Colin Cotterill Prepares the Curtain Call
Book series tend to be difficult beasts to tame, demanding incredible amounts of effort and consistency from their authors, and needless to say, not everyone is up to the task. For this reason, I consider it a monumental feat what Colin Cotterill managed to achieve with his acclaimed A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery series, carrying the same quality up until the last novel, The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot.
While there are indeed fourteen other books in this series, rest assured each of them can perfectly work as standalone novels and you may start at whatever point you wish. If you’d like to, you can have a look at our reviews of his previous books, including Don’t Eat Me, I Shot the Buddha and The Rat Catcher’s Olympics.
In any case, this last mystery of Dr. Paiboun’s begins when he receives a mysterious diary, half of it written in Laotian, and the other half in Japanese. To the diary a note is appended, with an unidentified party claiming they need the good doctor’s help most urgently.
Without much to go on, but more than enough to rile up his sense of curiosity and thirst for adventure, Siri sets out to decipher the journal, which as it turns out, was written by a Japanese kamikaze pilot. What’s even more interesting, the contents of the journal seem fairly dull and come to a rather abrupt ending.
It really doesn’t take much time for Siri to start obsessing over the incomplete story before his eyes, and accompanied by his fateful Madame Daeng they set out on a ride to Southeast Asia. There, no shortage of harrowing secrets from the Second World War are hidden under layers of time and history, waiting to be brought into the light of day.
Led by a Vortex of Curiosity in The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot
Having seen our Dr. Siri through a few cases now, and knowing he has been through many more, I was both wary and curious about how Colin Cotterill would manage to make the final investigation one worthy of a send-off. I think all authors with long-standing series will likely agree the ending is the most difficult part to write, both creatively and emotionally.
I will be the first to admit I had some doubts when I began the novel: at a glance, the mystery in and of itself doesn’t seem too interesting. However, Cotterill demonstrates his talents as an experienced writer when he slowly but surely spins a whole web of questions and obscurity from what seems to be a single thread.
On the whole, looking at it from a more distanced perspective, I think it’s safe to say the mystery is one of the more complex ones of the series. Thankfully, Cotterill does a fantastic job at laying out all of its elements in a simple and, most importantly, comprehensible fashion which makes it easy to follow, even for those of us who have a tendency to get lost more easily.
The deeper our heroes get into the journey, they seem to be getting more questions than answers, with the resolution to one small puzzle or question inevitably leading to a bigger, more interesting one. By the time the novel kicked into full gear I felt myself as captivated by the enigma as the main characters.
Speaking of them, watching Siri and Daeng exchange witty lines with one another nearly from start to finish left me with a bit of a bittersweet taste, knowing we likely won’t see them again, which at least also means we likely won’t see the characters ruined by anything. While they’re generally not making for laugh-out-loud moments, they make the kind of humour which puts a warm smile on your face.
Undying Leftovers from the War
On top of being investigative mysteries, Dr. Siri Paiboun’s adventures have always had a historical and cultural character to them, giving us a closer look at Southeast Asia, its past, people and beliefs. This time around is certainly no exception, with the main themes now being the Second World War as well as the Vietnam War.
Wars, especially as they grow in scale, bury with them the stories of countless people who will never be heard, and it is these stories we become acquainted with most through the discoveries our protagonists make.
Now, the novel never outright turns into a history textbook with facts correlating to dates, but rather, it tries to examine them through the human aspect. In other words, we learn about the historical events by seeing how people were affected by them, and how they responded in turn.
Colin Cotterill might be, at this point, the best non-Laotian expert in Laotian people, with his admiration for them and their ways shining through rather obviously and quite often. There are numerous passages where he delves a little deeper into their mentality, and while I can’t personally confirm nor deny his observations, they are quite obviously the result of profound studies on his part.
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In addition, there are even some supernatural elements as Dr. Siri spends a bit of time in the realm of the spirit world. In general, while I can’t say I’m in favour of adding supernatural elements to down-to-Earth mysteries, they fit in rather well with the general sense of humour and the strong spiritual aspects coloring much of the novel.
The Final Verdict
The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot by Colin Cotterill is a worthy send-off to Dr. Siri Paiboun and Madame Daeng, thrusting them one last time into a complex mystery with secrets ripe for discovery and riddles to be solved, all while exploring the Southeast Asian military engagements of the twentieth century.
If you’re looking for something which masterfully combines mystery and satire on a historical canvas, or have read any of the previous novels in the series and enjoyed them, then I think you’ll find quite a bit to love about this book.
Colin Cotterill is an English-born crime writer, cartoonist and teacher who is best-known for writing the award-winning Dr. Siri mysteries as well as the Jimm Juree crime series.
Amongst the many prizes he received are the 2009 Crime Writers’ Association “Dagger in the Library” award as well as the 2007 Prix SNCF Du Polar for “The Coroner’s Lunch”.