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...