What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Mystery Monday: Quirky Crime in Thailand

Colin Cotterill's series of mysteries featuring Dr. Siri, the only coroner left in Laos after the 1975 victory of the Communist Pathet Lao, have been ranked among my favorite crime sagas since I began reading them a few years ago. With seven books out in that series (starting with The Coroner's Lunch) and an eighth due out early in the new year, Cotterill has branched out with Killed at the Whim of a Hat (the title is drawn from one of George W. Bush's malapropisms), which feels as if it might be the beginning of a new series?

Cotterill isn't venturing too far, geographically -- moving from Laos to the southern coast of Thailand. But the characters and settings actually feel far more exotic than in the Dr. Siri books, as Cotterill has assembled possibly the quirkiest cast of characters imaginable, guaranteed to make the sober Thai tourist authorities recoil in dismay. At the heart of it all is Jimm, a former crime reporter in her 30s, who has relocated with her family to a tiny fishing coast after her mother spontaneously decides to buy the dilapidated beachfront establishment known as the "Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant." Jimm, on the verge of becoming the top crime reporter in the northern city of Chiang Mai and now trapped hundreds of miles away, learning how to gut fish from a YouTube video, while her bodybuilder brother Arny is stuck rolling treetrunks up and down the beach (there's no gym nearby) and her elder transgender sister, Sissi, is living the life of a recluse back in Chiang Mai, making money off Internet scams.

Then, a miracle happens. Or rather, back-to-back miracles, at least in Jimm's view: a local farmer unearths a buried Volkswagen van containing two skeletons, and a local Buddhist abbot is murdered - and found with a bizarre orange hat on his head. Great stories for Jimm -- and a puzzle for her to solve, with the help of a very camp gay Thai policeman who may prove to be sharper than he first appears.

This was a fun and entertaining romp of a mystery, although the solution the crime turns out to be rather improbable. So, too, are some of the adventures that Granddad Jah (confined to the traffic police until he retired because of his refusal to take bribes) gets up to when he encounters another incorruptible ex-cop, or Jimm's mother, who goes out prowling with rat poison after dark. But a good part of the fun is just to hop on board and enjoy the ride. Cotterill himself moved from Chiang Mai to southern Thailand a few years ago and knows the country that he's writing about; he has a great eye for the detail the makes it all "click" into place as a convincing tale. Recommended; despite the body discoveries, at heart, this is more of a "cozy" crime series than a police procedural, with most of the bad guys being corrupt or stupid rather than vicious and evil. A fun weekend read; 3.9 stars. The Dr. Siri books are better still; just as much of a sense of time and place, but with more intriguing and darker plots tied to then-current events in Indochina.

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