by Colin Cotterill
It is a karmic turn of events when the body of Comrade Kham’s wife is brought into Dr. Siri Paiboun’s morgue in Ventiane, Laos.
It was Comrade Kham who laughed at 72-year-old Dr. Siri’s dreams of retirement and then dropped the announcement that he had been appointed the Republic’s chief police coroner.
That left Dr. Siri supervising two employees: Nurse Dtui, who has a taste for illegal Thai fan magazines, and Mr. Geung, who has Down Syndrome. His morgue has no lab, few chemicals, and a microscope that belongs in a museum. Trained as a doctor and surgeon, Dr. Siri has no experience doing autopsies. He learns his new trade propping up 30-year-old French textbooks on a music stand by his autopsy table with Dtui standing by to turn the pages as he reads and works and reads and works.
Comrade Kham’s wife, Mrs. Nitnoy, arrives in the morgue after falling over dead at a luncheon at the Women’s Union, which she directed. Comrade Kham first authorizes an autopsy, then rescinds it nine hours later when he saunters into the morgue with smell of whiskey on his breath. He informs Dr. Siri that he knows the cause of death — infection from the raw pork lahp, a peasant snack his wife was addicted to. He tells Dr. Siri that he will have his wife’s physician sign the death certificate, then several men whisk the body out of the morgue for the temple and an immediate funeral and cremation.
But while Mrs. Nitnoy’s body disappears, her brain remains in Dr. Siri’s lab. His commitment to finding out what — or who — killed her allows him to discover the great pleasure of digging for the truth when all around him corrupt people are trying to hide it.
As he works to uncover how and why Mrs. Nitnoy died, he is also dealing with three other cases: three bodies that come floating to the surface of a local reservoir, the death of a fisherman who is sliced in half as a police launch speeds into a dock and the mysteries deaths of three military men working with the Hmong in southern Laos, where Dr. Siri was born and lived until he was 10.
The Coroner’s Lunch is the first of a series of mysteries featuring Dr. Siri. While the crimes are serious and often violent, Dr. Siri is wise, cynical and fearless at this stage in his life. His scientific training is leavened by a dash of Laotian superstition and long experience with people. He is surrounded by entrancing characters, like Aunti Lah, maker of the best baguette sandwiches in Ventiane, who has a crush on Dr. Siri; Comrade Civilai who meets him at a log on the banks of the Mekong for lunch and gossip.
Without funding, equipment or support from his supervisor, Judge Haeng, a spotty-faced magistrate with a newly minted Soviet law degree, Dr. Siri slices through bureaucracy, party double-speak and systemic corruption to bring the truth to light.
The other books in the Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery series are (in story order):
- Thirty-Three Teeth (2005). Dr. Siri begins looking into a series of deaths by apparent bear bites, the seven-story fall of a government official and the origins of two charred bodies from helicopter crash at the temple at Luang Prabang.
- Disco for the Departed (2006). Dr. Siri is summoned to a remote mountain location in Huaphan Province where for years the leaders of the current government hid in caves waiting to assume power. Now, as a celebration of their new regime is about to happen, an arm is found sticking out from a concrete walk connecting the President’s former cave hideout from his new house under the cliffs. Dr. Siri is ordered to supervise the removal of the body and find out how it died.
- Anarchy and Old Dogs (2007). When a blind former dentist is run over by a truck and brought to Dr. Siri’s morgue, he suspects the death was no accident. A code message in invisible ink is recovered from the body. Dr. Siri finds himself investigating not just a murder, but possibly a dangerous political intrigue.
- Curse of the Pogo Stick (2008). Dr. Siri is kidnapped by seven Hmong women on the orders of their village elder. The elder wants Yeh Ming, the 1,000-year old shaman who shares Dr. Siri’s body to help him exorcise the headman’s daughter from possession by a demon.
- The Merry Misogynist (2009). Dr. Siri makes a trip to the countryside after the corpse of a rural beauty turns up in his morgue. The woman was tied to a tree and strangled — but not raped. He discovered she isn’t the only victim — and he might well be next.
- Love Songs from a Shallow Grave (2010). Dr. Siri is called to examine the body of a woman Lao security officer who is discovered stabbed through the heart with a fencing sword. Soon two other young women are found killed in a similar way. All three victims studied in Europe. But before Dr. Siri can complete his investigation, he is sent to Cambodia on a diplomatic mission that lands him in jail. Is there a connection?
- Slash and Burn (2011). Despite his desires to retire, Dr. Siri is sent to supervise the excavation of the remains of a U.S. fighter pilot who went down in a remote area of the northern Lao jungle 10 years earlier. A high profile group of politicians and scientists are sent with him. When one turns up dead, Dr. Siri suspects it’s no accident.
- The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (2013). A woman who was shot and killed during a burglary, then given a funeral and cremated in the presence of everyone in the village, shows up three days later as if nothing had happened. She claims to be clairvoyant and able to talk to the dead. Specifically, the long-dead brother of a Lao general who allegedly has contacted her to help the general find the dead brother’s remains. Dr. Siri is assigned to supervise the excavation.
- Six and a Half Deadly Sins (2015). Dr. Siri is sent a handwoven pha sin, a colorful traditional skirt from northern Laos, which is lovely but mysterious. Even more so when he discovers a severed human finger stitched into its lining.
- I Shot the Buddha (2016). Dr. Siri and his wife Madame Daeng count among the tenants of their small Vientiane house a Buddhist monk, Noo, who rides out on his bicycle one day and never returns, leaving behind only a cryptic note — a plea to help a fellow monk escape to Thailand — in the refrigerator.
Cotterill wrote a second series featuring Jimm Jurree, a former crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Daily Mail, who was forced to follow her eccentric family to rural southern Thailand when her mother sells the family house and invests in a rundown holiday camp at the edge of the Gulf of Siam. This series includes:
- Killed at the Whim of a Hat (2011). The transplanted Jimm believes her life and career are over, until a van holding the skeletal remains of two hippies, one of them wearing a hat, is unearthed in a local farmer’s field. Soon after, an abbot at a local Buddhist temple is viciously murdered. The temple’s monk and nun are the only suspects.
- Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach (2012). When a head washes up on the beach near the Jurree family “holiday camp” in Maprao, Jimm has high hopes that her investigation of the sensational event will earn her a byline in a major daily and allow her to hang on to her journalism career.
- The Axe Factor (2014). After scraping up assignments from the local online journal, the Chumphon Gazette, Jimm is finally being sent out to interview a local British writer, Conrad Coralbank, about his award-winning crime novels. At the same time, several local women, including the local doctor and Coralbank’s Thai wife, have disappeared without a trace. Jimm’s grandfather, a former cop, is not pleased when Coralbank becomes increasingly interested in Jimm.
About the Author: Colin Cotterill (1952 – )
Born in London, Cotterill currently lives in Southeast Asia. He has had a wide-ranging and far-flung career, including being a physical education instructor in Israel, an elementary school teacher in Australia, a counselor of educationally handicapped adults in the United States and a university lecturer in Japan.
In addition, he has worked with a number of nongovernmental aid organizations in Southeast Asia, including being a training teacher in Thailand along the Burmese border, working with UNESCO in Laos, where he also wrote and produced a 40-episode English language television teaching program. He became involved in child protection in the region and has been involved in other capacities combatting child prostitution and pornography in Puket, Thailand.
He is a cartoonist and writer, who regularly contributes columns for the Bangkok Post. After his first novels, The Night Bastard and Evil in the Land Without, he began writing full time. He won the Crime Writers’ Association “Dagger in the Library” award in 2009 for being “the author of crime fiction whose work is currently giving the greatest enjoyment to library users.”