Wednesday, 25 December 2013

The Coroner's Lunch


Christmas Day, where else would you expect to find me than with my face in a book?

Just finished this. I mentioned it a while back. Two of my close friends have moved to Laos, and one of them found a crime series set there. They're written by Colin Cotterill, who has a very funky website, and the first in the series is called The Coroner's Lunch. As I'm planning to visit next year, I thought I'd better have a read.

Dr. Siri Paiboun, one of the last doctors left in Laos after the Communist takeover, has been drafted to be the national coroner. He is untrained for the job, but this independent 72-year-old has an outstanding qualification for it: curiosity. And he doesn't mind incurring the wrath of the Party hierarchy as he unravels mysterious murders, because the spirits of the dead are on his side.

The Denver Post review said "The sights, smells and colors of Laos practically jump off the pages..."  but I must admit that, for me, never having been to Laos, I'm still not entirely sure it gave me a lasting image of the place. Descriptive is fairly brief throughout, but it is wonderfully character-driven. Where I lack a clear image of mid-1970s Vientiane, I very clearly see Dr. Siri with his stoop and his green eyes, his assistants: Nurse Dtui and Mr.Geung, and crazy Rajid. 

A truly entertaining cast, made all the more so because they don't fit the average detective mould. The lead character is septuagenarian, and his lab assistant has Down Syndrome. 

It's instantly engaging, and darkly humorous, right from the outset:

People's Democratic Republic of Laos, October 1976

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.

I'm a nit-picky pain in the bum, so there were a couple of things that made me wonder, such as the implication that someone might fall faster because they are heavier. Three humans, dropped from the same height, would hit the ground together regardless of their respective weights, unless one were wearing a parachute. Assuming they were dropped at the same time. Even if they weren't, Hok would hit the ground first not because he was heavier, but because he was dropped earlier... or something like that? And there was a lot of weight placed on whether things happened to corpses pre- or post-mortem, except for a tattoo, which would probably be the most obvious thing you'd notice post-mortem because of the damage tattoos do to the skin and the length of time that would take to heal even on a living person. Post-mortem, the ink would probably have been washed away and the wound bloated?

But this is me being an OCD nerd. The fact remains, the story was excellent fun. Siri turns out to have second sight (which isn't a spoiler, because you know this from the beginning), which I thought would probably be a real downer on a detective novel. I was inwardly groaning at the idea of Psychic Sally does Death in Paradise. I should have had more faith. Far from spoiling the story, it completely added to it, as Siri himself is fairly scientifically minded and knows how strange it all seems. It also laid the road for a fascinating trip into the shamanic Hmong region to battle the Phibob, the displaced spirits of the deceased who live in the jungle. It brought to mind the Forest Spirits in Ghibli's Princess Mononoke, but with teeth!

There were some wonderful dream sequences:

It shouldn't have surprised him, given all the talk and the setting and the whisky, but his dream that night was a spectacle.

He was dressed as a Hmong of a thousand years hence. For reasons known only to the Great Dream Director, he was riding Dtui's bicycle through a fairy-tale jungle. He didn't see the trees as trees, but rather as the spirits that inhabited them. They twirled together from the roots to high up in the sky. They were kind and welcoming, just as Tshaj had described them. Many were women, beautiful women, whose long hair curled into, and became, the grain of the wood.

It was a happy place; he seemed to know all the spirits, and they liked him. But the bicycle was squeaky and its noise awoke a black boar that had been asleep behind the bushes. Its fangs were still bloody from a kill. The tree spirits called out to Siri, warning him, but he seemed unable to move. The bicycle was locked with rust. Heaven knows why he didn't get off and run for his life.

The boar charged. He looked up at the spirits but they couldn't do anything to help. When he looked back, a small woman was standing between him and the boar. She seemed fearless, even when the boar leaped from the ground and soared through the air toward her. Before it could strike, she held up the black amulet in front of its face, and it turned from muscle and fur into a black sheet of burned paper. It floated harmlessly to the ground and crumbled.

She turned to Siri. He'd expected to see the sweet face of Auntie Saub, but instead it was the same old man's face with its betel-nut red mouth that had lain dead at the feet of the Vietnamese in his previous dream. (He must have been making a guest appearance). He ignored Siri and went from tree to tree ripping down the spirits and the nymphs and putting them into a Coca-Cola bottle. Even before the bottle was full, the trees were empty of spirits, and he vanished. All that was left was Siri on his rust-locked bicycle surrounded by trees that were now just wood. 

He heard the sound of chewing, and looked back over his shoulder to see that the jungle floor behind him was a vivid green. The color seemed to vibrate as it reflected in his eyes. And as he watched, the carpet of green spread closer and closer to him. And when it was close enough, he could tell that this was a swarm of green caterpillars. He looked back; everything in its path had been destroyed, devoured by the hungry insects.

The bark of the trees around him was stripped away, the leaves were gone in seconds, and slowly the tree trunks were levelled. When there were no more trees, the caterpillars caught sight of Siri. They crawled all over him and Dtui's bicycle, and just as they'd eaten everything else, they began to chew their way through him as he watched calmly. It tickled. Very soon, Siri could feel himself inside the caterpillars.

A flock of crows swooped down and ate the caterpillars that contained small bits of Siri. Then whales somehow managed to eat the crows. And whales were swallowed up by volcanoes and suddenly Siri, or at least bits of Siri, was in every creature and every geological feature on Earth. It was one hell of a good finish.

As, indeed, is the last chapter of this book, which really grabs hold of your mind with a sinister 'follow me!' Looking forward to reading some more of Siri when I get the time. Whodunnit with a sprinkle of the spectacular.

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