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.