Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Revelations about revolutions (Taibo, Marcos, Colin Cotterill)

I've found a few surprises in the opening pages of The Uncomfortable Dead and The Coroner's Lunch. The former is a product of an unusual collaboration, between Paco Ignacio Taibo II, author of the Héctor Belascoarán Shayne crime novels, and Subcomandante Marcos, spokesman for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico. The latter is the first in Collin Cotterill's series about Dr. Siri Paiboun, an accidental hero who solves crimes as the only coroner in Laos after the Communist takeover.

First, the Taibo/Marcos: The two authors purportedly wrote alternate chapters, Marcos the odd-numbered ones, Taibo the even. That would give Marcos the opening chapter, and the revolutionary spokesman/leader pulls it off with a flash of humor here and there – a pleasant surprise to this thorough-going son of the bourgeoisie. He also invokes Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and his protagonist Pepe Carvalho. That's another pleasant surprise and an argument for Vázquez Montalbán as a late entrant in the Most influential crime writer sweepstakes. In addition to the Marcos/Taibo tribute, after all, Andrea Camilleri named his protagonist, Salvo Montalbano, in Vázquez Montalbán's honor.

Colin Cotterill has spent much of his life traveling and teaching, for several years in Laos, scene of the Siri Paiboun series. That gives his books a kind of knowledgeable outsider's perspective, something like Michael Dibdin's in the Aurelio Zen novels. (Dibdin was also a teacher.) In one small example, Siri
"passed government women at the end of their day jobs. They wore khaki blouses and traditional black phasin that hung stiffly to their ankles. Each managed to make her uniform unique in some way: a brooch, a different collar, a fold in the skirt that was their own."
On the one hand, that's not an observation a Laotian would likely make, which raises the vexed question of what happens when an author sets a novel in a country other than his or her own. On the other hand, an attentive visitor would likely make such an observation, which establishes a bond between reader and author and – who knows? – may stir readers' interest in visiting Laos.

More (and this time I mean it) on Siri Paiboun later.

NB: The Uncomfortable Dead has been nominated for a 2007 Shamus Award in the Best Paperback Original category. (Hat tip to the Mystery File blog.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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