The Coroner's Lunch, Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime, Trade Paper, 2005
The first in a series of six crime novels. (A seventh will be published in hardcover on 8/1/10.)
The time: 1976. The place: Vientiane, Laos. The detective: Dr. Siri Paiboun, a seventy-two-year-old man who wants nothing more than to retire and enjoy his golden years.
Nothing doing, the brand-new Communist regime tells him. Since the previous coroner swam across the Mekong River to Thailand, Comrade Siri receives the appointment of Official Party Coroner—a branch of medicine he knows absolutely nothing about.
Siri reports to his new job in an outbuilding behind the hospital. Above the doorway is a sign that says “Morgue” in Laotian and he adds a doormat, in English, that says “Welcome.”
Thus begins one of the most different, entertaining, and humorous crime novels I have read. The locale is exotic, which I have sampled in the Communist country to the right of Laos. Some politics are involved in the story, but Cotterill keeps them to a minimum—he gets in some zingers but this is, after all, a mystery.
Cotterill’s strength is the characters he has created. Siri’s morgue staff consists of Mr. Geung, an affable man with Down’s Syndrome, and Dtui, a “refrigerator-size” young woman who is an able nurse and assistant. When work is slow, however, she prefers the comics and movie magazines she has stashed in her desk drawer. With few tools and even fewer chemicals, Siri and Dtui perform their first few autopsies following the instructions in two old textbooks.
While there is plenty of sarcasm, dark humor, and repartee, this book is not a farce. There are dead bodies, too many gruesome dead bodies, and Siri is intent upon proving they were all murders. He has several helpers: Civilai, his closest friend inside the new regime; Phosy, a member of the new police force; and a pathologist in Hanoi whom Siri consults after learning how to use a telephone.
Siri has something else going for him: a sixth sense that manifests itself as dreams. Yes, Siri has some connection to the supernatural and charms, which he finds out when he attends an exorcism in a small Hmong village. I think this is where the reviewer is supposed to say, “This book requires a suspension of belief.”
I disagree. Siri is as baffled by the notion of the supernatural as the reader is—right up to the surprise ending of the book. And who, or what, can positively prove that the super- natural does not exist?
Rather, I suggest that this novel be read with an open mind; otherwise, a well-written and enjoyable mystery will be missed. I recommend it to all crime fans who crave a complex mystery with a simply wonderful cast of characters—especially Dr. Siri Paiboun.
A comment from Cathy, mystery guru and aficionado at Kittling: Books:
"I have a big ole grin plastered all over my face. I was hoping you'd like this one. And guess what? The series just gets better and better!"