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Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012

Strange tales emanating from the jungles of Southeast Asia


Border Run, by Simon Lewis. Scribner, 2012, 240 pp., $24.00 (hardcover)
Slash and Burn, by Colin Cotterill. Soho Crime, 2012, 290 pp., $25.00 (hardcover)

"I've always loved that classic noir staple — of doomed characters trying to get away with a crime and just digging themselves further into a hole," remarks author Simon Lewis in the United Kingdom's net fan site, Crime Time (crimetime.co.uk).

In "Border Run," a remote Asian locale serves as the venue for a gut-wrenching experience that bares the rawest side of the human psyche. Two adventure-seeking British backpackers in southeastern China, Jake and Will, arrange to be driven to a scenic waterfall across the border in Myanmar. When they arrive, two cute native women are waiting for them by the waterfall, and we soon see the two young Brits have diametrically different ideas about paying for sex.

This initial schism brings out the characters' embedded flaws: obstinacy, paranoia and cunning. The two find their Western driver-guide, Howard, is using their "tour" as cover to smuggle stimulant drugs into China — an offense punishable by death. What if they are intercepted at the border? Will confronts the guide but Jake has sampled the drug and in his frenzied, paranoid state uses a crossbow — shades of James Dickey's 1970 novel "Deliverance" — to shoot a border policeman who approaches them on the road, and suddenly their harmless excursion is transformed into a desperate exercise in covering up the murder of a cop.

Lewis admits he was inspired by James Dickey's 1970 novel (and subsequent film), "Deliverance," about the harrowing experience of four men on a canoe trip in a remote part of the U.S. South. While the parallels with "Deliverance" are inescapable, "Border Run" also has the flavor of an Edward Albee drama. Albee, best known for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?," had a singular talent for writing dramas in which characters verbally and sometimes physically tear each other to shreds.

It's interesting that with one exception none of the few Asians who appear in "Border Run" are given names, or even speaking roles. The narrative, most of which takes place the same day, maintains tension through the three Westerners' petty self-justifications, deceit, shifting alliances and betrayals. The carefree and naive spirit demonstrated by the two young protagonists at the opening are nowhere in evidence by its conclusion.

"Slash and Burn" is the eighth mystery in Colin Cotterill's series set in Laos in the late 1970s, while the country is gradually recovering from the prolonged civil war in which the communist Pathet Lao defeated the royalists.

The post of national coroner of Laos is held by Dr. Siri Paiboun, an elderly French-educated doctor who never wanted the job in the first place. Siri, who is still recovering from a near-fatal encounter with the denizens of Cambodia's killing fields in a previous novel, is counting the days before his retirement. This time he's ordered to accompany a delegation of Americans who have been granted permission to search a remote part of the country for an Air America helicopter pilot, son of a U.S. senator, who disappeared in a crash ten years earlier — during the height of the conflict in Southeast Asia. The Yank delegation includes a U.S. senator, his secretary, staff from the U.S. embassy in neighboring Thailand, a forensic physician and a vivacious young American woman, daughter of a missionary and a fluent Lao speaker, who serves as an interpreter.

The Americans' strange behavior gives the Laotians just cause for suspicion as to their true motives for wanting to trace the downed pilot. If the pilot had survived the crash 10 years ago, where is he? But why are men who had worked with the pilot ten years earlier at Air America (which was operated by the CIA) being murdered now? And what's the explanation for several mysterious, barren sites in remote mountainous parts of the country? The interwoven complexities of the plot make "Slash and Burn" the best in Cotterill's series to date.

Laos in the '70s is an interesting choice for a mystery venue. Compared with the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia, the Pathet Lao, while vindictive toward the defeated royalists, tended to be more humane. Nevertheless the average citizen suffered unnecessarily during the first years under communism, which saw many incompetent doctrinaires in positions of power. One such adversary is Judge Haeng, a political hard-liner who comes across as a clumsy buffoon who repeatedly interferes with Siri's attempts at investigation.

Along with a few lessons in native folklore and superstition, Cotterill parades a retinue of eccentric but memorable characters, including a cross-dressing fortune teller, Auntie Bpoo, Siri's wife, Madame Daeng, his old comrade in arms, Civilai, his feisty nurse Dtui, Dtui's husband, police inspector Phosy, and Siri's young lab assistant, Mr. Geung, for whom Down's Syndrome poses no impediment to his efficiency in the laboratory and courage under fire.



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