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The Coroner’s Lunch

August 29, 2020

IMG_4162 (2)Looking for some light reading during a period of heavy lifting (metaphorical) at work, I picked up the first of a series of detective novels by Colin Cotterill, The Coroner’s Lunch, and found it more diverting than I expected.

The Coroner’s Lunch is set in Laos in 1976 and the detective, Dr. Siri Paiboun, is a septuagenarian who has been drafted into service as a coroner. He gets help in this new job from a nurse, Dtui, and the morgue assistant, Geung, and also from the fact that he can see and talk to dead people. Eventually Dr. Siri finds out, in the course of this adventure, that he harbors the spirit of a shaman from a thousand and fifty years before. Despite the supernatural trappings, however, this mystery has a very realistic feel.

Dr. Siri has a charming way of looking at people and things. I especially love it when he looks at Dtui and thinks “there had been eras when large torsos were in high fashion, a symbol of wealth and plenty. Physiology went through cycles. But in the twentieth century, malnutrition was a la mode. Dtui with her laundry-bin build was off the scale. There were no suitors queuing at her door. They wouldn’t have to dig deep to find her kindness and humor, but they didn’t even bring a spade.

I also love his explanation of why Geung is good at his job. As Geung recites it, when prompted, it’s because he has “a condition….called Down Syndrome….In some aspects I am slower than other people, but in others I am superior.” As Dr. Siri reminds him, “one of the aspects you’re superior in is remembering things, things you learned a long time ago. In remembering things, you are even superior to me.” This turns out to be important in the course of Dr. Siri’s investigations, of course.

Some of the most charming parts are when Dr. Siri has his lunch (the coroner’s lunch) on a log by the river with his friend Civilai and they talk about what’s happening in the world of nominally loyal communists in 1976 Laos:
“Then there’s the ongoing puppet scandal.”
“Tell me.”
“The Party ordered the puppets at Xiang Thong temple in Luang Prabang to stop using royal language, and said they had to start calling each other ‘comrade.’”
“Quite right, too. We have to show those puppets who’s pulling the strings.” Civilai hit him with a lettuce leaf. “What happened?”
“Puppets refused.”
“Subversive bastards.”
“The local party members locked them up in their box, and they aren’t allowed out till they succumb.”
“That’ll teach ‘em.”
Civilai is also an important part of the action as Dr. Siri pulls together all the separate threads of the mystery.

Even Civilai’s skepticism about what his friend tells him is helpful to Dr. Siri, who would prefer to put his trust in science rather than the supernatural:
“As always, Civilai fell about laughing at the very mention of Siri’s spirits. The doctor’s ongoing burden was just a long running joke to Ai. He was too much of a pragmatist to take any of it seriously.”

When we find out that Dr. Siri harbors the spirit of an ancient shaman he is as surprised as we are. He is talking to a group of Hmong and believes he does not know their language, but as the conversation goes on it’s clear that he does know the language and more:
“I really am Siri Paiboun from Vientiane. I’m the coroner [he used the expression ‘ghost doctor’ to help them understand] at Mahosot Hospital. I’m sure I look like someone you know, but I’m afraid I’m not him.”
They didn’t reply, just stared at him, smiling. He wondered whether they understood.
“Just who do you think I am?”
“You are Yeh Ming,” the headman said without hesitation. The villagers all around them gasped.
“I wish I were,” Siri laughed. “He must be quite a warrior. What does he do, old Yeh Ming?” The expression quite a warrior was a Hmong phrase he didn’t remember knowing.
Auntie Suab spoke quietly and seriously, as if this were some type of test. “Yeh Ming is the greatest shaman.”
“Yeh Ming has supernatural powers,” Tshaj added. “One thousand and fifty years ago, you…he…drove back twenty thousand Annamese with just one ox horn.”
“A thousand and fifty years ago?” Siri laughed again, and all the Hmong laughed with him. They were a good audience. “It’s true I am beginning to show my age, but a thousand and fifty years? Don’t be cruel to an old man.”

Later, Siri says of this experience “I’m a man of science and I have not one sensible explanation for what I went through. And yet it happened.”

Siri solves the mystery using logic, science, charm, and with a little help from his friends and the supernatural. I’m very pleased that this book, which drew me in and absorbed my attention more than I expected it to, is the first of a fifteen-book series.

 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2020 9:44 am

    FIFTEEN books, that is GREAT, that will keep you in books for a good long while! I like, have never fallen in love with a mystery series since reading the Amelia Peabody books when I was a teenager, but I swear one of these days it will happen again for me. 😛

    • August 29, 2020 9:52 am

      It is great! You get how great it is! I haven’t fallen in love with a mystery series like this since reading the Ellis Peter Brother Cadfael series when I was breastfeeding a baby.

  2. August 30, 2020 2:13 pm

    “They didn’t even bring a spade.”

    That is an excellent metaphor for shallow thinking!

    This sounds like a really good Autumn read. And that cover is super spooky and surreal!

    I love stories that blend fantasy with the “Real World,” so to speak (because I secretly don’t want to admit that the Real World has no literal magic) so that characters still have to deal with Real World matters in a non-magical way.

    And I love stories that at least try to let magic and science coexist. Isn’t it part of science to admit that there are still things we don’t fully understand?

    • August 30, 2020 7:57 pm

      The cover picture is involved with the mystery, which I didn’t discuss because of spoilers.
      I also love stories with both fantasy and real world elements.
      And I habitually answer your last question with a quotation from Hamlet: “there are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

  3. September 3, 2020 6:54 am

    I hadn’t heard of this series. Thanks so much for featuring it, I’ll certainly be looking for it now.

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