The Coroner's Lunch
by Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime, 272 pp., $24
by John Burdett
Knopf, 320 pp., $24
The Door to Bitterness
by Martin Limón
Soho Crime, 280 pp., $23
For anyone who enjoys mysteries and thrillers set in foreign countries, Asia offers not only exotic locales but also a bit of mystery-within-the-mystery when the gap in perception between East and West is skillfully handled. Yet many authors can't resist the temptation to rely on stereotypical villains and victims rather than allow the complicated (but subtle) differences to play out. Details, carefully rendered, and a good story give the reader a better sense of the barrier that often confronts a Westerner in Asia than the tired use of outsized themes and cartoon character Americans relied upon by two of these books.
In The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill, the bodies of the wife of a high Lao official and some unidentified Vietnamese have landed on the autopsy table of Siri Paiboun, an elderly doctor pressed into service as Laos's official coroner after the Communist victory. The septaugenarian Siri has survived the war and lost his one and only love, his committed Communist wife, under mysterious circumstances. At this point, nothing fazes him, not even being visited in his dreams by the spirits of his dead autopsy subjects.
Weaving the spirit world into the story actually works better than some of the other farfetched plotlines: the story has Vietnamese interference, government corruption, and the nefarious activities of a certain foreign intelligence service. Siri is aided by an unlikely and disparate cast of characters that includes an assistant with Down's Syndrome and a pal on the Politburo. Unfortunately, Cotterill, a British social worker, reads more like Barbara Pym than he should. Except for a few mentions of reeducation camps, the reader has little sense of what Laos might have been like in the mid- to late 1970s.
The Bangkok that John Burdett writes about is another story, but you'll feel like you need to take a shower afterward. Bangkok Tattoo is Burdett's second novel featuring Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a cop who is the son of an absent American serviceman and a former prostitute, now a Chanel-wearing madam. Confronted with a gruesome murder, and involving the tattoo of the title, Sonchai and his corrupt but benevolent boss Colonel Vikorn have to decide whether to solve the crime or allow the truth to be manipulated by American officials, for their own geostrategic purposes.
The story takes Sonchai to Thailand's unstable, largely Muslim south, a growing terrorism concern that would allow Burdett to describe a complicated blend of government repression, Muslim alienation, and the growing threat of Islamic terrorism. Instead, Burdett can't resist targeting the West, and Americans in particular. Sonchai frequently addresses the reader as "farang," a derogatory term for a white foreigner. The Americans, grotesquely caricatured by Burdett, are consumed with self loathing, while Thai police and army officials engage in an indirect debate about the phony democracy foisted upon them by the West. The plot takes place against the backdrop of Bangkok's famous sex industry, which Burdett uses, along with a moderate Muslim imam, to highlight the self-delusion and soullessness of the West. (An author's note provides a disclaimer that Thailand's sex industry is smaller per capita than in many other countries. In that case, perhaps Burdett, whose first novel played on the Western fascination with Thai transvestites and transsexuals, will pick another aspect of Thai society to explore.)
Prostitution and corruption also pervade Martin Limón's series of gritty detective stories focusing on the misadventures of two American Army crime investigating agents in 1970s Seoul. Limón's lower key approach rings true, however-perhaps because Limón, like his narrator, Agent George Sueño, served in South Korea. For Sueño and his partner Ernie Bascom, the workday includes nights in Itaewon, Seoul's seedy nightlife district for GIs. The two cops encounter the lingering privations of postwar Korea rather than the sunny side of the burgeoning South Korean economic miracle.
In The Door to Bitterness, the fourth in the series, Sueño finds himself bereft of his service gun and military ID after an encounter in a bar that he cannot quite remember. Faced with dire disciplinary consequences if these are not recovered, Sueño and Bascom embark on an investigation that takes them south to Inchon and north toward the Demilitarized Zone, finding out along the way what criminal schemes and personal vendettas they have been dragged into.
Limón does well creating the world where the American military comes into contact with life on the margins of postwar South Korea, even if the attempt to bring about redemption for some truly wretched characters is labored. More important, Sueño realizes that the little things a foreigner can easily miss may hold the key to solving crimes, not to mention understanding the locals.
Ellen Bork is deputy executive director at the Project for the New American Century.