The Coroner’s Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun #1) by Colin Cotterill
Welcome to Dr. Siri Paiboun’s world! It’s 1976 and Laos has experienced ‘a quiet transition from what the president called ‘a bastardised version of America’ to a Marxist-Leninist state’. Septuagenarian Dr Siri Paiboun was looking forward to a quiet retirement, but the new regime has other ideas. Paiboun finds himself the country’s one and only coroner. ‘He was the first to confess to his lack of qualifications and enthusiasm for the job.’ Using a ‘couple of slightly charred French textbooks’, and ably assisted by his nurse, Dtui and Mr Geung, the previous incumbent’s assistant, he teaches himself the tricks of the trade.
It’s a normally quiet job, with few ‘customers’, until a Party leader’s wife is wheeled into the morgue. Did she die from an allergic reaction, or something more sinister? When two bodies, identified as Vietnamese soldiers, emerge from the muddy depths of a river, Siri discovers new found enthusiasm for his job. However, there are many eyes watching his every move, and his investigations are upsetting all the wrong people.
Dr. Siri Paiboun is wonderful company. He is compassionate and self deprecating, with a wry sense of humour. He also has conversations with the dead! As he explains to his friend, Civilai, ‘I see the spirits of the deceased. I have no control over when they come, or how they communicate with me. But it’s true.’ This supernatural element could be off-putting for some readers, however, I found it added an unexpected depth and poignancy to the story, as those who had been murdered help Siri find their murderer, letting them rest in peace. The limitations under which Siri must work make his job almost impossible. There are few resources available, even the camera film is in short supply. Running tests requires calling in favours from his friends. He certainly doesn’t have the resources we see on Silent Witness!
I thoroughly enjoyed The Coroner’s Lunch. Its sense of time and place sets it apart from other crime novels and its main character is a delight. I will definitely be spending more time in the company of Dr. Siri Paiboun and his friends.