Collin Cotterill’s Novels Set in Laos

An earlier version of this review originally appeared in The Bangkok Post on January 29, 2008.

By Roy Hamric

slashandburnNot many novels are set in Laos these days, but Colin Cotterill is fast changing that with his series of crime novels set in the former Southeast Asian kingdom. The first novel begins just after Laos fell to the Pathet Lao Communists in 1975.

The unlikely hero, Dr. Siri Paiboon, is a sharp-witted, 72-year-old former jungle surgeon and Communist Party member. He’s surrounded by a cast of loveable characters.  He wants to be left alone in his old age, but, to his chagrin, he’s appointed the national coroner of Laos – which really means he’s the only coroner in Laos. A unique twist is Siri’s ability to commune with powerful spirits who dwell in Laos, one of whom has entered his body.

The novels’  tone – read colourful, warm and smart – hit a home run with The New York Times’ reviewer, who called his first book “a perfect balance between the modern mysteries of forensic science and the ancient mysteries of the spirit world”; The Washington Post reviewer said it was “an impressive guide to a little known culture”; Entertainment Weekly cooed “magically sublime, tragically funny”; and Kirkus Reviews called the series, “an embarrassment of riches.”

For Cotterill, who lives in a small village south of Bangkok on the coast of Thailand, it’s been a rollercoaster ride, with each novel followed by glowing reviews – a writer’s dream come true. His gift as a novelist is that he makes it all look so easy. The fluid prose, the intricate plotting, the exotic Laotian setting and the earthy, wry, characters are all far superior to the average crime novel – or almost any novel for that matter.

Before his Siri novels, he apprenticed himself by writing two novels that were published only in Thailand. They were flops, in terms of attracting readers. Evil in the Land Without (2001) and Pool and Its Role in Asian Communism (2002) earned “a total of about $500 in royalties,” he said. Little did he know that international success was waiting just around the corner.

To find an agent for the first Laotian novel, “The Coroner’s Lunch,” he sent a short letter and a few pages of the first chapter to 120 US agents. He got several nibbles. Then an email appeared from a New York agent who asked to see the manuscript. He wrote back, “I can sell this for you.” Suddenly, it felt like fate had adopted him. Before long, he had a contract with Soho Press for a series. “I think getting published is a quirk of fate – getting to the right person at the right time,” he said, in his typical, self-effacing way.

Other novels in the series include Thirty-three Teeth, Disco for the Departed,  Anarchy and Old Dogs, Curse of the Pogo Stick (“That’s my Hmong book.”), Slash and Burn and The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die

Born in Wimbledon on the outskirts of London, he arrived in Southeast Asia in the early 1980s and started a series of NGO jobs, at one point working with refugees from Burma, Laos and Vietnam. He met a circle of Laotian ex-royalist and refugees who had vivid stories about the Communists, the fate of ordinary Laotians, the ethnic groups and the mass education and propaganda campaigns.

In 1990, Cotterill joined a Unesco project, working with the Laotian government to train English teachers at a college in Pakse, where he lived for two years. “It’s different to live in Laos and know what’s really happening,” he said. He learned, for instance, that one group of Laotians who wanted to study English used an East German language textbook, requiring them to first learn German to learn how to speak English. His notebooks filled up with stories, anecdotes and character details. But then he tripped up badly, ending up on the wrong side of a dispute with the military over who should be allowed to take English training classes.

“I went out of the country, then found out the government wouldn’t let me back in,” he said. “I didn’t really know who to blame. It took me a little while to get over it.” Starting in 1994, he began revisiting the country. “Every time I went, I thought, ‘I’m going to write about this.'”

In the late autumn of each year, he goes to Koh Samui to write a first draft of a new Siri novel in about four weeks. “I don’t like to know where the story is really going,” he said. “I know some of the things that occurred during the year I’m going to write about, so I get a few ideas and then just put Siri into a situation and ask, ‘How do we get out of this?'”

The spirit world plays a key role in each novel. Spirits are engaged in a sort of Manachean battle, inflicting their power for good or bad on lowly humans.

Within Cotterill’s exotic, mysterious world looms every-present bureaucracy, Communism, corpses and death. For Siri, death is but the beginning of the story. He uses his brain like a scalpel to cut through the mysteries of strangulation, stabbings, shootings, drownings, poisonings—and possessions.

On the serious side, one feels the crushing weight Communism has had on one of the most gentle, sublime cultures in the world. Siri is determined – what else is there to do? – to undermine the Communist ideologues whose mission is to discourage free-thinking and individual initiative––the exact traits possessed by Siri’s flesh-and-blood gang.

Another pleasure is Cotterill’s ability with dialogue. Many readers have commented that it’s the first time they feel as if they are hearing the way Asians really talk and think. “I had to defend the way my characters talk,” said Cotterill, who speaks Thai and Laotian. “If I have a character call someone a ‘bubblehead,’ well, there’s no exact Laotian equivalent for that English expression, but there are many similar Laotian expressions, so I feel I’m actually giving a closer approximation of the way my characters really talk.”

Cotterill has drawn cartoons and illustrations since he was a child, and he still enjoys working as an illustrator and cartoonist. He published a cartoon book, “Ethel and Joan Go to Phuket,” in Thai, and his unique website features his drawing.

“I write very visually,” he said. “I’m walking through the scenes with the characters. I’m seeing the characters, the weather, the land. I think I write more as an artist than as a writer.”

Two unpublished non-Siri novels sit on his desk; One is set in New York and Vietnam in 1952; the other is a contemporary thriller set in Chiang Mai involving the search for a 13th-century buried treasure.

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