Dr Siri Paiboun, national coroner of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, is a joyous antidote to those pathology queens dancing around their autopsy tables in gleaming morgues. Siri, now aged 73, struggles along in Vientiane circa 1976, a city where stomach contents for analysis have to be carried around on bikes and the school laboratory is the only resource for identifying sperm on clothing. Fortunately, bare-handed murder is rare in a land where many believe that if someone is holding a body as the person dies, the spirit of the victim enters the killer, who is haunted for eternity.
In spite of lacking the latest in scalpels, Dr Siri is pretty effective, with an unbeatable combination of brains and mystic powers. He has the aid of his beloved wife, and of a dog, possibly the reincarnation of a lost pet. And he is sharply observant. When a girl turns up on Siri's autopsy table, some curious features are noted: her feet, though she has had no exposure to the sun, are rough like a countrywoman's. A serial-killing psychopath is roaming the Laos countryside, seducing young women, promising them marriage and finishing them off in double-quick time.
It is part of Colin Cotterill's skill that he grips the reader by intercutting between the cerebral deductions of Siri and the determined planning of the killer. Clever plotting spins out tension alongside the Mekhong, where local customs (including the brewing of fierce rice whisky) flourish, in spite of looming collectivisation. Is the murderer a high-ranking politico with freedom to travel? If so, grave danger looms for the investigator.
But Siri is bothered by another problem: the disappearance of a homeless eccentric. The solution to this mystery lies in an archaeological-style investigation, delayed only slightly by the necessity of praying for the soul of a long-dead frog. Tight plotting and a background full of the sounds and colour of the Orient make this a fascinating read.