The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill
The time is 1976, the place is Laos. The Royal Family has been overthrown by the Communist Pathet Lao; many of the country’s intellectuals and ruling class have emigrated, and the country is reshaping itself while struggling out of chaos.
Caught up in this is Dr Siri Paiboun, a 75-year old general medical doctor. Expecting to retire after many years of loyal service to the communist cause, he is instead appointed as the country’s State Coroner. He has no pathology experience and his academic medical training is decades behind him – but there is nobody else remotely qualified for the job.
So he starts his new job, optimistically expecting no more than the odd unexplained death. However, his first case turns out to be a poisoning that somebody seems very anxious to cover up; then he is bought two bodies, apparently tortured to death. More deaths ensue and Dr Siri realises that he is uncovering something nasty….
This is promised to be the first of a series – I shall be looking out for the next book. Most of the way through, I thoroughly enjoyed it – the country and the era are beautifully evoked, without it turning into a Rough Guide; you get a real sense of what it was like to live there and the history lessons are given out in small doses. Dr Siri is a delightful character and the supporting cast are well fleshed out. The opening chapter is terrific – a real attention-grabber that begs to be filmed, and there are enough twists in the plot to keep you turning the pages all the way through.
Crime fiction fans should be warned that there is a supernatural element here, with reincarnation, ghosts, shamans, demons and visions putting in appearances; I found this perfectly acceptable, but some crime fans may not.
What stops me from giving this 10/10 is the ending – it reads like Cotterill suddenly ran out of time and had to wrap up 50+pages of a very complicated plot in about 10 pages. The penultimate chapter is sadly reminiscent of the endings of those Agatha Christie potboilers, where she has The Great Detective explain how the crime was done and unmask the killer; the only difference here is that the chapter is written from the POV of the main villain. The last chapter appears to set the scene for the next book – a device I’m never happy with. IMO, a story , even one of a series, should be self-contained and I much prefer the custom of simply reprinting the first chapter in the next of the series at the end of a book.
But, overall, I give it 8/10.