Saturday, June 4

The Coroner's Lunch - Colin Cotterill

Tran, Tran, and Hok broke through the heavy end-of-wet-season clouds. The warm night air rushed against their reluctant smiles and yanked their hair vertical. They fell in neat formation, like sleet. There was no time for elegant floating or fancy acrobatics; they just followed the rusty bombshells that were tied to their feet with pink nylon string.
Tran the elder led the charge. He was he heaviest of the three. By the time he broke the surface of the Nam Ngum reservoir he was already ahead by two seconds. If this had been the Olympics, he would have scored a 9.98 or thereabouts. There was barely a splash. Tran the younger and Hok-the-twice-dead pierced the water without so much as a pulse-beat between them.
A quarter of a ton of unarmed ordnance dragged all three men quickly to the smooth muddy bottom of the lake and anchored them there. For two weeks, Tran, Tran, and Hok swayed gently back and forth in the current and entertained the fish and algae that fed on them like diners at a slow-moving noodle stall.
From its arresting opening The Coroner's Lunch is a fascinating and very different mystery. Set in Laos in 1976, just after the triumph of Communism, it introduces a unique detective - the drafted, septuginarian coroner of Lao, Dr Siri Paiboun.
At 72, and after almost a lifetime of service to the Party, Dr Siri Paiboun was looking forward to retirement. There is, however, no such thing as a pension in Communist Lao – from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, after all, and Siri can still work. In fact, he has been drafted in to the role of national coroner – and his lack of either educaton or equipment to adequately fulfil that role is irrelevant.
Though a member of the Party since his student days in Paris, Siri's embrace of Communist was initiated not by political fervour but lust - the object of his desires, his eventual wife, nursing student Boua made it clear that only through the red flag could her heart be won.
He is ably aided, at least, by two assistants – nurse Dtui is stolid and dedicated, primary carer for her unwell mother, and possessed of hidden depths; the meticulous Mr Geung is revivled by the rank and file, who fear and shun the diabled, but despite his Down syndrome Siri's morgue attendent is through, dedicated, and often provides unique uinsight into cases.
Another thing that adds to Siri's uniqueness is his intermittent visits from the spirits of the dead, soemthing this rational scinetist at first rejects, but which helps him to unravel the causes of death in patients where he'd otherwise be lost.
There's a lovely scene where Siri is speaking to the young daughters of a woman who has recently died.

"Manoly, do you know where your mother is now?"
"In the temple."
"That's not your mommy."
"Yes, it is."
"No. In the temple is just the package your mommy was kept in." The smallest sister giggled at this. Manoly seemed angry.
"It's Mommy."
Siri reached out for her hand and put it against his face.
"This skin, this hair, all this outside stuff. It isn't me. It's just my package. It's like the wrapper around the sweet; it isn't the sweet itself. What we really are is all inside the package. All our feelings. All our good moods and bad moods. All our ideas, our cleverness, our love, that's what a person really is.
"It's called a spirit. Your mommy's spirit has left her package already. I met your mommy's spirit when I was in your room that night."
"Is that like a ghost?"
"No. A ghost is just something in make-believe stories. A spirit is really her. Some people can see it, but most people can't."
A lot of Laotian culture and tradition is woven through the novel. I particularly liked the way of determining if a child is old enough for school - when your arm can reach over your head to touch the opposite ear. The combination of history, mystery, spirituality and location make the Coroner's Lunch a novel unlike any i've read before, and I've already started on the second in the series. - Alex

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