A Lunch Date Worth Keeping

I had my doubts about The Coroner’s Lunch. First was the setting: I love books in international settings, but my taste in exotic locales usually follows my desire to travel and frankly, Laos isn’t high on my list, particularly during the war-torn years of the 1970s. Second, the book has supernatural elements, which to me don’t mix well with mystery. To me, a good mystery must follow some rules of logic, or the detective’s puzzle quickly slides into a swamp of the arbitrary from which it never returns. Finally, some have described this series as cozy, and for me, cuteness and crime don’t mix. So though I’d heard raves, I began Colin Cotterill’s first Siri Paiboun mystery with caution.

The year is 1976 and Laos has recently undergone a communist revolution. Seventy two year-old Siri Paiboun is appointed national coroner although he is a regular doctor and has no training for the work. He misses his dead wife and wants to retire, stay out of the political power struggles, but his appointment is a demand, not a request, and so he reluctantly goes to his ill-equipped office each day, where his only co-workers are a smart-alec young woman and a pleasant Mr. Geung, who has Down’s Syndrome. He spends his lunch hour trading ironies with Comrade Civilai, his only ally in the political bureaucracy.

It’s in these rich characters and back story that I began to fall under the spell of The Coroner’s Lunch. Siri’s wry wit is pitch perfect. He’s a charming wag who takes chances with his words because he doesn’t feel he has much left to lose. He’s surrounded by a dotty but believable crowd of secondary characters about whom the reader immediately wants to know more.

The mysteries are almost secondary here, but they’re not bad. Over the course of this book, Siri must riddle out the sudden lunch table death of a powerful woman with an even more powerful husband without getting himself sent to re-education camp or worse. He must figure out the strange killing of Vietnamese nationals who begin popping up from underwater without causing an international incident with the neighboring country. And he must travel to remote southern region where a military project to “aid” the Hmong minority is continually blocked by the bizarre deaths of commanding officers. While some of the crimes and solutions may stretch credibility, the tongue-in-cheek tone and sheer fun of the tale will overcome most readers’ skepticism.

In the end, this isn’t a cozy, the content is quite graphic and while the story is loaded with humor, there is real struggle and pain underlying the jokes. Siri and company turn to humor because it beats crying and because they’re faced with totalitarian bureaucratic absurdities at every turn. Cotterill pulls the whole thing off with such aplomb and charm that the reader escapes the ugliness in the same way the characters do.

This book is the perfect series starter, interesting in its own right but setting up a rich cast of characters with enough unresolved personal dilemmas to leave readers itching to come back for more adventures. There are seven more Siri Paiboun mysteries to date and a second series, featuring Jimm Juree, a former crime reporter forced to relocate with her eccentric family to rural Thailand. That means we can keep enjoying the quirky voice of Colin Cotterill for many books to come!

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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