When I say that this month’s Fantasy Reads recommendation is the first in a fifteen-book series of mystery novels about an elderly coroner working in Communist Laos in the 1970s you will probably think, `What has that got to do with Fantasy fiction?’ Bear with me because The Coroner’s Lunch (2004) by Colin Cotterill is a detective story with strong paranormal elements. Perhaps chapter titles such as The Exorcist’s Assistant, Succubus Terminal and Talking to Dead People will tempt you to read on?
After many years as a half-hearted Freedom Fighter, Dr Siri Paiboun looks forward to a peaceful retirement once the Communists have finally taken charge of Laos. Then he is appointed as his country’s chief, and indeed only, coroner with precious little equipment and a staff of two, Nurse Dtui and Orderly Mr Geung. Becoming a coroner is difficult for Dr Siri in two ways. Firstly, he doesn’t have any training as a pathologist and has to rely on an old French textbook, and secondly he has problems with dead people. They tend to visit him in what he chooses to classify as dreams. The only ghost who never comes is that of his long dead wife.
After a quiet few months in his makeshift mortuary in Vientiane, Siri suddenly has several important autopsies to perform. The first is on the wife of the very influential Senior Comrade Kham. Kham insists that her sudden death was a natural one but the good doctor can see that the spirit of Mrs Kham disagrees. Siri investigates possible poisons with the help of a local Chemistry teacher. Then the bodies of two Vietnamese men are recovered from a lake. Siri’s initial report suggests that they were tortured to death, which could cause a major breach between Laos and its Viet Cong allies. Inspector Phosy, an unusually friendly policeman, is assigned to this case, but is he all that he seems? After a third Vietnamese body is found, Siri finds himself in danger.
In the middle of these investigations, Siri is sent to a remote jungle area where there have been a series of apparently accidental deaths among soldiers in charge of a project in the territory of the Hmong, one of Laos’s ethnic minorities. When Siri is taken to a Hmong village, he is very surprised to be hailed as the reincarnation of an ancient Hmong shaman. The strange things that happen in the village are difficult for Siri to reconcile with his scientific view of life, but he does manage to deal with a very unusual group of criminals. Once back in Vientiane, Siri can’t help noticing that someone is trying to kill him but he doesn’t know which of his three cases is the cause of this. Can Siri survive long enough to solve all the murders and will the cryptic remarks of the dead be a help or a hindrance?
As you can tell from this summary, The Coroner’s Lunch is not short on plot. There are enough mysterious deaths in this novel to satisfy even the greediest of Mystery addicts. Pathologists who solve crimes have become commonplace in novels and TV programmes but few of these fictional pathologists have to cope with the range of problems that Siri encounters. After its long War of Independence, Laos is a desperately poor country and most of the professional classes have fled to avoid being executed or reeducated by the Communists. Siri has no fancy equipment, no teams of technicians to support him and no laboratories he can send samples to. Due to shortages, one roll of camera film has to last for seven bodies. Moreover, the arrogant young judge who is Siri’s immediate boss, is more interested in criticizing the coroner’s `individualist thinking’ than in understanding or acting on his reports. All these difficulties are described with dark humour. Siri surmounts them with determination, ingenuity and a gift for making friends and allies. He is not a lone-wolf type of detective. His two assistants, ungainly Nurse Dtui and Mr Geung who has Down’s Syndrome, are working in the mortuary because no-one else wants them but once Siri entrusts them with important tasks they become invaluable.
There is also plenty in The Coroner’s Lunch for lovers of Fantasy fiction, including a mysterious monk, at least seven ghosts, some angry tree-spirits, a possessed woman, an ancient exorcist and two powerful amulets. These paranormal elements arise from a culture which even under Communist rule was still deeply Buddhist (the Lao) or Animist (the Hmong). You might think such elements would be out of place in a forensics-based Mystery story but Cotterill is drawing on a long tradition in the Far East of detectives who solve crimes with the help of supernatural powers. China’s Judge Dee is the most famous example. Dee’s passion for justice was thought to allow him to converse with wronged ghosts and gain clues from visions and Siri is similar. This isn’t so very different from western detectives who act on subconscious hunches or are driven to persist by empathy with the victims of brutal crimes. There are two different types of case in The Coroner’s Lunch, ones which have human causes and ones which have supernatural causes. Siri has to solve the human cases mainly by the kinds of detective work you would find in a standard crime story. For the crimes which are caused by the supernatural, or if you prefer, caused by belief in the supernatural, Siri has to rely on his more unusual talents which are still developing. It makes a nice change to read about a 72 year-old with an exciting future ahead of him.
In the rest of the series, the supernatural sometimes takes centre stage and sometimes merely haunts the edges of the stories. If you read on, you will encounter a possible weretiger, witches, shamans, prophets, meddling monks, possessed puppets, sacrificial rituals and cursed objects. I feel that I’ve learned a lot from these novels about the beliefs and superstitions of the inhabitants of Laos and the surrounding countries. Colin Cotterill taught in Laos for UNESCO and has lived in neighbouring Thailand for many years. He is as cynical as his hero, Siri, about the political history of the region but never about the local peoples and their cultures. It is hard to read The Coroner’s Lunch without admiring the resiliance and good humour of the Lao who adjust to dramatic changes of government and make the best of what little they have. The current Ministry of Culture in Laos has deemed Cotterill’s books to be `unsuitable reading’ which I feel is a mark of their quality.
Back in the 1970s, Siri is shown as living in a group-oriented society where you only dare speak your mind to people you can really trust – a state of affairs that I am beginning to identify with. Stubborn Siri retains his individuality and works within the system in various crafty ways. He is one of my all-time favourite detectives but you could equally think of him as a magician comparable with Merlin or Gandalf. I also came to love other characters in the series such as shy and stuttering Mr Geung, who struggles against prejudice, and plain Nurse Dtui who reads banned glamour magazines but dreams of training as a doctor. Their lives change in unexpected ways in the course of the series and so does Siri’s. Can you really resist a series of novels whose titles include Disco for the Departed, Curse of the Pogo-Stick and The Rat-Catchers’ Olympics? Until next month…