You’ve never read a mystery novel anything like this. It’s 1976 in Vientiane. Communist Laos is in an uneasy relationship with its patron, the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh.
Dr. Siri Paiboun, a long-suffering, 72-year-0ld doctor who has spent much of his life in the jungle as a reluctant guerrilla has been unhappily appointed the national coroner and stationed at a dangerously understaffed and under-resourced hospital in Vientiane. Dr. Siri has a staff of two in the morgue, an impertinent young nurse and a very helpful young man with a mild case of Down’s Syndrome. He has no laboratory, no chemicals, few instruments, and no credentials or interest in pathology. He is also a critic of the regime he helped put in power and has little hope for Laos.
The Coroner’s Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun #1) by Colin Cotterill ★★★★☆
Finally, after ten months in his new job, a murder case arrives in the morgue, then another, and another still. There appear to be two unrelated cases — but are they? And why is someone trying so hard to kill Dr. Siri? In his quest to solve the mysteries, the coroner becomes engaged with his “older brother” (a friend, really) who is a Senior Comrade in the regime, an attractive lady who sells baguette sandwiches on the street, a Vietnamese coroner, a menacing army major, the elders in a Hmong village, and others whose mention would spoil the story. And a fascinating story it is.
The Coroner’s Lunch is well written by Colin Cotterill, a British-born author who has lived in Southeast Asia for many years. His lively prose conveys a sense of the sad and constricted lives of those who lived under the authoritarian rule of the Pathet Lao in a country that had long been known for its cheerful, easy-going people.
This book is an easy read that I found enjoyable in all but one respect: the mysticism and dream-states that play a large role in the plot. This device comes across too much like the deus ex machina of ancient drama, explaining away with mumbo-jumbo what is otherwise difficult to understand.
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