The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill
This mystery truly transported me to Laos in the late 1970s, an exotic place and time that was completely unfamiliar to me. The Communist Pathet Lao party has just taken over control of the country, and Dr. Siri Paiboun, instead of receiving the retirement he thinks he deserves, is appointed chief, and only, coroner. The morgue is poorly equipped and Siri often finds himself in conflict with his superiors and the system. Siri takes his job seriously, has to do the best he can for the dead who come to him, and not only because their spirits have a tendency to visit him in his dreams.
Now, after months of quiet, Siri has three cases to deal with, the death of an important official’s wife, the discovery of bodies that could lead to an international incident between Laos and Vietnam, and uncovering the reason why the commanders of an Army base, located in northern Laos, keep dying. Siri is not comfortable giving the convenient answers and earnestly investigates the cases, with help from the few people he trusts.
This is one of those rare mysteries I adore where the setting and characters overshadow the plot. Laos itself is fascinating and the tensions between communism, traditions, poverty and expectations are shown but not in a heavy-handed way. The regular, everyday people are trying their best to live in this new country. Siri is at center stage. He’s 72, a widower with a good sense of humor who’s beyond political infighting and petty bickering.
If the truth be told, he was a heathen of a communist. He’d come to believe two conflicting ideas with equal conviction: that communism was the only way man could be truly content; and that man, given his selfish ways, could never practice communism with any success. The natural product of these two views was that man could never be content. (pg. 16)
He’s a scientist, but also recognizes that the metaphysical world does exist and can affect circumstances. He can’t entirely deny what he’s experienced and seen with his own eyes. He knows that the spirits can contact the living.
She sighed, unconvinced but happier, and walked from the office. Siri collapsed back into his chair. Encounters with the living always drained him more than those with the dead. And women most of all. Give him a dead man over a live woman any day. (pg. 186)
I was engrossed in this read, as often happens when the setting becomes so integral to the story. I haven’t thought about it much, but I guess setting, for me, is what can make a good book outstanding. It doesn’t have to be somewhere exotic, but I need to feel like the story could not take place anywhere else. I’m captivated by the land and culture, fall in love with the place, faults and all.
First published 2004
Dr. Siri Paiboun #1
Challenges: 100+, Thriller & Suspense
I borrowed my copy from the library and the above is my honest opinion. I am an Amazon associate.