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Lo-tech Crime Busting in Laos

February 9, 2011

Colin Cotterill: The Coroner’s Lunch

How well can a writer portray the inner world of people from a different culture?

I’ve just read The Coroner’s Lunch, the first book in Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri Paiboun crime series, and I’m hooked. It is set in Laos in 1976, shortly after the communist Pathet Lao took over the country. Siri was a battlefield surgeon for their forces, and at 72, expects to retire. Instead he is forced to become the national coroner/medical examiner.

At first Siri hates the idea, but then his curiosity, empathy and sense of justice take over, and he dedicates himself to solving the mysteries that arise as he conducts his autopsies. He is both a rational scientist and a shaman, using both chemistry and the clues he gleans when visited by the victims’ spirits. His age and experience of life are essential to his charm. With his warmth and dry humour, he is a character to love.

Cotterill’s novels have been compared to Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. But while there is one similarity – a Western male writing about characters from a culture little known in the West – their styles are vastly different. Smith’s novels are charming and enjoyable, but each is essentially a series of meandering vignettes. The Coroner’s Lunch is more original, and has a strong, complex plot that combines crime-solving with the various ways people respond to a new government that wants to control their lives. McCall is whimsy, Cotterill is substance, but with a stronger vein of humour.

The world Cotterill creates is believable, but does it bear any relation to the real Laos? How can he know what goes on in the heads of Lao characters? This is an old debate that continues to engage writers: to what extent can you write about someone who differs from you, whether by gender, sexuality, race, disability, class or age?

One answer is that what defines writers is the ability to write about someone who differs from them. That’s the skill they must develop to practice their craft. Each writer does this in their own way, training their powers of observation and imagination, or becoming aware of how their own culture influences how they think and behave, while discovering beneath that the humanity they share with everyone else. They learn to root out stereotypes, to overcome monolithic thinking, and to stop conceiving of people who differ as ‘The Other’. And they spend a lot of time getting to know people in the group they are writing about, and listening to their stories, as Colin Cotterill has done.

I don’t know whether he has got it right, but it feels as though he has. His complex characters are not stereotypes. Some writers use characters of a different race or culture to represent something, such as goodness or evil, but Cotterill does not. There is no whiff of orientalism – the characters are just themselves. It would be interesting to hear what Lao people think of the books. There was a plan to publish the English versions in Laos, and also translate them into the Lao language, but I don’t know if that has happened yet.

Since The Coroner’s Lunch was published in 2004, Cotterill has brought out another book every year, so I’m excited at the prospect of having Dr Siri’s company at least six more times.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2011 1:23 am

    hhhhmmm.. i have to check out this book and i will tell you what i think of it.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    February 10, 2011 12:23 pm

    Hi, Seeharhed, Thanks, I’d love to hear your reaction to The Coroner’s Lunch. It was first published in New York, and was popular in the States, so it should be available online, in libraries or bookstores.


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