The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill
The Coroner’s Lunch was one of the first books I purchased after starting my blog last year. I was immediately drawn to its striking cover and unusual setting and while it has taken me longer to get around to reading it than I had planned, I was excited to give it a try.
The novel is the first in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series that is set in Laos in the immediate aftermath of their Communist revolution. The main character is a seventy-two year old medical doctor who unexpectedly (and somewhat unwillingly) finds himself appointed as Laos’ only coroner after the revolution as all the other doctors have fled. He had no experience of the work prior to his appointment and is still learning on the job throughout this investigation.
I say investigation, but The Coroner’s Lunch is actually made up of several cases that are somewhat connected. The first concerns the suspicious death of the wife of a senior government figure. Siri is only part way through the autopsy when he is told to abandon his work and to accept a diagnosis made by a family doctor.
The second concerns the discovery of three bodies in a reservoir, bound and tied to the casings of inactive Chinese bombs. Their tattoos seem to suggest that they may have originated in Vietnam, prompting tensions between the two socialist countries to rise and giving Siri’s work international significance.
Finally there is a third case that takes place in the middle of the novel and which feels quite distinctive both in topic and style from those other two. One of the aspects that makes this case stand out is that it features strong spiritualistic or supernatural elements. Those elements are most strongly featured in this story thread but play a very important part in the story as a whole.
When he sleeps Siri dreams of being visited by the spirits of the corpses he has interacted with that day. At times those spirits simply share his space but at others they reenact aspects of how they were killed, giving him a clearer idea of what may have happened to them. It is a plot device that ought not to work, seeing as how it seems at odds with anything approaching ratiocination, though if you wish I suppose you can imagine that Siri’s dreams are manifesting things he has already seen and worked out on a subconscious level. Either way it seems to fit and makes some sense within the context of this setting which was what was important to me.
Because Siri is investigating three quite different cases with little apparent overlap there are times where the narrative may seem to be lacking a clear direction or set of unifying themes or ideas. In time though I came to appreciate that Dr. Siri himself is the unifying force of the novel as we grow to know and understand the character, discover a little more about his past and see some of the contradictions within his character.
I have read some reviews that compare the character of Dr. Siri to Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. While I think there are some differences between the two series, not least in terms of tone, both use humor well to balance moments of darkness, develop a cast of appealing characters for the sleuth to rely on and place them in a situation where they are having to work out how to do a job without any training.
What strikes me most about the character of Siri however is the way that Cotterill is able to present us with a portrait of what it may have felt like to live through a political revolution. He is cynical about many aspects of the revolution and the way his society is developing but he does not perceive himself to be living in an extraordinary time but instead it is simply part of his reality. At the same time, Cotterill makes it quite clear that there are dangers with the threat of re-education and that the Police no longer have a list of rights to read those they arrest present in the back of the reader’s mind.
While the characters and the settings are the primary draws here for me, I do want to stress that I did find the cases to be interesting if not imaginative. Cotterill creates a few interesting images and ideas but I found the way Siri is affected by his investigations to be more intriguing than their premises. I was impressed by the way he is able to pull these seemingly very disparate threads together in the final chapters of the book and felt that the ending was particularly satisfying.
I enjoyed The Coroner’s Lunch a lot though I would note that it features a few elements that may frustrate some readers. In particular those who have aversions to detectives who solve things by hunch or supernatural phenomena may be frustrated by the way Siri’s dreams are used at key points in this story. If you like stories that focus on building the character of the detective and exploring a society or period of history then I think there is a lot to enjoy here and would certainly recommend it.