The Second Biggest Nothing by Colin Cotterill is identified by the author as A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery. The book is one-part mystery, one-part journey into the supernatural world, and one-part reflective philosophy into racism and nature of war. Dr. Siri’s perspective drives all parts as he directs and guides other characters, a group that has become family, whether related by bloodline or not. There are fourteen novels in the Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery series, I have read or listened to ten of them, and I have felt like a silent witness at the family table. I was saddened by the death of a family member in this fourteenth installment.
Colin Cotterill is a masterful storyteller in part proven by the number of his published works. The Second Biggest Nothing has several twists, a great central plot revolving around the question of who is trying to kill Dr. Siri, and a presentation woven through with humor on several levels. I listened to the audiobook, which I believe heightened the sense of humor. A reader of the novel may not see the mood expressed in the same situations. Colin Cotterill wrote a great story but the presentation, especially the humorous asides, are thanks to the superb narration by Clive Chafer. After listening to the first audiobook in the series, I repeatedly came back for further selections because of Chafer’s excellent narration. I can’t imagine any other voice could deliver the humor I heard. Chafer is the single narrator, but through subtleties of intonation, I had no problem identifying which character was acting in different chapters.
Dr. Siri is not your typical protagonist or hero. At 76 years old, he is active physically and mentally. Siri has the aches, pains, creaks, and groans of old age, but still manages some remarkable adventures, most of which are believable. The unbelievable part is when he occasionally disappears while he is coordinating with his shaman, the transvestite Aunty Puu. The reason Aunty Puu dresses as a woman goes beyond choice and I won’t spoil the interesting presentation about the supernatural world by revealing the reason. Aunty Puu can provide valuable information to Siri about how to solve his mystery, but Aunty likes to provide information indirectly in a way that requires Siri’s interpretation, giving readers/listeners further mini-mysteries.
The novel spans a time from 1932 to 1980, giving Cotterill a chance to show us history. The author doesn’t lecture or recite history in a dull manner. Instead, there are glimpses which will please an audience with knowledge of the conflicts which are almost synonymous with the identities of the countries of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. At a coffee shop in Paris in the 30s, Dr. Siri and Comrade Sivillai are having coffee when the name of a Sivillai comrade comes up. Identified with the single name Quoc, an audience familiar with regional history will realize this to be a person with many names, one of which is Nguyen Ai Quoc (one who loves his country). Years and a few names later, the man will emerge as Ho Chi Minh.
Dr. Siri, Political Cadre Sivillai, Chief of Police Posey, Second Wife (to Siri) Deng are all communists. They are loyal to ideal communism, not the one that rules present-day Laos. None of our central characters want something called Democracy; they have a shared view that it is messy. All central characters are old, having struggled all their lives to achieve a victory that once completed, has delivered almost nothing in the way of what was promised. Among themselves, they criticize the powers in charge in low tones; one never knows who is listening. They have spent their lives in the struggle and admit that at their advanced age, they can no longer contribute to changing what exists. Their criticisms are frequently sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek, but they do not advocate a system superior to communism; they only wish it would run more efficiently. In one case, the group needs something from the government, but a request will take weeks spent in filling out forms. Sivillai describes a new system by which the requester approaches the supplier directly with no forms other than an envelope of cash. All sigh with comfort that corruption has finally returned to further efficiency.
A supposedly US military deserter plays an integral part in this story. Stories about this group of people are rare. They are not a monolithic group, but there were many deserters during the US adventure in Vietnam. Many of those enjoyed several months or a few years of relative freedom and comfort in Southeast Asia and were able to feed off the presence of an economy energized by the US military. The novelty wore off, and many tried different means to return to the US while at the same time covering up their desertion and avoiding punishment. Here, again, is a part of history Cotterill mentions that will be familiar to those of us who were present during The First Biggest Nothing. Note, this is not the title of Cotterill’s novel. The explanation is, however, given in the story.
As a language student, I was fascinated by the discussions of Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese. I lived in northeast Thailand (described in this novel as Issan) and met many foreigners who learned Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese informally, not through schools. Translated, that means in bars and with the ladies (and men) who worked there. As Dr. Siri points out, each of the languages has vocabulary and intonations unique to men and women. Foreign soldiers fond of the bar scene, some of whom were Special Forces fighters with lots of combat experience, ended up speaking Southeast Asian languages “like a girl,” and amused residents enormously.
The Second Biggest Nothing is a five-star listen or read, one that I highly recommend. Thanks to Colin Cotterill for a great story. I reserve most of my praise for the presentation by Clive Chafer, a performance that has made me come back for ten of the fourteen novels. I will listen to parts I have missed despite my unfortunate discovery of the death of one of my heroes. That should teach me to read or listen to books in a series in order of publication.
Administrative Note and Apology to Colin Cotterill: I listened to the audiobook; my spelling of names is an approximation of what I heard.