My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Coroner’s Lunch uses a popular and intriguing technique of setting a crime novel in an unconventional landscape. Like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels (most famously Gorky Park), James Church’s Inspector O novels (e.g. A Corpse in the Koryo), or Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichirō samurai detective novels, Cotterill’s book places a protagonist staunchly devoted to the truth into a sea of ideologues who value appearances more than facts and who will do anything to maintain their precarious grasp on power.
This approach appeals for a couple of reasons. First, it maintains a line of tension in terms of the world against the protagonist on top of whatever other plot conflicts may exist (criminal against investigator.) It also allows us to recognize the virtues that we find appealing amid a people that we think are a world apart.
While crime fiction is plot driven, this particular variant requires strong character development. We must have a lead character that stands out against the bleak landscape of the authoritarian regime that employs him. However, at the same time, the character mustn’t stand out by being bold and defiant in the manner we might expect of a crime novel set in New York City. Such a character is unbelievable amid totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, North Korea, feudal Japan, or—in Cotterill’s case—Laos, circa 1975. We can’t believe such a character wouldn’t be killed by leaders who have people summarily executed on a regular basis. So the character must be clever, adroit at manipulating the system, and a quiet anti-ideologue.
Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun largely fits the mold, but is a little more irreverent than usual. The old doctor is drafted into being Laos’ national coroner because most of the educated class has fled the country–this despite the fact that Paiboun’s medical expertise is not in forensics. The ultimate source of his bold demeanor is that he is an old man, and he figures that there’s not much that they can do to him. If he were to be executed he wouldn’t lose much longevity over his natural lifespan, and if they sent him to camp, it wouldn’t be as foreboding as the places he has once been. Additionally, he has a highly placed friend, and—beyond that–they can’t replace him in short order. Making Paiboun disappear as Communist regimes were known to do is not an option. Still Siri is clever and does know how to ride the line without tipping across it.
The plot revolves around two crimes. The first is the death of the wife of a high-ranking Party official. The second is the discovery of three Vietnamese government agents in a lake in rural Laos. Both of these cases are high-profile and create incentives to keep truth from coming out.
One element of Cotterill’s novel that is outside the mold for this type of book involves supernatural activities. It seems that–like The Sixth Sense’s Macualay Culkin—Dr. Paiboun sees dead people. Perhaps this device was added to set the novel apart from others in the aforementioned class. For me, this approach seemed superfluous and disadvantageous. Siri’s “gift” kind of detracts from his strength of character because it’s not so much his brilliant mind that is solving murders as the victims giving him hints.
I will say that this supernatural element is introduced in a great way and that it could have been used throughout the novel to a much better effect. When the dead people first visit him, it’s in the form of a dream. At first we don’t know whether his subconscious worked out the solution or whether there is something supernatural going on. However, the author adds a manipulation of the material world so that we know this is supposed to have really happened and later this becomes abundantly clear. I think it would have been better to maintain the ambiguity. People reach solutions to difficult problems through sleep all the time, but we don’t live in a world in which the physical is manipulated supernaturally. Not that there is anything wrong with supernatural fiction (I read a lot of it.) However, crime fiction works best in a realistic world, as does historical fiction. This novel straddles those two genres, and throwing in supernatural events muddles the setting a bit.
Overall, I thought the book was well-written and the main character was humorous and intriguing. If you liked the kind of books I mentioned in the first paragraph, I believe you’ll like adding this to the mix.