Dr Siri Paiboun is head, actually the only, coroner of Laos. He’s been on the job for ten months, largely self-taught, unwillingly so. He had been looking forward to retirement and a pension but was pressed into service for his country , “he hadn’t expected, at seventy-two, to be learning a new career”. His predecessor having allegedly fled Laos on an inner tube. His job is complicated further by the fact that the workplace isn’t exactly state-of-the-art: “The morgue at the end of 1976 was hardly better equipped than the meatworks behind the morning market.” For instance, lacking an electric saw, a hacksaw is used to penetrate the skull. There’s no laboratory so Dr Siri ropes in a teacher with access to basic chemicals for basic tests.
He lunches often with his best friend Civilai, “a bony little man who wouldn’t have looked out of place pedaling a samlor bicycle taxi” but was actually one of the high-ups in the politburo. As they munch on their sandwiches by the river, Dr Siri and Civilai often discuss their work, although often in ways which shouldn’t be overheard. When Dr Siri laughs at the number of receptions Civilai has to attend, Civilai snorts: “That’s why it’s called the Communist ‘Party’ and not the Communist ‘sit down and get some work done’.”
Dr Siri’s detective mode kicks in with the arrival of the corpse of Senior Comrade Kham’s wife, the hasty removal of her body for cremation, and an all-too-easy explanation of her death, and the attitude of her husband. Plus there’s the missing autopsy report. Things just get stranger when a body of a dead Vietnamese arrives with signs of torture. And it turns out, there is more than one such body.
This book is set in 1976 Laos, not long after the Communist Pathet Lao have taken control of the country. It’s a tough time for the country, for its people. Dr Siri is one interesting character. A paid-up member of the Communist Party yet a “heathen of a communist”, smart, snarky and visited by spirits of the ‘customers’ he’s worked on. The occultic nature of his life is explained when he visits a Hmong village and learns that he is the reincarnation of shaman Yeh Ming. This is where things get perhaps a little too confusing and was probably the weakest moment of the book for me.
JoV of Bibliojunkie first pointed me to this book (here’s her review), and for that I’m grateful, as I’m always on the lookout for more books set in Southeast Asia. It was a different, at times funny read set in a country that I know little of and which I’d like to read more about. Plus its British author Colin Cotterill has led quite a life so far – he’s worked as a Physical Education instructor in Israel, a primary school teacher in Australia, a counselor for educationally handicapped adults in the US, and a university lecturer in Japan. He has spent several years in Laos and set up a child protection NGO in Phuket, and lives in a fishing community on the Gulf of Siam.
Colin Cotterill’s works
Dr. Siri Paiboun series
- The Coroner’s Lunch (2004)
- Thirty-Three Teeth (August 2005)
- Disco For the Departed (August 2006)
- Anarchy and Old Dogs (August 2007)
- Curse of the Pogo Stick (August 2008)
- The Merry Misogynist (August 2009)
- Love Songs from a Shallow Grave (August 2010)
- Slash and Burn (October 2011)
Dr. Jimm Juree series
- Killed at the Whim of a Hat (July 2011)
- Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach (June 2012)