Writing from the subjectivity of someone outside your own cultural experience is always a delicate, even dangerous activity. There are so many possibilities for creating stereotypes—both negative and positive—to be avoided that the prospect is daunting at the very least. Several writers have done good or at least provocative work stepping outside their own experience (James Baldwin, Virginia Wolf, Wally Lamb, Jeanette Winterson, and others come to mind), but the differences between Colin Cotterill and his main character, Dr. Siri Paiboun—a seventy-odd year old, Lao man, thrust into a job as the national coroner in the newly formed Lao government immediately after that country’s Communist revolution in 1976—are more dramatic than anything I’ve ever seen. Cotterill is London-born (1952), white, Western-educated as a Physical Education teacher, and apparently at least middle class. He has also traveled and worked widely, settling, for now, in northern Thailand, so clearly he has some context for what he writes; certainly, his work feels well-researched. Still, the only major boundary of difference I can be sure that Cotterill isn’t crossing is gender. And since I’m not Lao and I have little experience that can help me understand the life of someone like Siri, I have no way of evaluating the success of Cotterill’s attempt to bridge the cultural divides between himself and his protagonist. I can tell you what I thought of The Coroner’s Lunch, the first of three books in his series of mysteries, apart from these issues.
By his own admission (see his very approachable, friendly website), Cotterill was a little lucky that Soho Press picked up his books; most authors are a little lucky to get published so this is no knock on Cotterill. On the other hand, the feeling of the novel is so mundane at times that you can understand why no publisher had optioned it previously. Cotterill doesn’t write an action-packed, thriller, ala Ludlum. He doesn’t create the edgy atmospherics of Martin Cruz Smith. Nor does the book have the gritty brutality that Robert Wilson can bring. Cotterill’s language is relatively easy and he doesn’t evoke the moral and ethical futility that marks writers like le Carré.
Instead, the book is a charming story of a seemingly ordinary man who has seen a lot of life and brings all his experiences and wisdom to bear on his situation. Siri is smart and clever, but more importantly, good-humored and cares about people; he survives the peril of the plot and solves its conundrums because of his ability to connect with people—a connectedness that is the opposite of the individualism that we see in many books from the same genre. At the end, he doesn’t metaphorically or literally walk off into murky corners to await the next mystery. No, Siri walks into the bright light of a potential romance and the pleasure of his ongoing friendships. Of course, this is almost certainly no less a romanticized version of life in Laos in 1976, than the dark alleys and smoky bars in more conventional mysteries. Cotterill fashions a Laos that feels simple, and a book that reads almost the same. It’s just enough for a light lunch—which is sometimes all you want, coroner or not.