Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill

The Coroner's Lunch
by Colin Cotterill
Soho, 2004
272 pages

I don't think I could have asked for a better way to start the year. This series of mysteries about Dr. Siri Paiboon, Head Coroner for the fledgling communist regime in Laos in the 1970s, has been on my radar for a long time. I decided to pick the first one up for my mother for Christmas, as she's always on the lookout for new mystery series; I decided I'd better read it first before I gave it to her, to make sure it was as good as the internet whispers suggested. (In my defence: I read a library copy, not the shiny new one that arrived for her!) And it was as good as I had hoped. Maybe even better.

A lot of the buzz around Dr. Siri suggests some sort of relation to Mma Ramotswe of No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency fame. I find this a bit misleading, because though there are some similarities, the tone of the books is completely different. Both do feature protagonists who have lived full lives before coming to their own as detectives, who aren't particularly concerned about the establishment and authority, and both are set in locales far different from the vast, vast majority of English-language mysteries out there. But I think the similarities stop there, really, and I almost find it a bit... irksome that because these two series are set in different "exotic" locations they get lumped together by critics.

This book, at least, was a lot darker, and the pacing was faster, and the stakes were higher than I recall from No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (and yes, I did really like that book too, but it's a very different animal.) People die. In unpleasant ways. Siri is doing a complex dance of trying to get to the truth and trying to work within a new system that hasn't really figured itself out yet. He's dealing with political intrigue as much as individual cases. In some ways, though, it is also deceptively gentle; Siri himself is a wryly observant, obstinate, and compassionate soul with a crusty exterior. He's not afraid of much, even the things he should be, but he does worry about those around him.

Dr. Siri Paiboon happens to be the last qualified (and we use this term loosely) person left in Laos to be head coroner after the victory of the communist rebels over the monarchy. Everyone else with the necessary education has fled the country. After being part of the cause for 40 years, he had assumed he'd get to rest to the end of his days -- he is 72, after all, decades older than the average life expectancy of his countrymen. But he is pressed into service despite the fact that he's never performed an autopsy in his life, and he's not particularly pleased to have to start now. Hampered by lack of supplies, experience, and co-operation from his superiors at the Justice Department, Siri sets out to do the best job he can with what he has. Things plod along slowly until one Mrs. Nitnoy, wife of a senior official in the new government, shows up in his freezer -- and is just as quickly hustled out by her now widowed husband, before Siri has the chance to finish his autopsy and his report.

And that's not all. Before long, Siri has someone who might have been a top-secret Vietnamese diplomat on his table, and a couple of senior military officials who died very, very strangely are waiting for him in the south of the country... and Siri is about to be busier, and in a lot more trouble, than he has been in a long, long time.

I am having trouble writing this review largely because I don't want it to be ten thousand words long. The summary is bare-bones, and look at the size of it! There is a lot of complexity here in this relatively short book.

I really, really enjoyed this read, more than I expected to once I realized that it wasn't just straight forensic mystery. Because Siri isn't just a coroner and a scientist and a very sharp amateur detective, but he also happens to see the spirits of the dead in his dreams. I wasn't sure how that was going to work for me when it popped up pretty much in the second chapter. And then it got weirder and I was carried along with the flow, because it all grew out of the plot and characters and setting so organically. I have nothing against fantasy, but I do have trouble when I'm not expecting my straight-up mysteries and fantasy to cross (see: Maisie Dobbs.) But here, Siri's visions didn't feel out of place or odd, nor did they feel at all deus ex machina. Even when things got really weird in the middle of the book, I was right there along for the ride. It didn't have a fantasy feel to me. And I think I can put this down to two things: it felt culturally appropriate, and the fact that even though he gets visions, nothing is spelled out for Siri. He still has to figure the clues out, and so does the reader. It's just that some of the clues don't happen to have been spotted in the corporeal realm.

The bones of this book are excellent. Cotterill has a real grasp on the time and place and culture, and he's creative with his characters, and his plots (there are several) are twisted and thrilling and deftly managed. The writing is funny (often very funny) without making fun, descriptive while managing a wonderful concision, and there is a dry factuality about all of it, mixed with the colour of the Laotian language and culture, that really works. The setting feels foreign, as it should to me, but without ever making me feel like I couldn't understand what was going on, or that I couldn't connect with the humans populating the story. Cotterill is both clear-eyed and respectful.

The only thing that didn't work for me, although I can understand why he did it, was the extreme ending of the story. The last few lines. And the reason those didn't work was because it felt a little forced-cliffhanger to me, where I could have been quite happy if those same few lines had turned up at the beginning of the next book. I wouldn't have felt manipulated. That said, it's a small transgression, relatively, and easily forgiven. I can hardly wait to read the next book, Thirty-Three Teeth. Except that I have about a million other series I really should try to read from, too...

Recommended for mystery readers, and armchair travellers. Yes, if you liked Mma Ramotswe, you'll probably like this too. But you'll also like it if you like political intrigue, forensic mysteries, and historical fiction.


Aarti said...

Ooh, so glad to see this review! I've got this one on my wish list as one of my blog readers suggested it to me as a quality mystery series that has a great main character. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much, too!

Unknown said...

Oh man, I so want you to read this and then hear what you have to say. I am fairly comfortable recommending it to you, definitely!