First Line: The post office box was eighteen across, twelve down, and it had a loop of wool wound around the door so Dr. Buagaew wouldn't miss it.
By this fourth book in the series, I feel as though I'm visiting old friends who are glad to see me on their doorstep. Dr. Siri, the septuagenarian national coroner of Laos, has to identify the victim of a traffic accident who is carrying a message written in invisible ink and in code. Deciphering the note reveals that the corpse was a blind dentist who was involved in a plot to overthrow the government. Dr. Siri isn't the only one wondering why on earth someone would send coded messages written in invisible ink to a blind man.
This series is such a winner because there are so many layers to the books. Yes, there are interesting mysteries, but there's so much more! Cotterill's characters are marvelous. Dr. Siri is a former soldier who spent many years of his life fighting for the Communist overthrow of Laos. The Communists have now been in control for two years, and he's monumentally underwhelmed by the government's results. Instead of becoming a sour old man, he's learned to focus on the people around him and to enjoy one of the prerogatives of old age: being a bit eccentric. Siri's morgue assistant, Mr. Geung, has Down's Syndrome, yet he is a valuable member of the team. Siri's nurse, Dtui, may look like a very happy "standing refrigerator", but she's extremely intelligent and observant. Although Siri would miss her sorely, he knows that she deserves better and he's been helping her try to get on the fast track. These are just three of the characters that make this series so special.
Along the path to finding out who's trying to overthrow the government, there are many scenes that made me laugh and warmed my heart. Siri, Dtui and a police officer friend named Phosy attend a funeral and want to give the departed a good send-off. As a result, they imbibe a bit too much rice wine....
"I feel like bathroom mold," Phosy said, his voice like a plow dragged over rocks....
Dtui was squeezing her own wrist. "I'm afraid there may be some blood left in my alcohol stream. We're medical personnel; we should know better. Stimulate my brain, someone, before it pickles. Give me a job."
And when Siri and his friend, Civilai, leave Vientiane to investigate the planned rebellion, the only transportation they can find is an old Jeep that has no brake fluid. It has a top speed "somewhere between walking and running with a stone in your shoe," and the only way you can stop it is by finding something soft to crash into. A vehicle like that can lend zest to any investigation.
By far the most heartwarming scene in Anarchy and Old Dogs is when Madame Daeng tells Siri of the young girl she taught to read. Anyone who loves to read is guaranteed to get a lump in the throat when reading that.
Although I do enjoy the mysteries in this series, that is not why I love reading them so much. Once I've closed the book on the last page of a Colin Cotterill mystery, I feel as though I've traveled back in time to visit a culture almost completely alien to my own. I come away from my visit knowing that I'm connected to that other culture by the common bonds of humanity... and by one of the best cast of characters to be found anywhere in fiction.
If you aren't acquainted with Dr. Siri, what's stopping you? As with all character-rich books, I would advise anyone who wants to try this series to start at the beginning with The Coroner's Lunch.