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Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008

Folklore meets detection in Asia

CURSE OF THE POGO STICK by Colin Cotterill. New York: SOHO Press Inc., 2008, 240 pp., $24 (cloth)

Some mystery series adopt a backdrop in which indigenous cultures are forced to deal with the incursion of a more modern and powerful civilization. One example would be Eliott Pattison's of mysteries set in Tibet ("The Skull Mantra," etc.), featuring Chinese homicide investigator Shan Tao Yun.

In "Curse of the Pogo Stick," set in Laos in the 1970s, Colin Cotterill works the Hmong people into his narrative.

It seems Dr. Siri Paiboun, in addition to being a French-trained physician and the national coroner of Laos, also happens to be possessed by the spirit of a powerful Hmong shaman. How do we know this? He speaks their tongue fluently without ever having studied it.

Well, even Ian Fleming once sent Agent 007 to deal with a voodoo priest in "Live and Let Die." But I've grumbled in the past about how otherworldly intervention is simply not an acceptable device for resolving a whodunit.

So why do I keep coming back to Cotterill's books? Because his characters are so likable and his settings, while exotic, are utterly captivating.

Dr. Siri's chief adversary is his superior, Judge Haeng — described as "a young man with a boyish, pimply face and an iffy Soviet education" — who heads the justice department. When an elderly apparatchik dies while seated in the audience during a national party conference, Haeng demands an autopsy be performed. The uncooperative Siri retorts, "An autopsy? He died of boredom. You won't find traces of that anywhere on the dissecting table."

Siri's cavalier attitude lands him in trouble and as circumstances would have it, he winds up being forced off a highway and abducted by a band of Hmong guerrillas.

Meanwhile back in Vientiane, Siri's nurse Dtui is forced to deal with counterrevolutionary conspirators on her own.

Nurse Dtui is one of a stream of colorful characters the author puts on display. Another is Auntie Bpoo, a corpulent, middle-age transvestite fortuneteller who can be relied upon to make utterly bizarre predictions that always come true.

While otherwise well-crafted, Pattison's tales of oppressed Tibetans begin to weigh heavily after a while. Cotterill, on the other hand, does not gloss over Laotians' suffering in the wake of the civil war; but rather than permitting their misery to dominate the narrative, he makes it fodder for irony. And while eschewing sentiment or melodrama, his characters come across as admirable, even heroic. Grumbles about the mysticism aside, it's a fine read.

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