26. “The coroner’s lunch” by Colin Cotterill


Publisher: Lao Insight, 2004
Page count: 246 pages

“The coroner’s lunch” is the first book in a series of crime novels about Dr Siri Paibourn, the (fictional) national pathologist in communist Laos. The book is set in 1975 immediately after the communists successfully overthrew the royal family and French-sympathising Lao government. At age 72, Dr Paibourn was hoping to enjoy a quiet retirement, but instead he is called upon to perform his duty as national coroner because the communists can’t be seen not to have this paragon of justice and independence in place after the revolution.

The only problem is, Siri isn’t actually a pathologist, only a regular physician, and the morgue in Vientiane lacks even the most rudimentary tools required for his new trade. His only means of assistance are Dtui, a trained nurse, and Mr Geung, a man with Down’s syndrome who was patiently trained by Siri’s predecessor into becoming an invaluable aid due to his memory, sense of smell, and prowess with a hacksaw! Despite this lack of experience and resources, Dr Paibourn’s insatiable curiosity and 6th sense with regards to the spiritual world (he literally sees a lot of the victims in his sleep) leads him to unravel a politically sensitive mystery involving 3 tortured and murdered Vietnamese men discovered in a lake. Unfortunately, curiosity killed the cat and soon Siri finds himself in lethal danger…

This is a crime novel truly out of the ordinary. While “The coroner’s lunch” has a well-conceived crime story as its base, it is almost more interesting for its depiction of life in Laos in the aftermath of the communist revolution. Dr Paibourn’s cynical observations of the political intrigue and the harsh realities of Laos’ new communist rule seem heartfelt and believeable. At the same time, the author avoids the temptation of overdoing it or of including any pro-American, capitalist propaganda. The result is a crime novel which not only entertains you but also leaves you feeling like you actually gained new insight into a recent part of history, a remarkable feat indeed!

As if this wasn’t enough, this book has an extra feel-good factor: all the proceeds from this book series go to three Lao charities close to the author’s heart. Big brother mouse is an organisation which publishes childrens’ books in Lao language to promote literacy; COPE is an NGO that produces prostetics and other aid for victims of the many unexploded bombs and cluster bombs (UXO) left in Laos after the Vietnam war; and the last is a series of scholarships for rural youth training to become teachers before they return to their native villages to teach. I don’t know about you, but if this isn’t a good enough reason to buy this excellent detective story, I don’t know what is!

PS! The reason I haven’t posted a photo of this book is that I bought it directly from the publisher, Lao-Insight, while on holiday in Laos. As I enjoyed the book so much, I lent it to one of my friends and fellow travellers who in turn brought it with her home to the Congo to read. I assumed that I would easily find a picture of it online, but I keep finding pictures of the Soho Press version instead. You’ll therefore have to wait until I get the book back so that I can take a picture of it myself and post it here!

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