Dr. Siri Paiboun, coroner of Laos

Coroners lunchI’ve started many mysteries that I’ve never finished. I have trouble finding the ones that hold my interest and are well written. What do I mean by well written? For starters, the dialogue should sound like real people are speaking. The author should know how to use the grammar and syntax of the English language correctly, including setting an appropriate level of colloquial and formal language. I’m always surprised at the number of books I can’t read because the English language is improperly used. (For example, I came across a novel–well reviewed–where the author wrote “slowly by slowly” instead of “little by little.) The characters should be well delineated so that the reader recognizes them and their motivation every time they appear on the page. There’s more, but enough ranting.

I’ve been listening to a mystery series that fills all my criteria: the Dr. Siri Paiboun series by Colin Cotterill. O joy; there are 14 of them. I’m currently listening to the fourth one, Anarchy and Old Dogs, and feel like I’ve made new friends. That’s how vivid and delicious they are. Dr. Siri Paiboun is the national coroner in Laos when the series begins in 1975. The Pathet Lao have recently taken control of Laos and Siri, an aging revolutionary, is assigned to be the national coroner, a job he doesn’t want. As a faithful (but cynical) Communist cadre, he has no choice but to accept the job. The bodies that come to him contain secrets and the good doctor is compelled to solve the mysteries of their deaths, along with his nurse Dtui, his old friend Civilai, and a few others. In the first novel, The Coroner’s Lunch, Siri discovers that he is the reincarnation of a thousand year old shaman, which explains his nightly ghost-infested dreams. I don’t usually care for books where the spirit world plays a role, but the author never uses the apparitions as a deus ex machina. They are part of the spiritual folk life of the Laotian people and provide an interesting–and sometimes scary–dimension to the good doctor’s crime solving skills.

There’s also humor: very dry, very droll, and funny enough that I often laugh out loud. The crimes themselves are often gruesome, but take place offstage. Siri, who received his medical degree in Paris, loves the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon, and often sighs about how everything works out so neatly for inspector Maigret, but not for him. There’s lots of mid-twentieth century Laotian and Vietnamese history that’s dropped into the stories, mainly as background to the characters; it’s quite interesting and always neatly done. The aging coroner and his friends stay up late and drink too much, pondering their lives and the mysteries that come their way. Usually there are two or three mysteries to solve and sometimes the details are a little obscure, but it hardly matters. I can feel the heat and the tension before the monsoon breaks, taste the terrible coffee, hear the sounds of the mosquitoes. and rejoice that I have lots of time left to spend in good company.

 

 

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