Science and religion. The living and the dead. Capitalism and communism. A detective series, indeed, but the Dr. Siri Paiboun series, by Colin Cotterill, keeps readers hooked from start to finish by exploring a kaleidoscope of themes, whether they may be simultaneously contradictory or complementary to one another. Contradictory themes clashing with each other and merging into one at times is what makes you keep wanting to read on.
The main protagonist, Dr.Siri, is the national coroner of Laos in 1975 – The year the communist Pathet Lao came to power, replacing the previous Royalist state. Despite wanting to retire, he has been forced into a job for which no one else had the skills nor interest – and being such a ‘good’ member of the Communist Party, he naturally accepted. His skills were obtained during his degree level studies in France and despite seeing the wealth of France, he decides to go back to Laos and help his nation. He joined the Communist Party and fought against the royalists to achieve what he hoped to be a better outcome for his country. Dr.Siri, up to this point a seemingly ordinary if not patriotic citizen, transforms when he takes the national coroner job. Alongside his team at the morgue, assistant Dr. Dtui and Mr Gueng, he tackles cases which the nation’s inexperienced police force is incapable of investigating. However, it is not the use of science which largely assists them, but Siri’s connection to the spiritual world. It is in a rural village where he discovers that he is the host of the soul of a thousand-year old Hmong Shaman and whilst initially mocking them,“…as the spirit became more active, he was torn between logic and this new reality” as quoted in a Q&A I was fortunate to have with Colin Cotterill. The Communist Party was all about forgetting religion, leaving Siri in a state of perplexion. Many in the West are unlikely to understand the strong connection with the spiritual world that South-East Asia has –“many hospitals erect a shrine in their forecourts to placate the spirits” Cotterill explained – a unique fusion of science and religion specific to Southeast Asia. Siri eventually accepts this and realises that it helps them with the cases that his team (which also includes a policeman called Phosy and Siri’s best friend, Civalli) are presented with. There are several life and death situations that the team encounters, many surprises, spirits visiting, alongside the overarching continuous fight between communism and capitalism keeps the Siri team entertained.
Dr. Siri pulls the string in this masterclass, despite being in his 70s – Cotterill has stated that “I’ve told people that he was the person I’d hope to become when I reached my seventies” and it is hard not to see why. He fears no one – as demonstrated with his encounters with his boss Judge Haeng, where Haeng normally tends to submit to Siri – and openly criticises and engages in activities against communist rule which all do not “sit well in a socialist state”. Siri’s life was not an easy one – his wife dying and with no remaining family, he makes do with his morgue team and his generosity to various people in Laos; Crazy Rajhid, on paper a crazy man who tends to be naked in public but has a hidden story, or even the bunch of ‘misfits’ in his house–a puppet master, a widow with her children and a monk to name but a few. Siri loves a mystery, which keeps him occupied, but more importantly, he trusts a bunch of people who we also get to know better and have saved his life and aided him with cases. Even animals show a great affinity towards Siri – Saloop and Ugly are two dogs Siri has at different points in the series. However, in my opinion, the best part about Siri is his mind – Cotterill described it as “clear and analytical” which is undoubtedly true. After discovering the reason behind his connection to the spirit world, he develops an open approach, taking everything into consideration – this stark contrast to the feckless attitudes that plagued the Lao Communists is arguably what makes Siri great.
What else makes this book series so interesting is it being set in and the characters readers are introduced to are in Laos, whether that is Vientiane in the south of Laos or Luang Prabang in the central region. Dr Siri’s cynicism and the largely amiable aura most characters have reflects how the Laos population was at the time. Cotterill lived in Laos for four years, remarking that despite “thirty-some years of fighting for independence from the French and a civil war, it astounded me that the Laos could keep a sense of humour”. In fact, the few ‘funerals’ throughout the series were pleasant, almost void of tears, but reliving the good moments of the deceased’s life. This resonates with how the main characters are –“my characters lighten the loads by seeing the funny side of death” – and this careful mixture of humour, death and the unknown keeps the reader engaged throughout. Cotterill gives glimpses of what living under communist rule would have been like. Having heard the stories of the communist takeover, but also what occurred after, Cotterill said he thought of “what genre might best highlight the struggles of living in Vientiane under a novice socialist regime”. The simplest of things, such as travelling to an adjacent district by bicycle required “formal permission” or even “day long queues for an official stamp on a certificate” – so to be a policeman or a coroner must have been exhausting. Step forward Dr Siri.
We see glimpses of other countries throughout the series –Thailand is continuously referred to and can be seen from Vientiane. The characters even visit Thailand, when Dtui and Phosy go to a refugee camp in order to help stop a coup against the communist government. France, the USSR and USA are also referenced. Furthermore, in Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, Siri and Civillai go to Cambodia, which was almost a polar opposite to Thailand and definitely a grimmer place than Laos. Cotterill explained this was a tough decision as he “had to find the funny side of genocide or change the tenor of my stories” – in this book he was able to find that balance. Whilst Siri was in Cambodia, Cotterill italicised Siri’s personal account of the trip – it was almost as if Siri was in a spirit world, but we knew that was not the case. The way this section of the book portrays the horrors and atrocities that occurred in Cambodia during the 1970s – described via Siri as something akin to a zombie land, the buildings, the people – is chilling to say the least. Siri is imprisoned in S-21, an interrogation centre which killed over 18,000 with a reported dozen only surviving during the 1970s. At this point we fear the worst – but he survives with the aid of a few people he meets. The recapping of history, Siri’s own experience with torture, along with knowledge of Siri’s previous close encounters with death, Cotterill masterminded something special in this particular book.
The mind behind the captivating series is also rather peculiar. Colin Cotterill is not your everyday author. Born in London and trained as a teacher, he has worked in various parts of the world whilst involved in child protection. Cotterill lived in Laos where he said he “loved my time there” and “adored the Lao people”. He currently resides in Thailand. Cotterill said he “[doesn’t]recall ever wanting to be an author” but had “always been a cartoonist/illustrator”, and when he started watching movies they “served to (his) visual senses” and aided him with his imagination when he eventually started writing. Whilst working in child protection, Cotterill “wrote a novel that contained all the horrors” that he had witnessed, which a local publisher published to his surprise. This was to become the first book to a horror trilogy. Cotterill “took a year off and took this writing game seriously” and gauged how successful he could be.The Coroner’s Lunch – the first book of the Dr. Siri Paiboun series – was a big success. It “was a stew of politics, history and spiritualism with a heavy garnish of humour, but it was the crime element that found it a home in the US”, but as the series developed the spirits became a big part of it. Cotterill added that his “IT friend, an engineer trained in Europe, has a family altar in his living room”; indicative of how strong the spiritual world is – even for those who have lived in Europe – and thus it was not possible to ignore the importance of the spirits throughout the series.
Colin Cotterill has admitted that “the doctor (Dr Siri) and myself have earned a well-earned retirement”, with the final book having been released recently. No spoilers will be given for that or what happened in the other books, but for “a late starter and an early finisher”, Cotterill has revolutionised what is to be expected from detective/crime and murder series.. For aspiring writers, Colin Cotterill said “you should read the works of good writers and accept your own limitations”, but for himself “it was a fascinating experience but it’s time to dust off the paint brushes”…