The Coroner’s Lunch is the first in the series of Colin Cotterill’s crime novels set in the 1970s in the Laos People’s Democratic Republic after the communist takeover and featuring the elderly and reluctant Dr Siri Paiboun as the crime-solving State Coroner, who is left cryptic clues by the spirits of the murder victims on his dissection table, who visit him in his dreams. This is a rather gentle and wittily written crime novel and the reader is spared much of the bleakness of much contemporary crime fiction. In tone it is not dissimilar to the writing of Andrea Camilleri and, in the same way, the novel is also heavily laden with political satire. I found myself chuckling along as I read it.
Those in power are, at best, portrayed as benign, but incompetent, and at worst as corrupt, murderous thugs. Siri and his team find themselves not only up against solving the crime (with little but outdated equipment and a French pathology manual at his disposal), but also against the sheer stupidity of the political elite. The tension that drives the narrative (and the satire), therefore, is that between the gentle, educated, liberal and Westernised Siri and a political system that seems to be no better than the one it replaced.
As such, Cotterill’s books might easily be criticised as colonial writing, but what ultimately saves it from this is that Siri himself is a communist, who has spent much of his life working as a doctor in the Revolutionary Army. This is no criticism of communism per se, but of the frailty of human beings, the seduction of power and a dogmatic approach to politics. Cotterill himself has spent much of his life as a teacher in Laos and Thailand (where he now lives) and this novel is brimful of affection for (and knowledge of) the country, its people and its culture.