The Coroner’s Lunch

coroners lunchDr. 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.

This entry was posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries/Crime. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Coroner’s Lunch

  1. Elle says:

    Sounds fascinating, and the setting isn’t something you read about in mainstream Western fiction very often–how refreshing. (This also, oddly, reminded me of one of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. I think it’s the 2nd or 3rd one–Tears of the Giraffe or Morality For Beautiful Girls–it’s to do with possible witch doctors who are stealing children for body parts. Surprisingly dark, for McCall Smith, but very beautifully judged writing.)

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I found it refreshing, too. The author is a white man who has lived for years in Thailand and for a while in Laos as well, and has a lot of experience with NGOs. I appreciated the way he represented the culture — it was not uncritical, but it was not judgmental, if that makes any sense.

  2. Alex says:

    I have a friend who has been reading these since they first appeared and is a real advocate for them. It has been the spiritual side of them that has deterred me so far. If I can find a copy of the Fadiman (who is a great favourite of mine) then perhaps I too might be able to find a way into this series. Thank you for the suggestion.

    • Jenny says:

      I strongly recommend it! It’s stuck with me all these years as a memorable, fascinating book that I think might make a difference in the many pluralistic countries around the world.

  3. aartichapati says:

    I really enjoyed this one, too. I did it on audiobook, though I own a paperback copy, and I really enjoyed the narrator. Generally, I would be a little nervous about a book by an Englishman set in Cambodia and featuring the spiritualism aspect of their lives, but the humor and kindness here really shone through for me.

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