After 15 cunning, mischievous, heartbreaking, hilarious, eye-opening, and atmospheric installments, Colin Cotterill's award-winning Dr. Siri Paiboun series comes to a close. Make sure you don't miss this last chapter, a deliciously clever puzzle that illuminates the history of World War II in Southeast Asia.
Laos, 1981: When an unofficial mailman drops off a strange bilingual diary, Dr. Siri is intrigued. Half is in Lao, but the other half is in Japanese, which no one Siri knows can read; it appears to have been written during the Second World War. Most mysterious of all, it comes with a note stapled to it: Dr. Siri, we need your help most urgently. But who is “we,” and why have they left no return address?
To the chagrin of his wife and friends, who have to hear him read the diary out loud, Siri embarks on an investigation by examining the text. Though the journal was apparently written by a kamikaze pilot, it is surprisingly dull. Twenty pages in, no one has died, and the pilot never mentions any combat at all. Despite these shortcomings, Siri begins to obsess over the diary’s abrupt ending . . . and the riddle of why it found its way into his hands. Did the kamikaze pilot ever manage to get off the ground? To find out, he and Madame Daeng will have to hitch a ride south and uncover some of the darkest secrets of the Second World War.
About the Author
Colin Cotterill is the author of fourteen other books in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series: The Coroner's Lunch, Thirty-Three Teeth, Disco for the Departed, Anarchy and Old Dogs, Curse of the Pogo Stick, The Merry Misogynist, Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, Slash and Burn, The Woman Who Wouldn't Die, Six and a Half Deadly Sins, I Shot the Buddha, The Rat Catchers' Olympics, Don't Eat Me, and The Second Biggest Nothing. His fiction has won a Dilys Award and a CWA Dagger in the Library. He lives in Chumphon, Thailand, with his wife and a number of deranged dogs.
Read an Excerpt
The morgue door was ajar. Siri left the bicycle and Ugly in the shade of a nipplewort tree and kicked off his old leather sandals in the foyer. He passed the office where he’d sat many hours trying to make sense of ancient French forensic pathology texts and entered what was called the cutting room. There, leaning over the freezer tray, were Chief Inspector Phosy and his wife, Nurse Dtui. They looked up mid-chuckle.
“Ah, Siri,” said Phosy. “I didn’t think you’d be able to stay away.”
“I’ve spent too many happy hours staring into offal to give it all up completely,” said Siri.
“Have you seen this, Doc?” asked Dtui. She was pretty and slightly more rounded than usual. He refrained from asking her if she was pregnant just in case she wasn’t.
“I hope you aren’t making fun of the dead,” said Siri.
He joined them and couldn’t hold back a guffaw of his own when he saw the corpse. Mr. Geung had fashioned a splendid mustache; it was true it had outgrown a Poirot and was approaching the realm of a Fu Manchu. Siri tugged on it to be sure it wasn’t a practical joke. It held firm.
“Well, I’ve seen some things,” said Siri, “but this takes the prawn cracker.”
“Do you think there’s any connection between the nose hair and the death?” Phosy asked playfully.
“Not for me to say anymore,” said Siri. “Whose case is it?”
“Dr. Mot announced the cause of death,” said Dtui.
“Ah, then we’ll never know for certain,” said Siri, no fan of the current coroner, a recent returnee from the Eastern bloc. As Siri often said, it was a miracle he’d graduated after studying in a language he couldn’t speak. He did have a certificate suggesting he was qualified to perform autopsies. It was framed and hanging on his office wall beside a similar certificate claiming he was proficient in porcelain glazing.
“And what brings you both here, apart from the obvious sideshow?” Siri asked.
“I was asked to investigate the case personally,” said Phosy.
“I thought they’d strapped you behind a desk.”
“They let me out every now and then for delicate matters,” said the policeman.
“What’s delicate about this?” Siri asked. “I heard from my inside source that your man here had too much to drink and fell off a cliff. What Mr. Geung couldn’t tell me was why all this warrants so much attention.”
“And that all comes down to who he is,” said Phosy.
“Who is he?”
“Does the name Bui Sok Thinh ring a bell?”
“Not a tinkle.”
“He was the son of Bui Kieu.”
“Still nothing ringing in my ears.”
“Perhaps he was after your time,” said Phosy. “He’s one of the richest men in Vietnam.”
“I thought we’d obliterated wealth,” said Siri. “Did something happen to communist dogma while I was napping?”
“The inevitable happened, Doc,” said Dtui. “It’s the same here. Lots of good intentions but no money. A few years of failed cooperatives and natural disasters and there’s no budget for infrastructure. So we fall back on good old cronyism. We call the rich guys back from lifelong banishment overseas, borrow a few billion here, make a few deals there.”
“Ooh,” said Siri. “Your wife’s grown horns.”
“She’s bored with being poor, I think,” said Phosy. “She’s waiting for me to accept my first graft so she can buy a refrigerator.”
“I feel that refrigerator will be a long time coming,” said Siri.
“That’s what I try to tell her.”
“Never mind, Dtui,” said Siri. “You’re still comparatively young. It’s not too late to find yourself a sugar daddy.”
“No hope there,” said Dtui. “Sugar daddies like them wafer thin with silicon breasts.”
“Sounds awful,” said Siri. “Give me a good old-fashioned naturally buxom girl any day. But back to hairy nose here. Did he get a share of his daddy’s wealth?”
“They sent Thinh to Italy to study during the war. His family had a lot of mandarin money to invest in Europe. Thinh made a fortune in war profiteering. When Uncle Ho took over Vietnam the Viet Minh found themselves short of funds so they started courting the Bui clan. Thinh brokered a deal for the Italians to drill for oil in the gulf of Tonkin. Thinh ran the company. The income from that amounted to a large chunk of the country’s GNP.”
“And how do you go from that to a cold slab in a foreign country?” Siri asked.
“He was very high-profile in Hanoi and he liked to get away and relax when he had a chance. He had a soft spot for our very own Vang Vieng; peaceful, beautiful scenery and nobody knew him there. He’d fly the family helicopter down. He had a hidden chalet in the hills. He liked nothing more than to hike up to the karsts with a few bottles of very expensive wine in his pack, sit on a ledge, and watch the river. Simple pleasures. In the early days he’d take his wife. I’m told she is a sow of a woman as well as the daughter of a Vietnamese politburo man. She soon tired of those hikes and he soon tired of asking her. He took himself a younger girl to be his minor wife and she was in better shape. Didn’t mind the trekking. They’d sit on the ledge and drink to Mother Nature . . .”
“. . . and probably play a few rounds of paper, scissors, stone,” said Dtui.
“I tell you, Madam Daeng and I never tire of that,” said Siri.
“Thinh could have had his choice of beautiful, loose women to be his mistress,” said Phosy. “But he was apparently a glutton for punishment, and he selected a plain, opinionated girl who was the daughter of a Viet Minh war hero. I hear she has the temper of a rabid Chihuahua. She’s claiming that the major wife was with him on his last trip to Vang Vieng and that she pushed him off a ledge when he was drunk. The wife laughed off that allegation and countered that it must have been the mistress who accompanied Thinh to the mountain and killed him.”
“Why do we think either of them had to be there?”
“A goat herder saw this Vietnamese man hiking there last weekend. He was with a woman. Too far away to identify her.”
“And what’s to be gained by killing him?”
“The first wife stands to inherit a hell of a lot,” said Phosy. “If she’s convicted of murder, the money will go to the minor wife. And the concubine’s father happens to be on the board of directors of the drilling company. He’ll no doubt be pushing for an inquiry.”
Siri looked around at the morgue he’d worked in for five years. In that time, it had been refurbished first by the Chinese, then by the Soviets, but it still looked neglected. The air conditioner wheezed. The corpse carts limped like old supermarket trolleys. Not even Mr. Geung’s “Twelve Puppies to Make You Laugh” wall calendar could inject any passion into that old building. Siri walked to the freezer that had not contained Comrade Thinh and fought with the handle for a few seconds as always. Inside were the jar of water and four tumblers. Mr. Geung always left them there just in case the morgue had visitors. They didn’t see a lot of use. Naturally, there was no ice. The freezers got their name from a short-circuiting accident following which Nurse Dtui and Daeng had spent several hours attempting to thaw out a body with the aid of kettle steam and a two-bar heater. The equipment had frozen nothing since. Siri poured his guests a glass of cool water each and returned to the matter at hand.
“All right,” he said, “even if one of the women in his life was there, how do we know he just couldn’t stand them anymore and stepped off the ledge to be rid of them?”
“Everyone who knew him swears he’s the last person on earth who’d commit suicide; fun-loving, over the moon with the Italian project. He even seemed fond of the women in his own way. No business pressure. No political bullying. He loved his life.”
“Yet here he is,” said Siri. “Dtui, why didn’t you do the autopsy?”
“I’m just a nurse,” she said.
“A nurse with a deep knowledge of forensic pathology,” Siri countered.
“But no certificate on my wall,” said Dtui. “Not even in porcelain varnishing.”
“I’ll print you one,” said Siri. “It seems all you need these days is a bit of paper with one illegible signature at the bottom.”
He pulled back the sheet that covered the corpse.
“Look,” he said. “Dr. Mot didn’t even bother to cut our friend here open.”
“Said it wasn’t necessary,” said Phosy. “Said it was obvious the victim had died from multiple injuries sustained whilst bouncing off rocks on his way down the cliff. Said the empty bottles proved that he was so drunk he probably didn’t feel it.”
“May I?” Siri asked.
“Go ahead,” said Phosy.
Siri turned the corpse on its side and studied the back.
“No handprints, no bruises, no indication he was hit with anything,” he said. “It is possible he stepped up to relieve himself, took one pace too many, and peed himself to death.”
“Then why would the wives deny they were there?” Dtui asked. “They could have explained what happened and there’d be no evidence to say otherwise.”
“Unless it wasn’t one of them,” said Phosy.
“Good thinking,” said Siri.
“I’m wondering whether he went to Vang Vieng alone last weekend, met a local girl, and took her up into the mountains,” Phosy continued. “She might have panicked when he made advances and pushed him away.”
“Even if it was an accident, she’d still have given birth to a buffalo from the shock of it,” said Siri.
“No way she’d admit to being there,” said Dtui.
“And Vang Vieng’s a small community,” said Phosy. “They’d set up a force field around one of their girls.”
“You wouldn’t even get to talk to her,” said Dtui.
“Unless we could convince her we know it was an accident,” said Siri, lowering the corpse onto its back.
“How would we go about that?” Phosy asked.
“I have no idea just yet, but every body has a story to tell if you just show a little patience. Do you suppose our intrepid Dr. Varnish has exhausted all his autopsy skills?”
“He said there’s nothing more to be learned,” said Dtui.
“Then he wouldn’t mind me tinkering a little.”
“I doubt he’d notice.”
“Splendid. Then I shall return tomorrow at dawn with my tool kit and my faithful lab assistant.”
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Every Body Has a Story to Tell 1
Chapter 2 My Friends Call Me Toshi 11
Chapter 3 Creative Writing 25
Chapter 4 Tales of the Riverbank 43
Chapter 5 The Pole Jumper 51
Chapter 6 How Does She Smell? 63
Chapter 7 Making Woophi 77
Chapter 8 The Morning After with an Orangutan 91
Chapter 9 The Kyoko Protocol 103
Chapter 10 Enthusiasm Is a Hard Lie to Keep Up 111
Chapter 11 Dear Comrade Pilot 119
Chapter 12 Empirical Evidence 133
Chapter 13 An Adorable Alcoholic 143
Chapter 14 Feet Never Lie 149
Chapter 15 The Tunnel of Love 159
Chapter 16 Well, Blow Me Down 171
Chapter 17 Yokai 183
Chapter 18 Major Depression 193
Chapter 19 The Belts Tighten 209
Chapter 20 The Case of Beer 221
Chapter 21 Defeat Can Be Confusing 231
Chapter 22 Wish You Were Here 243
Chapter 23 Silence Is Golden 247
Epilogue 1 The Torn Pages 265
Epilogue 2 Tomorrow I Rise 275