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Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Mystery Review: Thirty-Three Teeth

I've been neglecting the writing and mystery side of this blog and decided to start incorporating the occasional mystery review. (Thanks to friend Evan Lewis for jabbing me in the ribs about this!)

I've just finished Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill, Soho Crime, and I'm here to rave. This is the second in this series and is set in, of all places, Laos in the 1970's, not long after the Communists took over. Yes, it's got animal characters that qualify it for this blog, especially an old, abused Asian bear (non-spoiler: happy ending for bear).

I've been fascinated by Southeast Asia since my son lived in Cambodia (five long years) and a visit there in 2003, but I've never been to Laos. It's reputation among the ex-pats in Cambodia was that Laos was unspoiled, beautiful, and cheaper than Cambodia (and that's pretty darn cheap).

Thirty-Three Teeth
pulls you into Laos without a trace of lecture or preaching: climate, geography, history, cultural conflicts, psychology, day-to-day living, and so on. The protagonist is the National Coroner, Dr. Siri, with supporting roles from his young female assistant, a policeman friend, a shaman, and a good many others. The plot is loosely-woven threads of untimely deaths, some of them connected, some not, all of them eventually deciphered by the good Dr. Siri and his friends.

Here's the remarkable thing. Thirty-Three Teeth is pure fun. The dialog made me laugh more than any mystery I've read in the last two years. The villains are corrupt bunglers, the heroes are tired, sweaty, smart, and kind. This is not a mystery full of clues with a tricky plot, nor is it a thriller about desperate CIA agents prepared to kill in the course of espionage. It is grounded in every day reality in a distant, strange land where spirits must be taken seriously, where people are figuring out what it means to live under an officious and ineffectual communist government, where scarcity is a way of life. And, somehow, it is delightful, smart, and open-hearted.

The first in the series is The Coroner's Lunch and there are four others.

Side note: Cotterill has a literacy project going for Laos. I can attest to the problems around kids' books in SE Asia. We tried to buy Khmer language comic books for my son's housekeeper. We finally found some in one of the two tiny bookstores in Phnom Penh. The pair cost the same as a week's salary for her, and she was well paid by local standards. A week's salary for two comic books? Yup. So kids aren't going to get reading material unless someone helps. Take a look at the link. A few dollars will go a long way.


nosleepingdogs said...

Hey, thanks for the reading suggestion--and my local library system owns it! "If anybody wants me, I'll be in my book fortress." (I assume that means the mounting piles of books waiting to be read, which if brought together from various places around the house would provide abundant cover for one good-sized adult. Is it the grown-up's version of the tree house?)

Here's my recommendation for a book with a bear in it, a young person's book called Benno's bear ,by Naomi Zucker, about a boy somewhere like Turkey? in 1900?, with a dancing bear and a pickpocket father. It's serious but not grim, happy ending here too for the bear and the boy, and I found it a good read.

Ann Littlewood said...

Thanks for the kids' book tip. And by now I've read the first in the Dr. Siri series, The Coroner's Lunch. Equally fine, but no critters, so I won't say anything more!

Evan Lewis said...

Dang, girl, you write a good review. Who knew?

nosleepingdogs said...

I'm back, after reading Thirty-three Teeth, and it is just as good as you said it was. I liked how the Laotian people managed to be (as you described the book itself) "delightful, smart, and open-hearted" and still very culturally different from me. Somehow in making people of other cultures seem "different" from USians, authors often end up with these wooden figures. Not here.

One scene was so funny I read it out loud to Dan, who fell backward on the couch in stitches.

I'm going to look for Coroner's Lunch now (promising title).

Ann Littlewood said...

Yeah, Coterill makes me laugh out loud. I think there's a couple more I haven't read--a reason to live!

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