I read The Coroner’s Lunch with little expectation that I’d enjoy it. So many novels don’t even start off well: there’s no style, little character or interaction, or else the characters are stereotypes found in dozens of other novels, and before you’ve read a chapter you’re yawning with boredom.
But Cotterill has style, he offers a plot, he has oddball characters - as well as ones that might or might not be on the level – and he goes off on some intriguing tangents that don’t necessarily seem connected with the main story.
His gumshoe detective (as someone on Amazon described him) is a 72-year old doctor who’s been thrown into the role of coroner at the end of the Laos war in 1975. He has to learn as he goes, he has as one assistant a smart nurse who turns out to be even smarter than she seems, and as the other, a Downs Syndrome man with a penchant for remembering detail. He has to battle with a mindset that isn’t entirely clued up to the joys of Marxism and still has hangovers from a more primitive time, with lack of facilities and funding, and with bureaucracy of the communist kind that never makes clear whether it’s sinister or sincere.
And then there’s the curious fact that in his dreams he meets up with people he’s known who have died – and they seem alive again. Not just alive as we might remember people in dreams, but literally alive. He finds it all very odd – and even odder is the insistence of a certain tribe of people that he’s actually some incarnation of a 2000-year-old spirit. If it sounds a little crazy it is, but the good thing about it is that in the midst of it all there are friends amongst those who surround Dr Siri, and some of them are very good friends.
The Laos background to the story is related with assurance and the feel of someone who actually knows the place – Cotterill lives in Asia. And the Asian mind, rather like that in Nury Vittachi’s Feng Shui detective series, is played with, and seen not just as mystical, but whimsical.
Lots of fun!