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NPR Arts & Life

Dr. Siri Books Began With A Surprise Hospital Stay


Time for another encore of our series Crime in the City. Today, an unlikely setting for detective novels: Laos circa 1976, after the communists took power. The protagonist is the country's aging coroner, Dr. Siri Paiboun. Reporter Michael Sullivan met the writer behind the series a few years back in the capital of Laos.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Colin Cotterill believes in fate, and fate seemed to determine early on that he would write the Dr. Siri books, though he didn't know it for quite some time. But it all made perfect sense to me after he led me down a narrow alley off Vientiane's Surathithat Road and stopped in front of a faded, five-story building.

COLIN COTTERILL: This is the back of what used to be Vientiane Hospital. And when I first arrived in Laos, I was traveling with a doctor and he leaned over to me, and he said: Do you realize you have hepatitis? I told him that that was ridiculous, and he sent me to the bathroom, and I looked in the mirror, and there was this big yellow creature staring back at me.

So my first month in Laos was spent on the second floor of this building, and I was in isolation, being looked after by a large nurse who was very friendly, very helpful, and her name was Dtuy.

SULLIVAN: Nurse Dtuy is one of the three main characters in the Dr. Siri mysteries, and the real-life Nurse Dtuy helped persuade Cotterill to move into the hospital permanently after his recovery in an apartment above the operating room.

COTTERILL: And there I stayed for two years, as an honorary member of the medical staff. And I would pop down and watch them doing operations and visit the patients in the wards and became very friendly with the doctors, and I got to learn about the Lao medical inadequacies first-hand.

SULLIVAN: Cotterill came to Laos on a project for UNESCO. He wanted to learn Lao; he already had Thai. So he began recording long interviews with just about everyone he met to work on his pronunciation. And in the process, he came away with fascinating stories of the years before and after the communist takeover.

COTTERILL: Yes, unbeknownst to me, I was going to use them in books that I hadn't decided to write. So something psychological was happening that forced me to collect information, not knowing what to do with that.

SULLIVAN: He figured it out eventually, some 10 years later, after spending time as a teacher and running an NGO protecting children from sex offenders in Thailand. It was after that he finally decided to sit down and write about Laos.

COTTERILL: You'd find Laos extras in a novel talking about the Vietnam War, but you never saw the Lao as people. And so what I wanted to do was to give them a voice and personality and feelings.

SULLIVAN: Those characters - Dr. Siri, Nurse Dtuy and Mr. Gueng - are drawn with sardonic humor. The sign over the door of Siri's office reads morgue in French, but the doormat, Dr. Siri's personal touch, says welcome in English. The place the author and I go to sit and talk is welcoming, too, and figures prominently in the first book, "The Coroner's Lunch."

COTTERILL: I imagine Dr. Siri having a room on this side of the house, overlooking the temple, watching the monks, sweeping the leaves early in the morning, and I would be sitting on this balcony early in the morning writing my notes about the Dr. Siri's series, interrupted by the sound of the gong from the abbot on the far side of the temple.

SULLIVAN: What makes these mysteries different, aside from the exotic location, is Dr. Siri's relationship with the dead, that is to say, his ability to see and converse with the dead, particularly the souls of the recently departed who end up in his morgue.

COTTERILL: I didn't know this until after I'd written the book, but there are certain rules that you have to observe, and you're not allowed to cheat. You have to solve your crimes through the guile and common sense of a detective. Whereas Dr. Siri has clues from the beyond which don't solve the cases for him but which linger in his mind all the way through. He refers back to the clues that he gets, but he doesn't solve these mysteries through them.

SULLIVAN: A reluctant coroner and an even more reluctant communist whose nightly walks home only serve to remind him of the new regime's failings.

COTTERILL: (Reading) Siri walked back through the deserted streets. It was only 8:00 p.m., but Surathithat Road was quiet as the grave. Only an unlit bicycle passed him on his way home. Small pyres of burned rubbish were smoldering on street corners. A rat emerged from a drain and chased a skinny cat through the portal of Ong TeuTemple.

(Reading) These were streets that used to ignore time - clubs and bars that closed only when the last drunk fell out onto the street. Whores and addicts had littered the sidewalks. He'd heard about that other extremity, and here he was at this one. He couldn't bring himself to believe there wasn't something safe and joyful between the two.

SULLIVAN: Sadly, as Cotterill sees it, in modern-day Vientiane, that middle ground seems as elusive as ever.

COTTERILL: This is not the Vientiane of Dr. Siri. This is a bar on a rooftop with a large-screen television playing in one corner, six pool tables in the other, reggae music playing over the speakers and attractive young ladies in short skirts sitting around, waiting for an event for the evening.

This is the same street that Dr. Siri would walk along on his way home to his house. He would be very disappointed. But, I think he would be disappointed, but he wouldn't be surprised.

SULLIVAN: The seedy nightlife is just one of Cotterill's laments about his and Dr. Siri's Vientiane. Cotterill is especially worried about creeping cultural imperialism from Thailand, just across the Mekhong River.

COTTERILL: Lao youth have a Thai culture. They watch Thai television programs and read Thai magazines. The girls wearing shorts and high-heel shoes and tank tops, and even in the '90s, that was unthinkable. Girls would be arrested for dressing like that.

SULLIVAN: And yet for all his grumbling, Cotterill comes back several times a year to help manage the charities he helps run, to do research for his books, but mostly because he just can't help it.

COTTERILL: I keep coming for the people and the heart. I keep coming because every time I come to Laos, something weird and wonderful happens. There's always an element of the mystical, that when I step off the airplane, I know something wonderful or something terrible is going to happen to me.

SULLIVAN: And in fact had he not been kicked out of Laos in 1994 for reasons he can't explain, he's convinced he'd still be living here instead of Thailand, probably teaching and probably not writing mysteries.

COTTERILL: We wouldn't have Dr. Siri. You would be sitting here beside me in the base of the That Dam stupa looking at the American embassy, sweating ourselves to death in the midday sun because you sat us on the wrong side of the stupa in the sunshine.

SULLIVAN: Fair enough, but it was the quiet side. I had no choice, really. Fate. Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Crime in the City resumes Monday with author Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl on the dark side of sunny Honolulu.

VICTORIA NALANI KNEUBUHL: That juxtaposition between things that are horrible and terrible happening in a beautiful setting adds a lot of tension and depth to things.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.