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Apr 2015
Killed at the Whim of a Hat - Colin Cotterill - Quercus, 2011

* * *
Isn't that an irritating title? Fortunately, it does not reflect the literary ability of the author, but that of its original utterer, George W. Bush. The main character, a reporter called Jimm Juree, explains that she studied Bush-isms as part of her English course, which seems like a cruel and unusual punishment but is at least an explanation of sorts. However, the word that is wrong in the title - "whim" - also indicates a problem with the book.

The setting is the backwater coast of south-east Thailand, to which Jimm Juree has been exiled when her possibly-doolally mother Mair sold their family home and bought a run-down holiday resort. Isolated with taciturn ex-cop grandfather Jah and sensitive body-builder brother Arny, there is little to do but sit and watch the tourists not turn up. But fortunately a couple of interesting things happen. A 70s hippy van is discovered buried in a farmer's field with two skeletons in the front. And the abbot of a local temple is murdered while wearing a bright orange hat. Could there be a connection?

The strength of this book is its cast of characters, who are pleasingly diverse and colourful. Juree's investigations are assisted by her older sister Sissi, a transexual computer hacker, and a highly competent and flamboyantly gay police officer called Chompu. I also enjoyed Juree's (and Cotterill's) stone-dry sense of humour (based, of course, on Philip Marlowe, but nonetheless welcome for that). Any notion one might have had of Thailand as a paradisiacal culture is firmly debunked. Normally I am uncomfortable with an author implicitly or overtly criticising a society in which they did not grow up, but here it is clear that Cotterill knows whereof he speaks.

Plotwise, the book is similar to Alexander McCall Smith's Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series, and that is not meant as a compliment. There is much whim and little cleverness in the mysteries, which mostly seem to be trying to justify the book's title; the identity of the murderer of the abbott is particularly annoying, as it breaks one of the rules of the unstated contract between a crime author and their readers. However, the characters are sufficiently engaging that I would be prepared to let Cotterill have another go.


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