Dr. Siri Paiboun shouldn’t really be a coroner. He’s served most of his life as a doctor for the Laotian people, and now, at the age of 72, he thought he’d be able to take a peaceful, if not ideal, retirement: one room and a shared bathroom in Vientiane, a little people-watching, lunch every day from the best kiosk in the city. He’s a communist only by convenience; something of a wry ne’er-do-well by nature.
But the new regime (new in 1976) has other ideas for Dr. Siri. The Party leaders make him a coroner — a job he has no training or inclination to do, and no materials to perform properly. They expect him to return safe verdicts in contentious cases: cardiac arrest, sir, cardiac arrest.
But Dr. Siri has had enough of safety. At his age, he has a lot of experience with human nature, and very little to lose. When he sees something strange in the death of a Party leader’s wife, and Vietnamese soldiers begin popping to the surface of a Laotian lake, he’s the only one unafraid to investigate and draw dangerous conclusions. He and his two assistants (a very appealing and funny pair) accept danger as long as it leads to the truth.
Colin Cotterill’s novel, The Coroner’s Lunch, is a lively evocation of the early days of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, when a practically crime-free communist regime competed with the Thai regime across the river. The plot is original enough, stemming as it does from some of the political complications of the time. The most interesting and unpredictable thing about it, to my mind, however, is the spiritual or supernatural element to the mystery. Dr. Siri has dreams in which he communicates with the recently dead. When he visits a Hmong village, they call him Yeh Ming, a thousand-year-old warrior, and he discovers he can speak fluent Hmong — a language he didn’t know he knew. Later, he has shamanistic visions that help him solve the mystery.
Normally, this kind of plot device wouldn’t appeal to me much. But years ago (maybe as many as 16 years ago) I read Anne Fadiman’s superb book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This is about a Hmong family whose spiritual beliefs about their daughter’s illness (epilepsy) are in direct conflict with the Western medicine her doctors are using to treat her. Fadiman gently, sensitively, and intelligently explores the huge cultural gap that separates Western beliefs about illness from Hmong (and more generally Eastern) beliefs. It’s a tremendously interesting and well-written book that I would recommend to anyone. It was published in 1998, but the girl’s family came to the United States in 1980 — just a few years after this mystery takes place in Laos. This extra piece of knowledge about the way spirituality is integrated with Laotian life made the book convincing and interesting to me, and pulled me into its path when it might otherwise have lost me.
There are so many detective series out there. This is one I didn’t know existed — I read it for my mystery book club, and I’m glad I did. If this tempts you at all, I’d recommend it.