Laos, 1978: Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old medical doctor, has been unwillingly appointed the national coroner of newly-socialist Laos. Though his lab is underfunded, his boss is incompetent, and his support staff is quirky to say the least, Siri’s sense of humor gets him through his often frustrating days.
When the body of the wife of a prominent politician comes through his morgue, Siri has reason to suspect the woman has been murdered. To get to the truth, Siri and his team face government secrets, spying neighbors, victim hauntings, Hmong shamans, botched romances, and other deadly dangers. Somehow, Siri must figure out a way to balance the will of the party and the will of the dead.
True confession time: I read a LOT of mysteries of all kinds of forms, including cozy and amateur detective, but I’ve never read any of the Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of them until my wonderful #TBTBSecretSanta, the lovely Hannah G (find her @custard1980) sent me one as part of my parcel. “Aha!” I thought. “What is this? Now that I’ve read it, I have to ask how on earth have I missed these, and a huge thank you to Hannah for the introduction.
Dr. Siri Pauboun is the newly appointed coroner for the national morgue – meaning, he’s the sole medical doctor (who’s never conducted an autopsy) in charge of a small building behind the hospital. To assist him, he has the indomitable Dtui, a young, lonely nurse who handles all his reports, and Mr. Geung, morgue assistant with mild Down syndrome and an enormous memory for details. In another author’s hands, these side characters might have remained as flat as the page they were printed upon, but luckily for the reader, this is not the case. We can feel Dr. Siri’s affection for these two almost immediately, and they come to life with backgrounds and quirks galore. Dtui is a devoted daughter to an unwell mother, and she reads movie magazines and makes dry observations about their lives. Mr. Geung is kind and dedicated, and surprisingly perceptive about the fine details. It will be interesting to see how they develop over the series.
I’ll admit to taking a few chapters before I was able to re-synch my brain with the 1978 time period, and how that impacted on the investigation of murder (read: zero technology, all brain power). Add in the shifting Communist and Socialist philosophies, the threat of being sent away for ‘re-education’ and you quickly come to realize that the sleepy little village is hiding a hundred different secrets. There’s also a paranormal element, but for me, it fit perfectly into the storyline along with the superstitions of the local communities and the historical background of the country. Dr. Siri, we soon realize, is often rather inconveniently contacted by the spirits of the dead, and while they can’t give him specific information, they often set him on the right track towards figuring out what’s going on. Truly, though, Cotterill doesn’t shy away from some of the horrors of revolution, including torture, and what is most unsettling is how unmoved some of the characters are by these actions simply due to familiarity.
By the end, I was lulled into the spirit of the story, and wanted to taste those amazing baguette sandwiches myself (and who else was delighted by Dr. Siri taking the initiative to ask out the sandwich maker? ADORABLE.) I’m looking forward to diving back into another mystery with the charming and honest Dr. Siri, and his cohort. I’d highly recommend this series, especially if you are looking for something a little cozy, but with a bit of bite.
The Coroner’s Lunch is published in Canada by Soho Crime. It is available from your local library, or to purchase from Amazon, Indigo or your favourite indie bookseller. ISBN: 9781569474181, 272 pages.