|GRANDAD, THERE’S A HEAD ON THE BEACH
Colin Cotterill (www.colincotterill.com)
When we first met Thai crime journalist Jimm Juree in last year’s Killed at the Whim of a Hat, she had been forcibly relocated to the somewhat backwards Maprao in southern Thailand with her mother – slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s – and the rest of her dysfunctional family. In the tradition of all good crime reporters, it didn’t take Jimm long to find a juicy story and before anyone knew what was going on, the sleepy village of Maprao and the nearby small town of Pak Nam were coming down with dead bodies.
The second novel in the series opens, as the title might suggest, with the discovery of a head on the beach at the back of the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant, where Jimm lives and works. With the same sharp humour and self-deprecation that Jimm displayed in the first novel, we discover that no-one seems particularly interested in the head, nor in investigating who it belongs to, or why it has ended up on the beach. Outraged and intrigued in equal measure, Jimm sets out to track down a story and finds herself in the middle of an international slavery ring involving the local police, dodgy charities, deep sea fishing vessels and the local Burmese immigrant population. Throw in a couple of mysterious women who have just checked in to the resort and it looks, once again, like living at the seaside could be detrimental to one’s health.
For perhaps the first half of Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach (perhaps the best book title you’re likely to see this year), the pace and style matches that in the earlier volume in the series. Told in first person by Jimm, the story, while never boring, takes its time to get to the meat of the mystery. In an aside in the first handful of pages Jimm tells us:
I’m spending too much time here on sidetracks and making a mess of what should be a tense and exciting opening to my story so I’ll save all the gripes and family intrigues for later.
Let’s face it, the humour is the essence of a Colin Cotterill novel, and the voice and mannerisms of Jimm are what made Killed at the Whim of a Hat such an endearing read, and enticed this reader back for a second try. And since the tangents and sidetracks are no less entertaining than the mysterious origin of the head, or the mysterious origin of the resort’s two guests, it’s easy to sit back, relax, and enjoy.
Around the halfway point, things take a dark turn, and the tone of the novel changes very subtly. The humour is still there, but it is now strained, tempered by the dangerous situation in which Jimm and her friends and family now find themselves. It’s a superb bit of writing by Cotterill who manages to strike the right balance between light-heartedness and tension to leave the reader unsure of just how safe we are, and how likely it is that we’ll reach the end of this second novel with fewer main characters than we started with. This change in tone is down, in part, to the fact that Cotterill has chosen to deal with local “big issues” – the treatment of the Burmese immigrants in Thailand, and the slavery into which they often find themselves forced; real problems affecting the region that he has attempted (quite successfully, it must be said) to address head-on. What we end up with is a lot fewer belly-laughs than we got from Hat (although there are still plenty to be had) and a tense, riveting story that, far from being the farce it was always in danger of becoming, defines these characters and gives us some insight beyond the sass and sarcasm that we have seen so far.
One of the novel’s minor plot points involves karaoke, and Cotterill replaces Hat’s “Bushisms” chapter headings with the mangled lyrics of famous songs as performed by the lounge performers and cover bands of Thailand. Hilarity, as you might expect, ensues, and most people will be glad to know (I certainly was) that the correct lyrics are collected at the end of the book, just in case you can’t work them out for yourself.
Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach shows a writer willing – and more than able – to experiment with the form, and produce a novel that certainly threw this reader off-guard, based on my limited experience of his work (so far, I have only read the Jimm Juree novels). It’s a much darker read than its predecessor, but still retains the trademark humour that defined the main character. There is a danger that the series could become somewhat formulaic (e.g. two unrelated mysteries to solve in each outing; the reliance on various family members and friends to assist with the investigations) but the uniqueness of setting and characterisation more than covers any minor quibbles I have in that area. This is a must-read for anyone looking to escape to more exotic climes, anyone looking for smart, entertaining mysteries and, above all, anyone looking for a fast, fun, engaging read.
|KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT
Colin Cotterill (www.colincotterill.com)
“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.”
As Colin Cotterill’s latest novel – the first in a series featuring crime reporter Jimm Juree – opens, we find ourselves in rural southern Thailand as Old Mel and his able-bodied (if not -minded) assistant attempt to dig a well to irrigate the twenty palms that grow along the back fence of his property. In an attempt to shift a piece of metal that is blocking their way, the younger man finds himself falling into space and landing on what turns out to be the bed in a Volkswagen Kombi. As his eyes adjust to the darkness, he discovers that the camper’s original inhabitants are still strapped into the front seats.
Enter Jimm Juree, once a top crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Mail, now living in a small resort hotel on the Gulf of Siam, against her wishes and better judgement. The move had been instigated by her mother, slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, who, without consulting the family, sold their property in the city and bought the aforementioned resort hotel in the somewhat backwards Maprao. Jimm latches onto the story, two decades-old dead bodies being better than no dead bodies, which is what she has seen in the eight months since her move. Befriending a number of the local constabulary, Jimm soon learns that a third murder has been committed, this one much more recent: an abbot at a local temple has been brutally stabbed to death, and Jimm takes it upon herself to help the local police investigate the crime.
If you’re a regular reader of the blog (or even if you have a brief scan through some of the titles I’ve reviewed), you’ll know that I like my crime fiction dark. So it was with some trepidation that I started in on latest offering from the man behind the Laos-set Dr Siri series. The book, like the region is which it is set, is somewhat slow and laid-back. Cotterill describes the area as having a “southern temperament”, and his description fits the story perfectly. It’s an intriguing set of mysteries, each with an unexpected resolution that will nonetheless leave the reader satisfied. To a certain extent, plot is secondary, and the beauty and strength of Killed at the Whim of a Hat lies in the offbeat characters that populate its pages, and the relationships that form between them as they become embroiled in the mysteries that surround them.
The chapters are headed by snippets of speeches given by George W. Bush, each containing one of the man’s trademark “Bushisms”. The quote at the top of this review is, as may be obvious, the source for the novel’s title. The reason for the quotes becomes obvious partway through the book, but they fit nicely with the sense of “oddness” that runs through the novel – there is something slightly skewed about this small chunk of land on the Gulf of Siam, not in any sinister way. Maybe it’s just that southern temperament again.
The book is frequently funny, and I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. Take this exchange between Old Mel and his helper:
“There’s skeletons down here.”
“They animal bones boy?” he asked, just to humour the lad.
“No, Old Mel. They’re people all right.”
“How can you tell?”
“One’s wearing a hat.”
Or this quote from the police, as contained in Jimm’s report:
“I can tell you that this was either an accident, murder or an act of nature.” The captain was not, however, prepared to rule out suicide.
While it won’t appeal to everyone, Killed at the Whim of a Hat is an engaging and entertaining novel. The humour, like the characters who are its source, is natural and unforced. There is enough of a plot to give the characters motivation, but when it comes down to the bit, this is a story about Jimm Juree, her family, and the friends she has made in her new home. In that sense, it’s a no-brainer for people who like Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, to which it’s likely to be favourably compared. For me, though, it has proved that the old saw about books and covers is still very true: it may not be as dark as I like, but there’s enough of an undercurrent, along with all of the book’s other strengths to make it a worthwhile read, and to make me want to come back for the second book, if only to see how quickly Cotterill can turn the Lang Suan region into the murder capital of the world.