Title: The Coroner’s Lunch (the first Dr Siri Investigation)
Publisher: Quercus [originally 2005?, this edition 2007]
Length: 400 pages
Setting: Laos, 1976
Genre: Amateur sleuth
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating: 5/5
One-liner: An engaging, funny, staunchly un-categorisable book. With subversive puppets!
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The book opens Laos in 1976. A fledgling Communist regime is in power for the first time and Dr Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old doctor and former warrior, has been appointed the country’s sole Coroner. He has no training for the role, most of the available books on the subject are in a language he doesn’t speak and he has little of the necessary equipment. Despite all this he’s required to investigate an assortment of peculiar deaths, including the wife of a Party Leader and what appear to be tortured Vietnamese soldiers. Helping Dr Siri are nurse (and wannabe trainee Coroner) Dtui, morgue assistant Mr Geung and the spirits of dead people who inhabit Dr Siri’s dreams.
The highlight of the book for me was the humour which has the same witty, haphazardly surreal quality as Douglas Adams’ writing. In the past I have lamented the lack of books with this kind of sensibility but I now realise it’s a terribly difficult thing to achieve and am simply grateful whenever I stumble across an example. I don’t re-read books very often but books like this, that offer something wonderful quite independent of their narrative, tend to make it to the shelf of books I re-acquaint myself with from time to time.
The characters are delightful too. Dr Siri is reluctant in his roles as communist and coroner though he performs the latter with increasing diligence. He treats the people he meets with the amount of respect and compassion each deserves and his struggle to cope with the supernatural aspect to his life is handled well (it’s a theme normally guaranteed to turn me off). There are a myriad of other players, major and minor, alive and not, good and evil, who are all equally well depicted and credible.
The book also offers a marvellous sense of time and place although I’m so woefully ignorant of this particular part of the world and its history that I’ve no clue if it’s a realistic depiction. For all I know it could be as much a production of Cotterill’s imagination as his protagonist’s corpse-inhabited dreams but, realistic or not, it’s a glimpse into a fascinating world.
For once the prominent blurb on my copy of The Coroner’s Lunch, which likens it to Alexander McCall Smith’s African series, isn’t wildly inaccurate. Dr Siri certainly shares characteristics with Mme Ramotswe of Smith’s series although I think the plot of this book is far more intricate and it tackles weightier social issues, albeit with a delicate touch and wry humour. I found myself wanting more of this writing and these people almost before I’d even finished and, happily for me, there are already five more books in the series. What joy I have to look forward to.