Colin Cotterill is responsible for the acclaimed Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery series, but he’s lately branched out to feature a new character, former Bangkok crime reporter Jimm Juree. Despite Cotterill being a multi-award winning (and oft-nominated) writer, he seems to be one of those authors relegated to cult status in this country—not a bad position to be in, certainly, to have a devoted following. But these books deserve more of an audience. They’re well-constructed, well-written mysteries with some meat on their bones. As a British ex-pat living in Thailand, Cotterill uses his knowledge of the locale to great effect in the Jimm series. If you’re not reading these books, you should be, especially if you enjoy exotic locations, quirky characters, and a feisty heroine.
So why else would you want to read these books? Two words: they’re funny as hell. Okay, that’s four words, but still. How can you resist a book titled Killed at the Whim of a Hat or Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach? Or one where the main character’s self-deprecation is also mixed with great doses of hubris and bravery? Or one where her mother rescues scraggly dogs, her brother the weightlifter is so timid that he’s practically a recluse, her other brother is now her sister whose entire life is lived on the internet and whose talents include computer hacking, and whose best friends are her nearly silent grandfather, retired from the traffic police, and a guy who describes himself as the only gay cop in Southern Thailand?
And I want to be clear about something—in a lesser writer’s hands, the overload of eccentricity would not work. It would come off as too over the top, trying too hard, cheesy, or all of that. Cotterill has the skillz to pull it off though. Yes, these people are beyond quirky, but his point seems to be that, in our own way, we’re all a little different and that’s a good thing. That’s what makes life so darned interesting. So they’re eccentric just like they’re Thai—it’s just part of who these people are. A good bit of the humor comes from these characters, but it feels organic, not forced, and, importantly, it’s never at the expense of who they are.
Beyond the humor—and believe me, there’s plenty to chuckle at in both books, starting with the quotations heading the chapters in Killed at the Whim of a Hat—Cotterill takes a good look at some serious subjects, from the Burmese immigrant issues in Thailand to its police and political corruption. And ultimately, he also lets the reader in on a little secret: the downtrodden or overlooked in society often have much to contribute to it if the rest of us would just let them. Jimm’s family and friends have all been cast aside in some way or another, but they still have plenty of life left in them and much of value to offer their small community.
The plotting is so skillful in these books that you’ll never notice it, and Jimm is a witty, spunky, fish-out-of-water narrator. The setting would seem to be exotic, but the author exposes the grit beneath the shining surface, which gives these books a bit of unexpected edge. You might think, “Hey, that’d be a great place to live,” and it certainly has its plus side. But it’s not all ocean breezes and palm trees and pristine sand, either. There is poverty, corruption, bigotry, and oppression a plenty, and no amount of humor can erase the image of a group of immigrants, for example, captured and enslaved, or the waste of a bright young woman reduced to gutting fish for restaurant meals that people in their rural community cannot afford to buy.
My first encounter with these books left me giggling and recommending them to friends who love a good mystery, but they’re also the kind of books that stick with you because there’s plenty of substance under the humor that will sneak up on you when you least expect it. When Jimm laments being forced to give up her job in Bangkok to move south with her family, for example, she may voice that lament in an off-the-cuff, jokey manner, but Cotterill is skilled enough with words to make you realize four sentences later that yes, Jimm truly feels she’s wasting her talents gutting fish in a backwater town, but knows that taking care of her family is as important as writing about crime. And she’s smart enough to know she can do both if she can just figure out how.
Jimm’s complexity is apparent from the first few paragraphs of Hat—she can’t resist snooping in a local puzzle, even though she knows she should be helping at the resort and keeping an eye on her family. She’d like to have a man in her life, too, which presents problems: she feels she’s beyond the more simple men of her village, but she’s also smart enough to know that she’s not in a position to be choosy about male companionship given her family obligations. Her logic, whether applied to social problems or criminal miscreants, is all there for the reader to see. So, she may not be thrilled with the men in her village, but she looks for the good in them, and in all of the people around her. She’s a little bitter, but accepting, and wily enough to keep her wits sharpened with what mysteries are given to her, even if it’s something as basic as who kidnapped a local guy’s monkey or the identity of the man her mother is entertaining at night in secret. She knows she’ll eventually figure out how to make all of this work for her. She’s really quite an extraordinary character. I encourage you to take the time to get to know her.
All of the novels mentioned in this review were generously provided by the publisher during my tenure with RT Book Reviews and initially reviewed for that publication.