It’s A Mystery: “This was either an accident, murder or an act of nature.”
By Colin Cotterill
As the saying goes, you can’t tell a book by its cover. Nor,
for that matter, by its title. Titles tease, tantalize, and tempt. More often than not, they can be deceptive. Some titles become an integral part of the language: take Catch 22. Evan Hunter has said that he began all his 87th Precinct novels written under the pseudonym of Ed McBain by
making up a pithy title (Lady, Lady, I did It; Let’s Hear it for The Deaf Man etc.) and then wrote a plot to go with it. One
of my favorite titles is A Trout in the Milk (1972) by Michael Underwood, which he was drawn to because of this tasty tidbit by Thoreau: “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” This mini-roster of titles would be incomplete without The Head in the Soup (1979) by Peter Chad Tigar Levi which takes place on a dig in the Near East. Levi is an ex-priest whose hero Ben Jonson is an Oxford archaeologist. As many have noted, archaeologists and detectives have a great deal in common. Something Agatha Christie, following her archaeologist husband from dig to dig, knew all about.
Which brings me to another delightful title, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (1998). It’s a nonfiction book about bizarre neurological disorders, but I thought of it when I began to read Killed at the Whim of a Hat. The author, Colin Cotterill, has written eight mysteries featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun, a cranky and curmudgeonly septuagenarian who is the first and only coroner in the Laos of the 1970’s. All is deliciously, constantly abnormal in his morgue in downtown Vientiane. The Paiboun novels have been translated into six languages—“seven if you count Australian,” Mr. Cotterill has said. And talking about titles, the first Paiboun was The Coroner’s Lunch (2007). Then there is The Merry Misogynist (2009) and Love Songs From a Shallow Grave (2010).
Now on to Killed at the Whim of a Hat, Cotterill’s wonderful first in a contemporary new series, whose heroine, divorcée Jimm Juree, 34, was one of Thailand’s hottest crime reporters. That is until she’s forced to move to the Thai hinterlands because her mother Mair sold the family business, “a rustic 7-Eleven” in northern Chiang Mai, out from under the family and is moving them all south. This bit of bad news is thrown at Jimm and her siblings, without warning, one hot August night:
Our mother Mair…I don’t think it was any coincidence that she’d rediscovered Buddhism at roughly the same time the dementia started to kick in….That evening, almost exactly a year ago, will be forever burned into the DVD of my soul….
“I’ve invested in a lovely resort hotel in the south,” Mair beamed with pride….
The south? They were blowing each other up in the south. Everyone was fleeing north and we were supposed to go south?
“How far south?” I asked.
“Quite far,” she said.
Now Jimm is at “the butt end of the world” with a mother who spouts malapropisms even on her best days, her “sensitive” bodybuilder brother, Arny, and her Granddad Jah, a former traffic cop thrown off the force for honesty and whose hobby is car watching. Left behind by choice is big sister Sissi who at one time had been her elder brother, Somkiet. It’s been eons since I’ve met up with such a certifiably eccentric, dysfunctional family. The frontrunners are the family in the play You Can’t Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. (I hasten to add I wasn’t there when it opened in 1936 but encountered it during my theatre days quite a bit later.)
More to Jimm’s point, after her sex-change operation Sissi became an Internet whiz:
And eight years later she was already the George Soros of dodgy Internet business. Cyber-fiddles had made her a lot of money. I tried not to ask too many details because I didn’t like the idea of lying in court.
So Sissi stays in Chiang Mai with her computers and Jimm, Mair, Grandad and Arny move into Mair’s Gulf Bay Lovely Resort, which is, in reality, a dump girded with mosquito-ridden bogs, miles from the nearest tourist route. For almost ten months life is really dreary for Jimm until she gets word that a VW van has been dug up in the middle of a palm plantation and there are two skeletons sitting upright in the front seats—and one of them is wearing a plastic John Lennon cap. Faster than you can say “old bones” Jimm dusts off her intrepid reporter’s pith helmet and is on the case. At the Pak Nam police station, cycling distance ten kilometers from the resort, she is “befriended” by an officer:
…with the stripes of a police lieutenant and the mannerisms of a fairy…. He introduced himself as Police Lieutenant Chompu and gave me a deep wai just short of a curtsy. I loved him instantly…. His posh central-Thai accent suggested to me that Chompu was at the end of the line, shunted further away from mainline stations…. Here he was at the Pak Nam siding with nowhere to go.
While Chompu and Jimm are exchanging bittersweet pleasantries about the lack of evidence in a crime committed 30 monsoons ago, another body turns up, this time at the local Buddhist temple Feuang Fa. Faster than you can say “murder most foul,” Jimm is interviewing old Abbot Kem, who is in charge of the temple, and its resident nun. The body, found by Kem, belongs to Tan Winai, a visiting abbot from Bangkok, who arrived two days earlier with two monks attached to the Sangha, the Buddhist Supreme Council.
They are part of the branch called the Pra Vinyathikum, which loosely translated means Internal Affairs. They were investigating a “complaint” against the old abbot and the nun. Seems they were accused of fornication, yes fornication, by one of the old abbot’s meager flock. To Jimm, it seems a suspiciously long way to travel for a little local hanky-panky even if the alleged participants are in the service of God. Not surprisingly, the beatific duo will confess to nothing more than, “…the most beautiful and pure friendship.” Moreover, the nun is up to her habit in suspicion when Jimm discovers that she and Tan, the victim, have known each other for many years. In fact, before he left Bangkok he telephoned her and gave her the details of the complaint. Incriminating, undoubtedly, but according to her, “This was a very in initial investigation and none of us thought too seriously about it.”
“Why now?” doesn’t seem relevant to anyone but Jimm. Not even to Chompu, who she finally gets to describe the crime scene:
“Well he…the deceased. Was lying facedown on the concrete path, feet pointing…it must have been east. His head was almost in the flower bed, blood puddle under him half a meter to either side.”
“What was his expression?”
“Couldn’t see it. His whole face was masked by his hat….he’d been stabbed at least a dozen times in the stomach….It was a hate killing, either of Abbott Winai personally or of what he represented.”
“Someone with a grievance against Buddhism?…It’s the most nonviolent, forgiving religion there is.”
“You never can tell. A novice abused by a monk when he was young. Someone who believed his grandma was cremated before she was dead. And, don’t forget, the temple’s quick to welcome back ex-thises and that’s into its fold without background checks. There are a lot of gangsters in saffron.”
Next night at dinner, Jimm describes the crime scene as recounted by Chompu: “There’s nothing like a murder scene description to keep the family engrossed during a meal.”
This prompts Granddad Jah’s snooping skills to kick in and he urges her to rethink the crime scene:
“Was there something the police didn’t see at Wat Feuang Fa. Granddad?”
“There was, Jimm. There was.”
“And what was that?”
“You said Abbot Winai was wearing a hat. It obscured his face….it’s clearly laid out in the Monastic Code that you can’t wear a hat….a senior abbot who’d reached that level of responsibility would never dream of breaking the rules. There’s no way he’d wear a hat.”
Especially a hat that’s bright orange with a red flower. And that’s all I’m going to give away. Jimm, donning two hats, sleuth and scribe, sorts out both crimes with a lot of help from her loopy family and a few “well chosen” eccentric friends. (Who was it who said: “All I want is a place to hang my hat and a few of my friends.”)
By now you get the idea that Killed at the Whim of a Hat is a wonderfully inventive mystery whose irreverent charm, in part, is its appealing picture of a world unfamiliar to most Americans. After all, what would you expect from an author who writes on a beach 300 miles south of Bangkok while awaiting the local coconut collection team—a man and his tree climbing monkey. Not so incidentally, Colin Cotterill’s next novel starring the feisty Ms. Jimm is called: Granddad, There’s a Head on the Beach. Nuff said?
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.