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Anarchy and Old Dogs: A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery    by Colin Cotterill order for
Anarchy and Old Dogs
by Colin Cotterill
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2007 (2007)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I love reading mysteries with unusual settings and protagonists and Anarchy and Old Dogs has both. Despite the background of a communist state and the need to foil plans for a coup, this feels like a cozy mystery. It's set in Laos and stars one of the titular old dogs, seventy-three year old Dr. Siri Paiboun (the country's sole coroner) aided by a quirky assortment of friends and associates. They include the other old dog of the revolution, Laos politburo member Civilai; Siri's assistant Nurse Dtui; and police officer Phosy.

Just to make his lead more interesting, Cotterill casually informs his readers through Dtui that Siri 'hosts the spirit of a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman', is 'being pursued by the malevolent spirits of the jungle' and is 'regularly visited by the ghosts of murder victims.' He also sees himself as a Laotian Maigret.

The plot opens on the accidental death (he's hit by a truck) of a blind, retired dentist on the street in Vientiane. When Siri becomes curious about a coded message in the victim's pocket, he and Phosy meet with the widow, who tells them that the message is part of an exchange of chess moves. But when another friend, chemistry teacher Oum, applies her considerable intelligence to decoding it, it starts to look like something much more sinister, well-developed plans for a coup. Fearing to report it - many in high places are involved - Siri and Civilai travel south to Pakse in the province of Champasak, where the dentist's letter was mailed.

Unwilling to be left out of the action, Phosy and Dtui make an illegal border crossing and pose as refugees, checking out links to the plot in a Thai refugee camp. Of course, they get into trouble and extract themselves via a series of amusing maneuvers involving a naive foreign cleric. In the meantime, Siri gets sidetracked into another investigation in the south, where he meets an old friend. Madame Daeng, now a renowned cook who sells delicious noodle dishes on the street, was very active in the early days of the revolution and gives Siri the sage advice that at their age, 'you go for the small things and you do them as well as you can.'

In Anarchy and Old Dogs, Colin Cotterill offers readers an entertaining romp through an exotic culture with engaging characters (amongst whom I neglected to mention talented, transvestite fortuneteller Auntie Bpoo), mystical nuances, and a rewarding conclusion. If you're looking for something different in a mystery, then you'll enjoy the antics of Dr. Siri Paiboun.

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