Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime fiction series add to the genre by featuring an unusual sort of sleuth who works in a unique setting. Now of course, words such as unusual and unique are often included in publishers’ blurbs and so on to the point where they may have lost their power. It’s a shame too because there are some series where those words apply. One of them is Colin Cotterill’s series featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight on the first of that series, The Coroner’s Lunch.
Dr. Siri is Laos’ official coroner/medical examiner and as this series takes place in the late 1970’s, Dr. Siri’s Laos is getting used to the new socialist regime. Dr. Siri doesn’t have a lot of medical equipment and he has no background as a coroner. In fact, his original plan had been to retire, something he believes he’s earned by the age of seventy-two. However, he’s been ‘volunteered’ for this position so he has little choice in the matter. He works with a staff of two: Dtui, who is his official nurse and unofficial apprentice, and Mr. Geung, who is the mortuary assistant. Most of the team’s work is routine until two very unusual cases come up.
One is the case of the death of Comrade Nitnoy, wife of Senior Comrade Kham, a highly placed member of the government. Nitnoy was at a luncheon when she suddenly collapsed and died. One possibility is that the cause of death was accidental poisoning by parasites in some raw food she ate. But a few clues suggest otherwise. Most importantly, there seems to be an unusual rush to get the official paperwork done and the body cremated as is the custom. Now Siri is interested and begins to ask questions.
He’s working on this case when another is assigned to him. Two bodies have been discovered in the Nam Ngum Reservoir in Khamuan. A third body is soon added to those two. All three victims were Vietnamese nationals who might or might not have been involved in covert operations in Laos. What’s worse, their bodies show signs of torture so the Vietnamese government wants to know what happened to its people. The Vietnamese also want to know whether the government of Laos had anything to do with what happened. Dr. Siri and his team are told to work as quickly and discreetly as possible so the matter can be handled quietly. With him on this case is his Vietnamese counterpart Dr. Nguyen Hong.
When Dr. Siri gets to Kharmoun he discovers a possible piece of his past that he didn’t know existed and one thread of this novel is his process of beginning to learn about that part of himself. As he deals with that process as well as continuing his investigations, Dr. Siri runs into several obstacles. His office is rifled, some papers are stolen and then his home is rifled too. Now Dr. Siri is sure that someone is very much afraid of what will happen if he finds out the truth about the murders he’s investigating. And then there’s another death which may be connected to one of the cases. Dr. Siri now has to do his best to find out who’s targeting him before he becomes a victim.
One of the strongest elements in this novel is the character of Dr. Siri. He is observant and intelligent but he’s never studied forensics in any depth and is by most objective measures really not qualified to be a medical examiner. But he’s a doctor and he’s all they have as the saying goes. He’s far from stupid though and learns his new role quickly although he’s very reluctant. He’s not at all afraid to speak his mind and in his view, he’s old enough to get away with saying what he wants.
There’s another side to Dr. Siri too. As we learn in this novel (and this gets further developed as the series goes on), he has some connection to an ancient shaman named Yeh Ming. And there are little hints of that throughout the novel. As one example, he frequently has dreams and visions in which those whose death he investigates find ways to communicate with him. This ancient spiritualism plays an interesting role in the story too. Readers who don’t like supernatural solutions to their mysteries need not worry: these cases have prosaic explanations. But woven throughout the novel is a strong sense of the spiritual and of ancient beliefs. Readers who enjoy the thread of spiritualism that runs through, for example, Arthur Upfield’s series featuring Queensland detective Napolean ‘Bony’ Bonaparte or Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest series will recognise that this novel is similar in that way.
Dr. Siri is the main character in this novel, but he depends heavily on his team and his friends. Mr. Geung for instance may have mild Down’s syndrome but he knows more about conducting an autopsy than his boss does. Dtui is also very good at what she does and a few times during this novel, her skills turn out to be crucial. And to the extent that he can, Dr. Siri protects them too. That team is a close-knit group and their friendship is an important element in the novel.
The story takes place against the Laos of the mid/late-1970s and we see that all throughout the story. Here for instance is a bit of description of Dr. Siri’s home:
‘Hs apartment was at the rear overlooking the little Hay Sok temple…There was a desk with books waiting for him at the window. A thin mattress was rolled up against one wall under the skirt of a mosquito net. Three peeling vinyl chairs gathered around a tin coffee table, and a small stained sink perched on a thick metal pipe.’
A critical part of life in Laos at that time was the recently-installed socialist government and we see that government throughout the novel:
‘Community service in the city of Vientiane wasn’t a punishment; it was a reward for being a good citizen. It was the authorities’ gift to the people. They didn’t want a single man, woman or child to miss out on the heart-swelling pride that comes from resurfacing a road or dredging a stream. The government knew the people would gladly give up their only day off for such a treat.’
That bit also shows another strong element running through this novel: its wit, cleverness and sense of humour. Life in Laos isn’t easy. Most people are poor, there are long waits for just about everything, and what many of us consider basic necessities aren’t available. This is to say nothing of government micro-managing and citizen informants. So the people have a rather dark, sarcastic sense of humour about managing to make as much of a life as they can. Dr. Siri especially sees what’s happening around him with a sardonic eye.
The Coroner’s Lunch takes place in a fascinating time in history in what for most of us is an unusual – even exotic – place. It features a sleuth with some rich and interesting sides to his character and history, and tells the story of credible mysteries, especially given the time and place. There are some interesting plot twists but Cotterill ‘plays fair’ with the reader too. And readers who enjoy a solid sense of wit and humour in their novels will appreciate this one. But what’s your view? Have you read The Coroner’s Lunch? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 18 February/Tuesday 19 February – Unexpected Night – Elizabeth Daly
Monday 25 February/Tuesday 26 February – Full Dark House – Christopher Fowler
Monday 4 March/Tuesday 5 March – House Report – Deborah Nicholson