The Coroner’s Lunch (2004) is set in Laos in Southeast Asia. The year is 1976 and the Communist Pathet Lao are in power.
The narrative is told in third person and follows Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72 year old physician living in Vientiane. I first fell in love with mysteries that involving dissecting dead bodies was watching the CSI series . A coroner seems to be a great diversion from the usual private investigator’s narrative.
Dr. Siri’s been a battlefield surgeon for 40 years. After the royal kingdom’s abolished and replaced with the new socialist regime, he’s looking forward to retirement. Instead of retiring, Dr. Siri’s appointed by the politburo to be the country’s one and only head coroner despite the fact that he lacks any experience and has limited resources & supplies.
After ten months of on the job training, he gets handed a couple of high profile cases that eventually makes him the target of a deadly assassin who is said to be a “master of disguises.” In fact, this story had multiple subplots going and the author did a good job with keeping me fascinated with them all.
Before this for cosy mysteries, the only books I have read are the No. 1 Ladies Detective series. Every cosy mystery I read from now on I can’t help it but to compare with this series. There is nothing to compare of course, because The Coroner’s Lunch is filled with political suspense with a solid plot. I am wondering if I may be reading the book in my most stressful at work period because I didn’t understand who is who in the plot and there were many characters popped up and drifted away that confused the life of me. The Coroner has supernatural power too and receives messages from the dead through his dreams or subconscious.
Dr. Siri is a French educated surgeon and is also a shaman known by the name Yeh Ming. This is another part that I found most confusing but I’ll take it at face value that he is a shaman and can speak Hmong (a hill tribe in Indochina) when the situation calls forth. He is assisted by Nurse Dhuti, unqualified but do as she is told, helping alongside we have Heng, the coroner’s assistant who has down syndrome.
There is a few high cases going about in Dr. Siri’s schedule, one involves the sudden death of a senior party official’s wife. She collapsed while having lunch at the Women’s Union. The husband claims to know what killed her but then he proceeds to put pressure on Dr. Siri to release the body and then sneaks off with his autopsy report. Dr. Siri decides to investigate further since his results kind of clash with the husband’s claims.
For his next case, Dr. Siri’s asked to personally perform an autopsy on 3 drowning victims, Tran, Tran and Hok (I can’t remember names!!). This investigation will result in serious political consequences. The victim was a member of a three man Vietnamese delegation traveling to Laos for a secret mission and now they are dead. In between those two cases, Dr. Siri is asked to investigate the mysterious deaths of several soldiers in the Hmong village. It’s there that he learns that he’s a shaman. The commanders accused the Hmong people of poisoning their soldiers despite the commanders attempt to help the locals. Their military goal is to restore the districts (after the ravages of war) and to substitute their opium crop.
Dr. Siri is very likable and picks up his barguette from a lovely lady seller named Auntie Lah every day. Auntie Lah is regarded by Dr. Siri as a pretty hen, as compared to newly hatched chick, figuratively speaking. There’s some humour to lighten up the mood when things get dark. The story is darker than the No. 1 ladies detective series. I wish I could have read up about history of Laos to understand the politics a little more and a glossary for Laos terminology would be helpful too. The names of the Laos people also tend to be similar and once so many are introduced to the plot, it is hard to suss out who is who and who is actually doing the talking.
Dr. Siri was married before to Boua and she died while Dr. Siri was away by someone throwing a grenade into his home.
Siri was surprised at how easy it was to talk about (his past). He’d kept this story inside himself for eleven years; now here he was blurting it out to a monk he hardly knew. The Catholics had it right. It was very therapeutic to share a burden with a man of the cloth. Except the Catholics probably handled it more delicately than the Lao.
‘I bet it (the bomb) was meant for you.’ – page 181
I haven’t fallen in love with the first book as much as I expect with the No. 1 ladies detective series. However I have a soft spot for stories set in South East Asia, compared to all cosies or books available, very few are set in remote Laos. Perhaps I will follow the series through when time permits.
Other lovely book cover art….
I am reading this for the Mystery & Suspense reading challenge.
Paperback. Publisher: Soho Press 2010, originally published in the UK 2007, 2004 for the rest of the world; Length: 271 pages ; Setting: 1976 Laos. Source: Reading Battle Library. Finished reading on: 8 June 2011.
I’ll feature The Case of Missing Servant by Tarquinn Hall on the next one.
About the writer:
Colin Cotterill was born in London and trained as a teacher and set off on a world tour that didn’t ever come to an end. He worked as a Physical Education instructor in Israel, a primary school teacher in Australia, a counselor for educationally handicapped adults in the US, and a university lecturer in Japan. But the greater part of his latter years has been spent in Southeast Asia. Colin has taught and trained teachers in Thailand and on the Burmese border. He spent several years in Laos, initially with UNESCO and wrote and produced a forty-programme language teaching series; English By Accident, for Thai national television.
Ten years ago, Colin became involved in child protection in the region and set up an NGO in Phuket which he ran for the first two years. After two more years of study in child abuse issues, and one more stint in Phuket, he moved on to ECPAT, an international organization combating child prostitution and pornography. He established their training program for caregivers.
All the while, Colin continued with his two other passions; cartooning and writing. He contributed regular columns for the Bangkok Post but had little time to write. It wasn’t until his work with trafficked children that he found himself sufficiently stimulated to put together his first novel, The Night Bastard (Suk’s Editions. 2000).
The Dr. Siri Paiboun series consists of the following 7 books to date: The Coroner’s Lunch (Soho Press. Dec 04), Thirty Three Teeth (Aug 05), Disco for the Departed (Aug 06), Anarchy and Old Dogs (Aug 07), and Curse of the Pogo Stick (Aug 08), The Merry Misogynist (Aug 09), Love Songs from a Shallow Grave (Aug 10)
On June 15 2009 Colin Cotterill received the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library award for being “the author of crime fiction whose work is currently giving the greatest enjoyment to library users”.
Colin is married and lives in a fishing community on the Gulf of Siam with his wife, Jessi, and ever-expanding pack of very annoying dogs (said Wikipedia) but according to the publisher 2010 edition he is living in Chiang Mai. Either way, he is living in Thailand.