Category Archives: Colin Cotterill

It Starts When You’re Always Afraid*

Witch Hunts and Mass HysteriaThere’ve been all sorts of fictional and historical accounts of the ‘witch trials’ in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692 and 1693. Those events have captured a lot of people’s imaginations and the term ‘witch hunt’ has become synonymous with group hysteria that can lead to injustice and much worse. And if you read history you’ll know that Salem was by no means the first instance of mass hysteria about witchcraft. There’s a line between concern for public safety and the public good on the one hand, and mass hysteria on the other. It’s sometimes hard to say precisely where that line is, but there are many cases where it’s been crossed. A quick look at crime fiction shows some interesting examples.

Hysteria about witches plays a role in Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk. In that novel, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is doing research on anti-depressants. He’s introduced to a nurse, Kimberly Stewart, and the two are soon involved romantically. Kimberly is a descendant of Elizabeth Stewart, who was hanged for witchcraft during the 17th Century wave of anti-witch hysteria. As Armstrong learns about the family history, he also sees another possible avenue for research. It turns out that bread baked in the Stewart home was contaminated with ergot, which has certain psychotropic effects. The house is still in the Stewart family, and Armstrong wants to experiment with the ergot that grows there to see if it has promise as an anti-depressant. The first results are truly exciting and Armstrong and his research team think they’ve made a major medical breakthrough. Then, some disturbing things begin to happen. Before long it’s clear that Armstrong, Stewart and the rest of the team are in far greater danger than anyone imagined.

During the ‘Cold War’ between the US and the UK and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies, there was a great deal of fear about communism. There was reason to be concerned about Soviet spying, and that concern led to fear and even hysteria. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some unusual events at a hostel for students. Odd things have been disappearing there and, as the manager Mrs. Hubbard is the sister of Poirot’s secretary Felicity Lemon, Poirot agrees to visit the hostel. On the night of his visit, one of the residents Celia Austin admits having taken some of the things. When she does, it’s believed that the matter is settled. When Celia dies two nights later, her death is put down to suicide, but it’s soon proven she was murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the backgrounds and personal lives of the other hostel residents to find out who would have wanted to kill Celia and why. In the process, they discover quite a bit of anit-communist sentiment. That discussion forms an interesting thread in this story.

We see that same sort of hysteria reflected in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is an amateur PI in post-World War II Los Angeles. One day he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes and threatening jail if he doesn’t pay up. Rawlins doesn’t have that kind of money so he starts to resign himself to the very real possibility of a jail term. Then he gets a way out. FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if he’ll do something in return. The FBI wants to bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, a Polish war refugee. Wenzler does a lot of volunteer work for the First African Baptist Church, and Craxton wants Rawlins to use that volunteer work to get close to Wenzler and inform on him. Rawlins isn’t interested but he sees no other way out of his tax trouble. So he agrees to the plan. As he gets to know Wenzler, he discovers that he likes the man and becomes less and less eager to set him up. Then there are two murders at the church. Since Rawlins was there at the time, he’s a natural suspect. Then the LAPD link him to an earlier death. It’s now clear that someone’s trying to frame him for murder. So Rawlins has to clear his name and strike a very delicate balance between keeping to his agreement with Craxton and keeping Wenzler out of trouble if he can. Throughout the novel there’s a strong thread of anti-communist hysteria and Rawlins is appealed to as a ‘patriotic American’ to do his share.

Anti-Western hysteria shows up in a lot of crime fiction too. For instance, William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in pre-World War II Moscow. During those years of Stalinist rule, anyone perceived as having any kind of pro-Western or anti-Soviet sentiment was considered an enemy of the state. Such people were often executed or sent off to gulags for ‘re-education.’ Life was hard for their family members too. In this atmosphere people live in dread of being betrayed to the NKVD as traitors. In fact, Korolev himself has to be very careful. As a CID police investigator, he and his team are responsible for catching criminals. It’s in the Soviet interest to have a strong record of catching and punishing those who break the law. But at the same time, Korolev finds that the trail sometimes leads to the NKVD or to other highly respected and powerful Soviet citizens. To suggest that they may be involved in crime is to run the risk of being declared an enemy of the state.

We also see that kind of anti-Western ‘witch hunt’ in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, the third of their Nina Borg series. In one plot thread of this novel, two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up in the Ukraine during the terrible famine years of 1934-1936. Everyone is exhorted to make sacrifices for the greater good of the State, but that doesn’t fill people’s stomachs. Yet people who complain or worse, who seem to be too well-fed or have too much food, are in real danger. They’re perceived as traitorous and are denounced. At that time, even the slightest denunciation was enough to consign a person or family to Siberia or worse, as this was the time of Stalin’s Great Purge of people he saw as enemies. That climate of fear and the ever-increasing circle of denunciations play an important role in this plot thread of the novel. Years later, this story casts a shadow when Natasha Doroshenko and her daughter Katerina flee the Ukraine after the murder of Natasha’s journalist husband Pavel. They make their way to Denmark where at first Natasha thinks she’s found a haven. That turns out to be tragically false when she’s imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé Michael Vestergaard.  Then, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. So she escapes police custody and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. That’s when the real danger starts for her, for Katerina and for Nina Borg.

There are other series too, such as Colin Cotterill’s  Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970’s Laos, that address themes of what you could call ‘witch hunts.’ In series like that, people are encouraged to denounce others, even friends and family members, as traitors. That climate of fear adds a layer of tension to a novel or series. It’s even more disturbing when we think how close those novels come to real life.

ps. The ‘photo is part of an illustration of Pedro Berruguete’s Auto-da-fé, which hangs in Madrid’s Prado Museum. It’s a haunting reminder that widespread fear and the fear of being denounced have a long history.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Stills’ For What it’s Worth.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Colin Cotterill, Lene Kaaberbøl, Robin Cook, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

They Have Made a New Condition*

New InitiativesLike most of us, real and fictional detectives have to deal with new policies and initiatives that come down from ‘the top.’ So do other fictional kinds of sleuths such as attorneys, academics and so on. If you’ve ever been in a meeting like the one in the ‘photo, where new policies are announced, you know what I mean. Sometimes those policies can be beneficial to the people who have to implement them. Sometimes, that’s not the case. And when it isn’t, it’s often because those policies and initiatives don’t come from the people who are most directly affected by them. But whether they do or don’t work to everyone’s benefit, they’re a part of many people’s lives. And in crime fiction, they can add some interesting tension to a story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Chief Inspector Japp investigates the murder of Henry Morley, a dentist who was found shot in his surgery. Morley happens to be Hercule Poirot’s dentist and in fact, Poirot had an appointment there on the morning of the shooting, so Japp is interested in Poirot’s input. This is a case of special interest too, because one of Morley’s other patients is Alistair Blunt, a powerful banker with plenty of (especially political) enemies. So there’s every chance that someone shot Morley in an attempt to get at Blunt. Japp and Poirot have just begun looking into this case when the news comes that one of Morley’s patients has disappeared. Then another is found dead of what seems to be an overdose of anaesthetic. Japp and Poirot are working on the case when all of a sudden word comes down from Japp’s superiors that this case is to be left alone. As you can imagine, Japp is not best pleased, but it’s Scotland Yard’s policy to make Home Office requests a priority. And this time, the Home Office has specifically requested that the case be left alone for security reasons. Japp’s hands, as the saying goes, are tied, but Poirot’s are not, so he continues the investigation and finds out who shot Morley and why.

In Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men, DI John Rebus finds himself caught up in a new initiative for helping detectives like himself who have trouble working in groups and with authority figures. He and his team are investigating the murder of Edinburgh art dealer Edward Marber, and the case isn’t going very well. During a tense meeting about it, Rebus throws a mug of cold tea in the direction of DCS Gill Templar, who’s leading the meeting. It’s decided that he should be a part of this new initiative, so he’s remanded along with some other detectives to Tulliallan Police College. Rebus of course isn’t happy about this, not least because he can’t do anything to solve the Marber case if he’s off on this new program. But he isn’t given any choice. What’s more, he’s given a special assignment to carry out while he’s there (no spoilers). As an exercise in team-building, the ‘Resurrection Men’ as they’re called are given a ‘cold case’ to solve, the murder of gangster Rico Lomax. As Rebus is working on this case, he’s also working privately with DS Siobhan Clarke on the Marber case. In the end, it turns out that these murders are connected.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has to learn several skills when she takes over the leadership of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. One of those skills is how to cope with her own and others’ frustration at initiatives and policies that may seem good ‘on paper,’ but don’t work well in practice. For example, ACC Lauren Self has passed down the constabulary’s new healthy eating Initiative, which limits the kind of food that’s available on the premises. All the food served at meetings and events is to be organic, and it’s to be nutritious. In the abstract, it’s a good idea to eat healthy food. And in the abstract, it makes sense to support healthy eating at the institutional level. But in practice, it’s a failure. In both The Cipher Garden and The Serpent Pool, there are examples of detectives who find their own ways of circumventing this initiative. Here, for instance, is what Scarlett’s friend and colleague Fern Larter says about it (from The Serpent Pool):

 

‘I’m pig-sick of the ACC’s healthy eating initiative. I refuse to spend the rest of my life worrying about clogged arteries.’

 

It’s an interesting thread of tension that also adds some humanity to Edwards’ characters.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series takes place in 1970s Laos, at a time when the then-new communist government had made profound changes in the way things were done. This of course entailed a raft of new initiatives, policies and so forth that were enacted to further the government’s goals. And as Laos’ chief medical examiner, Dr. Siri has to deal with a lot of them. As we learn in The Coroner’s Lunch, for instance, the government has set up a new program for getting municipal and other community projects completed. Villagers ‘volunteer’ to dig canals, paint youth centres and the like. Since everyone is expected to work at regular jobs throughout the week and often on Saturdays too, this ‘volunteer’ work takes place on Sundays. Those who don’t participate come to the notice of authorities, and this can have its own policy-based consequences. So although Dr. Siri is not happy about being wakened early on his only ‘day off’ to dig an irrigation canal, he knows the risks of not going along. And this leads to another initiative mentioned in this novel. Those who don’t comply with ‘handed-down’ initiatives are sent to another part of Laos for ‘re-education.’  Dr. Siri ofen finds himself at odds with the government policies that affect his life. But he also finds ways to get around them.

There is a tense, serious and thought-provoking discussion of the effects of initiatives and policies in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White is stabbed to death while he and probationer Lucy Howard are investigating a break-in. Since the victim is a fellow police officer and a well-respected one too, the cops are determined to punish the culprit. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from a poor area of Hobart. Since Darren is part Aboriginal, this investigation is strictly circumscribed by recent initiatives put into place in order to ensure that Aborginal citizens’ rights are protected. There are also policies in place that are intended to protect juveniles. On the one hand, there are good reasons for those initiatives and good reasons to codify what police can and cannot do. On the other hand, as the novel plays out, we also see that these policies don’t always have the intended effects. What’s more, Erskine explores the reaction of the ‘regular cops’ to having to comply with policies that were ‘handed down’ from people who aren’t on regular police duty.

In Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, social worker Simran Singh is asked to help with a terrible case that the State of Punjab is facing. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested for poisoning thirteen members of her family, and stabbing several of them. She also allegedly set fire to the family home. The case is complicated by the fact that there are signs Durga was bound and raped. It’s also complicated by the fact that Durga hasn’t spoken since the crime took place. It’s believed that if Simran can get Durga to talk about what happened that terrible night, the police will get closer to the truth. One of many, many hurdles that Simran encounters is the fact that Durga is currently being held in a prison instead of in a more appropriate juvenile home. But recent reports of corruption and more at the juvenile home led to a raid and a new policy about the place. So Durga has had to be accommodated with a makeshift ‘solitary confinement’ setup at the prison.

And that’s the thing about some initiatives and polices, especially if they’re ‘handed down’ from people who don’t have to implement or live with them. They may seem like real solutions in the abstract, and sometimes they are. But in reality it doesn’t always work out that way.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s (The Lorries’) This Today.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Cotterill, Ian Rankin, Kishwar Desai, Martin Edwards, Y.A. Erskine

What’s it All About?*

Making Sense of LifeIt seems to be human nature that we want the things that happen to us to make sense. We don’t want to think that it’s all random. Perhaps that’s because humans seek ways to organise things in their minds, and it’s hard to make a pattern if everything that happens to us is random. That’s arguably one reason for which people study science; they want things to have an explanation. That’s also arguably why people look to spirituality for life’s answers; they want explanations too. That quest for things to make sense is an important part of what it is to be human, and it governs quite a lot of behaviour, so it isn’t surprising that we find it in crime fiction. Just the fact that fictional detectives want to solve mysteries is an example of that. There are a lot of others.

We see that search for things to make sense in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, which features a polygamist group that lives in an isolated compound called Purity. PI Lena Jones and her investigation partner Jimmy Sisiwan are hired to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from the group after her father Abel promises her in marriage to the group’s leader Solomon Royal. The rescue comes off and Rebecca is returned to her mother Esther, who is divorced from Abel. In the process of retrieving the girl, though, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and badly wounded. She calls the police anonymously, thinking that’ll be the end of her involvement. But the next day Jones finds out that Royal has died, and that Esther is the prime suspect. In order to clear her client’s name, Jones goes undercover, posing as a new member of Purity. As she learns more about the sect, she finds that women there are treated as, at best, third- or fourth-class citizens. She makes other discoveries too, some of them very disturbing. So one of the questions Jones asks herself is, ‘Why don’t the women just leave?’ One answer to that is that several of them have been raised in the group and believe that things make sense as they are. They’ve been given explanations for life by the group leaders and that’s how they see life. Others joined the group after leaving difficult or dangerous lives in the ‘outside world.’ For them, becoming a part of the group was the product of their own search for what it all means and why they ended up in the situations they faced. Of course, not all of the group’s members feel that way, but it’s an interesting undercurrent in the story.

Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch introduces readers to Dr. Siri Paiboun, who’s been ‘volunteered’ to serve as Laos’ chief medical examiner. The novel takes place in the 1970’s, and Laotians are expected to serve the new revolutionary regime. But Paiboun is already in his 70’s and ready to retire. What’s more, he no longer believes the revolution’s explanations for everything; he’s gotten cynical. But he’s pragmatic enough to know that he doesn’t have much choice but to go along with what he’s told to do, so he takes up his duties. Then he’s faced with two puzzling cases. One is the case of Comrade Nitnoy, who is poisoned during an important luncheon. At first her death is put down to a severe allergic reaction to some seafood she was eating but it soon turns out that she was murdered. The other case is even more delicate. Two bodies are discovered in the Nam Ngum Reservoir in Khamuan; a third soon joins them. The victims are Vietnamese, so there’s the difficult question of whether they were spies. At the same time as Paiboun is negotiating this political land mine, he faces an even more difficult set of questions. He’s a doctor and a person of science. He wants things to make sense scientifically. And yet in the process of this investigation, he has some experiences that have no scientific explanation. The process of making sense of it all – of figuring out how it all fits together – is an interesting part of Paiboun’s character development as well as an interesting thread through this novel.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing has as one of its major themes people’s attempts to make sense of life.  Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of exposing religious charlatans – he calls them ‘the Godmen’ – and showing them for what they are. In fact, he is the founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (DIRE), a group dedicated to promoting scientific explanations for life and debunking religious myths. One morning, Jha is killed in a bizarre incident. According to witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and murders Jha in retribution for turning people away from her worship. Jha was once a client of Delhi private detective Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri, so he takes an interest in this unusual case. At one point, the trail leads to an ashram run by spiritual leader Maharaj Swami. His spiritual group has become increasingly popular as people look for answers, and in the voices of some of the group members we see that human desire for things to make sense. Swami may be regarded as a cult leader, but that doesn’t mean he murdered his nemesis Suresh Jha, so Puri sends one of his team members, who goes by the name of Facecream, undercover at the ashram to find out what she can. It’s a fascinating look at the way people seek explanations.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series often takes a look at people’s desire for things to make sense. Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a large Roman-style building called Insula. One of her neigbours is Miriam Kaplan, who usually goes by her Wicca name of Meroe. Meroe has a lot of wisdom, and answers life’s questions through her knowledge of traditional lore, an understanding of human nature, and Wicca spiritualism. Chapman isn’t at all a religious person and she doesn’t study Wicca or attend Wicca events as a rule. But she does respect Meroe’s wisdom and often relies on it when she’s trying to make sense of a case. There’s another perspective on making sense of life in the case of Chapman’s parents, hippies who live in a commune in Nimbin:

 

‘My parents had believed in going back to the land, and that meant candles. And an earth closet…And no shoes, even in winter.’

 

Chapman’s parents, who go by the names of Starshine and Sunlight, have answered life’s big questions by rejecting formal religion and living, so to speak, at one with nature. Chapman has a difficult relationship with them and part of the reason for that is that she wants life to make sense in a much more practical way. Besides, she prefers to wear shoes, especially when it’s cold.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has seen plenty of things in life that don’t make sense and might lead a person to despair. Although he acknowledges that those things happen, he still tries to make sense of them – to put it all in perspective. He’s not a religious person but he does have a sense of spirituality in his way. He has come to believe that things have a way of coming back to a person, if I can put it like that. It’s one of the reasons for which he has a habit of visiting churches and lighting candles for people who have died. In the way Scudder processes the things he experiences, we see that human urge to make sense of sometimes terrible things – to impose some sort of order on the otherwise random.

This is a fairly big theme, and it’s treated in an awful lot of crime fiction. I’ve only the space to mention a few examples here. So now it’s your turn…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s I Don’t Know How to Love Him.

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Filed under Betty Webb, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Tarquin Hall

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Injections

InjectionsThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is making great progress on our treacherous trek through the letters of the alphabet. As ever, my thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us all together and organized. Erm – You haven’t seen my passport have you, Kerrie? ;-)   This week we’ve arrived at the delightful Isle of I. The word is that there’s quite good fishing, hiking and outdoor sports here. So while everyone’s getting the anti-bug spray and changing into hiking shoes, I’ll share my contribution for the week: injections.

Some injections save lives. For instance, there’s naloxone (often marketed under the name Narcan) that reverses the effects of certain opiates such as heroin. And there’s epinephrine (adrenaline) that counteracts histamine reactions; it’s often carried by people who have severe allergies. But as any crime fiction fan can tell you, injections can be very dangerous too. There are a lot of examples in crime fiction of this kind of murder; I’ll just give a few of them.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family makes a sightseeing trip to the ancient city of Petra. One afternoon while they’re there, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems to be heart failure. But a few details of the death don’t quite add up, and Colonel Carbury isn’t entirely satisfied that Mrs. Boynton died a natural death. So he asks Hercule Poirot, who is in the area, to investigate. It turns out that Mrs. Boynton was a tyrant and a mental sadist and no-one in her family is exactly mourning her loss. Neither are any of the other sightseers on this trip. It also turns out that she was murdered by an injection of digitalis. Poirot looks more closely into Mrs. Boynton’s life and that of her family members, and finds that the key to her murder lies in the kind of personality she had, and in an incident from her past. Some of Christie’s other work also features the role of injections, but no spoilers…

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) begins with the funeral of Isaiah Christiansen, a young Greenlander boy who moved to Copenhagen. The official account of his death is that he fell off the roof of the building where he lived – a terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. Smilla Jaspersen lives in the same building and actually befriended Isaiah. Herself a half-Inuit Greenlander, Smilla felt drawn to the boy so she takes an interest in his death. Little signs in the snow on the roof suggest that Isaiah did not fall off the roof accidentally. This is enough for Smilla to start asking questions. Her suspicions are confirmed when she finds out that Isaiah had a puncture wound on his leg. There’s no sign of drugs, but Smilla is now sure that something about this death is not what it seems. So she keeps asking questions. The trail leads her to Greenland and an expedition that included both Isaiah and his father. That expedition turns out to be critical to the mystery.

Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan is the story of the death of Deirdre Hunt. When her body is found off the rocks near Dalkey Island, the official explanation is that she committed suicide. Her husband Billy accepts that verdict and wants the case to go no further. In fact, he asks his old friend Dublin pathologist Garrett Quirke to do what he can to prevent an autopsy, saying that he doesn’t want his wife’s body subjected to being cut up. For the sake of their friendship Quirke agrees to see what he can do. But he begins to have suspicions about this death and when he prepares the body for a post-mortem examination, he finds evidence to support those suspicions. There’s a puncture wound in Deirdre’s arm, suggesting that she was injected with something. That needle mark is enough to get Quirke looking more deeply into the case. His search for answers leads him to the Silver Swan, a beauty shop in which Deirdre had an interest. There also turns out to be a connection in this case to an Indian faith healer and to Quirke’s own estranged daughter Phoebe, who’s dangerously mixed up in events at the Silver Swan.

Laos’ chief (actually only) medical examiner Dr. Siri Paiboun investigates a case involving injection in Colin Cotterill’s  The Coroner’s Lunch. Dr. Siri and his team are assigned to work on the politically-charged case of three Vietnamese men whose bodies are found in the Nam Ngum Reservoir in Kharmuon. There is a possibility that the men were spies, as there is no love lost between Vietnam and Laos. There are also signs of torture on the bodies. So the Vietnamese government is very interested in knowing what happened to its citizens and in knowing whether the Laotian government had anything to do with their deaths. Dr. Siri and his team are told to work as quickly and discreetly as they can so the press in both countries doesn’t fan the proverbial flames. Siri works with a Vietnamese counterpart Dr. Nguyen Hong on the murders and they find out something startling. Two of the men died not from torture or even from drowning, but from embolisms – injections of air. This suggests something more deliberate than simply the fate of captured Vietnamese spies and so it turns out to be.

Of course, injections can cause plenty of trouble even if they aren’t given directly to people. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. Chapman is a baker who lives and works in a Roman-style Melbourne building called Insula. As we learn in Heavenly Pleasures, her nearby neighbours Juliette and Vivienne Lefebvre own a chocolate shop called Heavenly Pleasures and sometimes use her as a taster for new creations. As Chapman puts it, Juliette

 

‘…really cares about chocolate in the same way that I care about bread.’

 

That’s one reason Chapman is so upset when some of the confections are sabotaged. Someone has injected chili into the chocolates, and although the Lefebvre sisters are quick to make things right, that doesn’t stop some questions being asked. There are other incidents of sabotage too and before long the Lefebvre sisters face having to close up shop until they find out what has happened to their chocolate. Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen look into the question of who is trying to ruin Heavenly Pleasures while they are also investigating a suspicious new resident in Chapman’s building as well as a bomb threat.

See what I mean? Injections can be as dangerous as they can be helpful. And you’ll notice I haven’t even mentioned the many medical thrillers and hospital-based crime stories where injections play a role. Too easy. Now, if you’ll step over here, let me give you something guaranteed to help prevent a reaction to insect bites …   ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Benjamin Black, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Høeg

In The Spotlight: Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch

SpotlightHello, All,

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

 

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