Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Colin Cotterill "Grandad, There's A Head On The Beach"

You would, I guess, start thinking something was afoot if you happened to find a severed head on the beach while walking the dogs in the morning. Based on that assumption, you’d probably have the alarm bells ringing if you wandered in to the local constabulary to report your find and realise they don’t appear to be particularly interested in your discovery.

So I guess you wouldn’t need to be an unemployed crime reporter forced to move to a remote coastal area of Thailand when your mother sold the family house and invested in a rundown resort on the Gulf of Siam to be scratching your head and wondering what was going on.

Jimm Juree, as we know from Killed At The Whim Of A Hat was well on her way to becoming the head crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Mail, and her talents are definitely under-utilised in her role as chief cook, bottle washer and dog walker at the tumbledown Gulf Bay Lovely Resort, located on a sliver of land betwixt a river and the deep, gray sea.

It's always a bother to decide who to tell when you find a head on the beach. I mean, there is no protocol. And when I say "always" here, I may be exaggerating somewhat because I can't say I've stumbled over too many heads on my morning dog walks. I'd seen body parts in morgues, of course, and accident scenes, but that Wednesday was my first detached head. It upset me that it hadn't upset me enough.

Having found the head, reported the discovery and noted the reaction (or, rather, the lack thereof) she’s bound to go seeking the facts. Having identified the head as belonging to a deceased Burmese, the local police are uninterested in the head, and have no intention of investigating who it belonged to, or the reasons for its appearance on the beach. Two rather nasty aggressive goons from the Southern Rescue Mission, a dubious charitable  foundation whose duty it was to facilitate the journey of the soul to a better place arrive in a black SUV to take the head away, inform Jimm and Arny (her weightlifting brother) that they hadn’t seen anything and return to lob a grenade into the freezer in the Resort's shop after Jimm’s ex-policeman grandad Jah takes a pot shot at them to hasten their departure.

Outraged at the official unconcern and intrigued by what’s coming to light, Jimm sets out to crack the puzzle and ends up in the middle the Gulf chasing down an international slavery ring that operates with the connivance of the local police and the aforementioned dodgy charity. It’s a serious human rights problem involving a Burmese underclass, many of whom are in the country illegally.

There’s nothing unusual about the oppression of groups of foreigners whose presence in the country has a large legal question mark over it, but Jimm’s part of Thailand isn’t exactly an affluent area, and where the local population isn’t far above subsistence level the plight of the immigrants is shocking. In this case, the Southern Rescue Mission thugs are press-ganging Burmese workers to work on deep sea trawlers whose owners have powerful connections.

In such circumstances the Burmese aren’t inclined to say much but, with the help of an interpreter, Jimm discovers several have just disappeared, leaving their possessions behind, and manages to get a bearing on where the slave ships are working.

From there it’s a matter of figuring out how to expose the evils of the human trade and bring the perpetrators to justice, which isn’t going to be easy given complicit officialdom and heavily armed thugs on the vessels they’re after, but she manages it (of course).

Spoiler issues bring us to a halt at this point, though there’s probably no harm in revealing that the means by which Jimm manages to do it has something to do with the fractured karaoke mondegreens found at the start of each chapter.

But the head isn’t the only strand in the plot line.  A second involves two elegant women who could obviously afford a better class of accommodation than the family's seaside resort, a mother and daughter combination travelling in a car without number plates and a very flimsy explanation for the absence.

They are obviously running from something and the daughter claims they are hiding because her father is one of the leading activists against the yellow shirt yuppies occupying Government House in Bangkok, in an antigovernment protest. Tis is the sort of situation where Jimm’s transgender computer whiz sister Sissie comes into her own, and while Sissie discovers the daughter had won a scholarship to study science in the USA but disappeared before collecting her diploma this doesn’t explain why mother and daughter are on the run.

Other distractions include the intriguing possibility of Jimm's slightly senile mother Mair having entered a surreptitious relationship (it certainly seems there’s some illicit nookie taking place) while Jimm is picking up some extra pin money by acting as a guinea pig to trial anti-depressives that turn out to be some sort of feminine equivalent of Viagra.

With a plot line that tackles links to corruption in Thai politics, and social issues that go beyond the exploitation of disenfranchised Burmese there’s an underlying note of harsh reality to the story, but where another writer might tackle those issues by getting heavy in the detail, Cotterill leavens the social and political commentary (it’s there and it’s reasonably sharp), making it one strand in the story rather than the main focus.

That might not work for some readers, but if you’re after grit rather than quirk you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be reading Cotterill anyway. I had my reservations about the whole endeavour in the early stages of Killed at the Whim of a Hat, but based on Grandad’s combination of social commentary, perceptive detective work and comic violence as long as Cotterill can come up with something like the high seas showdown where Jimm and her rag tag crew of volunteers take on the heavily armed thugs on the quasi-legal fishing boats I’ll be reading.

Unanticipated twists and turns of the plot line are par for the course in the genre, but Cotterill’s twists and turns are stranger, and usually more clever, than most...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fred Vargas "The Ghost Riders of Ordebec "

Here’s an exceptionally strong case for reading a series in order. While you could (I guess) read The Ghost Riders of Ordebec without having opened the previous episodes in a quite wonderful series there are two very strong arguments against that.

The first lies in the fact that with Ghost Riders we’ve come to the point where there are no titles written in French in the translate these queue. That means we’ve probably got to wait for French medieval historian and archaeologist Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau to morph herself into Fred Vargas, spend three weeks turning out another Adamsberg title and a further six months on the editing process (source here) and then wait for translator Sian Reynolds to do her thing and render the title into English.

Given that factor, those unfamiliar with the eccentricities of Commissaire Adamsberg and his misanthropic bunch of misfits would be best advised to go back to 2009’s The Chalk Circle Man (originally published in France eighteen years earlier) and working on through Seeking Whom He May Devour (1999/2004), Have Mercy on Us All (2001/2003), Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand (2004/2007), This Night’s Foul Work (2006/2008) and An Uncertain Place (2008/2011).

Looking at that little sequence one can expect the next title, assuming one were to appear on the French best sellers’ list some time this year (two years since L'armée furieuse appeared in French, two years’ lead time to transform the furious army into Ghost Riders) to appear on our shelves some time around 2015, so you’ll have plenty of time to work your way through them.

The other argument involves both the thoroughly quixotic Commissaire Adamsberg, and the team he’s built around him (you won’t find an outfit like this just coalescing) at the Serious Crimes Squad. His (mostly) loyal lieutenant Danglard, the depressive alcoholic walking encyclopaedia and single parent, Danglard's nemesis Veyrenc who delivers off the cuff remarks in rhyming couplets and the statuesque Violette Retancourt whose role this time around is largely confined to caring for a wounded pigeon aren’t the sort of characters you’re likely to come across anywhere else.

A sequential reading helps make sense of the back story with those individuals being added to the fold gradually as the series evolves.

The latest addition to the outfit, though he’s not an actual member of the squad is Adamsberg’s recently discovered twenty-eight-year-old son, Zerk emerged in An Uncertain Truth and one tends to suspect there’s someone on the periphery of The Ghost Riders who’ll end up being added to the cast at some point in the future. It’s that sort of series.

When a fragile, panic-stricken little old lady named Valentine Vendermot travels to Paris from a village in the Calvados region of Normandy to tell Adamsberg (she’s quite definite who she wants to talk to) about the peculiar affliction that's befallen Ordebec she’s not quite sure she wants to enter the building that houses the Serious Crimes Squad.

Seated in a nearby cafe, discussing his future with Veyrenc, who’s facing a reenlistment deadline after a brief investigation of a death involving suffocation through the agency of sliced bread, Adamsberg sees her loitering, knows who she’s there to see and ushers her inside. For any other protagonist this would come across as far fetched and unlikely in the extreme, with Adamsberg it’s pretty much par for the course.

The old woman’s daughter Lina Vendermot has had a vision of the Furious Army, a ghostly horde of phantom riders from the Middle Ages lead by Lord Hellequin who allegedly search out people with serious crimes on their conscience. Those who appear in their clutches tend to disappear and later turn up gruesomely dead.

This latest sighting had them carrying three victims Lina can identify and one she can’t. One of the three has already disappeared and the mother pleads with Adamsberg to help since three more lives are on the line and her daughter’s likely to be blamed for inciting the deaths.

The man who has disappeared is a notoriously cruel hunter, and the local gendarmerie are inclined to dismiss the whole thing as silly superstition, which explains the old woman wanting to enlist Adamsberg’s services. Danglard, predictably, knows all about the furious army, This ancient cavalcade causing havoc in the countryside is damaged. The horses and their riders have no flesh. It's an army of the dead is his explanation, though he needs a minute to recall thirteenth century details he’s able to cite precisely.

Again, in another setting, this would be remarkable. Here, it’s par for the course.

Adamsberg has his own reasons for wanting to get involved. Apart from the morning’s strangulation a fabulously wealthy Parisian industrialist has been torched in his car in circumstances that point directly towards a known serial arsonist affectionately nicknamed MoMo and while he’s the obvious suspect Adamsberg believes he’s innocent and is willing to go to great lengths to prove it.

This belief is based on traces of petrol on MoMo’s bootlaces, something that doesn’t add up because of the way MoMo would tie the laces. Again, remarkable elsewhere, routine for Adamsberg.

MoMo, of course, having been taken into custody, needs to escape, something Adamsberg arranges through the unwitting agency of his narcoleptic offsider Mercadet, and having escaped needs somewhere to go to ground. Given the fact that the police will check MoMo’s known haunts, the best place to hide him is obviously chez Adamsberg, where he can be monitored by Zerk.

 So Adamsberg heads for Calvados, where he discovers the body of the man who’s gone missing and sets about attempting to ensure the safety of the others who’ve been sighted in the clutches of the horde, becoming embroiled in local politics as the prophecy seems to be being fulfilled. He strikes up a friendship with the elderly Léone, who knows the secrets that lie behind Ordebec's cast of oddball characters and when she becomes the victim of a decidedly non-spectral culprit, Adamsberg becomes determined to solve the mystery, aided and abetted by his own regular cast of oddballs.

That’s the point where we draw the veil over proceedings, except to note the presence of long-running feuds, obscure aristocrats, unpleasant stepsons, secret marriages, six fingered hands, unplanned amputations, crossbows, speeding express trains, men made of clay, sugar lumps and Hebbeaud the injured pigeon that sleeps (and leaves deposits) in Adamsberg's shoe.

 Like everything else Vargas has done The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is original, eccentric, with a sly, understated sense of humour lurking below the crimes, dark fables and supernatural elements that turn out to have predictably human explanations, though the explanations themselves are rarely predictable. While it’s not the best place to start with Vargas' work and her inimitable character it’s a joy to read and left this particular reader trying to figure out how to fill in the lengthy lead time until the next instalment appears.

Colin Cotterill "The Woman Who Wouldn't Die"

Three months into his retirement the former national coroner of Laos still isn’t free of the demands on his time resulting from his former status, and one suspects further episodes in this quite wonderful series are going to depend on the number of ways author Colin Cotterill can find to have Dr. Siri Paiboun conscripted into some scheme that might or might not be in the national interest but will certainly have some impact on some high-ranking official’s peace of mind.

This time around a clairvoyant has told the Minister of Agriculture she can locate the remains of his long-lost dead brother, presumed killed in a covert military operation organizing guerrilla attacks on royalist held bases. According to the Minister’s Vietnamese wife his brother’s spirit is restless, and according to the psychic the remains are located in a sunken boat on a bend of the Mekhong, not far from the village of Pak Lai.

Predictably, the minister assembles a team to get the bones back and will, of course, need a pathologist to verify the identity of the bones once they’ve been excavated. Dr. Siri might have retired, but he’s still the only man who can do the job, and this time, given the psychic element, he’s interested in going.

The clairvoyant, the widow of a rich royalist who had dealings with Vietnamese interests and connections to the Lao hierarchy had been on a trip to Vietnam to pursue her business interests, returned home and was murdered in her bed by an alleged burglar. Her neighbours took her body and cremated it, but three days later she was back, large as life having picked up the ability to communicate with the dead while she was away though she had managed to pick up a slight Vietnamese accent along the way. The village was convinced she was a witch returned from the dead. Before long there’s a steady stream of visitors passing through the village, looking to contact their dead relatives, which is what brought the minister and his wife into orbit around her.

Those of us who’ve been aboard for a while know Dr Siri, while he’s an educated, rational man of science, happens to be hosting the spirit of a thousand-year-old shaman and while he’s subsequently able to see the ghosts of the dead hosting the spirit of Yeh Ming doesn’t automatically deliver the ability to understand what the spirits are saying to him. Under those circumstances the opportunity to consult with someone who might be able to clear the channels of supernatural communication is something he’s obviously going to take.

Under other circumstances, of course, Siri would be quite happy to sit back and enjoy life and noodles with his wife, Madame Daeng, he proprietor of the best noodle shop in Vientiane, and the rest of the regular cast, but since he’s been called away on this junket he’s going to include them all on the junket, isn’t he?

There’s another factor in the decision to get out of town and take a couple of his acolytes with him. A tall, handsome, elderly Frenchman arrives in Vientiane and starts asking after Madame Daeng’s whereabouts. It’s obvious he’s planning to kill her and settle an old score (and the fact that he’s suffering from terminal cancer adds a degree of urgency). That dovetails nicely with another strand of the plot line.

With Siri’s encouragement, she’s writing her memoirs, which, predictably, are largely concerned with the role she played in the postwar for struggle for independence from the French and while we learn that Madame Daeng was attracted to Siri from the moment she first saw him many years ago the really interesting part of the story is her career as a sort of Laotian Mata Hari, uncovering French secrets and killing her share of French officials  along the way. That wasn’t only prompted by nationalist sentiments, there’s a wrong that needs to be righted in the form of a terrible injustice a pair of Frenchmen had visited on her sister.

So off they head on their little junket, Siri, Madame Daeng, his former morgue attendant Geung and, predictably, Civilai, temporarily out of retirement on political matters along with the clairvoyant, who’s a little too attractive for Madame Daeng’s liking. They’ve left Nurse Dtui and Inspector Phosy behind in Vientiane, which is handy because someone needs to investigate the clairvoyant’s background.

And, as far as clairvoyants are concerned, when it’s all over and the mystery has been solved, they’re back in Vientiane for the party to celebrate transvestite fortune teller Auntie Bpoo’s impending death, an occasion that allows Phosy, Madame Daeng and, of course, Siri to explain the finer points of the solution over Cabernet Sauvignon and Champagne.

I had, leading up to The Woman Who Wouldn't Die been harbouring the suspicion that Cotterill had taken Dr Siri about as far as the characters and their circumstances would allow, but there are a couple of touches that turn up herein that suggest there’s a fair bit of life left in the series as long as the author can come up with a plot scenario that works. If he’s looking for a starting point, of course, there’s always Siri’s ongoing tussle with the housing authorities regarding the number of people living in his house, an issue that produces an interesting solution that helps out the investigation here.

On that basis, after initial misgivings, I’m inclined to see the emergence of Cotterill’s other series, the Jimm Juree stories, as an undoubted good thing. This interview with Cotterill suggests he was starting to get a little formulaic with the Dr Siri tales, and needed the new series to keep things fresh. On the strength of this latest title, which is as good as anything that’s gone before, I’d agree.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Colin Cotterill "Killed at the Whim of a Hat"

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. (George W Bush 17/9/2004)

 There are times when an author’s real life experiences sort of get themselves caught up in the fictional creations, and you’d have to suspect there’s a fair bit of Mr and Mrs Cotterill’s experience tied up in the author’s new series starring ex-ace crime reporter Jimm Juree.

Cotterill had visited Chiang Mai in 1976 on his way to penal exile in Australia and vowed to return. Unfortunately, along the way Lonely Planet gave the place a glowing review and when Cotterill returned a decade later it was already on its way to tourist hell. An academic appointment at Chiang Mai University brought him back to the city in 2000, an email from a teacher asking me some inane grammar question led to Cotterill meeting and marrying a local lady (like Jimm, in her mid thirties) and the pair, eager to leave the polluted city and move to the country ended up in the locale the new series is set in.

Cotterill claims to be suited for the country life but his wife, like his new protagonist, wasn’t, having few outlets for her abilities and little in common with the locals so one’s inclined to suspect there’s a bit of the missus, the neighbours and assorted local identities, all modified to suit the plot lines of the stories in the cast of characters in the Jimm Juree series. He goes to some length (here) to stress that apart from minor details like their ages and where they were born there are no actual similarities between the missus and Jimm, who seems to be based on an amalgam of four female reporters he took to dinner while putting Jimm together, observed and then imagined how any of them would have coped with being wrenched away from the career she loved and forced to look after a mother who’s on the precipice overlooking dementia, a bodybuilding cowardly young brother, a retired traffic cop grandfather and a dilapidated short-time beach motel.

Effectively forced to relocate to a remote village on the coast of Southern Thailand when her mother, perhaps suffering from early dementia, unexpectedly sells the family home and associated convenience store next to the university in Chaing Mai and invests in a resort hotel in the rural south Jimm Juree had been an ambitious 34 year old divorced crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Daily Mail one small kidney failure away from the chief crime reporter's desk.

Left behind to effectively become Jimm’s link to the outside world is her transgendered sister Sissi (formerly older brother Somkiet) a lady boy who found fame as a beauty queen, eloped with a suitor who paid for the operation. The marriage didn’t last, Sissie  returned to her family, and ended up a first-class computer hacker, the George Soros of dodgy Internet business. Unsurprisingly, Sissi is staying behind in Chiang Mai, running various internet businesses, and since she’s only a phone call away her skills will be invaluable as Jimm chases news stories.

As it turns out, the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant (there’s also a convenience store) sits on an untidy beach at Maprao in Chumphon province across the Gulf of Thailand from Vietnam. It’s not the sort of place that’s likely to attract hordes of paying customers and Jimm hates the constant smell of drying squid and the thud of coconuts falling from trees in search of a head (a falling coconut, of course, makes no sound prior to impact). There’s nothing to do after dark, it’s too close to nature and wildlife for a city girl,  the shallow sea is so warm it breeds Jurassic life forms and there is, as far as Jimm can see, no crime.

Jimm draws the short straw, being landed with the cooking duties and walking the dogs her mother adopts, while her mother, who may or may not (you start to doubt these things reading between the lines) be drifting in and out of dementia, looks after the barely stocked resort shop, while her painfully shy body-building brother Arny manages the resort’s  five (generally vacant cabins) and her monosyllabic, grandfather Jah, a retired policeman coming off forty years directing traffic watches the cars go by.

Nothing much happens for eight months until a VW kombi van with two presumably hippie skeletons from the seventies on the front seat is found buried several feet under a palm oil plantation while the plantation owner is digging a well (or, more accurately, having one dug).

Hearing about the find, Jimm cycles over to the scene, where she notices the long dead driver is sitting upright at the wheel wearing a hat. Unsurprisingly given her profession and the circumstances in which she’s landed Jimm decides to follow the story, and visits the police station to get her the inside story of the investigation, befriending Lieutenant Chompu, the Mariah Carey-singing, nail-polish-wearing gay pofficer from the local station (Chompu translates as pink).

On her way out of the station Jimm overhears part of a furtive conversation between the desk Sergeant and station supervisor Major Mana about a crime so sensitive there’s a news blackout on the story. After the Major leaves, she manages to convince the Sergeant she knows about the case, and gets the gory details.

A visiting abbot at the Feuang Fa temple, has been murdered. Since the victim was a member of the ecclesiastical version of the Anti-Corrupion Commission, sent to investigate the local abbot’s alleged inappropriate relationship with a nun there are a pair of obvious suspects, though Jimm refuses to go with the obvious explanation. There’s obviously something else going on since the victim was wearing a bright orange hat with a red flower.

Lurking in Jimm’s background is a Masters degree, where the course work includes a strand called Public Oration and Oral Improvisation (Pooi for short) where she was required to undertake an analysis of George W. Bush’s idiosyncratic approach to oratory, explains the presence of a Dubya malapropism at the top of each chapter and prompts Jimm to remark If nothing else, my analysis of George W’s oratory style had taught me that a sincere countenance and a confident stance were sufficient to distract your audience from the fact that you were talking rubbish.

There are a couple of places in the course of her investigation where she’s put into a position where she has to do just that as she attempts to unravel the details of the two cases, aided by Granddad Jah and Lieutenant Chompu. Along the way she gets in a string of snarky jibes about her non-existent love life, the local lifestyle and mores, and the travails of her rural existence.

It soon becomes apparent that someone with a great deal of influence is lurking in the background, but thanks to the assistance she gets from  her grandfather, who might have been looked over for promotion since he wouldn’t accept bribes, but can call on former colleagues for assistance, and Sissie, who fills the same whiz kid researcher and infiltrator of on-line databases role as Donna Leon’s Signorina Elettra, the bits of the puzzle fall into place in the end.

Admittedly, Killed at the Whim of a Hat took a while to get going, largely due to the number of characters who needed to be introduced, and I needed a while before I was convinced the first person female narrative was a winner, but by the time I was two-thirds of the way through I was happily won over.

There’s the same quirky wit that’s evident throughout the Dr Siri series, a similar set of offbeat characters whose interactions are at least as important to the book as a whole as the whodunit aspect of the narrative and Cotterill’s still got it when it comes to the wry remark.

“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.