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British author in Thailand puts Laotian detective fiction on the map

Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri detective series uses art to get around potentially controversial issues

Colin getting thrown out of Laos. (Courtesy of Colin Cotterill)

CHUMPORN, Thailand Dr. Siri Paiboun was already beyond retirement age when he was appointed state coroner to the morgue in Laos' capital, Vientiane, in 1975, when the Southeast Asian nation officially became the Lao People's Democratic Republic. A dozen books later, Siri is still solving murders, sassing officials, messing with the spirit world and slurping down noodles prepared by his second wife, Madame Daeng.

The Dr. Siri detective series, set in the years after Laos fell into communist control, is the creation of British author Colin Cotterill, 65. After living in Laos, Cotterill settled in Thailand and now lives in the southern town of Chumporn, with seven dogs and his wife, Kyoko, whose family owns a 300-year-old soba noodle restaurant in Shiga, Japan. Like his Dr. Siri alter-ego, Cotterill is also postponing retirement. "The strange thing that happens when you stop writing is the money stops coming in," Cotterill said.

Cotterill lives in Chumporn, southern Thailand, with his Japanese wife Kyoko and seven dogs. (Courtesy of Colin Cotterill)

He estimates he has sold more than a million copies of the Dr. Siri series. He is currently working on the 13th Siri mystery. He is also an accomplished cartoonist.

Cotterill can boast of being the only Western author of a murder mystery series set in Laos, although the expat-penned detective genre abounds in Thailand.

"The Dr. Siri series is one of the better-selling ones by expat authors set in Asia, but it doesn't sell quite as well as the John Burdett series about Bangkok," said Don Gilliland, co-owner of the Dasa Book Cafe, a used book store in Bangkok. "Christopher Moore [another popular Thai-based author] books also sell well, but almost anything set in Thailand will sell well either to local expats or tourist customers."

British author Burdett is best known in the region for his thriller novel "Bangkok 8" and other titles in the Sonchai Jitpleecheep series, whose main character is a mixed-race Thai Buddhist police detective. Canadian author Moore, who also lives in Thailand, created the Vincent Calvino series, about a Western private eye who solves crimes in various Southeast Asian capitals.

Dr. Siri Paiboun in a pair of blue pants (Courtesy of Colin Cotterill)

Moore's recent mysteries touch on topics sensitive in Thailand, such as corruption and the judicial immunity of powerful. "Crime novels are the perfect genre because they are basically about how a system delivers justice or doesn't," Moore said.

Cotterill, who was a teacher for 27 years before becoming a full-time author, chose Laos as a setting partly because Thailand was already crowded with virtuous crime fighters. "Nobody else was doing it," he said.

Laos was the theater of the "secret war" for the U.S. military in Indochina.

Communist Laos remains secretive. It is the only country in Southeast Asia that has no permanent foreign media presence, partly because so little happens in the country of 7 million. When something does happen, like the mysterious disappearance at a government checkpoint of the country's best-known activist, Sombath Somphone, on Dec. 15, 2012, a cloak of official silence envelops the case.

Cotterill has also experienced the enigma of Lao officialdom. After working in the country for several years in the early 1990s, he was suddenly expelled in 1995. He was working in Pakse, southern Laos, on an English-language curriculum for Lao teachers, when he was summoned to Vientiane. "I wasn't expecting to be thrown out of the country, which is what they did. I never did find out why."

Colin also works on cover images for some of his own books. (Courtesy of Colin Cotterill)

He became involved in child protection activism in Phuket, southern Thailand, which led to his first series of "serious" novels about child abuse and pornography. They did not sell well.

Then he recalled his teaching days in Australia. "I remember often sitting in the kitchen of a house in Melbourne with three members of the old Lao cabinet who were telling me how much damage the socialists were doing to their country," Cotterill said.

He began the Dr. Siri series in 2003. "I had the background and the experience, and I'd seen two points of view from two different groups, so for me Laos was a good starting point," Cotterill said.

The fictional Dr. Siri was born some time in 1904 and schooled at a temple before getting a scholarship to study medicine in France. There, he fell in love with his first wife, Bouasawan, an activist who insisted he join the Communist Party to marry her. Siri returns to Laos in 1940 to join the communist guerrillas as a doctor. He survives the war, and is appointed national coroner on his return to Vientiane in 1975.

Using a Lao doctor educated in France as his hero provided Cotterill with the voice he needed to criticize the regime while still sounding sympathetic. "That allowed me to make comments about Laos through the eyes of someone who has studied overseas and lived overseas," he said. "And his humor is probably as English as me."

Some of the most entertaining writing involves the doctor's droll confrontations with Lao officials. The series has won various crime writers' awards, including Dagger in the Library and the Dilys Award, and glowing reviews in the New York Times Book Review. "The Dr. Siri books are by turns laugh-out-loud funny, sobering, convoluted, historical and endlessly entertaining," reads a BookPage Top Pick post.

Unfortunately, the Siri brand of humor has gone largely unappreciated among Lao people. Although Siri novels have been translated into a dozen languages, Lao isn't one of them, and a translated version might not pass Lao censors. "Books written in Lao are read at the ministry of culture before being granted an ISBN [international standard book number,]" said Robert Cooper, director of Lao Insight Books, a small publishing house in Vientiane. "There is no censorship and nothing is refused; it just might take forever to get cleared."

Nurse Dtui (Courtesy of Colin Cotterill)

The Siri series, in English, is available at the departure lounge of Vientiane's Wattay International Airport and can be found at used book stores in the capital. But most Lao do not read English. "It is a paradox that Laos is known outside thanks largely to Colin, but Colin is known inside Laos to only a few Lao," Cooper said.

In 2013 and 2014 Cotterill took a break from the Siri series to work on a similar crime series based in southern Thailand, in which the protagonist is a female journalist named Jimm Juree. The Jimm Juree books did not win a loyal following, and bowing to popular demand, and financial necessity, Cotterill has been pushing out a Siri story each year since 2015.

Retirement does not seem to be on the cards for Dr. Siri, nor for Cotterill. This may be good news for communist Laos as well. "I've had a lot of readers say they went to Laos after reading the series," Cotterill said. "But so far I haven't had a 'thank you' from the Lao Tourism Authority."

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