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33 teeth

In Thirty-Three Teeth, Collin Cotterill immediately, in the opening lines, signals his desire to tap the slightly (or not so slightly) sleazy oeuvre of mystery novels:

The neon hammer and sickle buzzed and flickered into life over the night club of the Lan Xang Hotel. The sun had plummeted mauvely into Thailand across the Mekhong River, and the hotel waitresses were lighting the little lamp lamps that turned the simple sky-blue room into a mysterious nighttime cavern.

After what I called his “light,” first Dr. Siri mystery (The Coroner’s Lunch), Cotterill here reaches for something explicitly more “mysterious,” something darker, meaner, sexier.

That he doesn’t succeed shouldn’t surprise. Writing genre fiction looks easy, but isn’t. The rules appear simple, the conventions obvious; yet, writing a mystery—like all good writing—is a fine balancing act of both obeying and breaking the rules. Perhaps more importantly, and again like all good writing, a mystery writer has to know the material; there is no substitute for doing the research, usually by experience. It’s not that a writer has to have done exactly the things about which he or she writes. But a writer must have some experience on which to draw that allows the construction of a convincing reality. Without it, the words are just words; there’s no there there.

Still, the novel has good moments and despite what feels like scant knowledge of society’s dark underbelly, Cotterill does know something about Laos and especially about the spiritual traditions of that country. Coroner’s Lunch introduced us to the idea that Dr. Siri was the embodiment of an ancient shaman; Thirty-Three Teeth develops that theme and plays with it. There is an especially great séance scene in which a group of local spiritual guides scare the living crap out of the non-believing bureaucrats who try to put the gods in the service of the government. Cotterill again creates a charming story, full of interconnected characters that work together to solve the plot. Suspenseful it isn’t—even at the worst moment, when violence appears imminent, I was never worried—but the reading is good enough to pass a pleasant evening at home under the book light.

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