The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill: A review
Laos 1975. The long Pathet Lao Revolution has succeeded. The monarchy has abdicated and the new communist regime is in the process of being formed.
Dr. Siri Paiboun had been a part of the long revolution. He has been a communist for 47 years, but he didn't really become one because of ideology. He became one out of love for a woman he met while studying in Paris. She was a committed communist and so, to please her, he joined the Party. The two were married and ultimately returned to Laos to join the struggle.
Now that struggle has succeeded and Dr. Siri is 72 and looking forward to retirement and a reprieve from the long privation of life in the jungle. His beloved wife is long dead, killed in an explosion. She had been so devoted to the revolution that she had refused to have children and so Siri has no children or grandchildren. He is alone, but looking forward to a life of solitude. It is not to be.
Siri is informed by a Party official that he has been designated to be the country's coroner. He is appalled. He has no experience as a pathologist and complains that he is too old. But in the Party, it seems, one is never too old to serve.
And so, Siri takes over the post of coroner, inheriting a staff of two, a laborer, Mr. Geung, who has mild Down Syndrome but a memory that never forgets anything and a nurse, Dtui, who loves comic books and has a gift for sarcasm and also a brilliant gift for innovation that keeps the ill-equipped morgue functioning under conditions of extreme privation.
Things bump along easily for a while and then the morgue receives the body of the wife of a major official and the staff must determine why she suddenly dropped dead at a luncheon. The husband wants them to believe that she died of parasites because of her practice of eating raw pork. Siri finds no evidence of parasitism and looks further. Then strange things begin to happen. Siri receives a visit form the dead wife in his dreams and sees that she blames the husband for her death.
Before he can complete his investigation, Siri suddenly has his hands full of dead bodies. Two Vietnamese bodies have surfaced from a lake. One is recognized as Vietnamese and goes to the Vietnamese embassy where their coroner takes charge. The other is not initially identified as Vietnamese and is given to Siri. Both Siri and the Vietnamese coroner, who becomes his friend and ally, recognize the signs of torture on the bodies. Then, a search of the lake turns up another body, weighted down with Chinese shell casings, and this body, too, appears to have been tortured. The coroners suspect a set-up. Someone is trying to create an incident to foment a war between Vietnam and Laos. Is this the work of the American CIA?
Suddenly, Siri is called away to the province where he was born to investigate the suspicious deaths of two soldiers. The army suspects the Hmong people of poisoning or witchcraft. The army takes Siri to a local Hmong village to investigate. The Hmong respond to Siri immediately, recognizing him, by his unusual green eyes, as the embodiment of their thousand-year-old shaman Yeh Ming. Surprisingly, Siri finds that he understands their language. He knows nothing about his family background. Could he be Hmong? He certainly feels at home among them.
Ultimately, Siri is able to bring some closure to the situation between the soldiers and the Hmong and returns to Vientiane, where someone is determined to stop his investigations. Permanently. Someone is trying to kill him! Will he survive long enough to find the solutions to his mysteries and can he bring justice for the dead who visit him in his dreams?
This book was great fun to read. The story is character-driven rather than description-driven. The focus is always on the character of Dr. Siri and his relationships with his staff, his neighbors, those whom he meets in the course of his investigations (both the ones who help and the ones who hinder), and the higher-up Party and government officials. And Siri is a wonderful character, full of humor and love of life, but at an age where death no longer holds fear for him.
Colin Cotterill has created a winner with this character and I look forward to reading more in the series.