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Colin Cotterill's "Killed at the Whim of a Hat"

Colin Cotterill is something of a polymath: he's worked for UNESCO, combatted child exploitation, produced a television series, drawn editorial cartoons, and written a successful mystery series. You may not know him, however, unless you keep close tabs on southeast Asia, where he's lived and worked for two decades, and where his previous mystery novels, the Dr. Siri Paboun series, have been set. His new book, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, finds him writing a bit closer to his adopted home, Thailand, with an all-new protagonist, the crime journalist Jimm Juree. It's a twist on the cozy mystery genre: Jimm Juree finds herself trapped in a small Thai resort town with nothing to do except care for her capricious mother, when someone suddenly drops dead and she is the most qualified person to take up the investigation. Colin Cotterill knows his stuff: he's got the deft touch of a veteran mystery writer, of course, but he also shows the reader a side of Thailand that gets glossed over in the travel brochures, and adds a dose of expatriate cynicism/wisdom -- look for the George W. Bush quotations that open every chapter, and that give the book its name. Over e-mail, we asked Colin a few questions about his new book:

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Q: Tell us about Jimm Juree, the hero of Killed at the Whim of a Hat.

A: Jimm is a thirty-four-year old Thai woman who was one small kidney failure away from the chief crime reporter’s desk at the Chiang Mai Mail. But as she waited for her boss to croak, her demented mother sold the family home and announced she would be moving to a beaten up resort in the south of Thailand. While southerners fled north to avoid the ethnic violence and uncertainty, mother was headed south. Jimm really had no choice but to accompany her. With her went younger brother Arny the wimpy body builder and Granddad Jah who had spent forty years in the Royal Thai police force and not made it out of the traffic department.

The Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant is on an untidy little beach in Chumphon and Jimm hates everything about it. She hates the pace of life, the lack of facilities and the fact that there’s really nothing to do there after dark. She hates the close proximity to ‘nature and wildlife’ and, as a crime reporter, the fact that there’s apparently no crime. She hates the resort with its five, usually vacant cabins, the shop with so little stock the goods are spaced out like museum pieces, and the fact that she drew the short straw and has to do all the fish gutting and cooking. But perhaps most depressing is the fact that she’s in a place where the chances of finding a suitable mate are negligible.

All seems hopeless for Jimm until fate steps in and sends her the answer to her prayers: bodies. What joy. At last there is something to write about other than traffic accidents and monsoon flooding statistics. And through the investigation, Jimm enters a hidden world where big city skills don’t carry any weight at all.  

Q: Most people might not know Thailand beyond Bangkok, Koh Samui, and its reputation as the "Land of Smiles." How does your portrayal of rural Thai life contrast with that?

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A: There are three kinds of smiles in Thailand. There’s the one that gets tossed at you in the five star hotels and on Thai flights and in the fancy restaurants. It’s usually enough to convince a tourist they’re surrounded by love and joy even though those places have coaches come in once a month to keep those smiles up. Then there’s the other smile that has nothing to do with happiness. It’s the dog smile. It’s the one you see when you run your motorcycle into the Benz. When you offend a public official. When you steal a man’s wife. It tells you something nasty’s about to happen. But then there’s the country smile. It’s the one you get day after day when you ride your bicycle to the Pak Nam post office or when you walk on the beach or pass fishing boats in your kayak. It’s that neat, ‘I just felt like smiling’ smile that cheers you up on a bad day. You might get a ‘hello’ as garnish but it’s the teeth (for those who have them) that make you feel you belong. Of course I wouldn’t write about smile number three because it’s a secret and I don’t want you lot moving into my neighbourhood.

Q: You've lived in Southeast Asia for quite some time now, and your cartoons have appeared in Thai publications. What kinds of personal experiences did you draw on for the character of Jimm Juree?

A: I’d first visited Chiang Mai in 1976 on my way to penal exile in Australia. It was, back then, one of the quaintest cities I’d been to. I vowed that I would return and live a simple life there. Little did I know that the long-haired moustachioed hippie sitting opposite me at breakfast was a secret agent with Lonely Planet and the review he wrote that morning would condemn Thailand’s second city to death. By the time I got back there in 1986 it was already on its way to tourist hell. So what possessed me to move back yet again in 2000 to begin a writing career? Nostalgia and the fact that Chiang Mai University still scented some well-concealed academic ability in me. By then, you could sit in traffic so long they had meal delivery services for stuck drivers. I met and married a local lady who didn’t see me as unattractive – probably because it was too smoky to actually get me in focus. Like Jimm, she was in her mid thirties. Unlike my protagonist, she was keen to leave the polluted city and move to the country. So, four years ago we headed to a place neither of us had heard of. We bought a little piece of land, built a little house and began a little life not unlike that of Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in Green Acres.

I’ve been a cartoonist most of my life and, as such, I look at people. Not just their physical selves but how they move and interact and function. I took this one step further and started to interview people. I’d used the same method in Laos twenty years earlier under the guise of practicing Lao language. In the south it was in part to get to grips with the unfathomable southern dialect. As I talked I learned and I was amazed at just what a little crime hub bubbled beneath the surface of Maprao. It gave it all another dimension. I was suited for the country life. My wife was not. Like Jimm, she had few outlets for her abilities and little in common with the locals. So there’s just me and the dogs now and I am gladly part of the cast of characters that inhabit Killed at the Whim of a Hat.

Q: Your Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery series was set in Laos. What prompted the move to Thailand?

A: I was asked this question in a recent interview in South Africa and my first response was, ‘Why not?’ But as I suspected I’d be asked it many times more, I spent hours thinking up a wise spontaneous answer and told it as if I were a profound being. It went something like this.

‘Imagine my preparation period for a book as an editorial meeting. Before the first Lao book you had Siri and Nurse Dtui, and Inspector Phosy and naked Crazy Rajid and the others all sitting around the table discussing the story over a cup of coffee. There were other characters there of course, characters that sadly, ‘didn’t make it,’ and were dropped by the wayside. Some characters expanded beyond all expectations. But the important thing was, I was clearly in charge of those meetings back then.

These days I can barely get a word in. They’ve taken over. All I have to do is put them in a new plot and off they go. So, with the Dr. Siri series writing itself I needed a new challenge. Contemporary. No ghosts. Light on politics. In fact, I wondered whether I could hit a completely different demographic. Dr. Siri has a lot of fans ‘of a certain age’ who send him fan mail and certain (large) items of underwear, so he’s not going anywhere. But I needed a holiday in a different time and place and voice to keep me fresh.

Sooner than head off to Alaska in my helicopter to do research for a new series, I thought it would be cool to hop on my bicycle and be back by lunchtime with a notebook full of material I could use in the new books. I’m in charge again at the editorial meetings but I fear this omnipotence will be short lived. I really have to start creating characters who don’t answer back.  

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