Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill: A Dr Siri Investigation
Variety in murder mystery is the order of the day right now, helping to keep the genre fresh and innovative while staying true to all that is best in it.
Colin Cotterill is an experienced and reliable author, debuting in 2000 and producing a book a year since. He lived in Laos for several years, working as a trainer of teachers before becoming a full-time writer. His more recent murder mystery novels are set in the south of Thailand, where he moved after leaving Laos.
Back in 1977, Dr Siri is Laos' only coroner. The small Indochinese country he calls home is run by a communist dictatorship, giving almost every aspect of his life a surreal flavour. Mere weeks before his wedding, he travels deep into the countryside to attend a conference only to be captured by a rebel group eager to press his alleged abilities as a Shaman to good use in exorcising a demon from one of their young women.
In fact, although Siri has been possessed by the spirit of ancient Shaman Yeh Ming he has no powers beyond that of the typical sleuth, or so he thinks. There are any twists and turns in this tale as he gets to the bottom of precisely what the pogo stick is doing in the middle of the jungle up in the hills and the nature of its odd power over the rebels.
Meanwhile, Siri's fiancée Madam Daeng, Nurse Dtui and policeman Phosy are kept busy when two auditors visiting the coroner's office are murdered. Was the attack meant for Siri? A bomb, stitched up inside a corpse ready for autopsy, follows and the group is soon on the trail of the elusive Lizard, an old woman terrorist with an agenda of her own whom they pursue doggedly through the streets of Vientiane.
Curse of the Pogo Stick combines the popular theme of an elderly amateur detective and his loyal followers determined to solve the mystery with the comic tone often associated with absurdist portrayals of a communist society. A more sincere treatment of local customs, especially in relation to religion and the spiritual, provided the third element. These are very different subjects, but everything was kept in perfect balance.
There was plenty of action in Curse of the Pogo Stick and the two plotlines, while bizarre, were deftly wrapped up courtesy of, for all the joking around, some brave and confident sleuthing. This meant that the plot itself was really strong. The presence of the spiritual was an integral part of the story, but in common with the majority of murder mysteries the motive and practicalities of the mysteries were rational.
The incomparable strangeness of life under communist regimes is often fictionalised in black comedy, and the deadpan hilarity of Curse of the Pogo Stick is no exception. There was a persistent tone of unreality to the minutiae of everyday life in 1970s Laos that really hit its mark. The humour was often casually delivered in a serious of asides and funny remarks that kept me laughing even while the more serious and challenging aspects of life were laid bare.
The comedy was effective and the plots really well crafted, but the aspect of this mystery that I appreciated most was actually the cultural side. The novel was drenched in everyday detail provided courtesy of Colin Cotterill's having lived in Laos for some years. The comedy belied the sensitivity with which Laotian history, and in particular the situation of the Hmong and other hill tribes of Laos.
I was new to Colin Coterill's work, but I really enjoyed this story and I'm looking forward to reading more of Dr Siri's exploits and that of Jimm Juree set in Thailand.
Thank you for reading my review of Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill. See you on Wednesday. In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Friday Night Dinner here.