Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Colin Cotterill has taken Dr. Siri Paiboun all over Asia in his extraordinary investigative adventures, opening many windows into foreign worlds for his audience. In his latest book in the series, The Rat Catcher’s Olympics, the good doctor takes a slight detour from the usual course as we are transported to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. While the doctor suspects one of the Laotian athletes is concocting a conspiracy, one of the country’s Olympians becomes accused of murder… one Paiboun must navigate complex political waters to resolve.
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Colin Cotterill Goes International
Though they are nothing but a distant memory or even a forgettable historical event, the 1980s Olympic Games, in their time had quite a vortex of significance swirling around them. The event took place in Moscow during the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, causing sixty-six countries to boycott the games to protest the country’s military actions. While the thunderstorm of politics continued to loom over the city, many other smaller countries saw an opportunity which they wouldn’t have had otherwise, which was to be recognized in the Olympic games.
Countries with fewer resources, such as Laos for instance, finally had a more levelled playing field to show their skills off, even participating in such an event for the first time. This particular set of circumstances afforded to many the chance to experience Moscow and its Olympic village, one of them being the fictional Dr. Siri Paiboun in latest novel in the series, The Rat Catcher’s Olympics of Colin Cotterill.
Though in his previous books the good doctor stuck mostly to Asia, in this one we’re transported into the heart of Russia (at least the metaphorical one) as Paiboun longs to proudly witness his country’s first foray into the Olympics. However, he suspects on of the Laotian athletes to be there under a false identity, and definitely some sinister intentions. He fears a conspiracy might be in the works, and even tries to cross-reference with Inspector Phosy back home to see if the man he suspects might be an assassin.
His plans to accomplish his work in quiet are absolutely demolished however when a Laotian Olympian stands accused of murder… an incident with repercussions far and wide. With an international scandal looming gravely above the two countries, the doctor attempts to resolve the issue as discreetly as possible, all while being wedged between two paranoid governments where corruption and injustice are just part of the daily routine.
A Welcome Change of Scenery
To begin with, I’d like to address the obvious which is the author’s decision to take the doctor on an international excursion. In theory, this is a bit of a daring move for the previous books have already established a functional and rewarding architecture for the series to follow, one which was especially complemented with the author’s personal experience. This decision to move things to Russia for this novel, at least in my eyes, shows the author’s willingness to try and develop the series rather than let it stagnate with a proven formula, and I believe it deserves some commendation.
As a matter of fact, I think even as readers we can only learn so much in one book after the next about fascinating Asian cultures before we start wishing for something different, merely for variety’s sake. Though Cotterill may not have the personal experience of living in Moscow as he does living in Southeast Asia, it barely ever showed, if at all. He very clearly took the time and effort to do as much research as possible about the Olympic games, life in Moscow during those days, the political climate of those years, as well as the overall thoughts and values of the population.
While it does feel less informative than his other novels, especially in regards to the small and surprising details we’ve come to appreciate him for, there is still a very large window into an absolutely fascinating culture. The best part is the author treats it all factually without really taking sides in politics or trying to force his point of view on us. He just uses it as a very different backdrop than what we’re used to in order to put his murder mystery in motion, and I felt it ultimately added a great deal of enjoyment.
A Murderer in the Village
Removing ourselves from the glaringly new stuff of The Rat Catcher’s Olympics, we still have the murder mystery, something the doctor seems to be a magnet for. Even though there are quite a few political volcanoes erupting all around, I was glad to see the investigation remain very much its own thing without any grand overarching schemes giving it supreme importance in the events of those times. Our usual crew is about as entertaining as they ever were, their dialogue more often than not bringing a smile to my face.
They’ve already undergone quite a bit of character development over the novels, and yet Colin Cotterill still finds a few little things to add here and there, which helps to inject a bit of extra humanity into the story. As you might expect, much of the mystery is set in the Olympic village itself, and by the end of it the thread of the plot has seemingly taken us through every nook and cranny in existence. Even from the very start before the murder happens, the questions already begin to pile up and our curiosity is heightened by Paiboun’s suspicions about his own countrymen.
Things only turn increasingly complicated until the very end, but as is always the case with the author, the resolution brings a welcome dose of good sense and logic to it all. It’s the kind of mystery which constantly keeps you guessing and forces you to retread your thinking based on the twists and turns which keep on coming your way.
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Thankfully, no matter how complex it gets, Cotterill ensures it remains relatively easy to follow by not giving the story too high of a pace as well as using a simple and concise language. In the grand scheme of things, this is what most murder mysteries ought to aspire to.
The Final Verdict
With all being said and done, The Rat Catcher’s Olympics by Colin Cotterill is a wonderful addition to the Dr. Siri Paiboun series, even going out of the author’s comfort zone a little bit and giving us an adventure which feels original and refreshing. The setting is perfectly developed for the engaging murder mystery on-par with the author’s best works. I highly recommend it to fans of the series as well as anyone who enjoys a good investigation with a historical setting.
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”.