Tour’s Books Blog

October 6, 2010

One of Life’s Surprises – A Mystery Review That Earned an ‘A’

Filed under: Uncategorized — toursbooks @ 11:59 am

Every once in awhile you stumble across a book that is so totally unexpected you wonder just how the author pulled it off.  Well, The Merry Misogynist is one of those books.  A less likely candidate for  hidden gem would be hard to find.  I rarely give a book and A or A-, but this one was just that good.  Colin Cotterill takes late 1970’s Laos, its poverty, inflexible communist mind set, and subsistence existence, humanizes it with witty characters that have, through decades of struggle, somehow, kept their sense of humor, found love late in life, and managed contentment and happiness.   Alien and yet familiar, the characters project such presence they feel alive.  Even more, they are characters you’d love to meet and have a drink with, people you’d be happy to know.

I joined a swap in the Games section of Paperback Swap for foreign mysteries – books written by foreign authors and set in foreign countries with foreign detectives – excluding England.  The most popular author right now would be Steig Larsson, but Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell are long time, popular, and moderately prolific authors.  But I wanted something a bit more off-beat, so I wandered to a favorite research spot of mysteries, Stop,  You’re Killing Me! This website is an excellent site, if sometimes incomplete and lacking in cross-references, for looking up books a number of ways.  One of the really good features is the ability to hunt up books by location.  I wanted something different for this swap, not set in Europe, so this website became my hunting ground.  Even better, they have hyperlinks to Amazon, so it’s easy to just click through and check on availability and price.  It causes mini-shopping sprees like the one I had for foreign mysteries.  SIGH!  I simply must stop buying books.  I have far too many.  But that’s completely beside the point.  One of the books I bought was The Merry Misogynist.

I admit, I was very hesitant to give Colin Cotterill a try.  Many mysteries set in Southeast Asia are not especially enjoyable for me, either due to the writer’s style, or the story lacking the kind of spark that will engage my interest.  I mean really, a 74 year old medical examiner protagonist in Laos in the late ’70’s is not exactly the kind of trope that spells panting interest to spend my money.  How wrong could I be?  The reviews by readers were so uniformly good, I just had to give one of his book a try and I chose one with an irresistible title, The Merry Misogynist.   It is the discovery of books like this that restores my faith in publishers – and keeps me busy hunting for the next hidden gem.

  • Title: The Merry Misogynist
  • Author:  Colin Cotterill
  • Type:  Classic style mystery
  • Genre: Dr Siri Investigates series; 1970’s setting for Laotian medical examiner and police investigator – modified buddy
  • Sub-genre:  Elderly medical examiner with abiding curiosity hunts a serial killer who then hunts him
  • My Grade: A- (4.8*)
  • Rating:  PG-13
  • Length and price:  Full novel about 90,000+ words for $14.00 with discounts of around 30% available
  • Where Available:  book available at many larger or specialized book stores
  • FTC Disclosure:  purchased book from online bookseller

Siri is the 74 year old national corner for Laos in 1978 with the gift, or curse, of seeing the dead.  He has married a woman, Madam Daeng – currently a noodle shop owner – he knew back in the day they were both revolutionaries.  In this impoverished country, now in the control on a Communist government, with its endless and often insane bureaucracy, Dr Siri finds himself hunting for several things – the location of a local fixture, an eccentric Indian that wanders the streets begging, but never speaking to anyone.  Then there’s the mystery  of the strange young woman with nearly white skin found naked, strangled, and wrapped around a tree.  He has to solve the problem with the people who now stay in the house the government assigned to him while he lives with his new wife above the noodle shop.

Inspector Phosy, the husband of Siri’s nurse and assistant is the official police investigator, but Siri’s boundless curiosity, his wry humor about life, his engaging relationship with his equally feisty, quick-witted wife, and the circumstances of both his professional and private life are the core of the book.  Siri is a man who is, perhaps for the first time, truly happy and enjoying his life.  The plot is as much about Siri and Daeng’s adventures as it is about murder.  But the good doctor’s persistence in digging for answers about that one woman’s death leads to a trail of dead girls that stretches back to other villages and other victims – and leaves him fearing there will be a new victim soon.

Even as he searches for answers about the dead girl, Siri goes looking for Crazy Rajid, a strange local that wanders their part of the city on a regular basis.  This leads Siri and Daeng down unexpected trails to Rajid’s Indian Untouchable cook father who accepts things as his lot in life for past sins, to a hunt for clues left by Rajid himself.  From drains, to Buddhist temples, Siri and Daeng are dedicated to finding the lost man, who Siri is very afraid will die if they don’t reach him in time.  Siri is equally determined to thwart the housing police from dispossessing the motley crew of the otherwise homeless people who currently call his assigned bungalow home.  This requires dealing with the bizarre and often nonsensical bureaucracy of the confused new Communist government.   And Siri feels he must find the truth about what happened to the poor girl in the morgue.  His core deep beliefs in right and wrong, his sardonic observations on the many foibles of society and government, his quick mind and the snappy, well done dialogue all add to the atmosphere and combine to move the the reader yo immerse themselves in a place far away from our current time.

Cotterill seamlessly blends the different story arcs together with an occasional change to the killer’s point of view as he plans yet another murder.  The result is an engaging slice of life perspective woven into a mystery.  Not an edge of the seat thriller, but utterly captivating.  It gives the reader a unique opportunity to see life thru the eyes of an intelligent, educated man who is still a product of his country.  Siri is Lao to his very soul – a man of science who believes in ghosts, complex and simple, modern and traditional, and always caring of others – even the dead.

It isn’t often I find a mystery with such first class writing, clear intelligent prose, and marvelous character development.  I was amazed at how interested I has in Siri’s adventures – all of them, from the office of a pompous judge, to the village where he goes to find the family of the girl in morgue, to the hunt for Crazy Rajid.  Cotterill captures the essence of the differences between the Asian and Western views on so many things in life, deftly drawing on both differences and common ground.  The story neither races nor flags, but moves along at a pace that leaves you sort of surprised it’s over and very sorry to say ‘farewell for now’ to a new friend.  My one and only complaint, and a minor one, is the killer needed just a little more complexity thru the story.  Just a little more of the mystery and it would have been perfect.

Was The Merry Misogynist worth $14.00?  YES!!!!!!!!  Buy the book, buy an ebook, get it from your library.  It’s too good to miss for anyone who enjoys mysteries by writers like Christie or Sayers. I have already purchased 2 more books from earlier in this series.  That tells you how much I enjoyed it!


1 Comment »

  1. Added this one to the TBR stack based on your review. It’s been a long time since I read a straight mystery and I’m looking forward to this one.

    Comment by Evanne — October 22, 2010 @ 2:10 pm | Reply

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