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The Coroner's Lunch
Dr. Siri Paiboun series, book 1

by Colin Cotterill

      Dr Siri Paiboun is quite simply the most charming new mystery series protagonist Iíve come across in a long time, with an equally entertaining supporting cast. Not all of them are charming, but of course theyíre not all supposed to be. This is a character driven tale that youíll read mostly for the pleasure of spending time with its inhabitants, with your opinion of it based largely on how much of a pleasure that was for you. I loved it.

The unusual setting is 1975 Laos, in the aftermath of the American departure from Southeast Asia, shortly after a Communist coup has overturned the Laotian monarchy. Despite being in his 70s and more than ready for retirement, not to mention untrained as a coroner, Dr. Siri is appointed national coroner. †The trained experts have all fled the country, he is a doctor, and as someone who has fought for the revolution for decades, they feel they can trust him... up to a point. Unfortunately, he's too well endowed with humor, intelligence, humanity and independence to be wholly trusted. Dr. Siri is a committed communist, but also a humanist, which is probably a new experience for most American readers.

Heís also in an impossible situation. Heís completely without the proper equipment and trying to learn through on the job self-training out of 30 year old texts in one of his secondary languages, while his younger boss has control issues and clearly would prefer every report to read "death by cardiac arrest." Fortunately, two of the other charming characters are his capable assistants, cheerfully intelligent nurse Dtui and equally cheerful Mr. Geung, who has Down Syndrome, but also a massive body of information acquired while working under Siriís predecessor. †Together they solve the events behind the series of bodies that get left in their morgue, all of which were emphatically not just victims of cardiac arrest.

There's a supernatural element to the story, which Iíll freely admit is something I usually avoid like the plague. But it works here for me, probably at least in part because the engaging Dr Siri is skeptical himself about it, at least at first. You have to suspend a fair amount of disbelief to read this story, but I had no problem doing so and thought the reward more than worth it.

A very enjoyable and unusual historical mystery. Highly recommended.

The Book

Soho Crime
November 2005
Trade Paperback
Historical Mystery [Vientiane, Laos 1975]
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The Reviewer

Kim Malo
Reviewed 2008
© 2008