Killed at the Whim of a Hat, By Colin Cotterill

The new number one lady detective
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The Independent Culture

Colin Cotterill created one of the most remarkable pathologists in crime fiction in his Dr Siri series, with autopsies carried out with the aid of rusty penknives and ancestral spirits.

Now he has a new investigator, reporter Jimm Juree, forced to quit her job as a high-flying journalist and relocate to a tiny fishing village on the Gulf of Siam where nothing ever happens. Except that a farmer digging a well discovers an old Volkswagen camper containing two skeletons. Relics of a mishap on the hippie trail? Jimm starts delving into the past of local characters, but there seem to be modern repercussions when a monk is found murdered. An orange hat provides an exotic clue, and hats will form a motif threading throughout the narrative.

Jimm has to look after her wildly generous and optimistic mother, Mair, given to sheltering human and animal strays, as well as following the procedures of Major Mana's investigations in order to file her reports of the murders. Soon she is involved in the tangled trail of a rich Chinese family. Mana is hostile to reporters, but fortunately Jimmi gets close to Lieutenant Chompu, a policeman not to be lightly dismissed because of the traces of varnish on his fingernails.

She discovers that the couple in the camper were not innocent tourists. The twisted strands embrace high-ups in Bangkok, and Jimm now has Thailand's biggest story on her doorstep. But following it up is going to lead her into serious danger, and a sinister leader who can dominate the gang bosses proves a terrifying threat. Fortunately, it seems that in Thailand criminals often go out of their way to look the part, which does make investigation easier.

The book is joyously enlivened with chapter headings taken from the oratory of George W Bush ("I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family"). Cotterill is strong on atmosphere, but doesn't create some fantasy land of oriental beauty. Jimm, herself an ordinary-looking woman in her mid-thirties, has some sharp comments on developments in Thai culture, such as "Asian Babe" fashion, where girls have their photos airbrushed into Barbie lookalikes for online beauty competitions. Cotterill's fiction has been compared to Alexander McCall Smith's, presumably because it also has a colourful location. It is far more complex and perceptive: intelligent exotica.