For those coming late to the Colin Cotterill show, take a seat and let me catch you up on what you’ve missed. The author started a mystery series back in 2004 featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun, septuagenarian and solitary coroner in the newly Pathet Lao’ed Laos of the later 1970s. Siri is a veteran of the insurgency, but freethinking, which befits someone whose body, much to his surprise, hosts an esteemed shaman as old as the millennium. Siri has little to no governance over his spiritual experiences — they are unruly, sublime to murderous, but educational — though, as a coroner, he maintains a seasoned composure before the nasty mortal mysteries that have become his lot over the course of seven novels, many associated with the farcical operators of the dawning, “socialist” Laos. We have met the enemy, you bet; yet Laos is in good, atmospheric hands with Cotterill.
Last year, in Killed at the Whim of a Hat, Cotterill introduced a new series and crime-reporter Jimm Juree, a young woman of brains and journalistic ambition whose occasionally, inconveniently addled mother sold the family fortune and her daughter’s ascendant future in up-country Chiang Mai, Thailand, and moved her family to the low-country south, to the tumbledown Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant, sitting on a sliver of land between a devil river and the deep, gray sea. Here monsoon winds bring scads of garbage — and the stray body part — to the beach. A head, for instance, as in Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach.
Jimm may be cook and bottle washer at the resort and make a few bahts on the side by testing anti-depressant drugs for pharmaceutical companies — News flash! Beware certain strains of female Viagra! (“His T-shirt stuck to his muscles like paint. I fought back my urge to rip it off him with my teeth”) — but she is a crime reporter at heart. That head on the beach does not escape her interest, and despite all her sardonicism it leads her into the vile world of high-sea slave labor, where dirt-poor Burmese are the likely victims. Once duped onto the fishing vessels, the Burmese are just so much jetsam if they make trouble. Most heads never make it to the beach.
This is a bitter pill and even a gleaning of the newspapers will speak to its truth. Its solemnity gives the tale weight and purpose, which Cotterill counterbalances with Jimm’s tomfoolery, side stories that include aristocratic shenanigans to get through college, a cast of fanciful odd fellows, and the lovelorn life of a woman you want to embrace in a warm hug. Jimm’s instinctive antipathy toward doing the wrong thing to make a cheap buck is cheering and a challenge to “the view that the bigger the crime the lower the chances of arrest,” while her sass and bravado are all about dignity and honesty, traits as rare and chromatic as the local sapphires and rubies, and not to be lightly gifted.