Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Coroner's Lunch: Colin Cotterill

From the description at the publisher's site:
    Laos, 1975. The Communist Pathet Lao has taken over this former French colony. Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old Paris-trained doctor, is appointed national coroner. Although he has no training for the job, there is no one else; the rest of the educated class has fled.
    He is expected to come up with the answers the party wants. But crafty and charming Dr.Siri is immune to bureaucratic pressure. At his age, he reasons, what can they do to him?
There are so many things to like about this book: the setting, the time period, the colorful and interesting characters. And, most important, the story is told well and with humor.

Dr. Siri Paiboon is a very unusual protagonist. Possibly because he is 72 years old, he doesn't take anything too seriously. He is also visited by the dead. His visitors are usually people that he has done autopsies on. They do not solve his crimes but they do motivate him to look beyond the obvious, and to be willing to circumvent the authorities to get the information he needs.

This first novel in the series opens in 1976, after Siri has been the unwilling coroner for one year. There are two cases that demand his attention. The wife of an important official has died and the official is pushing to speed up the autopsy. A Vietnamese body has been discovered and may have been tortured. And then he is sent to Hmong territory because of some suspicious deaths, although Dr. Siri suspects he is just being shunted off to keep him away from cases others want covered up.

Some quotes:
Despite having joined the Communist Party for entirely inappropriate reasons, Siri had been a paid-up member for forty-seven years. If the truth were to be told, he was a heathen of a communist. He’d come to believe two conflicting ideas with equal conviction: that communism was the only way man could be truly content; and that man, given his selfish ways, could never practice communism with any success. The natural product of these two views was that man could never be content. History, with its procession of disgruntled political idealists, tended to prove him right.
And a description of the morgue ...
The morgue at the end of 1976 was hardly better equipped than the meatworks behind the morning market. For his own butchery, Siri had blunt saws and knives, a bone cutter, and drills inherited from the French. He had his personal collection of more delicate scalpels and other instruments. There were one or two gauges and drips and pipettes and the like, but there was no laboratory. The closest was forty kilometers away, across the border in Udon Thani, and the border was closed to the dreaded communist hordes.
There was an old microscope Siri had requisitioned from the stores at Dong Dok pedagogical institute. If they ever reopened the science department, it would likely be missed. Even though the microscope was an ancient relic of bygone biologists and should have been in a museum, it still magnified beautifully. It was just that the slide photographs in his old textbooks were so blurred, he couldn’t always tell what he was looking for.
The inclusion of supernatural elements may deter some readers. My recommendation is to try the book anyway, because it has so much to offer in both entertainment value and education. I know very little about Laos at this time, and I learned a lot reading this. I have ordered the next few books in the series, and I hope to get to Thirty-Three Teeth, the 2nd book, in early 2015.

See reviews by Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, Maxine at Eurocrime, and Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm. And Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist did a Spotlight post on this book.

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Publisher:   Soho Crime, 2004
Length:       257 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Series:        Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1
Setting:       Laos, 1976
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased my copy.

24 comments:

  1. I will try and locate my copy sooner rather than later (if I can). I'm keen to try this series. Great cover on your copy, I think mine is different though.

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    1. I hope you do find it soon, Col, and that you like it when you read it. I am eager to know what you think of it.

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  2. I got to meet the author and he explained his research on this series saying that he had to do interviews with people who lived during that time period because they aren't any history books written about this period for obvious reasons. I think Cotterill is an underrated writer and he writes so well and this series is a favorite. So glad you got a chance to read it and enjoy it Tracy. Thanks for the link as well. I think I gushed a lot about his books when I first started because they were excellent reads. The supernatural elements aren't really intrusive but each reader will have to decide on their own. I do know he did tone it down over the course of the series.

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    1. When I looked up the author, Keishon, he seemed a very interesting person. With so many experiences and talents. I am sure most authors are very interesting, but not all of them share so much about themselves. I found a very good deal for several of the books in the series on ABEBooks, so if that order comes through, I will be set for a while with Dr. Siri books.

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  3. Tracy - I'm so glad you enjoyed this book. I think it is, among many other things, such an interesting look at the time and place. And I do love the wit in it. I agree with you too that it's best to read this series in order.

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    1. I did enjoy it so much, Margot. I do plan to read in order; this series isn't so long and it will be easy. I had forgotten that you did a post on this book. I have now added a link to that in my post.

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  4. A very different locale for me but you have succeeded in intriguing me, Tracy. I'll look for this at the library!

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    1. I don't think I have read about this country either, Peggy, and the time setting is so interesting. I hope you find it.

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  5. I read his first one and really enjoyed. It haven't gotten any further in the series though.

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    1. That happens to me more often than I like, Carol. I want to continue on with most of the series I start and there just isn't enough time.

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  6. I don't think he toned down the supernatural events at all. And why should he? That's what makes this series so fun. Besides its so tied to Lao culture to remove it would just make it another series with an exotic locale. Curse of the Pogo Stick (the 5th book and the first I one I read) is over the top with surreal and supernatural events. Dr. Siri goes to hell and back again. Literally!

    This is one of the most original crime novel series to be published in this century. Truly innovative in every aspect. And I learned a lot about the country from the inside out so to speak. American news reporting didn't come anywhere near close to telling us the truth of the atrocities and oppression in Laos. And Cotterill reveals the ugly truth all with his quirky and engaging sense of humor.

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    1. I agree, John, this series is both original and innovative. I really like reading a book that is both informing me and entertaining me. I am geographically challenged and I don't know much about history either. So I welcome opportunities like this to learn and I think I remember it better that way.

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  7. Yet another one, I have meant to try. Oh, my.

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    1. Well, it took me years to get to it, Patti. And I am glad I did.

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  8. TracyK: I enjoyed the book. I found the supernatural a little disconcerting but not really distracting.

    I was glad to read a book whose sleuth is an active senior citizen. I get closer every year to senior status.

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    1. I know what you mean, Bill. I am definitely in senior status and it is good to find books that include older protagonists.

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  9. I liked this book, and even though I'm not one to like supernatural elements in my reading selections, when they are part of a country's culture, as here, it's fine with me.
    I learned a bit about the Laotian culture by reading this book, and thought the elderly coroner an interesting guy.

    I wonder if the author deals with the historical reality of the U.S. dropping 2.5 million tons of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam war, nearly 600,000 missions. People are still dying there from encountering unexploded cluster bomblets; 270 million were dropped.

    This war must have affected every Laotian's family, the economy and agriculture and much more. I hope the writer deals with this legacy, too, in some of his books.

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    1. You make several good points here, Kathy. I did feel that the supernatural elements were a part of the culture. Although I don't mind supernatural elements in mysteries lately. A change for me.

      I am sure the Vietnam war did have a negative impact in Laos. It will be interesting to see if this is addressed in the later books.

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  10. Looks like we are both skirting the paranormal this week TracyK - I have another book by him on the TBR and am really looking foreard to it - thanks!

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    1. We are, Sergio. It has surprised me lately that I enjoy these types of stories. Variety is a good thing.

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  11. Tracy, what a quaint story. I like reading supernatural and in this case I'm also intrigued by the character of Dr. Siri Paiboon, 72 and visited by the dead. That said, I have not heard of this author or the series before and it's one I'll be looking out for.

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    1. I think you would really like this one, Prashant. It is very unique and entertaining to read.

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  12. I have read about this book on a number of blogs, always hearing positive things. I must add it to my list....

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    1. Definitely worth a try, Moira. It has so many good points.

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