Dr. Siri Paiboun by Colin Cotterill


The initial disclaimer: ‘Dr. Siri Paiboun’ is actually the name of the mystery series’ protagonist, not the title of any of the mysteries.

Dr. Paiboun has been roped into serving as Laos’ only coroner after the wars ended in the mid-1970s, and he isn’t happy about it. He’s seventy-two, and he was looking forward to a quiet receding into a retirement of calm contemplation and very little action at all. No such luck.

Instead, he gets to deal with being the only coroner in a nation with little technology (even for the mid-seventies) much less things like a reliable constant power grid, and a non-corrupt political structure. The politicians who govern the coroner’s office have no medical training and very little in the way of intelligence or education. This is not forensics or autopsy technique that would be recognized by any European or North American coroner’s office of the time; no Kay Scarpetta, Paiboun hasn’t even a scale designed to weigh the bodies, or a bone saw. Given the local climate, they’re lucky to have refrigerated storage for the bodies. He has one nurse, Dtui, and one assistant, a Mr. Geung, who though he has Down’s Syndrome does serve the coroner’s office well, given that his prodigious memory retains all that Paiboun’s predecessor did prior to swimming the Mekhong with an inner tube some months before Paiboun’s appointment at the beginning of the series.

If there’s such a thing as a cozy police procedural series, this is it, although I’m sure there are many who’d niggle that definition! I’m using it in the sense of a series with a protagonist who is not a detective or affiliated with the established law enforcement government agency which investigates suspicious deaths—your choice of official here. (local police force, FBI, immigration, whatever) In fairness, a government coroner is far closer to ‘connected with established law enforcement’ than most of the cozies out there. Strictly speaking, the ‘Siri Paiboun’ series is closer to a police procedural than a cozy, as the protagonist is an official government agent affiliated with law enforcement, and the story lines themselves do involved criminal forensics.

On the plus side, for me, Cotterill’s picked someone who would quite plausibly encounter dead bodies which became that way under mysterious or suspicious circumstances: the national coroner. The minus? Cotterill isn’t actually a member of one of the groups indigenous to the region…in fairness, that may or may not be an issue, but I know some people get ruffled about cultural appropriation. In that case, I would make the polite request “Suggest a mystery author who does so belong AND who writes in a language I can read.”

Overall, I liked the series well enough to come back and voluntarily read a second—not the case for many mysteries I’ve read in the last couple of years. There are flaws, of course, but I’d chalk those up to The Coroner’s Lunch being the first in the series. I read two in the series, the first (The Coroner’s Lunch) and the eighth (Slash and Burn), and both revolved largely about life in a war-torn nation, piecing life together and trying to feel your way forward in a job that no one else has and a career that the protagonist expected would be over by now.

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