for Banks, as the original case files have gone missing, so he must piece together stray bits of evidence as best he can. Compounding the issue is the fact that his right-hand woman, Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot, is embroiled in the investigation of an equally lurid case: A teenage girl was abducted and raped, then thrown out of a van to the side of the road, where she was picked up by another driver who proved to be anything but a savior. Either case would make a good standalone novel, but the juxtaposition of the decades-old case and its horrifying modern counterpart makes for a compelling look at the evolution of crime and its investigation over the past 50 years.
HEADS ON A ROLL
The hands-down best mystery novels of the past decade have come out of Scandinavia, and Anne Holt’s Dead Joker does nothing to break that string. Holt is Norway’s #1 bestselling female crime writer, and Jo Nesbø dubbed her “the godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction.” Edgy Detective Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen returns for her fifth adventure, this time investigating the decapitation death of the wife of a chief public prosecutor. Naturally the new widower falls under immediate suspicion; after all, the husband always does it, right? He in turn lays the blame on a man he prosecuted years before, but a witness comes forth to say that he saw that man commit suicide some days earlier. Hmm. But then a remarkably similar fate befalls a journalist at an Oslo newspaper, and while one beheading may be an aberration, a second in as many weeks suggests something more sinister. Originally published in Norway in 1999, Dead Joker is just now finding its way stateside, and therefore some of the more modern crime-solving paraphernalia and techniques are not at hand. The story is no less compelling for that and is indeed a first-rate thriller through and through.
WHO IS SHE?
Easily the most disturbing and unsettling book I have read this year is Rena Olsen’s debut novel, The Girl Before, the first-person tale of a woman in the throes of upending everything she holds to be real and true. Her name is Clara—or perhaps it’s Diana, as that’s what the people who broke into her house and abducted her insist on calling her. They also took her husband, Glen, and her daughter, Daisy, and have been keeping them apart since the kidnapping. Glen’s enigmatic final words to her as they were separated were “Say nothing!” And although her captors interrogate her on a daily basis, she obeys his command. As the chapters unfold, alternating between Clara’s past and her present-day incarceration, the reader begins to get the sense that she is at once a victim and a perpetrator (or at the very least an enabler) of a human trafficking organization. But as in the best suspense novels, there are mysteries within mysteries, and all is not what it seems—not to Clara, and definitely not to the reader.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
Of all the mystery books set in post-revolution Laos, in which the protagonist is a sorta-retired coroner periodically inhabited by the spirit of a long-dead shaman, Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri books are found right at the front of the pack. Actually, they constitute the entire pack, now 11 strong. The latest installment, I Shot the Buddha, finds the elderly (in body only) Dr. Siri tasked with helping a Buddhist monk slip across the Mekong River to Thailand. There is some danger, and certainly some illegality, associated with this endeavor, but Siri has never been one to shy away from conflict, particularly when there’s an opportunity to put one over on his annoying Communist government “minders.” Aided and abetted by his wife, the kindly yet wickedly clever Madame Daeng, Siri navigates the metaphorical minefields where religion, spirituality and government (particularly the anti-religion Communist government) come into contact (and conflict) with one another. Cotterill excels in the portrayal of potentially serious and momentous topics with lighthearted humor, imbuing his characters with grace and empathy in the midst of a particularly difficult chapter of Southeast Asia’s history.