Curse of the Pogo Stick

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 October, 2008, 12:00am

Curse of the Pogo Stick

by Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, HK$192

One of the greatest things about the Dr Siri Paiboon series is the books' ability to evade pigeonholes.

Neither pure mystery nor crime, Curse of the Pogo Stick and the previous four titles combine forensic investigations (Dr Siri being post-revolutionary Laos' 73-year-old national coroner) with paranormal detective work (his body also houses the spirit of Yeh Ming, a 1,000-year-old Hmong shaman), splendid depictions of everyday life in Southeast Asia and, most importantly, rapier wit.

Curse, the good doctor's fifth outing, is set between Lao capital Vientiane and the mountains inhabited by Hmong villagers.

As a longstanding and somewhat respected cadre, Dr Siri has had the privilege of accompanying his boss, Judge Haeng, to the quarterly Party Planning and Progress Conference. The only break he has from this backside-numbing socialist purgatory is to discover that a fellow comrade has expired a few rows in front of him.

He does nothing to ingratiate himself with his boss by revealing to the throng: 'The conference has had its first fatality. There will undoubtedly be more.' Instead, the pimple-faced judge makes Dr Siri ride back to Vientiane with him through rebel Hmong country. Unsurprisingly their convoy is attacked. Dr Siri is kidnapped by the Hmong, who want Yeh Ming to lift the curse of the pogo stick that they say has devastated their community.

Meanwhile, Judge Haeng loses his guards, runs into the jungle and with the survival skills typical of a paper-pushing bureaucrat ends up a half-starved, gibbering mess.

Colin Cotterill uses Dr Siri's time in the village to tell the story of the Hmong and how the American war destroyed their centuries of tradition. Half of the tribes fought with the Americans, the others with the Pathet Lao. The former were hunted down with a vengeance after the communists won, while those who fought on the winning side were re-educated and modernised with no respect for their culture.

The author's lightness of touch and brilliant humour prevent the work becoming a sermon and instead bring the Hmong history to light as part of a subtle backdrop to the rest of the plot.

Meanwhile, in Vientiane, Dr Siri's cohorts, Inspector Phosy, Nurse Dtui, morgue assistant Geung and the doctor's soon-to-be wife Daeng battle with the Lizard, a wily pro-royalist insurgent intent on bringing down the country's socialist regime.

After a number of failed attempts on their lives, including the booby-trapping of a corpse and the poisoning of cashew-nut cookies, Dtui and the gang decide not to wait for Dr Siri's return and start trying to track down the rebel themselves, seemingly biting off more than they can chew.

Cotterill has had something of an epiphany with Curse of the Pogo Stick. He has refined his formula - a narrative that follows one paranormal plot and another from the real world - to the point at which it hums like a sports car engine. Dr Siri is resplendent in his septuagenarian golden age, with little tolerance for party apparatchiks and a sarcastic sense of humour wielded with precision.

The other core characters are now robust enough to step out on their own. And the author takes the opportunity to bring to light an issue that he feels strongly about, in this case the plight of the Hmong.

Perhaps it is Cotterill's confidence with his creations that has enabled him to make a departure with this book. Dr Siri is not only absent from a larger portion of the story, with the co-characters now solving mysteries on their own, but the spirit world takes a back seat. It is still there as a thread of continuity throughout the book, but in a more subtle, understated way than of old.

Cotterill's trademark humour and cutting wit remain the series' greatest strengths and will leave his innumerable fans clamouring for the next instalment.