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.

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