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April 22, 2014 / schulerbooks

The Axe Factor, by Colin Cotterill


Some time ago, Jimm Juree was an up-and-coming crime reporter for Chiang Mai’s paper of record, and felt that she was going places. Unfortunately, her mother had other ideas on the destination, and packed most of their odd and contentious family down to the southernmost part of Thailand — there to manage a dilapidated holiday resort in Maprao for reasons known only to her. Since then, Jimm’s writing has consisted of English translation, counter-scamming online charlatans, and the occasional fluff piece for the local rag.

Given that she’d much rather be writing about crime, death, and other mysterious happenings, one might think that it’s a good thing that the world seems intent on sending them her way. Unfortunately, this has the habit of making her a target — something she’s had some experience with by now. But she at least has the consolation that, if her wits can’t keep her ahead of the perpetrators, at least  her contentious family has her back.

Which is a good thing, right about now, as what started as a fluff piece — interviewing a European author who’s settled in their neck of the woods — has percolated into a potentially deadly mystery.

The guy seems a typical, well-settled, middle-aged farang at first: big house, Burmese maid and handman, a little too flirty for his own good. But while Jimm can’t help but feel a little likewise attracted to the fellow — especially since intelligent, decent-looking suitors are far and few between down here in Maprao — there’s the issue of why his wife’s left him, and how creepy his employees seem to be.

Another issue is that his wife wouldn’t be the only woman to go missing, lately. One of the local doctors has vanished, after attending a medical conference. The plot thicks when it turns out she was all but hustled out of that conference by on-floor security after she started asking some uncomfortable questions, and her main colleague seems more angry to be asked about it than concerned about the lady’s welfare.

(Jimm’s mother’s disappeared, too, but she’s supposedly out on a boat with the dodgy fisherman they recently learned was their long-missing father. At least that’s where Jimm hopes she is, as she’s proving to be hard to get hold of…)

As Jimm searches for an answer, she starts encountering resistance. This comes in the form of increasingly-deadly threats from someone who may be the killer, but also “assistance” from her Grandfather the taciturn, retired cop, who’s convinced this Conrad Coralbank is most likely a killer.

And he has his own ideas on how to solve this case…

Those of you who’ve been reading Colin Cotterill for his Dr. Siri series — set in post-revolutionary, 1970’s Laos — may come to these books expecting a darkly funny romp in a foreign clime. Have no fear: you will indeed get that, and then some. But the Jimm Juree books also have a special something that greatly distinguishes them from Cotterill’s Laotian books — something that also distinguishes them from so many other semi-serious, exotic mystery series.

That something is Jimm’s singular clan, each with their own useful skills, personal secrets, and weird hang-ups. They argue and grumble and want to strangle one another, but when they finally circle the wagons, it’s something to behold. For all their bickering, misunderstandings, and disappointment, there is clearly love at work in these books, and even when they appear to be working at cross purposes, they somehow come together.

Cotterill’s clear affection for these characters shines through to the point where we care for them all — though we may still want to smack one or more of them silly for being so stupid and pig-headed. And that quality shines so brightly that, if you took the mystery out of the book, the story would still be well worth the read for its meditations on families: how they work, how they don’t, and how they all come together when the storm threatens.

If you like a witty, darkly-funny exotic mystery that will keep you guessing right up until the end, and leave you feeling good for having read it — as opposed to feeling like you just swam through muck and corpses, even if you have — The Axe Factor is the ticket. You may wish to read the previous two books (Killed at the Whim of a Hat and Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach) first, though, as some of the subplots in this book mean more if you’ve watched them unfold in his previous works.

The Axe Factor is out in hardcover, now, and available at all Schuler Books and Music locations, and through our website.

– Jim Tremlett, Eastwood


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