Books: Then and Now

Category: Now

Review: I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill 

The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”

                                                                     Joseph Conrad

Colin Cotterill’s novels have a disarming drollness to them that takes a reader off into a kind of Lewis Carroll land; a place where reality exists alongside the implausible and idiosyncratic that occasionally veer off suddenly into the delightfully impossible. Unless you want to reach back and begin with one of his earlier works, I Shot the Buddha will open a trap door and allow you a peep into his world of whimsy. I warn you though; reading one of this author’s books is like sampling a potato chip. Taste one and you’re tempted to empty the whole bag.

There is also a cast of improbably eccentric but capable characters…

I Shot the Buddha is the eleventh book in Colin Cotterill’s mystery series featuring a now-retired Laotian National Coroner, septuagenarian Dr. Siri Paiboun (think of a puckish Columbo type at seventy-five years old, without the trench coat). There is also a cast of improbably eccentric but capable characters that include his wife, the erudite Madame Daeng (who has mysteriously grown a tail), his gifted assistant Nurse Dtui and his loyal dog, a tetchy, aptly-named mutt called Ugly who tries to accompany him everywhere. A fortune telling transvestite, Auntie Bpoo, who died in an earlier book, also makes a posthumous appearance as a ghost in this one.

Chapter one (Goodnight, Ladies) opens with three women being killed at the stroke of midnight, in three separate locations. Murder is dead serious (forgive me) business, but the author immediately lightens the tone by reminding the reader with a bit of wry irony that this is indeed just a mystery story, a bit of twisty and turny fiction, and the deaths are therefore not real and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

‘Had this been the script of a film, such a twist of fate would have been the type of cinematic plot device that annoyed Comrades Siri and Civilai immensely. In their book, coincidences came in a close third behind convenient amnesia and the sudden appearance of an identical twin.’

Notwithstanding this, Dr. Siri and his fictional cohorts do treat the murders extremely seriously and, determined to see justice, take up the investigation with a single-minded determination that almost results in the demise of several members of the team, including Siri himself.

Colin Cotterill reserves a special skewering for the unwieldy and mildly corrupt bureaucracies..

This book is set partially in Laos and partially in Thailand in the late 1970s and Colin Cotterill reserves a special skewering for the unwieldy and mildly corrupt bureaucracies there (he has lived in both countries so possibly writes from personal experience). In a scene where one of Siri’s investigative allies arrives at a government office at exactly opening time: ‘The officials of the district council office arrived between twenty and forty minutes later.’ and: ‘Nobody asked him who he was or what he wanted. He noted how communist bureaucracies constantly shifting cadres had created an impersonal, non-caring system.’

The three murders are interlocking….

The three murders are interlocking and are tied to ‘an uncomfortable conflict that had arisen amongst the three isms: Buddhism, animism and Communism.’ If that sounds like a convoluted plot line, it is. Actually it is not so much a plot line as a matrix. But the beauty of it is that the elements all come together at the end. And it is not a fast-paced book, as in a thriller, but the story does step along at the pace of a power walk so it is not an easy one to put down.

Colin Cotterill spent several years in Laos before settling down to live in Thailand. He knows of what he writes when it comes to describing the culture and workings of Southeast Asia, and the depictions of the secret police, the military cabals, spiritualists and spiritualism and the rickety, antiquated infrastructure of that period all ring true.

Dr. Siri and Madame Daeng, in pursuing the case, are obligated to sneak across the Mekhong River to Thailand, where they board a bus and try to remain inconspicuous as they are in the country illegally. Ugly, of course, has tagged along, and they are nearly outed before the junket even begins.

In just two sentences, the reader gets pretty much the exact flavour of a rural Thailand bus ride in 1979.

‘There were live chickens in rattan cages on the bus and angry river crabs in buckets, even a pig trussed up and crammed under a seat. So it was surprising the driver should lean back in his seat and shout, “get that bloody dog off my bus!”’

Therein lies another of the charms that Colin Cotterill is able to package into his work. In just two sentences, the reader gets pretty much the exact flavour of a rural Thailand bus ride in 1979.

‘A mental health warning: Through necessity this edition is heavily spiced with supernatural elements.’

I Shot the Buddha is published under the Soho Crime imprint and it features a table of contents in the old fashioned novel style, salted with clever wordplay. There are chapter titles like: The Sedentary Nomad, The Case of the File in the Case and The Devil You Don’t Know.

Above all else, Colin Cotterill’s novels are heavy with humanism, but there is the touch of the paranormal in this one, and not everyone may be comfortable with the idea of ghosts and spiritualists and other weird happenings. The author, anticipating this, has provided a frontisnote.

‘A mental health warning: Through necessity this edition is heavily spiced with supernatural elements. For those of you who prefer your mysteries dull and earthy, this is not the tome for you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

Notwithstanding that, I Shot the Buddha is a full-blown and compelling whodunit. I haven’t read all the books in the Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery series, yet, but as July now stretches out lazily before me, I may well be tempted to engage in a midsummer book-binge.   REG

Links for additional information:

Colin Cotterill

I Shot the Buddha