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A pen, a passport, a mission for Laos

In Laos, where books are a rare commodity, one mystery writer puts the nation in print – and helps put books in the nation.

By Tibor KrauszContributor / August 21, 2008

Sleuthing: Colin Cotterill is now at work on his seventh Dr. Siri mystery novel.

Courtesy of Jessica Cotterill/Soho Press

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Bangkok, Thailand

Colin Cotterill has little in common with his alter ego. For starters, he’s no “ghost doctor.” Nor has he ever performed an autopsy. And yet what would good old Dr. Siri Paiboun do without him?

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Mr. Cotterill’s relationship to the wise septuagenarian coroner/medium/sleuth resembles that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Sherlock Holmes. Together, author and protagonist make for a memorable team in unraveling the murder mysteries that haunt their land.

Except in Cotterill’s case, the land is Laos. A small communist holdout between Thailand and Vietnam, it’s a country where books are curiosities: Homegrown literature is almost nonexistent in Laos, and publishing is mostly limited to textbooks.

But now the London-born author is putting Laos on the literary map as a backdrop for his mystery novels featuring an all-Lao cast of characters. He’s also lending a hand in a campaign to distribute children’s books to Lao kids.

“The idea of reading for pleasure is missing in Laos,” says Cotterill, a longtime teacher and child-protection advocate in Southeast Asia and Africa who now lives in Thailand. “Few people even own books.”

Cotterill’s bibliophilic protagonist is no exception. Dr. Siri treasures his battered French dictionary and his antiquated pathology textbook; soon, though, even these perish in flames sparked by a grenade intended for him.

In the novels, Dr. Siri is a latecomer to sleuthing; likewise, Cotterill is a late-blooming writer.

A ruddy-cheeked man with boyish features, a toothy smile, and wavy hair bunched into a raffish knot, Cotterill picked up the pen only a few years ago. While contributing essays and editorial cartoons to Thai papers, he tried his hand at two detective novels, which were published in Thailand. They sold, he quips, “two and a half copies a month at the height of their popularity.... Did I give up? Absolutely!”

“The Coroner’s Lunch” debuted in 2004, recounting­ Dr. Siri’s adventures in the turbulent year of 1976: The doctor is appointed state coroner after the Lao royal family has been deposed by the communist Pathet Lao movement, and the professional classes have fled.

To Cotterill’s surprise, the book was an instant hit. “Suddenly all hell broke loose,” Cotterill recalls. “I started to get fan mail and there were reviews in mass-circulation newspapers.” The New York Times Book Review called the novel “wonderfully fresh and exotic.” The book was shortlisted for this year’s Dagger Award by the British Crime Writers’ Association, and Cotterill’s novels have been translated into French, Swedish, Italian, and Japanese.

Last year Cotterill quit his post as a lecturer at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand to embark on a full-time writing career. The sixth Dr. Siri book, “The Merry Misogynist,” is due out next August in the US, and Cotterill is already working on the seventh.

Along with introducing Laos to foreign readers, the books benefit the country in other ways, too. During a recent tour in the US, the author ended readings by asking fans to help buy books for Lao kids. It was “for Dr. Siri,” he told them.

“Readers can fall in love with a character, and I am the representative of that character,” Cotterill explains. “People are often wary of giving donations to strangers,” he adds, “but in this case it’s someone they know they can trust ... even if he’s a fictional character.”

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