Anybody who hasn't indulged in the Dr Siri series by Colin Cotterill could be forgiven for wondering what on earth is going on with CURSE OF THE POGO STICK. Booby-trapped corpses and reluctant coroners might be reasonably expected in crime fiction, but Hmong villagers needing exorcism by a thousand-year-old shaman who shares the aforementioned coroner's body? Understandably a "What the" moment.
Whilst the spiritual (supernatural) component of CURSE OF THE POGO STICK is considerably stronger than the earlier books, the series has been building the unlikely scenario of Dr Siri and his intrepid band of assistants - Nurse Dtui, Mr Geung and now Madame Daeng, for a number of books now. Of course, the unlikely scenario probably relates mostly to western readers, as there's something intrinsically Laotian about these books. Not only are all the characters set within an environment which is beautifully drawn, the Laotian way of life and thinking is demonstrated in a way that makes it feel very real.
Laos is almost as much a character in these books as the people mind you. Whilst CURSE OF THE POGO STICK is set partially in Vientiane, Dr Siri spends more of his time held in a village in the mountains, deep in the countryside, in threatened Hmong territory. Whilst this book does have Nurse Dtui and Madame Daeng involved in why somebody would send a booby-trapped corpse to the mortuary, a lot of time is spent with the Hmong and with Dr Siri.
Perhaps it is this aspect that could make this book less attractive to fans of the series or as an introduction point for newcomers, as there is, alongside a considerably stronger spiritual component, a hefty dose of social commentary - with the Hmong being one of the most threatened groups of people within Laotian society. Having said that, this reader has been a from the first book fan of this series, and CURSE OF THE POGO STICK appealed just as much as the other books. Whilst not normally a fan of the supernatural, with Dr Siri, I have developed a considerably higher tolerance factor. Possibly because the author delivers these components of all the books as less of the supernatural, and more a long-held cultural belief system that is fundamental to these people's lives. Social commentary, on the other hand, is one of my very favourite things, and learning some of the hazards and problems that the Hmong experience made time spent with Dr Siri both educational and entertaining.
Perhaps if you are new to this series, it may be better to start a little earlier. Get to know Dr Siri and his band of supporters from the beginning, and you will be able to follow their story as the author relaxes into what seems to this reader, at least, to be a very Laotian way of telling a story.
Previous books in the series are:
- The Coroner's Lunch
- Thirty-Three Teeth
- Disco for the Departed
- Anarchy and Old Dogs