Back from my holiday in France, I have a bit of catching-up to do, so there will be a flurry of reviews over the next week or so, beginning with Colin Cotterill’s Thirty-Three Teeth, the second of his detective novels set in the Lao People’s Republic in the 1970s and featuring the septugenarian National Coroner, Dr Siri Paiboun.
The thirty-three teeth of the title refer to the number of teeth possessed by those with spiritual and supernatural powers. Siri Paiboun also has thirty-three teeth and once again this, like The Coroner’s Lunch, is no straightforward detective story. The story is driven by (and the investigation is furthered by) Siri’s numerous visions and encounters with spirits. It is a world where the rational and the everyday mixes with the supernatural and bizarre and Siri, a scientist and a spiritualist, perfectly embodies a world where these two opposites quite happily co-exist.
Having read a number of reviews on the internet of Cotterill’s books, I know that a number of readers seem to enjoy the books in spiteof the supernatural elements. Clearly the appearance of the supernatural does not sit well in the western tradition of the crime novel, where everything has a rational explanation and, indeed, the purpose of the narrative is to ultimately reveal the rational explanation that has seemed to be absent. I, however, enjoy the books precisely because of these supernatural elements. That and the underlying humour and satire that runs through them – another example of something you do not expect to find too much of in crime fiction and another example of how Coterill successfully balances fundamental opposites and apparent contradictions. Siri Paiboun is rogue-ish, subversive, civilised, educated and humane – definitely somebody in whose company it is worth spending some time.