I have finished reading The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill, and have no explanation as to why it has taken me this long to find this series. I was given a proof copy of number four 'Anarchy and Old Dogs' in my book bag at Crime Fest 2008, and the blurb on the back cover begins:
'When a blind retired dentist is run down by a logging truck as he crosses the road....'
That alone should have encouraged me, but when I won a copy of number five 'Curse of the Pogo Stick', and my son travelled off to Cambodia right next door Laos, where the stories are set, I had to buy the first three books to complete the series, and start reading. [since then another book, The Merry Misogynist, has been published in hardback].
Laos, 1976: the Pathet Lao after fighting in the jungle for many years have deposed the royal family and taken power.
The 72 year old Dr Siri Paiboun was looking forward to a well earned retirement, but the great honour of becoming National Coroner to the People's Republic of Laos is bestowed on him. Siri was always a reluctant communist who in Paris many years before had only joined the party because the love of his life, the beautiful Bouasawan, was dedicated to the revolutionary movement.
Comrade Siri has a brilliant intuitive and inquisitive mind that will allow him to excel in the position of coroner. He also has other powers and abilities that seem perfectly natural in the world Colin Cotterill describes with such loving care. But his sense of humour, lack of respect for his nominal superiors, and subtle appreciation of the ridiculous make him totally unsuitable for working in an unsympathetic communist regime.
Although he has no training as a pathologist, and only one ancient textbook, he is lucky that to assist him in the morgue he has a happy dedicated twosome, his nurse Dtui, who reads out of date fashion magazines, and Mr Geung, the morgue labourer, who has Down's Syndrome. More about Mr Geung in another post.
Laos is a poor landlocked country and Dr Siri has to suffer a shortage of chemical tests, forensic technology and all the other assistance that Western pathologists take for granted. When Mrs Nitnoy the wife of local party big wig Comrade Kham dies in suspicious circumstances Siri has to tread carefully as he deals with his young incompetent boss, Judge Haeng, and the party hierarchy.
'His only claim to respect was a Soviet law degree on paper so thin, you could see the wall behind it.'
When the bodies of two apparently tortured Vietnamese soldiers bob to the surface of a Laotian lake, an international crisis is imminent, and Siri's life is at risk. He has to seek help from his lunch partner, old comrade Civilai, a policeman Inspector Phosy, and a Vietnamese doctor, Nguyen Hong; while of course he is assisted by the spirits of the dead that come to him in his dreams.
Colin Cotterill, who won the 2009 Crime Writer's Association "Dagger in the Library' prize, has mastered the technique of imparting chunks of information, about a country we know very little about, while keeping us engrossed with a clever plot. We learn about the Hmong people and their shamanic belief in tree spirits, and about the antagonisms between the richer and more powerful countries in the region, Taiwan, China and Vietnam.
But as with most of my favourite crime fiction it is the clever humour, and the sharply drawn characters that bring the greatest pleasure.
I am really looking forward to reading the rest of the series, and getting further acquainted with these superbly quirky characters.
'I'm sneaking into the embassy this afternoon when all the dignitaries are at the reception. You people are never short of receptions, are you?'
Civilai rolled his eyes. He was obviously slated to meet the Cuban delegation too.
'That is why it's called the Communist "Party", and not the Communist "sit down and get some work done".'
[More about Mr Geung in a few days]