The British-born, Thai-based crime writer Colin Cotterill is as unlike the celebrity author as he is different from most conventional literary types. Youngish, but not young; personable but shy, with the dishevelled counter-cultural air of an unreconstructed hippie (sandals for a swish haute cuisine restaurant in Charlotte Street). His way of warming up for an interview is an unusual one. He produces a notebook and pen and begins to draw his interviewer with as much skill as he displays in the novels that have just won him the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library Award. This award is a particularly prized one; for a body of work in the crime field, voted for by the librarians of Britain.
Cotterill has flown to London to receive the award at the exotic Tiger Tiger nightclub in Haymarket. The author’s highly personal dress sense is right at home here (the ubiquitous sandals, pony tail, a fawn-coloured jacket he’d bought the day of the awards), even though others have opted for business suits. His attitude to the award is wry and slightly caustic; he’s flattered, and had, he says, been working on a variety of expressions for the occasion, and has honed at least three. "This is one of the most important days of my life," he said from the stage, "and I want to remember it" — before producing a camera and photographing the audience.
Getting in touch with Cotterill before his visit to these shores has been nigh impossible. "Life isn’t simple in Thailand. We have a phone system connected by a satellite dish to some distant planet, and the inhabitants give us access only during their version of Ramadan, which is some five minutes either side of their version of Coronation Street."
So it’s easier to talk to him at his publishers Quercus in Bloomsbury, as Cotterill renders a less-than-flattering (but accurate) portrait of his interviewer ("I was a professional cartoonist," he says, "and I still find drawing a therapeutic way of exorcising the weirder aspects of my personality").
Cotterill threw away the crime novel rule book with The Coroner’s Lunch in 2004. His protagonist, the elderly coroner Dr Siri Paiboun, was something new: Siri is in his 70s, but still immensely sharp, pugnaciously (and unwillingly) coping with his unasked-for late career in the 1970s as the only coroner in Laos, a country that Cotterill characterises as a heady mix of duplicity and corruption. A very personal book for Cotterill was Disco for the Departed in 2006. The wily coroner is called to the mountains of Hua Phan province, where the Communist rulers hid before their accession to power. It’s a dyspeptic, committed book. Does he see himself as a political writer?
"I enjoy freighting political element into the books — Laos in the 1970s can stand in for a whole variety of modern totalitarian regimes, where everyone is forced to practise an Orwellian doublethink: an egregiously hideous society has to be perceived as hunky-dory — though, to be honest, Laos as a country wouldn’t lend itself to the worst excesses of some regimes."
Asking Cotterill why he chose Laos as a setting provokes a frank answer.
"Every country and era was being ruthlessly plundered for the crime genre — and I thought, why not Laos? But it wasn’t quite as cynical as that sounds. For many years, I led a totally peripatetic life — the longest I had lived in one place was 18 months. I’d taught physical education in Israel, worked in primary education in Australia and as a counsellor for educationally handicapped adults in the States. But I settled in Laos for four years, and it made an indelible impression on me. I now run various scholarship projects there, including one that supplies books to children, which gives me great satisfaction." Cotterill has also been involved in child protection in Phuket, and ran an NGO for two years, along with work for a group fighting the exploitation of children.
So are these non-literary pursuits of Cotterill’s akin to fellow crime writer Henning Mankell’s theatre work in South Africa — a way of doing something more socially useful with one’s life than the (perfectly laudable) aim of entertaining readers?
"Nothing so high-minded!" Cotterill laughs. "If it doesn’t sound too worthy, I suppose it’s a way of giving something back to Laos — a country that has given me a great deal by providing me with the perfect setting for my books. And modern Laos is not the country it was in the period I write about, the 1970s."
Many authors have admitted to living vicariously through their creations. Age apart, is the canny Dr Siri Paiboun a version of Colin Cotterill?
"Well, he’s the sort of person I’d like to grow into in my old age — we all like to see ourselves as being all-wise and — without boasting — a few steps ahead of everyone around us. Particularly those in authority. What’s wrong with that?"
Barry Forshaw is the vice-chairman of the CWA and the editor of British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia.
Colin Cotterill’s latest novel, Curse of the Pogo Stick, is published by Quercus
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