|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.