Thursday, November 8, 2007

A psychic detective in '70s Laos

Somewhere in the last few months, I came across a discussion of the use of supernatural elements in crime fiction. I can't recall any novel that uses them so overtly, and so well, as The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill.

In this story of an aging Lao doctor pressed into running the country's only morgue following the Communist takeover of 1975, the supernatural consists not just of the odd hunch and prescient dream, but is an integral part of the story itself. Dr. Siri Paiboun has little equipment and even less training in forensic science, so the aid he receives from the spirit world is fortuitous. Think how it might help the CSI: Miami crew if the ghosts of crime victims were available to offer tips during the autopsy.

Fortunately, Cotterill has created a memorable and amusing character in whom such paranormal phenomena do not seem too convenient, and do not obviate the need for conventional sleuthing. When a dog begins behaving oddly, for example, or the mark of a wet bottle appears on a dry table, it's still just a clue. In Siri's world, the physical and the spiritual are all part of the same frequently absurd world.

Fellow blogger Maxine Clarke did a fine review of The Coroner's Lunch, to which I have little to add. Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders thought it a little too cozy for his taste, but I thought it worked pretty well, particularly given the humor that pervades the book. Like Maxine, I was reminded a little of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, but the milieu Cotterill has chosen is not quite so benign. That's a good thing. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.


Peter said...

This book is a good case study for the unreliability of categories, my "cozy" comment notwithstanding -- not that I really know what "cozy" means, anyway. There is more violence and discussion of, say, body parts in this book than one would normally associate with the term.

I remember being suprised when I read that you liked a taste of the supernatural from time to time. I was even more surprised by how gracefully and disarmingly Cotterill intergrated it into this novel.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Maxine said...

Nice review and thank you for the kind mention (but Clarke is with an e, no matter for now). It is a wonderful book -- he's written a total of 4 so far and is writing a 5th currently ;-) (the second is out in the UK in Dec - I think it may be out over there already.)

Dave K. said...

Maxine: My apologies for the misspelling. It will only happen once.
I have ordered the next in the Cotterill series, although it doesn't seem to be quite as well-liked as the first.

Peter, it's not really cozy in the subgenre sense of the term, but I agree with the description. Despite the grim nature of the murders,the book's genial tone sets it apart.