Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Coroner's Lunch [Colin Cotterill]

Equal parts crime thriller, ghost story and political lampoon, The Coroner's Lunch mixes these éléments divers to provide an engaging tale. The unlikely hero here is Siri, a septuagenarian doctor in communist Laos compelled by those in authority to be the state's sole coroner, though he has neither aptitude nor inclination for the job. With only a cheerful magazine-reading nurse and a Down Syndrome afflicted attendant by his side, Siri must rely on outdated manuals and scarce chemical resources to do the best he can, which is barely competent, and only his wry humor keeps him from losing his control with an incomprehensible bureaucracy. And oh, Siri often encounters the ghosts of his autopsy 'patients'.

The mystery kicks off with the death of the wife of a high-ranking bureaucrat, seemingly an accident. But aided by his investigative instincts and more than a little help from his "friends on the other side", Siri finds himself reeling in a tangled thread of murder and conspiracy that would not be out of place in a Raymond Chandler book. Siri however is no Marlowe clone; his bitterness is far mellowed by age and resignation, and he retains more faith in his fellow-men (and their post-death avatars) than that archetype of the burned out sleuth.

Cotterill's prose has that very enviable quality of “readability”. Indeed, it was a cursory glance over the first few pages that prompted me to buy a book by an author I had never heard of before. The characters are sharply etched and the humor, be it the digs at the state's absurd Big Brother mentality or bawdy age-related jokes, constantly nails you - This could easily be the script for a Joon-Ho Bong film (Memories of Murder, The Host).

The Coroner's Lunch is not quite a masterpiece. There are several instances of deus ex machina including Siri's all-too-convenient encounters with the spirit world, which sully the process of unraveling the puzzle. But it's still an entertaining ride, holding up a lot better than Smilla's Sense of Snow so far as stories of unlikely detectives goes.

My verdict for The Coroner's Lunch: Quite palatable!

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