By Janice Wilder
By now, I think, most readers of this column, will know about my love for the Inspector Montalbano stories by Andrea Camilleri, and how I always delight when a new one appears on the shelf. The latest, The Age of Doubt, is no exception. It tells of a meeting between Salvo and a strange woman who appears very interested in a yacht due to dock that afternoon. After the woman disappears, the crew from the yacht report the finding of a disfigured corpse. At anchor next to the yacht is a luxury vessel, with a very strange crew. As a result of the finding of the body, both yachts have to remain in the harbour while an investigation takes place. This involves a very beautiful young harbour official, and Salvo is, once again, smitten. At times Salvo’s feelings for this woman threaten to derail his investigation, but he manages to keep control—although he does console himself with lots of seafood and wine at his favourite restaurant. The story goes on to show the connection between the two boats and the crime that is behind it all. As usual with Montalbano there are a lot of amusing moments mingled in amongst the drama, including one of Salvo’s offsiders having to get very close to the owner of the luxury vessel. The account of the boat, and what has been going on aboard, is where all the mystery lies. Again the book is filled with wonderful food and wine, the Inspector’s on and off again affair with Livia, and his great officers, who are always on his side, even when Salvo, as he often does, bend the rules more than a little. The ending is bit unusual for a Camilleri, as it involves violence and left me feeling a bit sad. But, of course, if you love Salvo as I do, this won’t put you off enjoying the story.
Some time ago, someone told me to read a book called The Coroner’s Lunch. I had a look at it, but it didn’t appeal, so I didn’t read it. Not long ago, another person gave me a copy of The Curse of the Pogo Stick. Somehow, this time, I think because of the title, the book did appeal to me, and so I read it and loved it. Both of these were written by Colin Cotterill. When I mentioned to the editor that I intended to write about Colin Cotterill she was happy to hear it as she is also a fan of Cotterill’s marvellous Dr Siri Paiboun—unwilling state coroner for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Colin Cotterill was born in London, but after training as a teacher, he went on a world tour, spending some time in Australia, teaching in a primary school here. He then ended up in South-East Asia, working in the child-protection area. He was encouraged by the success of his first book, the above-mentioned Coroner’s Lunch, to make writing his full-time job, combining it with his other love, cartooning. He has now settled in Southern Thailand, where he has set up a project to send books to Lao children and sponsor trainee teachers.
And now, to the books. There are two series, one set in Laos, the other in Thailand. The Thailand series is fairly new—with only two books so far. The Curse of the Pogo Stick was my first Cotterill—and I must say it was such a treat that I’ve been on a bit of a binge, and of the eight titles in the Lao/Dr Siri books, I have now read four. I love books with a strong sense of place, a feeling for the history and the characters of the people involved in the story—and with Colin Cotterill you get all that and a bit more. The cast consists of Dr Siri Paiboun, the aged coroner, his two morgue assistants, nurse Dtui and Mr Geung, Madame Daeng, Dr Siri’s fiancée and noodle maker extraordinaire, and his best friend and fellow cynic Civilai. This story takes place among the Hmong people, who are caught between the Communist regime and the aftermath of Nixon’s secret war. The pogo stick of the title was left behind by departing American soldiers, and has come to rest in a Hmong village. Cotterill has great insight into the plight of these oppressed people. Dr. Siri is sent to a Communist meeting in the north of the country and on the way back home he passes through this Hmong village & is captured by women, who make up almost all the village, as most of the men have been killed or imprisoned. The villagers believe that Siri hosts the spirit of a thousand-year old shaman and want him to lift a curse from their village. The chief’s daughter is possessed by a demon—that is subject to the curse of the pogo stick. The scenes where Siri is trying to release his inner shaman are very funny, and Cotterill manages the incredible feat of injecting much humour in the book despite the sadness and darkness of the lives of the Hmong. This is all great stuff. Of course there is much more to the story than I can write about here, but I hope this will entice you to enter the wonderful world of Siri, Dtui, Phosy and Madame Daeng an all the other characters in these absolutely delightful tales—with lots of local history and politics thrown in for good measure. Colin Cotterill’s understanding of, and his empathy with, the people he writes about makes these books more than entertainment. I for one learned much that I didn’t know, and feel much better for it. Janice