Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Coroner's Lunch

By Colin Cotterill

It's Laos, 1976. The communists have been in power for only a short while. Dr. Siri Paiboun, medical doctor and communist revolutionary (of a sort, he became a communist because he was enamored of a girl who was an ardent communist) has put in his years, and now in his seventies is expecting to retire and receive a pension for his long service to the party. But instead he is told he is to be the national coroner, even though he has never worked as or trained to be a coroner. But Laos has a shortage of medical personnel due to the revolution and so he is stuck with the job.
Most of his cases are routine deaths by illness or misadventure. Until Mrs. Nitnoy, wife of a senior government official, dies suddenly while eating lunch. Her husband is sure she died from eating raw pork, which he claimed she loved to eat, but Dr. Siri's assistant noticed the scent of almonds on her body during the autopsy and later tests confirmed she was actually poisoned. Laos at this time is terribly impoverished and the hoops Dr. Siri has to jump through just to get a simple diagnostic test performed are quite daunting. But he manages to get it done despite all the obstacles. Now he has to figure who wanted the woman dead. The culprit appears to be the husband's girlfriend, who is later found dead of a suicide. But in this case, nothing is as it appears to be.
Dr. Siri also has to handle the case of three Vietnamese officials found floating in a lake who were apparently tortured to death. Again, nothing is as it appears to be and answers must be found quickly as friendly relations with Vietnam are at risk.
Dr. Siri may be old and he may not be a trained forensic coroner but he does have an advantage that no other coroner in the world has, his deceased clients visit him in his sleep and leave clues as to the truth of their various endings.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, although I did find the plot rather hard to follow. But, despite this, I liked reading about Dr. Siri and his friends and neighbors, such an exotic and interesting setting. I also enjoyed the touch of mysticism, especially the visit by Dr. Siri to the Hmong village to investigate the strange deaths of three military officers. Quite a fascinating book, even if I did find the plot rather thick.

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