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Southeast Asian Junket – starring Colin Cotterill

April 27, 2008

I love themes. Themes are adventure that let you delve deeper into a subject, help you acquire more information, and become more intimate with… whatever. For me, themes are about being immersed and they are quite gratifying. My thematic search a while back was Southeast Asia, with the focus then spiraling down on Laos and Thailand. Southeast Asia is a place I have no interest in visiting, physically, but I still find it fascinating.

Of course, the adventure was by book, the specific genre being mystery. During this theme research, I discovered Colin Cotterill. Born in London in 1952, Cotterill eventually gravitated to the Far East: Australia, Japan, and then Thailand, where he now lives. He wrote a series of mysteries which star Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national coroner of Laos. An unusual detective to begin with, the fact that he is in his 70’s is pretty unheard of in today’s mysteries. Cotteril explains why he chose Laos to write about in an interview by Houston’s Murder by the Book – bookstore:

Laos has always been at war with invaders and colonists and with itself. Yet it’s a place populated with some of the calmest and most peaceful people I’ve met anywhere. I wondered how such nice people always managed to find themselves in a battlefield, and soon came to realize the majority of the Lao didn’t really know what was going on. They were eternal victims of bullies. All they asked was to work their fields and raise their children. In the early seventies, the Royalists and the Pathet Lao signed a cease-fire and for the first time anyone could remember, the fighting stopped. People liked the idea of peace, whatever the price. So, when the communist PL took over the country in 1975, most people agreed they couldn’t do much worse than their corrupt predecessors. The new government, fresh from the caves of the northeast with backing from the powerful Vietnamese, could pretty much do what it liked. The intellectuals and administrators of the old regime had escaped to Thailand so the reds found themselves with a country to run and few ideas of how to go about it. They were scared, and fear leads to paranoia. The Coroner’s Lunch is set amid this period of political upheaval. It was a time when even the most banal activities became difficult, when you couldn’t sell a chicken without written permission. It added a new dimension to a mystery story, like a boxer going into a ring with his feet tied together. The books follow the chronology of Lao history through these times and refers to real events that I found fascinating.

So here we have an author who can write about historical events with accuracy, has a great sense of humor, and writes about endearing characters. The Coroner’s Lunch is an unusual mix of mysticism, violent death, and gently satiric humor. What more could a reader ask for?

The Coroner’s Lunch, was followed by Thirty-Three Teeth, Disco for the Departed, and Anarchy and Old Dogs. The Curse of the Pogo Stick is his newest release, and I am anxiously awaiting its arrival at my library.

Cotterill has an entertaining website definitely worth a visit. You will see he is also a cartoonist. There is a nice little biography here. He is a pretty interesting chap, trying to make a difference in the world.

The venture next led me to Bangkok 8, written by John Burdett in 2003. This is a very dissimilar, more gritty, series. Obviously, the stories take place in Thailand. The blurb for Bangkok 8 reads:

Detective Sonchai Jitplecheep, the son of a GI and a Thai bar girl and an honest Bangkok cop, investigates the murder of a charismatic African-American Marine sergeant, killed by a python and a swarm of cobras in a locked car. At the same time, Sonchair must investigate the subsequent death of his partner, making his way through a world of illicit drugs, prostitution, and corruption, to find a vicious killer.

This book is followed by Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts. Bangkok Haunts was a little bit difficult for me to read, but it is a great series, nonetheless.

Next port on the Southeast Asia trip was The Secret Agent by Francine Mathews. The blurb for this book says:

Mathews takes us deep into the baffling history of a maverick American’s glittering life and his sudden, cataclysmic disappearance. Propelling us masterfully through half a century, from Manhattan to the Alps to the colorful and treacherous heart of Bangkok, and based on the life of American expatriate Jim Thompson, The Secret Agent is at once a murder mystery, a touching love story, and a lavishly atmospheric journey through the exotic landscape of love and history–an historical thriller of the first rank.

This was a good book. Mathews has a number of espionage novels to her credit; I plan to read more of her work soon.

You may be familiar with Lawrence Block, a prolific New York writer. He has written the series about Matthew Scudder, the cop turned private detective who still goes to AA meetings many times a week after twenty years of sobriety; serious stuff. Block also writes the Bernie Rhodenbarr series about a professional thief with a conscience. They are pretty tongue in cheek funny. I like both of those characters, but I think the funniest Block has written is the Evan Tanner series; the spy who never sleeps. Tanner lost the ability to sleep when he was wounded in Korea. He’s been awake ever since—learning languages, writing term papers and theses for lazy scholars, and supporting political lost causes and national splinter groups and movements. In The Scoreless Spy,

Tanner is in Thailand with a partially baked plan and a butterfly net, hoping to snare a beautiful missing chanteuse who’s metamorphosed into an international jewel thief. Tanner hopes everyone will buy his disguise as a rare butterfly researcher. And everyone does . . . except the guerilla band holding him captive.

Last stop on my Southeast Asia trip is The Thai Amulet by Lyn Hamilton:

Bangkok, a city of contradictions, where the heady scents of jasmine and frangipane hang in the stifling heat and golden-spired palaces overlook seedy strip clubs. Yet it never fails to inspire Lara’s spirit of adventure, which is why she has agreed to search for a missing antiques dealer while on vacation. Armed with only a fifty-year-old newspaper clipping about a murder and broken terracotta amulets, she heads to his last known address.

This was good, light, reading.

On the heavier, more horror-driven side, is a Thai movie with English subtitles, The Victim. It sounds like a very strange movie, but I was really creeped out by the poster, so I just had to show it here.

A review of the movie on DVDTown.com says,

The Victim is another run-of-the-mill film churned out by the juggernaut that is the Asian horror genre. Unlike most of second-rate movies cut from the same cloth, “Victim” has an extremely interesting premise, one that doesn´t involve an everyday, ordinary object being haunted by a ghostly girl with long, black hair. At least, not initially. Apparently, in Thailand, the Royal Police Force stage re-enactments of crimes in front of the public and the press. They return to the scene of the crime with an actor portraying the victim and the actual criminal handcuffed and in tow. The police tell the criminal to give them a detailed, blow-by-blow account of his deeds. Crowds gather around to watch as reporters snap photos for the front page of their newspapers.

Is that a scary picture or what? I won’t post the rest of the review because it will give away too much. If you like unusual, scary, movies, you might like this. Aren’t the Thai words on the poster beautiful?

To end on a high note, Thailand is an exotic, lovely place. Well, maybe I would want to visit there…..


And here is a blog, Charlie’s Travels, with beautiful photos of Southeast Asia.  Check it out.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2008 12:49 am

    Thanks for reminding me that if I themed my reading I might get more done than through my current – “grab it all and be random about selection – method. . .
    And thanks for the tips on great mysteries; I’m always looking for those.
    Finally, thanks, too, for the gorgeous photos of Thailand. There and Tibet – and maybe Cambodia – the places I’d like to visit in Southeast Asia.

  2. April 28, 2008 5:50 am

    Thanks for checking in, Andi. Of course, I don’t always “theme read” but it is fun.
    Mysteries are my favorite escape lit.
    Yes, those photos were gorgeous. Makes me want to hop on a plane! I am actually hopping on a plane to Ireland in June, so hopefully I will have some of my own beautiful photos to blog about.

  3. toujoursjacques permalink
    April 28, 2008 8:25 am

    Hello Kerry—
    I read your SE Asian junket post early this morning, but wanted to wait to comment until I had a little more time. My, it’s quite the mystery tour. I’m impressed by the scope of your themed reading and the detailed commentary. I occasionally read mysteries and enjoy them very much. But I’ve never read ANY from SE Asia I’m very sorry to say. If you were to recommend just one to try out, would it be the Colin Cotterill?

    Have you been to Ireland before? I was there a couple of years ago and I loved everything about it; and the Irish people as a whole are simply tremendous. Wait…did you say you owned an Irish pub? you probably already know all that then. Anyway, I hope to go back sometime. In fact, if someone told me I could only take one more trip in my life, that’s where I’d go…probably to the west coast, maybe Galway Bay; and I’d read Yeats and eat as many fresh mussels and oysters as I could stuff in. I will look forward to your photos!

  4. April 28, 2008 8:40 am

    Hi TJ, thanks for commenting. Most definitely, I would recommend Colin Cotterill. On a scale of 1 to 5 he gets a 6. John Burdett is also excellent… how about you read two mysteries!? They are both so foreign, but also so familiar.

    I have been to Ireland; this time I am accompanied by two of my children. My son graduates this May, so it is a gift to me… I mean him. A few days in Dublin and a few days in Galway, driving out on day trips. No Yeats, mussels, or oysters for me. A nice cup of tea, a wee scone, and “Death of an Irish Tinker” by Bartholomew Gill will do.
    Have a good week. Kerry

  5. April 29, 2008 9:56 am

    Dearest Qugrainne,

    First, thank you for your generous compliment at the blue bicycle.

    Second, I want to return the words: i am …. almost rendered speechless (rare for me) by the beauty, wit, intelligence I see and read here. Your blog is a visual and mental feast !! I cannot wait to return and browse through your ‘selections.’

    A rare treat. And I am intrigued and fascinated by your self-portraits.

    fondly,
    Lady Blue

    ps. i hope you will share the meaning of qugrainne with me ….

  6. toujoursjacques permalink
    April 29, 2008 7:14 pm

    Tea, a wee scone, and ANY book sound like fabulous accompaniments to the Irish coastline. I do not know the author or book you mention, but will look it up upon your recommendation. Thanks! and Thanks for narrowing the many choices for SE Asian mystery. I second Lady Blue’s praise for your site by the way. Just excellent! TJ

  7. April 30, 2008 5:33 am

    Oh my. After an arduous day, to come home and have my heart soothed by such kind words. Thank you very much, TJ and Lady Blue. Your sites are extremely different, and each is a delight for me!
    Qugrainne comes from Gráinne Ní Mháille, Irish pirate queen of the 16th Century, for whom I have great respect. Involved in the business of sailing ships and trade (and a bit of pirating on the side), she was a notorius and unusual woman for her time. The English translation of her name is Grace O’Malley. Thus our link is two-fold, for my search for grace is unceasing.

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