THE AXE FACTOR
By Colin Cotterill
Minotaur, $24.99, 304 pages
Few mysteries offer advice on how to kill someone with an ax and tidily dissect the remains, with the narrator bragging: "I have graduated from the writer of death to the taker of life."
The cleverness of Colin Cotterill in making a career of the macabre is gleefully demonstrated in this wickedly funny book in which he romps in literary gore. He gets off to what might be called a slashing start. As Conrad Coralback, the serial ax killer of a rural village in Thailand, he offers a do-it-yourself first chapter for beginners in the art of using an ax, including the lopping off of arms and legs and the importance of the measurements of boxes into which the severed limbs will fit neatly. It is all "wickedly perverted," he admits, adding that he has no doubt he will do it again now that he's got the hang of the procedure, so to speak.
"The Axe Factor" is Mr. Cotterill's wildest fantasy yet, and he keeps it light by building the plot around the exuberant character of Jimm Juree, who when she isn't a crime journalist, cooks for her eccentric family. There is Mair, her mother who peddled pot in her youth in between producing children with Captain Kow, who has a squid business off the coast. There is also Sissi, the transvestite daughter, Arny the tenderhearted son, the tough ex-cop grandfather, and the dogs, Gogo, Sticky Rice and Little Beer. Each in his own way contributes to the zaniness of the book.
However, it is Jimm who holds together the household that financially relies on rentals of beach property. She has been assigned to interview Conrad, a glamorous English writer in his 50s who, allegedly, has been abandoned by his wife. Jimm is thrilled when Conrad becomes her lover, despite receiving dire warnings in a note to avoid him. The note comes attached to a cleaver.
She is also investigating the disappearance of a female doctor investigating the sinister workings of a multinational group suspected of faking baby formula. Jimm has a lurid imagination and a ribald mouth, and she takes delight in what she calls Thai English, which are Micawberish examples of tangled invocations and citations. These include such delightful snippets such as "Christmas is a time of chair. Come in and have a bear" and, on a menu, "Fresh Grave Juice" along with "Roast lamp and Sunday wiping cream." Not to mention "Do not drive in pool as water not so deep."
In between chapters, there are "unposted blog entries" from the hand of the killer himself, such as, "I'm going to do it right this time. The first dismemberment was too rushed. This one I'll savor."
Jimm, of course, is the latest prospective victim, and her former cop grandfather is particularly wary of her new boyfriend. He doesn't care how happy he makes her. While Jimm pursues corporate corruption, her relatives are set to pursue and protect her from Conrad, who waits for her murmuring horror movie dialogue: "Are you feeling afraid? This is how it feels. What lies inside the darkness. When you don't know with any certainty how close to death you are."
The mood is altered as Jimm's granddad and a local police officer are confronted by Conrad naked but for a Lone Ranger mask and thigh-high boots. Meantime, Jimm is facing death at the hands of the village's other ax murderer, who is equally meticulous about dismemberment methods and has already disposed of the doctor who was about to expose baby-formula corruption. There is, of course, much more that I will not give away here, but the reader can look forward to the next explosion of Mr. Cotterill's mordant mind.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.