My quest for good writing and a good mystery has finally led me to Colin Cotteril. I have been up and down the Mystery rack at one bookstore after another and there are many mystery writers who can write a pretty good mystery, but not many who can write a good book. "The Coroner's Lunch" is my first by this author, but probably won't be my last. Another reviewer read the opening passage and knew immediately that this book wasn't for her. I, on the other hand, read the first passage and knew immediately that it was for me.
"Tran, Tran, and Hok broke through the heavy end-of-wet-season clouds. The warm night air rushed against their reluctant smiles and yanked their hair vertical. They fell in a neat formation, like sleet. There was no time for elegant floating or fancy aerobatics; they just followed the rusty bombshells that were tied to their feet with pink nylon string.
Tran the elder led the charge. He was the heaviest of the three. By the time he reached the surface of Nam Ngum reservoir, he was already ahead by two seconds. If this had been the Olympics, he would have scored a 9.98 or thereabouts. There was barely a splash. Tran the younger and Hok-the-twice-dead pierced the water without so much as a pulse-beat between them.
A quarter of a ton of unarmed ordnance dragged all three men quickly to the smooth muddy bottom of the lake and anchored them there. For two weeks, Tran, Tran, and Hok swayed gently back and forth in the current and entertained the fish and algae that fed on them like diners at a slow-moving noodle stall."
And so begins another day at the office for the reluctant Dr. Siri Paiboun, and the beginning of a labyrinthine voyage through the alleyways and jungle trails of Laos and Cambodia, with some furtive forays into Vietnam, which the good doctor navigates with his quick mind and tired old feet. Dragged out of retirement by a naively enthusiastic and newborn communist regime in Laos, Dr. Paiboun had no experience, training, or desire for the science of forensics or the professional calling to be a coroner. But here he was. Doing his part for the good of all with not much say in the matter. His wisdom and his wit, surpassed only by his extraordinary sense of irony, provides the fuel and fortitude with which he drags himself to work everyday and back home to a humble apartment every night.
"The bathroom downstairs was shared with two couples, three kids, and a lady who was the acting head of the teacher training division at the Department of Education. Such were the spoils of a communist victory. But as conditions were no worse than before, nobody complained. He lit the gas on the one-ring range and boiled his kettle of water for coffee. In a way, it felt good to be home.
And when he faced the office each morning, he had Dtui to lean on. Smart, dedicated to her boss, and pretty much OK with her lot in life, Dtui provides the good doctor with the missing pieces on every case. But, as far as Dr. Siri knew, she had never been with a man.
"Her high standards pretty much eliminated her from the market. The romance she sought wasn't to be found here in the morgue. It wasn't to be found in the single room she shared with her sick mother, and probably it wasn't in Laos at all. Men were two-dimensional creatures with specific three-dimensional tastes. There had been eras when large torsos were in high fashion, a symbol of wealth and plenty. Physiology went through cycles. But in the twentieth century, malnutrition was à la mode. Dtui with her laundry-bin build was off the scale. There were no suitors queuing at her door. They wouldn't have to dig deep to find her kindness and humor, but they didn't even bring a spade."
In and out of the actual mystery at hand, far too complex to grasp while reading, and even more difficult to retell, we are led through the exotic lands of southeast Asia, through political intrigue and corruption, as well as the pitfalls and exuberance of the people who are dragged along, somewhat good-naturedly, by the usual fools in power, and who manage to cling to the myths and customs with which they have clung for generations.
"Out in the streets, people were already preparing for the That Luang Festival. It was one of the few dates on the Lao Buddhist calendar that was guaranteed to spark excitement across generations and ethnic lines. The golden Grand Stupa had watched over its excited children on the thirteenth day of the twelfth moon for as long as anyone living could remember.
This was the first festival since the revolution and it promised to be a little more restrained than usual. The new regime had banned certain excesses: the popular freak shows, for one. There'd be no five-legged goats or three-breasted women to entertain the crowds. Alcohol was forbidden, along with gambling, so there were unlikely any spontaneous shootings to write about in the papers the next day. The government also put the lid on displays of opulence and "extravagant religious outpourings". All of which might have made one wonder what could possibly be left to celebrate."
With Dr. Siri's sense of irony and steadfast ability to keep on keeping' on, and the steady hand and wry wit of Colin Cotteril, we have plenty to celebrate in this story and enough to keep us asking for more. Good mystery, good writing, good fun.