Yarn-bombing and other Misdemeanours

[I review crime fiction for The Sydney Morning Herald. My editor has kindly given me permission to repost these here – in their original form, I might add. This one appeared on Saturday February 25, 2012]

Yearning for a virtual vacation? What about contemporary Byron Bay from the perspective of a diabetic freelance journalist or the former Kingdom of Laos circa 1978 with a septuagenarian coroner?

In Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerilla Knitters’ Institute, Maggie Groff has sly fun at the expense of ’Bonking Bay’: a place that hardly needs more tourists in the all too solid flesh clogging up the byways. And yet who would not be attracted to a town ‘already full of industrial-grade lunatics’, as it is described on the first page, albeit by someone who doesn’t live there.

Scout has a sister called Harper, a Russian Blue cat called Chairman Meow, a boyfriend on extended tour in Afghanistan for Reuters, and the hots for a local cop called Rafe. She is also a fully paid up member of the Guerilla Knitters’ Institute whose activities involve enlivening public spaces with unlikely knitted artworks.. Given our local post office has what looks like a knitted teacosy adorning the nearby junction box, I’m inclined to think ‘yarnbombing’ is about to go viral on the Eastern seaboard.

Apart from the adventures of the guerilla knitters, there are two other plot lines on the go. The first involves the arrival of a suspicious (is there any other kind) American cult headed by the kind of dodgy sexual predator any right-thinking woman would spot a mile off. But then right-thinking women are hardly ever the victims of such enterprises as Scout discovers as she goes undercover to get the lowdown on her story.

The second involves Scout’s sister Harper (onomastic codes courtesy of Miss Lee), who needs assistance sorting out some nasty bullying at the posh coeducational school where she teaches gymnastics.

It’s all a bit chick-litty, Janet Evanovichy and perilously close to cute – but fun, especially the knitting.

Also fun, in the South Asian tradition of Shamini Flint’s clever Inspector Singh series, or Nury Vittachi’s Feng Shui detective, is Colin Cotterill’s Slash and Burn which had me googling Laos to find out more about this extraordinary country – the economy of which now depends on tourism of the more embodied kind.

This is the eighth book in what has been a successful and critically acclaimed series for British born, Australian citizen, Cotterill, who lives in Thailand where he writes, cartoons and is involved in child protection.

The book opens in 1968 as a stoned American helicopter pilot flying a secret mission over Laos finds himself heading for a collision with the earth. Cut to ten years later and Dr Siri Paiboun and his wife, Madame Daeng (she of the luscious noodles), are contemplating the bloated body of the retired American Major leading their expedition to recover afore-mentioned pilot’s remains. It’s not a pretty sight – the Major’s lipstick is too red and his lingerie too tight. Cut to five weeks earlier and the back story.

Cotterill’s complicated time line obliges the reader to keep up, but the effort is well worth it. Dr Siri and his astute Laotian fellow travelers eventually emerge as ascerbic wits as they exchange plaisantries via an interpreter with an American delegation who understands neither their culture nor their language.

Inevitably, the reader is positioned on the side of Siri and Co., as they wend their way North across a countryside littered with unexploded cluster bombs: relics of the American/Vietnamese conflict during which Laos as the neutral intermediary, was more heavily bombed than anywhere else. Cotterill doesn’t labour the politics, but his comedy is always to the point.

Take the intellectual Siri whose efforts to understand the Americans involve reading Henry James in French. This exercise is soon abandoned when Siri decides that James appears to have learned his craft writing radio scripts for Thai soap operas. Not just an astute coroner, Siri may also be a keen literary critic.

He is also an unconvincing member of the ruling communist party who believes in the spirit world and the essential goodness of all human beings, with the exception of those in power. This is just as well since the spirit world proves to be an unlikely ally when dealing with corruption at the top. If you haven’t already, put Laos and Dr Siri high on your itinerary.

The books:

Slash and Burn
By Colin Cotterill
Quercus, pp. 374 $24.99
Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerilla Knitters’ Institute
By Maggie Groff
Macmillan, $24.99

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About Sue Turnbull

I am Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Wollongong where I manage the Bachelor of Communication degree. My research interests include the study of media audiences, television studies in general and crime in particular. I also review crime fiction for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age am a convenor of Sisters in Crime Australia - a crime writers and readership network.
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