It is estimated that somewhere around six hundred people disappear on a daily basis around the world, with over 4,432,880 people having vanished in the last twenty years. While it is true that in many cases the people around found and returned safely, there are many others that continue to haunt their friends and relatives for years, if not decades. This is even more true for countries where the rule of law isn’t as tight as it is elsewhere; there are places out there where people simply disappear and those left behind must accept it as a reality of existence. And so, it is very understandable that the retired coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun felt quite alerted when a Buddhist monk living with him suddenly disappeared on his bike one morning, in I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill.
The Noble Vanishing
Thankfully the author doesn’t dawdle too much at the beginning and gives us the promised mystery quite soon. One of the people living with the doctor and his wife is a misfit Buddhist monk by the name of Noo, and there comes a morning when he suddenly bolts off on his bike and doesn’t come back. All he left behind was a frustratingly vague note on the fridge, beckoning for help to get a fellow monk across the Mekhong River into Thailand, allowing him to escape to safety.
Like any protagonist worth half his salt, Dr. Siri finds he cannot resist the allure of such an adventure, especially if it proves to be a dangerous one, with Laotian secret services and alarming spiritualists… which of course it does. Once Dr. Siri begins the chase after Noo, the novel picks up a bit of speed and steadily takes us from one place to the next as the former searches for clues. The mysteries as to where Noo went and why his friend is fleeing the country are fantastic tracks to keep the story moving along and the reader interested, and it all culminates in a very satisfying resolution that leaves no loose ends or stones unturned.
Colin Cotterill’s Many Talents
Cotterill takes the opportunity, while touring us through the city, to also depict how life was in communist Laos back in the day. If you’ll remember all you learned about poorer communist countries, you can guess that day-to-day life wasn’t exactly all unicorns and rainbows, but rather a constant oppressive struggle to make it until the next sunrise. He doesn’t pull any punches, nor does he sensationalize; he tries to depict that life in as realistic a way as possible, and in doing so he opens a rare window to an interesting time that already feels like long ago. At the same time though, Cotterill contrasts the negative aspects of that life with a whole lot of humour, showing us that the power of laughter can give people the will to live, even during one of the direst periods of a country’s history. He drives that point home with such strength and tenacity that you yourself will take this approach to life, if you haven’t already that is.
As Dr. Siri gets closer and closer to his goal, the cast of memorable characters we come across does nothing but grow. The author has a remarkable talent for creating inspiring, lovable and human characters that are as real as us in the non-fictional world. As you become better-acquainted with them, learn of their motives, struggles, hopes and worldviews, they slither their way into your heart and mind; it’s a guarantee you’ll remember them for a very long time to come, and perhaps even think back to them when yearning for advice. The characters themselves may not be real, but their lives certainly mirror those of countless actual people, back in the past as well as the present… that’s something very few authors could ever hope to pull off with such legitimacy.
To finish off this review, it can be safely said that I Shot the Buddha is a trademark Cotterill novel at his very best, offering a solid mystery, a memorable cast of characters, an engaging setting and a rather insightful voyage through Laotian history. This is the type of book that will stay with different people for different reasons… but one way or another, I guarantee it will have a big impact on you. I highly recommend you purchase this book if you enjoy this kind of mystery, or are looking to see what all the buzz around Colin Cotterill is about.
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”.