untitled GRANDAD, THERE’S A HEAD ON THE BEACH

Colin Cotterill (www.colincotterill.com)

Quercus (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£16.99

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.

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