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The Coroner's Lunch (2004)

by Colin Cotterill

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Dr. Siri Paiboun (1)

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1,5731308,857 (3.85)553
The Communist Pathet Lao has taken over this former French colony. Most of the educated class has fled, but Dr. Siri Paiboun, a Paris-trained doctor whose late wife had been an ardent Communist, remains. And so this 72-year-old physician is appointed state coroner, despite the fact that he has no training or even supplies to use in performing his new task. What he does have is curiosity and integrity. At his age he is not about to let a bunch of ignorant bureaucrats dictate to him. One of his first cases involves three bodies recovered from a reservoir, but Dr. Siri establishes that the cause of death was not drowning. These men seem to have been electrocuted, perhaps tortured, and they also seem to be Vietnamese, which could have international repercussions. And then there is the inexplicable death of a Party bigwig's equally important wife. She collapsed and died at a banquet. But Dr. Siri doesn't think her death was from natural causes. In the course of his investigations, Dr. Siri must travel to his birthplace, a Hmong village he has not visited for more than 60 years, where he makes a profound discovery, not only about the motive for several murders, but about himself.… (more)
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English (126)  Swedish (1)  Dutch (1)  German (1)  French (1)  All languages (130)
Showing 1-5 of 126 (next | show all)
The rather exotic setting of Laos under communist rule provides fodder for a mystery with social commentary. Throw in a dash of Hmong spiritualism and you have a nicely different mystery. ( )
  PattyLee | Dec 14, 2021 |
Thank you for recommending this series, Jen! Great characters who have nooks and crannies. ( )
  Je9 | Aug 10, 2021 |
Enjoyable oddball mystery thriller, with a mild supernatural twist. (I don't think it's a spoiler to say He sees dead people. And talks to them. And sometimes, they offer him hints to solve the mysteries of their deaths ... ) If you tend to be supernatural-phobic, this doesn't have to be a deal-breaker (see below ...)

I enjoyed this, but felt that it was, perhaps, a bit too "busy" -- a symptom of "first novel in a long-running series" syndrome. You have to construct a quirky character, and those quirks don't write themselves! You have to given him a tragic backstory, to make it clear that, beneath the quirks, there is heart and soul, and .. .well, lots of things. You have to establish quirky sidekicks, and equip them with baggage -- physical, emotional and familial -- that makes it clear that the sidekicks have heart and soul, and ... well, lots of things. You have to have an antagonist -- the idiot bureaucrat who says I don't care if you're my best detective/coroner/diviner of mysteries, your pencil budget was 10 cents over last month, so I'm taking you off the case ... The antagonist gets neither backstory nor baggage, because the antagonist has no heart, soul, nor much of anything but limitless stupidity. And pencil budgets ...

So, like any first novel in what is slated to become a long-running series, The Coroner's Lunch sets its author a grueling pace for the production of characters, quirks, dastardly plots and local colour, all in the hope that we readers decide that we will want to revisit the crotchety, but honest and smart, detective again (and again and again) in the future.

It's the local color that really makes this stand out, and makes me want to revisit the series: I am embarrassed by how little I know about Laos in the 1970s (as I'm embarrassed by how little I know about so many things, but I AM working in it ....), and Dr. Siri Paibourn seems like a genial and effective guide for putting that right. He is someone who fought for his whole life to liberate Laos from its monarchy and malign foreign influences (the USA and France), and establish a socialist state -- but is bloody-minded enough to recognize that the Communist regime that has taken over from that monarchy is far from paradise on earth, and the foreign influences that it has buckled under to (the USSR, China, Vietnam) aren't much better than what went before.

I can see this series getting better and better, as the author relaxes, and let's the character and story breathe a bit.

Regarding the ghostly element: My husband -- who is as supernatural-phobic as they come -- really enjoyed this. I was surprised that he wasn't turned off by the ghostly thread to the story, I asked him about it -- and he said that he interpreted it as a manifestation of PTSD from Paibourn's wartime experiences. An interesting reading, I thought. ( )
  maura853 | Jul 11, 2021 |
This was an entertaining mystery with fun characters. There's plenty of snark throughout which I found delightfully funny. I enjoyed the setting and I am always grateful for crime novels that aren't graphic or super seedy domestic dramas. I would be willing to read more in this series.

The audiobook narrator was a bit lifeless, though, so I'd recommend this in print over audiobook. ( )
  DGRachel | Jun 29, 2021 |
Dr. Siri is a wonderful person: witty, sarcastic, but with a kind and caring heart. This latter is exemplified in his treatment of his morgue assistant, Mr. Geung, who has Down's Syndrome. Siri treats him as he would any other human, and gives him work that both fits and challenges his abilities. I liked Siri's communing with the dead, and how he used his dreams to help solves mysteries. The neighborhood dog, Saloop knew Siri was a shaman before he did! Siri appreciated both science and spiritualism (p. 141). I had to skip over a few of the autopsy sections - too much information! But I could appreciate Siri's coroner's lunches, when he and a colleague hashed over a case because in college, when we put up bird carcasses as study skins, I often ate chicken for lunch and didn't see a problem with that when other students did!

I learned much about Lao politics and culture. I was particularly fascinated by the Hmong people, who believe in tree spirits as do many indigenous cultures. I want to read more about the Hmong. They have been cruelly treated and evicted from their lands. Many now live in the United States, and fortunately, more of their stories and writings are being published. I realized we have some children's picture books by Hmong writers in our library (for example, "The Most Beautiful Thing" and "A Map into the World" by Kao Kalia Yang) and have found more adult books for possible purchase as well.

I often read about the author after I've read a book I liked. Colin Cotterill lived in Laos for a few years and formed an organization to help children. From the beautiful descriptions of the Laos country and people (even Crazy Rajid, whom Siri aided), it is evident that the author loves and respects Laos. For example, as a naturalist, I resonated with Cotterill's including Siri's observations of his world, such as applauding a tern who somersaulted over his beak, but still caught a fish (p. 95) Cotterill also writes beautifully with wonderful figures of speech: The Yak-40 lifted uncomfortably, like an overfed goose. (p. 123). I wouldn't want to fly in that plane! ( )
  bookwren | Jun 14, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 126 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Colin Cotterillprimary authorall editionscalculated
Abelsen, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Amezawa, YasushiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Anthony, NigelReadersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Armstrong, GarethNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Chafer, CliveNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Diari, MatteoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Elsas DesignCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gulp, AmyCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hoell, JoachimTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jeter, RandalCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kolakovic, StuartCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Liefers, Jan JosefSprechersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Malfoy, ValérieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mohr, ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Neuwirth and AssociatesDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Petrus, Annasecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Epigraph
Dedication
With the kindest thanks and lots of love
to the following folks:

Pornsawan, Bouasawan, Chantavone, Sounieng, Ketkaew, Dr Pongruk, Bounlan, Don, Souk, Soun, Michael and his secretary, Somdee, David L., Nok, Dtee, Siri, Yayoi and Steph.
First words
Tran, Tran, and Hok broke through the heavy end-of-wet-season clouds.
Quotations
Most of the results from Siri’s morgue relied on archaic color tests: combinations of chemicals or litmus samples. These were more suitable for telling what wasn’t, rather than what was.
We, my children, are no longer common coroners. We are investigators of death.
He couldn’t imagine why old men would chase new-hatched chicks when there were pretty hens in the yard.
Nguyen Hong changed, Siri put together his carbon copy of the autopsy report. Then the two set off for a real coroner's lunch in the canteen. Given the topic of their conversation, they were guaranteed a table to themselves. (p. 94)
They looked out at the sleek white tern flying a foot from the surface of the river. It swooped down for a fish, thrust its beak in too deep, and crashed, somersaulting with the current.

I bet that hurt.

The battered tern, its feathers flustered, broke triumphantly through the surface of the water with the fish in its beak. The two old friends put down their plastic cups and applauded. (p. 95)
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Wikipedia in English (2)

The Communist Pathet Lao has taken over this former French colony. Most of the educated class has fled, but Dr. Siri Paiboun, a Paris-trained doctor whose late wife had been an ardent Communist, remains. And so this 72-year-old physician is appointed state coroner, despite the fact that he has no training or even supplies to use in performing his new task. What he does have is curiosity and integrity. At his age he is not about to let a bunch of ignorant bureaucrats dictate to him. One of his first cases involves three bodies recovered from a reservoir, but Dr. Siri establishes that the cause of death was not drowning. These men seem to have been electrocuted, perhaps tortured, and they also seem to be Vietnamese, which could have international repercussions. And then there is the inexplicable death of a Party bigwig's equally important wife. She collapsed and died at a banquet. But Dr. Siri doesn't think her death was from natural causes. In the course of his investigations, Dr. Siri must travel to his birthplace, a Hmong village he has not visited for more than 60 years, where he makes a profound discovery, not only about the motive for several murders, but about himself.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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