Against all his expectations, Dr Siri Paiboun has rather enjoyed his first five months in office. Now, as hot-season nights close in, Siri is spirited away from Laos' steamy capital on a Matter of National Security. Arriving in Luang Prabang, he's a busy man, examining carbonized corpses, dining with the deposed king, attending a shamans' conference and being rescued by the ghost of an elephant. Not that Siri's complaining ... Luang Prabang is in mountains and a good fifteen degrees cooler. Meanwhile, back at Vientiane headquarters, it's hot. Bloody hot - savaged bodies are piling up in Siri's absence. Is it the missing black bear from the circus, or could it be a weretiger? Siri's trusty assistant Nurse Dtui goes snooping but, unlike her boss, the spirits aren't looking out for her... And just what creature, if any, has thirty-three teeth?
This is the second book I have read in this detective series. I read The Coroner's Lunch, the first in the series, a couple of years ago. Colin Cotterill's magic realist approach to detective novels is both fascinating and enchanting.
The books are set in Laos shortly after the communist takeover in 1975 and show a society which is changing and at the same time has close links to the traditions of the past. This dual nature is reflected in the book's leading character, Dr Siri Paiboun, who combines his job as Laos' only coroner with being a traditional shaman, the embodiment of an ancient spirit. The coroner has no problems using both his scientific training and his shamanic calling to solve crimes. This duality is the reason why this makes such classic magic realism.
The author's biography (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Cotterill) reveals why this book works so well: this is a man who has lived and worked within Laos and its culture for years. The book has an authenticity about it that makes the magic element work. You really get a sense of the weary run-down feel of the country, the stupidity of those in authority and people going about their lives the best they can. That is not to say that the book is dry, far from it, it is full of satire about life under the new regime: Under a recent directive, inspectors had to apply for weapons from the armoury on an 'as needed' basis. A total of nine signatures was required. Uniformed officers still carried guns but they had to get thirteen signatures if they wanted bullets to put in them. One of the joys of the book is watching the seventy-two year old Siri getting around the restrictions of authority.
All in all the book is an enjoyable read, although I found the climax of Siri's female assistant trapped and needing rescuing a bit of a cliche, and goes to show that magic realism is an approach that can be applied to the least likely of genres.