Colin Cotterill is the author of numerous volumes in the popular Dr. Siri Paiboun series, featuring the septuagenarian Laotian coroner. Dr. Siri had thought to spend a peaceful retirement, but he is conscripted by the Communist government after the 1975 takeover of Laos. He hopes to make this job a sinecure; in the event he continually finds himself knee deep in murders and cover ups, far from the usual retirement activities.
Siri was introduced in the 2004 title, The Coroner’s Lunch, a “convincing and highly interesting portrayal of an exotic locale… [that] marks the author as someone to watch,” according to Publishers Weekly. Since then, Cotterill has published six more Dr. Siri mysteries, with Love Songs from a Shallow Grave due out in the United States in August. Cotterill, born in England, currently lives in Chumphon on the Gulf of Thailand.
Colin, it’s great to have you on Scene of the Crime. Looking at your homepage, I see that you have a CV that makes most of us feel like couch potatoes. You’re not only a novelist of note, but you’ve also taught and trained teachers around the world before settling in Thailand. You spent several years in Laos, initially with UNESCO, and then moved on to become involved in child protection in the region. Oh, yes, and did I forget to mention you are also a well-known cartoonist?
First, maybe you could focus on your time in Laos. What brought you there?
In 1990 I was sent to Laos on a UNESCO education project. It was a fascinating chance for me as I’d been working with Lao refugees in Australia and hearing all the stories of the communist takeover. I’d never lived in a socialist state so I didn’t really know what to expect. I stayed on after the UN contract as a volunteer for two more years. I’m running a couple of small clandestine projects in the north these days (www.colincotterill.com) so I have to go over at least once a year to see what a mess they’re all in.
I’ve often said that I could get a grocery list published if it was set in 1970s Vientiane. It was a weird and wonderfully awful period when you needed three typed documents to sell a chicken and permission to travel to the next village sometimes took up to a year to obtain. Most of the educated classes had fled ahead of the communist takeover so the place was being administered by soldiers with no experience and very few of the skills necessary to run a country. Yet, somehow, the Lao that remained not only survived, but seemed to make the most of this new Lao-run country. It was the first time in living memory that the country wasn’t under colonial rule or involved in wars. Merely living day-to-day in such an environment was a challenge, so I thought that it would be very interesting to set murder and mayhem mysteries there.
The character of the country had to come through in the stories in order to set the tone. Laos didn’t change very much between the communist arrival in 75 and my arrival in 90 so the setting was in me. A writer has an obligation to put readers who haven’t visited a country into that environment. Comparatively few people have visited Laos and hardly any were there during the transition. If I did a bad job of telling the place I could never tell the stories.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
In many scenes, the location dictates the game plan. If the physical and technological difficulties are integral to the plot you make an effort to bring out that role. But some situations you imagine yourself there and if scenery is necessary you let the writing come up with a balance that paints in the background without taking over the show.
Dr. Siri, a Lao, was educated in Paris and spent a good many years there. His cultural and religious beliefs are therefore a mixture of East and West. This perhaps helps him to ‘see’ his home country far more clearly than someone who has never left it. He’s able to balance what he’s told with what he knows to be fact. And, as a man in his seventies and a member of the communist party he’s able to voice those observations without fear of being locked up. As one would expect, after spending over forty years as a communist and then to finally live under communist rule and see its failings, his cynicism and humour are often the only ways he can cope with the mess he’s inherited.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
There is a very scant reading culture in Laos. There are far too many reasons to go into this than time allows here. So I know few Lao who have read what little literature exists in that country. The officials charged with reading and censoring work in foreign languages have long since given up the ghost and most books written about Laos are currently available in local shops. Dr. Siri therefore has a large audience of expats living in Laos who eat up the books. Then there are a few older educated Lao who, like Siri, have lived in the west, who communicate with me from time to time. One older gentleman likes to tell me that he IS Dr. Siri. But the most remarkable phenomenon is the acceptance of the books by second generation Lao who write from Europe and Australia and the US to tell me how they’re coming to understand their parents’ country and philosophy a lot more by reading the books. Although I have no wood here to touch, so far, I haven’t had any negative press from the Lao community.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
My first reaction was ‘no’, at least not in the copies that make it to the bookshops. I did have a couple of people write to tell me that Dr. Siri couldn’t possibly have read Animal Farm when he was at school. In fact I doubt George Orwell was born then. My mistake was that I have the whole picture of what Siri does and when, but I only expose parts of his story at a time. Siri later returns to his old high school to rescue their library. It’s then that he discovers Animal Farm. I wasn’t careful enough in my wording. Me Culpa.
But at the level of me passing my script on to my editorial readers I screw up all the time. It’s what happens when you write with a glass at your elbow.
Of the Dr. Siri novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Vientiane features very loudly in most of the books and the changing seasons give her moods and depressions. Here’s a passage talking about her dry season from The Merry Misogynist.
“Siri had designated this Sunday a Vientiane day. The capital was a little ghostly when they set out at nine. Stores were shuttered, many closed for so long the locks had rusted to the hasps. Houses were in permanent disrepair. The dusts of March had settled on the city like a grey-brown layer of snow. Roads, even those with bitumen surfaces, looked like dirt tracks. There were no obvious colours anywhere, only shades. Even the gaudiest billboards had been reduced to a fuzzy pastel. The most common sounds they heard as they cruised the streets were the sweeping of front steps and the dry-clearing of throats.”
I know that my favourite writers influenced my sense of place because they’re all travel writers. I don’t read a lot of fiction but I love to travel with writers and see a country through their eyes. Norman Lewis and his wonderful A Dragon Apparent was an inspiration as are Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson. My wife and I have just moved to a fishing village in the south of Thailand and I’ve started a new series based down here. The first book is called, Killed at the Whim of a Hat. The place features as much as the characters and I hope I’m able to paint a picture of what it’s like to live down here.
What’s next for your protagonist?
As always, keeping him alive at the age of 75 is a challenge I have to meet in each book. But the team is due for a trip up country to Long Chen, the home of the CIA secret war in Laos. Siri reluctantly accompanies Americans in search of MIA. Book 8 in the series; Spook City.
Colin, thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with Scene of the Crime.