Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill

The year is 1976, the place Laos and Dr Siri Paiboun is the only coroner in the country. He was looking forward to an easy retirement in Vientianne, after "reassembling broken soldiers and avoiding bombs" in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam for 35 years but the Lao People's Revolutionary Party have other ideas.

"We've decided to make you the Republic's chief police coroner" He looked into Siri's green eyes for a hint of pride, but only saw bewilderment. He might as well have told him he was to be the Republic's new balloon bender or unicyclist"
"I've never done an autopsy in my life"
"Ah. Its all the same. Putting them together; taking them apart"

He inherits a team of two, Nurse Dtui and mortuary assistant Mr Geung and settles into a routine, until Comrade Kham's wife dies unexpectedly. Cause of death is elusive, have her tablets been spiked with poison? Khan wants her cremated as soon as possible, and the body is taken out of the morgue. Dr Siri goes in search of answers and finds he is enjoying the investigation and the "cloak and daggery" of it all. But this is just the start, tortured Vietnamese bodies bob up to the surface in a lake, mysterious deaths occur in the provinces.

"Whats happening to this job? For nine months we plod along nicely: a couple of old ladies, the odd electric shock and a bicycle fatality. No murders, mysteries, or mayhem. Then, all of a sudden, the body business explodes like an atomic bomb."

Someone does not want any of these mysteries to be solved, reports disappear, investigations are hampered. But Siri Paiboun has another resource, he sees the dead in his dreams which encourages him to "show respect to cadavers, once he knew the former owners would be back", and maybe they will give hims some clues to find answers, but his main resource will be his scientific mind and resourcefulness.

The historical setting as the communist government overthrows the royal family and takes charge, the shortages of every type of equipment, the power struggles and beginnings of corruption, together with the uneasy relationships with Vietnam and the politics make this interesting but unfamiliar territory for a crime novel.

The book has a real sense of place and community in urban Vientianne and to a lesser extent the border territory of Kumsing, where Dr Siri will find more than he bargained for.

There is an interesting cast of characters and as this book is the first in a series I would hope that this element would be developed further. Dr Siri is a charismatic figure and we learn more about him throughout the book.

An entertaining book with dry wit which could be described as a cozy crime, apart from the body dissections, prophetic dreams and a hint of shamanism. I am certainly going to search out the next in the series 'Thirty-Three Teeth'.

Verdict: Rattling Yarn

Colin Cotterill lives in Thailand and his website contains both his writing and cartooning skills. Another interesting project he is involved with is the blog of the International Crime Authors , a collection of writers whose detectives ply their skills in Turkey, Thailand, Palestine and of course Laos.

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