Monday, November 16, 2009

Review: The Coroner's Lunch

The Coroner's Lunch, Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, Trade Paper, 2005
ISBN 978-1569474181
272 pages

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!"


St Jude said...

Oh this sounds right up my street. I think I need to leave HUGE hints for his Lordship to add this to my Christmas pressie list.

Cathy said...

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!

Wandering Coyote said...

CSI, Laos style, perhaps? Sounds pretty cool, actually! Thanks for the review.

Pat said...

This sounds a real page turner. I'll make a note of it.

Kim Ayres said...

Sounds good

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I don't know if I have ever read a book set in Laos, which in itself is enough to make me want to read this.

Tiffin said...

I like the sound of this one, Charlie. You had me right from the welcome mat.

Stinkypaw said...

Take care of yourself Professor!

Meg said...

This sounds like one I'll have to check out. Joe's been looking for a good book. I can't wait until you finish the new Stephen King book so I know whether it's worth reading or not. I love your reviews.

Mary Witzl said...

This sounds FANTASTIC! More than anything, I love the weirdness of it. And I really like the notion of using dreams to solve a case, especially if it is done as deftly and entertainingly as I imagine it is done here.

Jimmy Bastard said...

Sarcasm, dark humor, and repartee... the perfect ingredients Charlie.

savannah said...

wow, another book to look for, sugar! the stack keeps growing! xoxoxox

Peter S. said...

Wow! Another series set in southeast Asia. (When will they come up with one set in the Philippines?)

Your review reminds me of Burdett's crime novels, which are set in Thailand. Have you come across these, Charlie? I'm sure you'll love them.

kara said...

because of you i've taken out far more books from the library than i can ever read in 3 weeks (when they're gonna due). there will be fines everywhere!

this one sounds good too, damnit.

Charlie said...

DEAR BLOGGERITES: I try to review only those books that I think will appeal to a general audience or, in some cases, those that are incredibly crappy.

Nevertheless, I was surprised by the number of replies and thumbs up for this book. Thank you all for your comments.

Diane said...

Thanks for letting me know that Under the Dome, is the "old S. King). I should really enjoy it! Can't wait for your review.