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In Colin Cotterill's Laos, Dead Men Do Tell Tales

Colin Cotterill stands across the street from Mahosot hospital, where the fictional Dr. Siri works.
Michael Sullivan, NPR
Colin Cotterill stands across the street from Mahosot hospital, where the fictional Dr. Siri works.
Colin Cotterill reads a passage in which Dr. Siri realizes the spirits are leaving clues about the causes of their deaths.
Colin Cotterill discusses God and the spirit world.

A motorcyclist passes Mahosot hospital, where Collin Cotterill lived and collected material that led to his books.
Michael Sullivan, NPR /
A motorcyclist passes Mahosot hospital, where Collin Cotterill lived and collected material that led to his books.
Modern Vientiane bustles with change.
Michael Sullivan, NPR /
Modern Vientiane bustles with change.

Colin Cotterill believes in fate. Though he didn't know it at the time, fate seemed to determine early on that he would write the Dr. Siri books, a series of mysteries that follows a 70-something Laotian country coroner.

It all started with an unexpected hospital stay:

"When I first arrived in Laos," the author remembers, "I was traveling with a doctor and he leaned over and said, 'Do you realize you have hepatitis?' "

At first, Cotterill thought it was impossible, but the doctor turned out to be right. Cotterill, who had come to Laos on a project with UNESCO, spent his first month in the country on the second floor of the local hospital, where he was looked after by the very friendly Nurse Dtuy.

The Two-Year Hospital Stay

After his recovery, Nurse Dtuy helped persuade Cotterill to move into the hospital permanently. He lived for two years in an apartment above the operating room, he says, acting as an "honorary member of the medical staff," popping down to watch operations, visiting patients in the wards and making friends with the doctors.

Cotterill wanted to learn Lao; he already knew Thai. To work on his pronunciation, he began recording long interviews with just about everyone he met. In the process, he came away with fascinating stories of the years before and after the 1975 Communist takeover.

"Unbeknownst to me, I was going to use [the stories] in books I hadn't decided to write," says Cotterill. "Something psychological was happening, forcing me to collect information that I didn't know what to do with."

Welcome To The Morgue

Some 10 years passed. After spending time as a teacher and running an NGO protecting children from sex offenders in Thailand, Cotterill decided to sit down and write about Laos.

"You'd find Lao people as extras in a novel talking about the Vietnam War, usually with an American protagonist, but you never saw the Lao as people," says Cotterill.

The books, set circa 1976, give personality and feelings to the Lao people. The characters — Dr. Siri, Mr. Gueng and Nurse Dtuy (inspired by the nurse Cotterill met during his early hospital stay) — are drawn with sardonic humor. The sign over the door of Siri's office reads "morgue" in French; the doormat — Dr. Siri's personal touch — says "welcome."

The doormat is especially appropriate, given Dr. Siri's particular relationship with the dead: He sees, and converses with, dead people — particularly the souls of the recently departed who end up in the morgue.

A Changing Capital

A reluctant coroner and an even more reluctant Communist, Dr. Siri takes nightly walks home. These only serve to remind him of the new regime's failures: "Siri walked back through the deserted streets. It was only 8 p.m., but Surathithat Road was quiet as the grave," writes Cotterill.

Thirty years after Dr. Siri's fictional walks, Vientiane bustles with change. A seedy nightlife culture has emerged, and stately French colonial buildings are being torn down, replaced by concrete shopping malls. Cotterill worries about the influence from Thailand — just across the Mekhong — and what it might mean for Lao culture.

"Lao youth have a Thai culture. They watch Thai television programs," he says. "The girls wearing high-heel shoes and tank tops ... in the '90s, that was unthinkable. Dr. Siri would be very upset to see the young generation going to the dogs as they are."

Cotterill lives in Thailand (he was kicked out of Laos in 1994 for reasons he cannot explain), but he returns to Lao several times a year to help run charities and to conduct research. But, practical reasons aside, he can't seem to stay away from the country:

"I keep coming for the people," Cotterill says. "Every time I come to Laos, there's always an element of the mystical. When I step off the airplane, I know something wonderful or terrible is going to happen to me."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.