musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Colin Cotterill

Thailand-based author Colin Cotterill dropped by my bookshop earlier this month. I won’t tell you what he bought, because I am sworn to secrecy, but it did surprise me that he was such a big fan of harlequin romance novels. Ha, just kidding! He didn’t buy anything that remotely bizarre, but he was his usual charming self and we had a very pleasant conversation. I thought about bugging him for an interview, but he was preparing to leave for a trip to the US (no book tour, just regular touring), so I decided to spare him the torture. The week before, there had been a glowing review of his new book, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, in the New York Times. This was not the first time that Colin has received very favorable coverage in that famous paper, so I asked him if had any friends employed there. “No, I don’t know anyone there at all,” he shrugged, and then grinned. “But they do seem to like me.”

Indeed they do. And so do a growing number of other discerning readers around the planet. If you haven’t read any of Cotterill’s delightful Dr. Siri mysteries (there are seven in the series), all set in Vientiane, Laos, it’s time to get started. Cotterill’s books have been compared to Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Club” series, mainly due to the rustic foreign setting (Botswana is a long way from Laos, but at least there is the common denominator of farm animals), using more humor than horror, and employing a charismatic and unconventional protagonist. Cotterill’s books are a bit more bloody (no gratuitous violence, but real dead bodies turn up, as opposed to the dead car batteries in the Smith books), but that’s not a surprise since a coroner is the main character. It’s not exactly comic crime, but closer to that classification than some sort of creepy serial murder thriller.

The Dr. Siri series is definitely one of the more charmingly unique ones in the current crime fiction genre. Not only is it set in communist Laos during the 1970s, the main protagonist is a feisty doctor in his early 70s who is unexpectedly appointed the national coroner just as he is planning to enjoy his retirement years. Besides being an adventurous, opinionated and well-read fellow, Dr. Siri also channels the spirit of an ancient Hmong shaman. He’s definitely not your typical crime-solver, but that’s a big part of his appeal. Earlier this year, I finished the last two books in the series, The Merry Misogynist and Love Songs from a Shallow Grave. It’s said that some writers get better as a series progresses, and I think that’s the case for Cotterill and these books. Absolutely top notch stuff.

Cotterill recently wrapped up the Dr. Siri series, but by no means has he stopped writing. His new novel, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, finds him offering readers a brand new protagonist, Jimm Jurree, a female Thai journalist who has recently moved with her rather colorful family from Chiang Mai to a small beach town in Southern Thailand. Jimm finds there isn’t much to do, or write about, in this sleepy hamlet until a couple of dead bodies show up. A few days later a monk is found dead and suddenly there is a lot to do and write about. Like the other Cotterill books, this is a breezy, addictive read with lots of playful dialogue, and a wacky cast of characters. Looks like another fun addition to Cotterill’s growing catalog of mysteries, one that will keep readers enthralled.

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