The Coroner’s Lunch unfolds in 1976, in the city of Vientiane on the Mekhong River in Laos, in the early days of its new incarnation as the People’s Democratic Republic. Most of the city’s professionals absconded before the communist faction’s arrival so Paris-trained Dr. Siri Paiboun, after years of hard living in the jungle, is rudely torn from plans of his imagined retirement to start a new career as the chief police coroner. Though a member of the Communist Party for 46 years, Siri is not a good advertisement for its policies, having joined only to keep up with the love of his life. The 72-yr-old doctor, whose white hair contrasts sharply with his vivid green eyes, is less than eager to learn a new specialty; he is even less eager than that to appear weekly before a newly-minted judge for a “shared burden tutorial” that amounts to little more than endless naïve criticism of his work.
After seventy-two years, he’d seen so many hardships that he’d reached the calmness of an astronaut bobbing about in space.
Most of the interactions between Siri and the local officials made me laugh (unexpected and very welcome). The threat of his removal to a re-education camp in the North is always in the air but little chance it will be carried out—they need him for plans of their own. Unfortunately for them, Siri, despite having to learn his job from charred 1940s French textbooks propped like cookbooks next to his morgue table, turns out to be a careful, diligent coroner. He also has a mystical skill that proves extremely useful: He can mentally reconstruct and converse with the dead that come across his table. They arrive in short visits, usually in Siri’s dreams, to provide him with insights into their own deaths.
When Senior Comrade Kham’s wife arrives at the morgue as Siri’s next case and more strange deaths follow, he doesn’t come to the same conclusions the Senior Comrade insists upon. The difference of opinion awakens Siri’s memory of his favorite detective, Inspector Maigret, and he takes delight in channeling Maigret’s investigative example to get at the truth. Even navigating the indignities of everyday life while taking care to stay on the right side of the Politburo, Siri notices the small joys in his life. The Coroner’s Lunch is an immensely refreshing and enjoyable read.