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The Coroner's Lunch was written with the intention of it being the first in a series of books about its main character, Dr Siri Paiboun. This is good news, as the character, and indeed the whole book, is well conceived. The first book in any series should set the tone, introduce characters and create some nice sub-plots that can be further explored. This book does all of these things competently without compromising its own story. I prefer to shy away from patronising made-up words like unputdownable, but that's pretty much what it is...
The main plot, which is a good old-fashioned murder mystery, is a solid base upon which political satire and commentary, humour and beautiful imagery all rest. The setting of newly-communist 1976 Laos gives the author a huge amount of material to work with. The sense of imminent danger, and descriptions of past horrors still very much in the mind, give the entire book an undercurrent of urgency which is mirrored in Dr Paiboun's race to solve the murder of Mrs Nitnoy.
Dr Paiboun is touchingly reluctant in his duties as state coroner and generally grumpy, particularly towards young people in positions of power, but this is balanced out by the understated yet poignant respect he shows towards his new charges (namely the increasing number of dead bodies).
The doctor is a highly intelligent and independent man, set on listening to the newly banned Thai radio stations to find out what is really happening in the world, and this is one of the ways in which the author manipulates (in the most positive sense!) the Western reader into warming to the man. Westerners love a rebel.
The lunch referred to in the title is Auntie Lah's famous baguettes, baked in Vientiane's town kiln every day, and filled with whatever the local government officials order. Auntie Lah's fondness for Dr Paiboun means that he never goes without a specially made lunch every day, a rare show of love in the old man's life.
This is a well-written book for all of the reasons above and many more, and I for one am glad that it's just the first of hopefully a long series.
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