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