I picked this book up on a whim while at a local thrift store. I had never heard of the author, Colin Cotterill, and I had never heard of the series, featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun. But, pick it up I did, and, when I needed something to cheer me up after the slog that was the last book I read/reviewed, Half-Blood Blues, this book did the trick.
The Merry Misogynist is a mystery set in Laos in 1978. It features Dr. Siri Paiboun, a seventy-three-year-old coroner who is recently married to a noodle-shop owner, takes in strays (people and animals), communes with the dead, and does a little detective work on the side. And, dammit, he is a delight. I loved this character. He was funny and kind and made for a very enjoyable read. And so did his wife, his co-workers and his friends; the dialogue between all of these characters is really quite fun.
In this book, Dr. Siri is faced with investigating a series of murders of beautiful young women from various villages around Laos. And while this probably isn’t the best mystery I’ve ever read (although the twist was definitely interesting), viewing the murders and the mystery surrounding them through the point of view of the people of Laos was absolutely fascinating.
For example, the author talks about the fact that “… murders by strangulation were almost unheard of in Laos. The ability to kill a person with bare hands was rare. Many believed if a person was holding a body when the life drained from it, that person was likely to provide a conduit for the spirit of the corpse and be haunted for eternity…To physically squeeze the life out of another human being, the killer would have to be a peculiar type of monster.”
I know next to nothing about the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos so I found it extremely interesting to read a mystery set there from a native’s point of view. And, for the most part, an average, everyday native. The book is set against the backdrop of a newly socialist government that recently ousted the six-hundred-year-old monarchy, but it’s not a book about socialism. Or revolution. Or about integrating members the hill tribes into the Republic. And, yet, it touches on all of those things, but as an average citizen might view them. And, for me, that was the best part of the book. The author treated the characters with respect, neither down-playing their poverty nor elevating it as some sort of spiritual equalizer (i.e. “sure, they’re poor, but they don’t even know it because they’re so pure”).
Again, there isn’t anything groundbreaking or earthshaking about this book, but if you want a charming, easy-to-read palate cleanser after a book that disappointed you, this book is perfect. The New York Times called this book “terrifically beguiling” and it is; it really is.