Two theaters of the Asian absurd


THIRTY-THREE TEETH by Colin Cotterill. New York: Soho Press, 2005, 238 pp., $24 (cloth).
FAN-TAN by Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, 249 pp., $23.95 (cloth).

Novels set in Asia that combine crime and detection with touches of humor are not especially numerous, but the ones in existence are quite amusing. Topping any such list would be Australian author William Marshall’s long-running “Yellowthread Street” series, set in Hong Kong from the mid-1970s. Marshall’s final effort appears to have been published just after Hong Kong’s 1997 reversion to China. Still in print, they feature madcap situations and memorably eccentric characters, such as a cop of Chinese-Irish ancestry named Christopher O’Yee.

Nuri Vitacchi’s “The Feng Shui Detective,” reviewed on this page in February 2004, would be another example of this genre.

“Thirty-Three Teeth” is Colin Cotterill’s second work featuring 72-year old Dr. Siri Paiboun, a Laotian physician who had studied medicine in France. The setting is Laos in the mid-1970s, shortly after the Communist Pathet Lao overthrew the monarchy in the country’s protracted civil war.

Good help is hard to come by in post-revolution Laos. Most of the country’s doctors have fled, and the elderly Siri, with his proper political background, is assigned to the post of National Coroner, a position for which he is completely untrained. Arriving at Vientiane’s morgue, Cotterill writes in his first work, The Coroner’s Lunch, “[Siri] hesitated . . . before stepping inside. The sign over the door said MORGUE in French. The mat beneath it, his own personal touch, said WELCOME in English.”

When “customers” needing autopsies arrive, Siri is assisted by a rotund nurse named Dtui and a lab assistant named Geung, who suffers from a mild form of Down Syndrome, but who can wield a mean hacksaw.

Among the cases with which Siri must contend are several people dead from what appears to be animal attacks. An escaped bear is suspected, until casts of the injuries reveal that the tooth marks resemble a large member of the cat family.

Uncovering crimes in “Thirty-Three Teeth” occasionally requires Siri to delve into the occult, which, according to the established rules for mystery fiction is not playing fair. On the other hand, these introductions to Lao folklore and superstition carry a marvelously authentic ring. The dialogue sparkles with humor and the character portrayals are superb. This book also serves as an excellent example of how detective fiction delivers a useful social message: A country may be primitive, but its people, like people everywhere, want justice done.

Author Cotterill currently resides in Thailand. Bio-data on the dust jacket mentions that he once taught in Japan.

Swashbuckling adventures

“Fan-Tan,” a posthumous collaboration by one of Hollywood’s most celebrated film stars and an accomplished writer, producer and director, appears about 20 years after being written.

The year is 1927, and entrepreneurial ship owners are making a beeline for the Far East to smuggle mountains of World War I surplus munitions to opposing warlords in China’s ongoing civil war.

The narrative begins with Anatole “Annie” Doultry, American captain of “The Sea Change,” in D block of Hong Kong’s Victoria Prison, where he is nearing the end of his six-month sentence for illegal gun-running.

Scottish-born, the 51-year-old Doultry can still charm his captors with a colorful Celtic brogue. He whiles away the remainder of his sentence gambling on cockroach races and watching the executions of Chinese pirates from his cell window.

Doultry saves a Chinese prisoner from hanging by claiming the man was his cook, and soon after his release, is contacted by the prisoner’s real employer, Madame Lai Choi San. The beautiful and ruthless head of a seaborne gang has plans to hijack a British ship transporting a cargo of silver bullion from Manila to Hong Kong. For her plan to work, Doultry is hired to replace the ship’s “sick” radio operator. Once the pirates strike, Doultry’s job would be to prevent the ship from sending an SOS to the British Navy.

Piracy being a capital offense, Doultry drives an exceptionally hard bargain in exchange for his cooperation. When the deal is sealed, he is invited to watch a gruesome “death of a thousand cuts” style execution on the deck of Mme. Lai’s ship, as a warning against any notions of treachery he might be entertaining.

After the story’s thrilling climax on the high seas, the diamond-in-the-rough ship captain and the Chinese Dragon Lady retire to her boudoir, setting the stage for climaxes of a somewhat different type.

As if it were authors’ intention to thumb their noses at the world posthumously, “Fan-Tan” features what will almost certainly be the most bizarre, uncouth conclusion to a story this reviewer will ever encounter. Except for its grossly scatological ending, however, the book is actually a better-than-average takeoff of similar tales popular during the 1920s and 1930s. A 19-page afterward by David Thomson, who edited the manuscript, provides many fascinating details of the two authors’ colorful careers and how their collaborationtook place.