...for rainy bkk days:
Murders to Unravel, Relatives to Endure
By JANET MASLIN (NYT)
Published: July 20, 2011
KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT
By Colin Cotterill
374 pages. Minotaur Books. $24.99.
(July 21, 2011)
Colin Cotterill has been best known as the author of novels about Dr. Siri Paiboun, a septuagenarian Laotian coroner who is a much more lovable character than that description suggests. The Dr. Siri series, set in the 1970s, has been so popular that it once landed Mr. Cotterill on a slab in the Munich city morgue, where he was asked to pose for promotional photos.
“Is it clean?” he asked. He was told: “Of course. They use Lysol after each autopsy.”
Perhaps that helps explain why Mr. Cotterill has begun an entirely new series about a sardonic, self-important “almost award-winning” female crime reporter, Jimm Juree. The first installment, “Killed at the Whim of a Hat,” is set in southern Thailand, where Mr. Cotterill lives and feels secure enough to make merciless fun of the locale and population, not to mention the visiting Burmese.
Jimm has studied the speaking style of President George W. Bush in a college course on public oration. This is Mr. Cotterill’s excuse for also making strategic fun of the former president’s malapropisms, most notably this one from 2004: “Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat.” Mr. Cotterill gives himself the creative challenge of working that last phrase into a viable crime-caper plot.
But first he has to introduce Jimm’s relatives, kick them all out of their comfortable home in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand near the Burmese border, and banish them to Chumphon, a beach resort area across the Gulf of Thailand from Vietnam. Chumphon may be picturesque, but Jimm sees it as a wretched place where grass chewing qualifies as an activity and a latter-day Lewis Carroll atmosphere prevails. (“A loud metallic gong scattered the wimpy drongos from the trees.”) Jimm describes it as “pleasant enough if you like green — I don’t.”
Jimm’s increasingly addled mother, called Mair, has abruptly decided that the family should move south to run the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant, a forlorn dive that is an endless source of wisecracks for this story. And although Mair speaks of having raised four children, she only has three. Jimm is the relatively competent one. She is also the most worldly family member, having spent time in Australia (as the London-born Mr. Cotterill has too).
“I wanted to go to an English-speaking country but they were all full so they sent me to Australia,” Jimm says of the year she spent studying abroad. “By the time I’d worked out what they were saying it was time to come home.”
Jimm’s brother, Arny, is a bashful bodybuilder who uses beach flotsam as gym equipment. Her other brother, Sissi, was a boy who confused their mother (“You take off that nightie at once, mister, and clean your football boots”) before being transformed into: a) a transsexual, and b) “the George Soros of dodgy Internet business.” Then there’s Granddad Jah, who seldom listens to the others, either because he’s heard it all before or can’t hear it now.
“Killed at the Whim of a Hat” of course needs a mystery to solve. So Mr. Cotterill begins this book with the discovery of a buried Volkswagen van from the 1970s, as well as two buried hippie passengers who date back to the same era. Although this book has its share of barbs about tumultuous Thai politics (a k a “the silly unrest in the capital”), it is escapist enough to avoid any brutal historical events. Bad weather is mentioned. The immense earthquake and tsunami devastation of 2004 is not.
“Killed at the Whim of a Hat” has a second killing to unravel (this one involving a monk at the local monastery). And it has hats all over the place, to the point of creating curiosity over what Mr. Cotterill’s second proposed Jimm Juree book — “Granddad, There’s a Head on the Beach” — will strew about.
Confronted with a set of interesting fatalities to liven up her dreary new home, the not-quite-employed Jimm springs into action. She marches up to the police at the Volkswagen-and-hippie excavation. “Officers, my name is Jimm Juree, deputy crime editor at The Chiang Mai Mail,” she says, diplomatically failing to use the past tense about her job, “and I’m here to report on this case.”
One official invites her to lunch, which she accepts gladly. “It suited me,” she says. “It was in my interest to know my local law enforcers and perhaps I’d get something to eat that couldn’t swim, for once.” Another, Lieutenant Chompu, instantly befriends Jimm in an adorable way that has prompted this book’s tongue-in-cheek disclaimer. “I have been asked by the officers of the Pak Nam police station to point out that there are absolutely no homosexuals, latent or practicing, employed in that establishment,” Mr. Cotterill writes in a closing note. “I hope that’s perfectly clear.”
This is a lot of antic information to include in a book’s opening chapters. And for a while “Killed at the Whim of a Hat” progresses slowly. But then it takes off, and Mr. Cotterill becomes so mordantly clever that it’s a line-by-line pleasure to enjoy his phrasing. About a character who is “skinny as an ink line,” he has Jimm observe: “I was surprised he could stand up under the weight of his clothes. I assumed it was the pen in his shirt front pocket that gave him his stoop.” About an unexpectedly beautiful nun: “You’d have to be one serious monk to turn your back on a babe like that.”
And from the daughter of a dangerously powerful politician and mogul, a shade less merrily, “There isn’t a lot of, what you’d call, paternal affection going on here, although there are nights I have to remind him we’re blood relatives, if you know what I mean.”
In short the Jimm Juree series is off to at least as good a start as the Dr. Siri one was. It has the potential to be even better. Mr. Cotterill’s fans can subject that point to enthusiastic debate.
...majestically enthroned amid the vulgar herd...
Didn't CC do a cartoon in Bkk Metro magazine at one time? Well at least his book seem to be devoid of the cliches that infest other local "writer's" novels.
Papa was a rodeo - Mama was a rock'n'roll band
I could play guitar and rope a steer before I learned to stand
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