The Second Biggest Nothing (Dr. Siri Paiboun #14) by Colin Cotterill

‘At the end of 1980, Vientiane was a city still waiting for something to happen.’

Dr Siri Paiboun, the former national coroner of Laos, is getting ready to negotiate the bureaucracy to make a film.  Once he and his good friend Civilai can establish agreement over the script and work out how to operate the camera.  But their plans go seriously awry when Dr Siri receives a death threat.

There is a note, in English, tied to his dog Ugly’s tail.  Dr Siri is not concerned immediately: after all, he cannot read English.  But once he knows what the note says, he mobilises his forces.  The death threat is not only against him, and he has two weeks before it is carried out.

Who would hold such a strong grudge against him?  So, together with Dr Siri, we take a trip into the past.  There are three noteworthy incidents:  Paris in 1932, Saigon in 1956 and Hanoi in 1972.  In each of those incidents, Dr Siri was threatened.  He has two weeks to try to work out who is threatening him, his wife, and friends.

‘It’s called brainstorming,’ said Siri. ‘You just say things for no apparent reason until you accidentally stumble upon a truth.  It’s like politics.’

This is one of the best of the recent Dr Siri novels and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The flashbacks to the past include an attempted assassination in Paris, a visit to an art museum in Saigon and a prisoner of war negotiation in Hanoi.  And in the present, Dr Siri must wrestle with his spirits as well as look out for his friends.

Will they work it out in time?  The answer may surprise you.  Yes, you could read this novel as a standalone, but I strongly recommend reading the novels in order.  There is a lot of character development and a world of quirky investigation to explore.

‘People are basically stupid,’ said Siri.  ‘We’re easy to dupe.  Nobody asks for proof anymore.  A lie told with confidence is indistinguishable from the truth.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith