51. The Coroner's Lunch - Book 1 in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series
by Colin Cotterill
library book thirteen
Nook book 19
When I first heard of this book at BooksPlease(note the blog has since moved to this address), I laughed at the title. Somehow the idea of a coroner leaving his morning's work of cutting up corpses and then going off to eat lunch struck me as quite funny. In the five years since, I have kept the book in mind as something I would like to read. There are now eight in the series with a new one coming out next year, and the author has another series featuring a new character and setting, Jimm Juree in Thailand. You may read more at the author's fun website.
A few years ago, I was in touch with his wife Jess through blogging but then there weren't posts for a long time, and now I believe she is just on Facebook.
Dr. Siri Paiboun is a reluctant coroner. He never trained for such a job, and at 72 years old believed his working days were behind him. The new Communist government in 1976 Laos has different ideas. It essentially believes that the people should work until they can't. Even on occasional weekends he has to do manual labor work for the good of the country. Mostly, he is placid and goes about his business with his two assistants, Nurse Dtui and Geung, a young man who has Down's Syndrome. Siri swears by Geung's good work (especially at sawing) and his terrific memory. This trio makes for a happy workplace, unless they are interfered with by government types.
The unusual thing about Siri is that the ghosts of the dead visit him, and in the case of wrongful death help him solve why they were murdered. He isn't terribly disturbed by this, though he puzzles over the reason. A later situation in the book helps to illuminate why he may have the gift. I really loved these mystical features of the book. They flowed naturally without any sense of being forced. They just were. There is a most charming one involving a dog, and a heartfelt one with a late, worried mother.
I really enjoyed the Laotian setting, and the time period. This is soon after the US left Vietnam, and the author offers political and historical perspective on both Laos and Vietnam. I know nothing, seriously not anything, about this part of the world. Cotterill brings it alive in a way that almost felt like watching movie scenes.
The reader doesn't forget for a moment that this is taking place thirty-six years ago. There are no cell phones. In fact, Siri has never used a regular telephone. There are no computers to help with forensics, and there are precious few opportunities for any kind of test.
The morgue at the end of 1976 was hardly better equipped than the meatworks behind the morning market.Yet the man does an admirable job pursuing the truth in spite of great obstacles. He is one of the most endearing fictional characters I've come upon. This series is often compared with the work of Alexander McCall Smith, and while I tend to shrink from such comparisons, the elements which tie them together are a kindly spirit, a touch of warm humor, and a lack of seediness. In the first book of the series, you aren't going to find the lurid descriptions of death (very often of women or children) that crop up in many mysteries.
Most of the results from Siri's morgue relied on archaic color tests: combinations of chemicals or litmus samples. These were more suitable for telling what wasn't rather than what was. Assuming the necessary chemicals were available at Lycée Vientiane's chemistry department, Siri could usually eliminate fifty possible causes of death, but still be left with a hundred and fifty others.
I so enjoyed reading this book that I stayed up until 3 this morning to finish it. I've already downloaded the state library's e-book of the second in the series, Thirty-Three Teeth. If it is as good as The Coroner's Lunch, I will happily continue on with Dr. Siri Paiboun as he goes about his life.