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by Colin Cotterill
Quercus, January 2013
260 pages
16.99 GBP
ISBN: 1780878311

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Doctor Siri, retired, and his wife Daeng contributed mightily to Lao independence, but by 1978 their relationship with the Pathet Lao leadership is a little strained. However, when the need arises for a pathologist to accompany an expedition to recover the body of a Minister's brother, Siri is happy to go, taking his wife, a friend and their dog with him. Siri can see shadows of the departed, and so is particularly interested since the location of the body has been pinpointed by Madame Peung, who is particularly well-equipped to commune with the dead. Meanwhile, Madame Daeng is being hunted by a Frenchman obsessed by her contribution to the independence struggle.

THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN'T DIE is Dr Siri's ninth investigation, so presumably there are many readers who are familiar with Cotterill's charming and light-hearted style. Such matters as the doctrinaire obsessions of the ruling clique, the material deficiencies of the country and the difficulties of dealing with two powerful neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand, are conveyed in a way that is both informative and entertaining. The leading characters are also endearing. Siri and his wife met late in life and are much in love, in a unsentimental way. There is also Geung, formerly Siri's Downs Syndrome morgue assistant, Civilai, an ex-politburo member, and Ugly, the dog, all with their own special eccentricities.

The mystery, such as it is, concerns the project to recover the body of the Minister's brother, and the recent history of Madame Peung, who according to local village residents was killed, so is now merely a shade of her former self. Being dead, she is able to commune with others who have passed over, while at the same time being apparently as corporeal as the rest of us: a contradiction which the people around her seem to have no difficulty accepting. Several aspects of the project seem suspect, and Siri has no difficulty in getting to the truth, aided of course by his able assistants.

The intertwined story is the tale of a French agent who had a wartime relationship with Madame Daeng, and who is seeking to find her, not with the most favourable of intentions. Here there are times of real danger to some of the most sympathetic characters, and even with the skills of Siri and his wife the outcome is uncertain.

Those who like their detective mysteries with a light touch, set in exotic locations laid out in a comprehensible and sympathetic manner could do a lot worse than to give Cotterill a try.

Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, February 2013

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