Curse of the Pogo Stick
Review: While traveling, the national coroner of Laos, Dr. Siri Paiboun, is kidnapped en route to the capital while his staff seeks the person behind two acts of attempted murder at the morgue in his absence in Curse of the Pogo Stick, the exceptional fifth mystery in this series by Colin Cotterill.
There are two, separate, plotlines that never intersect but are related nonetheless. The story opens with the arrival of a body to the national morgue that has clearly been tampered with. An X-ray reveals a live grenade buried in the chest cavity that would have gone off had a typical autopsy been performed. Fortunately, Siri's nurse, Dtui, notices the anomaly in the body before any harm can come. Later, a box of poisoned treats arrives, but is consumed by government auditors before any of the staff can partake. Dtui and Siri's fiancé, Daeng, together with detective Phosy, set out to find the suspected murderer before any more lives are lost.
In the meantime, Siri, attending a communist party seminar in northern Laos, is returning to Vientiane, a multi-day journey at best, when his convey is ambushed and he is kidnapped. His superior, Judge Haeng, traveling with him, escapes into the countryside. But Siri's kidnapping doesn't have a hostile motive, rather, his abductors, indigenous Hmong, want to employ his resident spirit, Yeh Ming, to drive away evil that has settled upon the family clan. Siri knows he's not a shaman but understands his captors need to believe and goes about doing what's asked of him. "I'm a cynic," he says at one point. "[A]lbeit a cynic who is constantly confounded by the truth."
Curse of the Pogo Stick isn't strictly a whodunit-style mystery (though there are clearly elements present that make it seem like one) but rather a fascinating and absorbing tale of perception and acumen on the part of Siri and, separately, Dtui and Daeng. The story goes off in unexpected and delightful directions and is quite simply a joy to read. The author has a remarkable ability to introduce a rhythm, a cadence as it were, into his narrative. Consider the following exceptional passage, typical of many:
Siri knew he had no choice. He prayed to the ancestors for a way out but nothing was immediately forthcoming. So he lofted his ax and stood before the buffalo, who suddenly realized all eyes were upon her. With a beard of grass hanging from her mouth she looked up at the old man in front of her. In his hand she saw the hoisted ax and, through whatever process an ox makes connections to past events, something seemed to register in her slow brain. And when she realized what was about to happen, her heart, already heavy with hay, gave out. She keeled to one side, took one more chew of her grass, and passed away. To Elder Long it was confirmation. One more miracle. Yeh Ming had felled a buffalo with his mind. He became even more convinced that the trouble that haunted their village could be cured.
Curse of the Pogo Stick is set in the mid-1970s, following the withdrawal of western forces from the region and after the Lao kingdom was overthrown by the communists. It's a fascinating and unique period in which to set any story, let alone a mystery. Throughout the book the author makes searing, if frequently humorous, observations at the hypocrisy of communism in general and specifically as it applies to the characters, in particular the Hmong. That the comments have broad relevance today, 30 years later, is all the more enlightening.
Seek out Curse of the Pogo Stick: it's one of the year's best novels, mystery or otherwise.
Acknowledgment: Soho Press provided an ARC of Curse of the Pogo Stick for this review.
Review Copyright © 2008 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
Anarchy and Old Dogs
Soho Crime (Hardcover), August 2007
ISBN-13: 978156947463X; ISBN-10: 156947463X
The Merry Misogynist
Soho Press (Hardcover), August 2009
ISBN-13: 9781569475560; ISBN-10: 1569475563
Location(s) referenced in Curse of the Pogo Stick: Laos
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Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill — A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery
Publisher: Soho Crime
Publication Date: August 2008
List Price: $24.00