Dr Siri Paiboun has got to be one of the all time great fictional characters. Irascible, kind, determined, a bit of a push-over, loving, stern, gentle, pushy, pig-headed, he's just so magnificently real. I know I say this a lot, but if you've never read any of Colin Cotterill's fantastic series based in Laos, built around the elderly and reluctant, one and only coroner in Laos, then get thee to a bookshop / library with all haste.
In the 7th book - LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE - Dr Siri and his ever-present companions of Nurse Dtui, Mr Geung and his new wife Madame Daeng are investigating the very baffling case of three dead young women - all skewered through the heart with a sword. Not the most usual of weapons but then nothing is ever "usual" in Siri's Laos. Investigating with Dr Siri is often a problem for Dtui and Geung as he's frequently not around - normally right when his presence would be most appreciated in his morgue, in Vientiane, anywhere in the general vicinity of what's been happening. Unfortunately in LOVE SONGS he's even further away, and more distracted than usual. As his birthday dawns, he's incarcerated, in danger of starvation and torture, unlikely to survive. He needs to reconsider his long-term, as well as his immediate future.
Dr Siri has always been a thinker and an observer - in 1970's Laos scientific support is very thin on the ground. But it's in his nature to consider, see, analyse, talk to his colleagues, his spirit guides, draw his own conclusions. He does this within a society and a culture which is very different from our Western way of seeing and thinking, and he fits perfectly into that world.
As with any good series, it is possible to dive in at any point, but in this case I'd urge a little caution in picking up LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE as your first experience. Whilst it would still be possible to follow the action, it would be best if you knew a little about what has happened to Dr Siri, how he came to become the one and only coroner and who his supporters are. That will give the happenings in this book a background that I, personally, think enhances it.
Whilst the methods of murder in the books is sometimes a little gruesome, these books are still on the gentler side of crime fiction - which, I know, sounds rather odd. Dr Siri brings a sensitivity to the investigation that honours the dead, finds the guilty and tries to restore balance to the world. After LONG SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE, he's got some balance to restore to his own life, and given the awful trauma that he endures in this book, let's hope he finds that balance, and stays investigating.