1976, Laos: Cranky Septuagenarian Named National Coroner
In 1976, Dr. Siri Paiboun, the hero of nine mystery novels, was ready to retire after a lifetime in the jungle as a battle surgeon when his government, the communist People's Democratic Republic of Laos, made him a job offer he couldn't refuse: national coroner.
One thing led to another and Dr. Siri discovered he had a real knack for solving crimes, aided by the Mahosot Hospital Irregulars (Nurse Dtui, Det. Phosy, and Mr. Geung) and the occasional psychic communication from an unhappy ghost.
Congenial characters, a great detective, a new and interesting setting and humor, humor, humor
These mysteries have it all: outstanding storytelling, a fabulous hero and a deeply interesting context. Plus humor, sometimes sharp, sometimes silly, sometimes political satire. Oh, and ghosts.
Dr. Siri Paiboun belongs in the Great Detective's Hall of Fame with Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe.
Start with either with the second book, Thirty-Three Teeth (#2) or the eighth book, Slash and Burn (#8). I also love Anarchy and Old Dogs (#4), but I think you will enjoy it more if you already adore all the characters.
Below, the mystery novels in chronological order:
When two bodies, tortured with electricity, pop up in the river, Dr. Siri insists on finding the truth instead of aiding in a cover-up as instructed by his bosses. The Mahosot Irregulars are hopping with a series of deaths by bear bite, the strange defenestration of two bureaucrats and a helicopter crash in the royal city of Luang Prabang. Dr. Siri and Dtui trek to a former rebel stronghold in the mountains of Huaphan Province. A dead dentist is carrying the key to a coup d'etat in his pocket. Dr. Siri is kidnapped by seven Hmong villagers. A serial killer stalks girls in the Laotian countryside. An all-expense-paid junket to Cambodia is almost the end of Dr. Siri. The gang heads into the jungle in search of a downed American pilot. A ghost points Dr. Siri in the direction of a war-crimes cover-up.
Dr. Siri's World
A great pleasure of this series comes from Dr. Siri's other major talent: a sly skill at tricking the political hacks into serving justice instead of themselves.
Another pleasure is Dr. Siri's ingenuity as he conducts investigations with none of the resources considered necessary for state-of-the-art forensics: training, chemicals, functioning equipment, electricity. . . .
Plus, the Irregulars are every bit as interesting and loveable as Dr. Siri himself.
Dr. Siri is committed heart and soul to the Irregulars (and vice versa). This is why we can read about their travails in a distressing, dangerous, and depressing environment and not be overwhelmed by the sadness of the Lao people's predicament in the first few years following their revolution. Instead we laugh and cry with our warm-hearted hero and his lovely friends as they bravely build lives while their country falls apart.
Dr. Siri's reluctant relationship with the spirit world is one of the most interesting features of this series. Ghosts help him solve investigations but they also add a level of humor (as a man of science, Dr. Siri doesn't believe in these phenomena) and suspense: the shaman he hosts has many enemies in the great beyond.
Dr. Siri also has a reluctant relationship with the communist government for which he works. Mainly, he thinks it's nuts, which gives rise to some wicked political humor reminiscent of M*A*S*H* and Catch-22.