I’ve been meaning to try this series for ages, and here we are, fifteen books later, the series having quite gotten away from me. The Coroner’s Lunch is the first in the Siri Paiboum mysteries featuring an elderly Laotian coroner a year or two after Laos was taken over by the Communist Pathet Lao Party.
Following a career spent devoted to the party, Dr Siri may have felt it was time to enjoy retirement, but with many of the educated classes having decamped for Thailand, the medical profession is thin on the ground. Before you know it, he’s been hustled into the role of Chief Coroner. It’s obviously not a glamorous position – the morgue is rudimentary at best. Fortunately he’s got help: Dtui a fan-mag obsessed nurse with career aspirations and Geung the Downs Syndrome morgue attendant who never forgets the details that matter.
When Dr Siri receives his first murder case, there’s a lot of pressure to sign it off as an accident. A party official’s wife has died of poisoning at a banquet but there are no clues and pretty soon, no body either. More cases suddenly pile up including three dead Vietnamese soldiers who bear the marks of having been tortured before being dumped in a Laotian lake. Dr Siri’s going to have to tread a careful path with both if he wants to avoid ending up dead himself.
It’s a little difficult to say what mystery sub-genre the series is. There’s a touch of the cosy mystery here with a coroner learning things as he goes along, a bit like an amateur sleuth. And you’ve got the exotic setting and period time-frame. But there’s a wit and intelligence to the story in the way Cotterill captures not just Laos but what living in a new Communist regime might be like, and how it might clash with the old ways. This is rounded out with some great characters and lively dialogue.
Siri, in particular, is a terrific character with a dry sense of humour plus the wisdom of his years. Having trained at medical school in Paris he became a fan of Simenon’s Maigret novels, though all too soon he was able to figure out the crime well before the Sûreté. So, for such a logical thinker, why is he visited in his dreams by the newly dead – often with important messages to pass on? There is more than a touch of the supernatural creeping into the book, but all is explained in an entertaining way that ties in with some old Laotian belief systems.
I particularly enjoyed the audiobook reading by Gareth Armstrong who makes Dr Siri come alive and numerous cast of characters he interacts with. Not knowing anything much about Laos didn’t spoil my enjoyment, and I look forward to the next books in the series – I have after all got a lot of catching up to do. A four star read from me.