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Posted on Mon, Oct 3, 2011 : 11:12 a.m.

Charming new mystery by Colin Cotterill set in Thailand

By Robin Agnew

Killed at the Whim of a Hat
By Colin Cotterill

Minotaur, $24.99.

Colin Cotterill, of course, is the successful author of the Dr. Siri mysteries, set in 1970s Laos after the war.

Cotterill has transplanted the charm and humor of his Dr. Siri series to his now native Thailand and created an entirely new family of eccentrics for readers to love. His gentle and ironic touch is unchanged, though his new central character, Jimm Juree, is a young woman instead of a 70-something man like Dr. Siri.

Jimm lives with her family in crowded Chang Mai, and as the story opens she discovers her mother has sold the family business and bought a resort in the middle of nowhere. The photos of the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant made it look beautiful; the reality is slightly different.

The family leaves behind the reclusive Sissi, Jimm’s sister who was formerly her brother, and living at the Lovely Resort are Mair, Jimm’s mother; her uncommunicative grandfather; and her brother Arny, a body builder and sensitive 31-year-old virgin.

Jimm herself is a former crime beat reporter in Chang Mai; in their new tiny fishing village there is hardly any crime, and when she gets word that two bodies have been discovered, she’s beside herself with excitement.

The discovery of two probably former hippy skeletons unaccountably buried in their VW van is full of mystery, as is the subsequent murder of a monk at a nearby monastery. The crimes open the world around the Lovely Resort for Jimm.

The story is clever and surprisingly complicated, tied together with chapter epigraphs taken directly from the lips of George W. Bush, whose malapropisms are somehow wildly appropriate to Jimm’s new life in the provinces.

The gentle interplay of the family — the grandfather who starts to speak, the mother who appears to be getting forgetful and is sneaking around in some kind of Ninja costume and the changing love fortunes of the shy and awkward Arny — are the true heart of the book.

Jimm’s perceptions and crime expertise are the thread holding everything together, but the gentle flowering of the characters, the humor, and the depiction of the Thai way of life are the important parts of this novel. Jimm’s friendship with the flamboyantly gay policeman, Chompu, is a nice sidebar to the proceedings.

I hate to say it, but there’s really no other word for this novel but charming. It’s one of the reads of the year.

Robin Agnew is the co-owner of Aunt Agatha's Mystery Bookshop in Ann Arbor.