23 May 2014
THE CORONER’S LUNCH by Colin Cotterill
A slight change of plan …
In Book Talk this month I’m doing something different. I stand accused of being a little too serious in my reading habits and apparently I need to lighten up. The accusation, incidentally, is entirely my own.
I write character-based accessible literary fiction. What that means is my work is easily digestible and it’s not so much the plot that’s important but rather the person (or character) I’m writing about. As a result, I tend to like to read books of a similar nature so this is naturally reflected in my choice of subjects for Book Talk. You may have noticed this and wished that I could be a bit more eclectic – some chick-lit for example or perhaps some urban fantasy wouldn’t go amiss. Well, this month I’m making a start and I’ve tried to pick a couple of light summer reads, the first of which is THE CORONER’S LUNCH by Colin Cotterill.
Let’s start off with the blurb for the book. It’s set in Laos in 1976 where the royal family has been deposed and the communists have taken over. Despite a total lack of training, experience and inclination, Dr Siri Paiboun has just been appointed State Coroner for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, principally because he’s the only doctor left in the country. But when the wife of a Party leader is wheeled into the morgue and the bodies of tortured Vietnamese soldiers start bobbing to the surface of a Laotian lake, an international crisis looms and all eyes turn to the new coroner.
Given this introduction and the appearance on the cover of a silhouetted man bending down with a magnifying glass, I was expecting a detective novel and that Siri Paiboun is Laos’s version of Sherlock Holmes. I certainly hoped so. I’m a great fan of Arthur Conan Doyle and I love reading his stories. But is that what I got?
Well, mostly not, although there are certainly elements of detective fiction in the book. Dr Paiboun has plenty of dead bodies to look at and can draw some interesting conclusions from examining them. But solving crime doesn’t seem to be the main thrust of the narrative and I’m left wondering what is. Having said that, I still enjoyed reading it. Please excuse my attempt at a joke, but I’m assuming THE CORONER’S LUNCH must have been a curate’s egg because it’s good in parts.
Ok, I hear you ask, so what were the good bits? Well, I certainly learnt a lot about what life was like in Laos under communist rule and the book is worth reading for that alone. I felt I was getting my information straight from the horse’s mouth and Colin Cotterill writes with great authority on the subject. He should do, having spent over twenty years working in that part of the world. I note that he now lives in Thailand.
He also writes very well and the book is a delight to read. His prose has a light touch which I find pleasing but it’s the occasional passages of witty dialogue I found most captivating. When Dr Paiboun and his friend Civilai sit on the riverbank together eating their sandwiches, their exchanges sparkle with an infectious humour which is often directed against the communist regime. In fact, Dr Paiboun is an all-round subversive character. When asked by Judge Haeng why the Democratic Republic issues quality black shoes to its government officials free of charge, the State Coroner looks down at his ragged brown sandals and replies, “To keep Chinese factories open?” And so on.
Now for the bad bits. As I say, I don’t think I got the detective novel I was hoping for. It seemed to me that the crimes that were committed were of secondary interest and served only to provide some sense of narrative drive to the book. In the end I found I wasn’t really bothered as to who committed them or why.
I also had a problem with the ‘Phibob’. I’m struggling to explain what this is which is precisely my point. Later in the book, Paiboun goes off into the jungle and has some mystical (or drug induced?) experience. Is the ‘Phibob’ a spirit of some kind he’s in contact with? I didn’t understand it and being a bear of very small brain I put two and two together and came up with three. I also didn’t understand what relevance it had to the plot (such as it was).
So if the book isn’t a detective novel, then what is it? It seems to me that THE CORONER’S LUNCH is fundamentally about the character of Dr Paiboun and the character of Laos and that the crime element is merely a vehicle with which to carry the story along. But having said that, it’s written in a thoroughly enjoyable and light-hearted way. In other words, it’s a piece of character-based accessible literary fiction.
Hmm … So much for my decision to be more eclectic - perhaps I should go back to the drawing board.