I don't know why there aren't more mysteries set in Southeast Asia. That said, most of the ones I've sampled, I haven't been able to really get excited about. Which is why I've decided to devote an entire blog post to two mystery series that I think should be on every fan's shelf and that I strongly suspect still remain too obscure. My reasons for these suspicions? Well, one series is an old favorite, discovered several years ago -- the witty, delightful, suspenseful and utterly charming mysteries set in Laos of the mid to late 1970s and featuring the country's reluctant coroner, the septugenerian Dr. Siri Paiboun. Whenever I shove these books into the hands of a friend, there is a better than 75% chance that he or she has never heard of them or their creator, Colin Cotterill, and a 90% chance that the friend in question has never tried reading them. (I don't allow that state of affairs to last for long, and my success rate in getting people to share my fan-dom is fairly high.) Alas, I'm less enamored of Cotterill's newer series, set in Thailand, where he makes his home. But now -- cue drum roll and, yes, why not, some trumpets, too -- I can get very, very excited about another series of mysteries set in Thailand. This one is published by Soho Press (a fave publisher of mine) and is written by Timothy Hallinan, who not only spends a chunk of his time in Bangkok, but clearly been using that time very, very well.
Part of what appealed to me most about A Nail Through the Heart is that Hallinan doesn't even try to make his chief character Thai. Poke Rafferty, in many ways, is a quintessential North American, one of the many male expatriates who wash up in Bangkok and simply never leave, floating around the fringes of its bar culture. But Poke is different in many ways. First of all, he's half Filipino; as one of the Thai characters notes consolingly in the book, this makes him look almost normal, and not like one of those ugly farang with their big noses. And while he ended up in Thailand in order to write a guide book to the city for restless young guys looking for the hottest bars and clubs -- along with tips for how to identify a ladyboy -- his own life has long since moved on. He has fallen in love with Rose, a tall, thoughtful and drop-dead gorgeous former bar dancer trying to build a cleaning business that will help get some of her former co-workers out of the bar trade before they end up in the blowjob bars -- the lowest ranks of the sex trade. He has taken in an 8-year-old street girl named Miaow, whom he met while she was peddling pencils, and who now is at school herself. He wants to adopt Miaow, and to marry Rose: the former may, just, be feasible, but Rose isn't sure he understands Thai culture or what it means to earn merit or be reborn. She wants him to understand what it would mean to mesh not only their lives but their souls.
But before any of that can happen, Poke succumbs to Miaow's pleas to give her friend, a street urchin named "Superman", a place to stay. He agrees to do a favor for his closest Thai friend, a policeman named Arthit (and just as compelling a character as Poke, Rose and Miaow, the main players in the drama.) And that lands him in a whole mess of trouble, looking for a vanished Australian who, he rapidly discovers, was involved in a particularly nasty child pornography ring, even as he ends up entangled with Madame Wing, a reclusive, wheelchair bound woman who has one of the most evil auras that Poke has ever encountered -- but who will pay him enough to find someone who stole from her to finance Miaow's adoption. There are some truly nasty folks out there, and as Rose tries to make him understand, maybe some victims aren't innocent simply because they are victims, and perhaps not all killers, just because they commit murder, are guilty. Watching Poke wrestle with the competing claims on his conscience, as he discovers stuff about his clients -- who have one claim on his loyalty -- and as he understands the motivations of the perpetrators, is fascinating, especially as it's all interwoven with his ongoing struggle to understand Rose and Thai culture.
From corrupt cops to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, this novel covers a tremendous amount of ground, but Hallinan has a command of his material and, more importantly, does an amazing job of capturing the ambiance of Bangkok, from the flower warehouses to the crowded sois, or alleyways off the main roads. At one point, Poke is on the back of one of Bangkok's motorbike taxis, dodging through the inevitable traffic jams, at risk to life and limb, and I was literally there. (Well, I've done that -- though not, thank heavens, at high speeds!) Hallinan doesn't exaggerate to give us a picture of Bangkok, but instead relies on a host of small details, from the humidity to the body language of people on the streets.
I think after one encounter with Poke Rafferty and his motley assortment of fellow characters, and my introduction to his attempts to build a family of some kind in unpromising circumstances, I'm hooked. I'm moving straight on to the second book in the series, and the third, and the fourth... Thankfully, I think there are enough to keep me going until at least Christmas...
For audiobook fans: I can wholeheartedly recommend the audio version of these novels, as narrated by Victor Bevine.
Now, if only the same were true of Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri mysteries, and I had another unread book sitting here demanding my attention immediately!! The next in this much-loved series, Six and a Half Deadly Sins (is it a coincidence that both authors are published by Soho? It can't be...) won't be out until May. Grrrrr. By which point my nerves will be shredded. So I'll just have to spend time forcing the series onto more people. Including anyone reading this blog post.
Why? Because Dr. Siri is simply one of the most intriguing and unique sleuths ever to stalk the pages of a mystery novel -- and yes, I include Sherlock Holmes in that category. The Pathet Lao have taken over power in Laos -- it's 1976 -- and Dr. Siri, a French-educated doctor who spent many of the best years of his life in the struggle for some kind of just, humane regime, just wants some peace and quiet. (He's also coming to realize that the new regime is just as foolish as the old one, albeit in entirely different ways.) He's a classic humanist; a believer in people. But dead people? Siri isn't keen on serving as Laos's only official coroner but when the last doctor with any experience zooms across the Mekong to Thailand in an inner tube, he's lumbered with the job: there is no way to say "no" to the Politburo. Worse still, his first jobs have unpleasantly political aspects: why on earth do the bodies of dead Vietnamese soldiers keep popping to the surface of a Laotian lake? and what happened to the wife of a powerful Laotian leader?
Siri's morgue may be short of anything that a typical coroner might want or need. But it turns out that Siri isn't a typical coroner. As well as being a reluctant coroner, he's a reluctant link to spirits and ghosts. He also has unusual resources, in the shape of Dtui, the nurse who hopes to be sent to Russia for medical training, and Geung, who, in spite of his Down's Syndrome, is loyal and eerily wise. They do amazing things with very little, even when they have to take samples off to local school teacher on the back of a motorbike to be tested. And even when the Laotian version of justice may be just as eccentric as some of Siri's methods.
As the series progresses, the stories simply get richer and more intriguing, taking Siri to the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang (one of my own favorite places in Laos) and even to Phnom Penh in the final days of Khmer Rouge rule. His sidekicks include a Politburo member, a transvestite fortuneteller, Vientiane's best noodle chef, and Yeh Ming, the shaman who inhabits him. And while the tone is far lighter and more whimsical, Cotterill, like Hallinan, knows the region, its people and its culture. That becomes part of the story, neither window dressing nor exaggerated for effect.
And I may just have talked myself into re-reading the entire series before the release of the newest book in May. But not until I have finished reading all of the Poke Rafferty novels. Now, when will I find time to read anything else??