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Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007

What evil lurks in the hearts of men?


The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril: A Novel, by Paul Malmont. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006, 371 pp., $24 (cloth)

DISCO FOR THE DEPARTED by Colin Cotterill. New York: Soho Press Inc, 2006, 247 pp., $23 (cloth)

I must confess a pronounced weakness for well-crafted mysteries spun around real historical characters and settings. Two I've enjoyed recently were John Darnton's "The Darwin Conspiracy," which fictionalizes events during the voyage of the Beagle in the 1830s to crack some of the unexplained mysteries about Britain's great naturalist, and "The Interpretation of Murder," Jed Rubenfeld's tale about Sigmund Freud's first visit to New York in 1909, where the doctor's yet-untested theories on psychoanalysis are applied to apprehend a serial killer.

"The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril" takes place in the depths of the Great Depression, which overlapped with the golden age of matinee movie serials, radio melodramas and pulp magazines with titles like Argosy, Doc Savage and The Shadow, full of the stuff of fantasy, with super heroes pursuing insidious villains through the rat-infested catacombs running beneath every major city. Pulp writers wracked their brains for new ideas to keep their eager readers entertained.

In "Chinatown," author Paul Malmont turns the tables, making the pulp writers the stars of their own thriller. The narrative spins together three of the most famous: Walter B. Gibson, originator of Lamont Cranston, the secretive crime fighter better known as The Shadow; Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage, the model for the Indiana Jones films; and the ambitious L. Ron Hubbard, who was to graduate from pulp fiction to establish the Church of Scientology.

We can date the story to early 1937, since the protagonists journey to Providence, Rhode Island, for the funeral of H.P. Lovecraft, the eccentric author of spine-tingling tales of horror, who became a cult figure after his death.

Concurrent to the strange events in the United States are intrigues in China. Zhang Mei -- loosely modeled after "Young Marshal" Zhang Xueliang (1901-2001), son of warlord Zhang Zuolin, whose assassination by Japanese militarists in 1928 precipitated the Japanese incursion into Manchuria -- is now in America and determined to extract fiendish vengeance on those who betrayed him.

Malmont does a creditable job of recreating the lives and times of the masters of pulp. By the end of this nostalgic and fiendishly inventive tale, you've felt like you've circumnavigated the globe, even though the longest distance the protagonists cover is a train ride from Providence to Manhattan.

Chaos in Laos

In December 1975, King Savang Vatthana of Laos abdicated, making that country the third "domino" to fall under communist control in Southeast Asia. Most of its middle class and professionals fled, leaving an abandoned social infrastructure and empty treasury on which to build the new socialist order.

"Disco for the Departed," the third in Colin Cotterill's ongoing mystery series set in Laos, brings back Dr. Siri Paiboun, an elderly French-educated physician who had belonged to the revolutionary Pathet Lao. The leaders of the new regime decided they needed a national pathologist, and Siri reluctantly assumed the position -- although he had no previous experience in forensics.

The doctor is assisted in his efforts by a rotund nurse named Dtui, and Mr. Geung, who, despite his suffering from Down's Syndrome, is a hardworking and remarkably competent lab assistant.

Siri is summoned to a remote northern province to oversee the exhumation of a corpse encased in hardened concrete. In the search to identify the victim, and learn who put him there, he is pointed in the direction of other communist allies, specifically troops from neighboring Vietnam and a strange Cuban doctor.

Aside from Quasimodo in Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris," I can think of precious few works of fiction in which a severely handicapped person is portrayed so sympathetically. During Siri's absence from the capital, his enemies in the government arrange to abduct Geung, who is driven several hundred kilometers away. Geung's misadventures as he wends his way through jungles back to the morgue in Vientiane -- the only place he's ever been happy -- is humorous and touchingby turns.

Besides holding a medical degree, Cotterill's main protagonist boasts the attributes of a shaman, which raises several problems. Not only does this risk making Laotians appear prone to superstition; readers of mystery stories, as a rule, demand rational explanations, i.e., the intervention of ghostly apparitions is not playing fair.

So then I must ask myself, as a reviewer, why I like Cotterill's books enough to let him break the rules. For one thing, his stories are authentic in the sense of occurring in a real time and place, giving readers a slice of history of a country with a new socialist government that was doctrinaire and sometimes inhumane, but never as bloodthirsty as the Khmer Rouge. Most of all, however, is that his characters are not only entertaining but extremely compelling. Enough to make me want to visit Laos someday, although I'd prefer to stay out of its morgues.



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