Saturday, June 24, 2017


THE REVELATIONS OF CAREY RAVINE by Debra Daley (Quercus, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

London in the 1770s is bursting with opportunity. It's a city fuelled by new ideas and new money, where everything is for sale - including entrée into the ruling class.

Making their way in this buccaneering society are Carey Ravine, a spirited young woman of enigmatic background, and her husband, the charming, endlessly enterprising Oliver Nash. Carey and Nash share a historic connection to India and a desperate ambition to better themselves. 

But as Nash's plans draw them into a restless association of gamblers and secret societies, Carey begins to question what's really hidden behind the seedy glamour of their lives. Her unease grows with the appearance of a mysterious man whose appearance unearths a troubling secret from the past. Carey finds herself forced to investigate the truth behind the stranger's claims­­ - and to confront her own illusions about herself.

A woman’s rise from dupedom in the 1770s. Carey Ravine is a smart and capable woman who has escaped her dismal teenage years by entering the social swirl, cons, and ambitions of her husband, Oliver Nash. Carey is not giving herself too much time to reflect on her life, or the puzzle of her father who has been missing in India for ten years.

But a series of discoveries tantalises her, and draws her into trying to solve a mystery concerning strange poisonings, blue lights, and her place of fascination: India. As she becomes aware of the potential impact of what is lying at the heart of the mystery, and the possible connection to her father – she finds she is not really satisfied with the frippery and dubious politics around which her life is revolving. And as she becomes aware of cover-ups and conspiracies she, and the reader, start to suspect those around her might not quite be who she took them for.

The setting and language (I really must use bloviate more often) are rich, and Carey’s character admirable. The book has historical detail, an intriguing plot, the evil East India Company, romance, and a strong female lead – a delight.

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here

Friday, June 23, 2017


THE STONEHENGE LEGACY by Sam Christer (Sphere, 2011)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Eight days before the summer solstice, a man is butchered in a blood-freezing sacrifice on the ancient site of Stonehenge before a congregation of robed worshippers. Within hours, one of the world's foremost treasure hunters has shot himself in his country mansion. And to his estranged son, young archaeologist Gideon Chase, he leaves a cryptic letter . . .

Teaming up with an intrepid Wiltshire policewoman, Gideon soon exposes a secret society - an ancient international legion devoted for thousands of years to Stonehenge. With a charismatic and ruthless new leader at the helm, the cult is now performing ritual human sacrifices in a terrifying bid to unlock the secret of the stones.

Inspired by a recent visit to Stonehenge, I grabbed a copy of this book (from the Visitor Centre itself, and read it while in Salisbury for the weekend). I was pretty hopeful, but it turned out to be a bit of a strange read. Not in terms of the mysticism associated with the ancient stones, but in that it was a tale that wasn't particularly well-written, but I was strangely compelled to read to the end anyway.

The Stonehenge Legacy is touted as akin to The DaVinci Code, being "packed with codes, symbology, relentless suspense, and fascinating detail about the history of one of the world's most mysterious places". There's certainly some truth in that, both in terms of the 'ancient secrets uncovered' aspects, as well as the way Christer's writing, like Brown's, is a bit cringey at times.

The set-up is decent: the estranged son of a renowned treasure hunter is called home after his father commits suicide. If it was suicide. Nearby, a man is sacrificed by a hooded cabal in an ancient ritual. A local Wiltshire policewoman begins to wonder what is going on in her patch. Things don't fit.

Unfortunately for me (it may not bother other readers as much), Christer is overly fond of adjectives, depowering his prose and creating an eye-rolling rather than eye-popping effect to his characters and description. There's also a fair bit of 'on-the-nose' dialogue, all adding up to a bit of a 'cheesy' feel.

The underlying story is interesting though, and kept me turning the pages. I wanted to know what happened, even if I was frustrated with what the journey was compared to what it could have been. As I got further into the book, Christer's writing style didn't bother me so much - I'm not sure if it improved as the book picked up the pace and got deeper into the story, or I just adjusted.

I enjoyed learning more about Stonehenge and the Wiltshire area, and the 'secret society' stuff was pretty well constructed as it spiderwebbed throughout the story, and with some twists and reveals.

It's often said that the best books don't always make the best films, as you can't always translate much of what makes them great to the screen. Conversely, mediocre books can make good films, as it's the underlying story, atmosphere, and interesting characters that are used, and it doesn't matter if you lose the writing style of the author, or use different dialogue etc. That may be the case here. I could see The Stonehenge Legacy translating well to the screen, as there's an interesting cast of characters that could be brought to better, fuller life by actors. There is also plenty of action, mystery, and secrets that could possibly be even better onscreen than in the way Christer conveys them on the page.

Overall, this is a decent holiday or beach read. An airport thriller that definitely could be enjoyed by fans of Dan Brown or those who like films like National Treasure.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, and on national radio and top podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Thursday, June 22, 2017


MURDER ON MURITAI by Genesis Cotterell (Hayes, 2017)

Reviewed by Carolyn McKenzie

Curtis McCoy is called on to investigate his first case. Beautiful half-blood Ryxin Janux Lennan believes her husband was murdered, and she wants Curtis to find the killer or killers. They embark on their pursuit and find a bit more than they expected.

Muritai Island, somewhere off the coast of New Zealand, is a small community which has as its inhabitants some very unsavoury characters. Their mission: to take back the rights they lost upon landing on Earth and to eventually take over the planet themselves.

If you have ever met someone so ‘other-worldly’ that you thought they could almost be ‘from another planet’, then Murder on Muritai may be all the confirmation you need that aliens – Ryxins from the planet Ryxin in this case – have indeed settled on Earth, in human guise, naturally.

The book opens like any other murder mystery, with Curtis McCoy, a private investigator, listening to his client’s report of her partner’s death, which she assumes was murder. We soon learn however that this is no ordinary crime scenario since the deceased is Ryxin, and Human police are forbidden by law to investigate crimes involving Ryxins.

Muritai Island should be an idyllic setting in the southern Pacific Ocean but instead its population is deeply divided: lawless Ryxins are striving to outnumber the Human population. McCoy is a new comer to the island and a new comer to detective work – this murder is his first case and as he tries to solve it he becomes entangled with the worst features of Ryxin society. At the same time, his involvement with a couple of Ryxin women distract him from his investigation to the point where he seems to have forgotten that he has a murder mystery to solve. And yet, cunningly, as the book draws to an end, McCoy pulls himself and all his clues together and identifies the killer.

And on the surface, this is Murder on Muritai: a not overly gripping crime novel where the investigator spends much of the book either racing around the island (or catching the ferry to the mainland) in pursuit of various women, or mourning the end of his marriage to a Human.

In spite of weaknesses in the crime-solving aspects of this book, I found Murder on Muritai both fascinating and disturbing. Cotterell cleverly brought the Ryxin aliens to Earth – to Ireland in a flash of blue light, in 1905 – not so very long after the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand must have seemed like an alien invasion. From Ireland, many Ryxins have made their way to Muritai Island ‘in search of a better life’. Some of them have obeyed government regulations and only mated with Humans, thereby diluting Ryxin blood. Others are intent on illegally preserving their full-bloodedness, and all the superior powers that that entails.

Putting the science-fiction - suspended reality - aspect of Murder on Muritai aside, it is impossible not to reflect on its parallels with some of the volatile racial and migrant dramas currently unfolding around the world, with their associated issues of socio-cultural diversity, integration and identity preservation, or to muse on colonisation, ethnic cleansing and master races. And then there’s the question of those ‘other-worldly’ people that we’ve all met from time to time: could they have come ‘from another planet’?

Murder on Muritai is book one in the Ryxin trilogy. If Curtis McCoy is going to stay in business he will have to spend less time chasing beautiful women, but like all good first books in a trilogy, Murder on Muritai ends with some questions still unanswered – a reason for catching up with McCoy, as he strives for a better Muritai Island, in book two.

Carolyn McKenzie is a freelance proofreader, copy editor, and Italian-English translator. She also offers holiday accommodation for writers and others in Thames, New Zealand and Ventimiglia Alta, Italy. 

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Bronwyn Elsmore and Carolyn McKenzie. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


FOUR DAYS by Iain Ryan (Broken River Books, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

BRISBANE, 1984. Jim Harris is a hard-drinking Australian detective on his way to a nervous breakdown. Every day, he works alongside corrupt cops and dangerous crooks. That is, until a brutal murder case unravels his career, bringing past indiscretions to light. Alone, afraid, and out of control, Harris makes a pact with himself: Four days to locate the killer. Four days to take revenge. Four days to find redemption

This slim novel packs a powerful punch. It isn't always comfortable reading, but it's pitch-black classic noir of the highest order - all the more remarkable given it's a debut from Queensland author Ryan.

Four Days is beyond gritty - it's grimy, seamy, like a dirty fingernail scratching at your skin as you saunter down a rancid alleyway. It's unpleasant. Many characters are unlikable. Corruption festers. But it's also fascinating, and has a strong voice and atmosphere. The pages whir on currents of fresh prose. This won't be for everyone, but overall it's a very slick tale that is very good. 

Jim Harris is a detective who's barely hanging on. He's not just living on the edge, he's crossed far over it at times. They say you can tell a lot about a person from the people they spend the most time with: for Harris this is crooked cops, drug users and prostitutes, and dangerous criminals.

For all his own very-many faults, Harris seems to be the only detective interested in the death of a prostitute and the troubling disappearance of her brother, a fellow cop. He has four days until he gets his own life or death news. Four days to wade through the swamp of Australian policing in the 1980s, to find the truth, expose a killer/s, and maybe snatch at a tiny sliver of redemption.

There's a terrific blend of Aussie-ness with classic American noir here. Ryan brings the 1980s Australian setting to vivid life, delivered in sharp prose. Hot and sticky coastal towns, where corruption festers among those meant to serve and protect the citizenry. 

This is a very well-written book, centred on a very unlikable central 'hero'. Harris has few redeeming qualities, but is fascinating, and Ryan creates a really strong narrative drive throughout Four Days, pulling you along even as you may be holding your nose, shaking your head, or grimacing in disgust at some of the scenes and the choices made by various characters.

It is not a book for the faint-hearted, or those easily put off by stories of illegal and immoral acts committed by those on both sides of the law.

If you want your heroes good and your villains bad, and never the twain shall meet, avoid Four Days. But if you can handle a fascinatingly dark tale of corruption and self-destruction, where the hero not only stumbles but falls, where only wisps of honour separate the evil from the less-bad, then dive in. 

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tartan Noir's Dirty Dozen: the 2017 McIlvanney Prize longlist revealed

Writing rookies are mixing it up with Scottish crime royalty and the 'defending champion' among a fascinating twelve-book longlist revealed today for the 2017 McIlvanney Prize. 

Thirty years ago, Ian Rankin introduced the world to Detective John Rebus in Knots & Crosses, and Val McDermid published her first crime novel, Report for Murder. It would take several years before the wider reading community started to catch on to the brilliance of these two Scottish authors, but nowadays thanks to them and the authors who've followed, Tartan Noir is held in very high regard.

The ongoing strength of the Scottish take on the genre is on show today, with the release of the longlist for the 2017 McIlvanney Prize, formerly known as the Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award (last year the annual prize was renamed after the man, William McIlvanney, who Rankin, McDermid and many others credit with establishing the tradition of Scottish detective fiction).

Fittingly, Rankin and McDermid are joined on this year's longlist by a diverse collection of crime compatriots, ranging from the winners of the past two prizes, Christopher Brookmyre and Craig Russell, and CWA Dagger longlisted Denise Mina (The Long Drop), to debutant authors Claire MacLeary, Helen Fields, and Owen Mullen.

"In what is shaping up to be a record-breaking year at Bloody Scotland (we sold twice as many tickets on our first day as last year), I’m pleased to see so many of the highlights of the 2017 programme featured on this longlist," said Bloody Scotland director Bob McDevitt. "It’s also brilliant to see a few debut novels on there slugging it out with the more established names. I certainly don’t envy our judges the task of picking a winner from this excellent crop of crime novels."

The twelve long-listed books are:

  • Lin Anderson - None But the Dead
  • Chris Brookmyre - Want You Gone
  • Ann Cleeves - Cold Earth
  • Helen Fields - Perfect Remains
  • Val McDermid - Out of Bounds
  • Claire MacLeary - Cross Purpose
  • Denise Mina - The Long Drop
  • Owen Mullen - Games People Play
  • Ian Rankin - Rather Be the Devil
  • Craig Robertson - Murderabilia
  • Craig Russell - The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid
  • Jay Stringer - How to Kill Friends & Implicate People

The longlist was chosen by an independent panel of readers and features books from both small Scottish publishers and large multinationals. The longlist will be judged by Granite Noir programmer Lee Randall, comedian and crime fan Susan Calman, and New Zealand journalist Craig Sisterson. A shortlist will be announced in the lead-up to the Bloody Scotland festival. 

The winner will receive £1,000 and nationwide promotion in Waterstones, and will be announced at the opening reception at Stirling Castle on 8th September, followed by a torchlight procession - open to the public - led by longlisted author Ian Rankin.


FATEFUL MORNINGS by Tom Bouman (WW Norton Company, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, summer has brought Officer Henry Farrell nothing but trouble. Heroin has arrived with a surge in burglaries and other crime. When local carpenter Kevin O’Keeffe admits that he shot a man and that his girlfriend, Penny, is missing, the search leads the small-town cop to an industrial vice district across state lines that has already ensnared more than one of his neighbors. With the patience of a hunter, Farrell ventures into a world of shadow beyond the fields and forests of home.

We’ve had to wait around three years for a sequel to Bouman’s exquisite, mesmerizing debut Dry Bones in the Valley (2014), which deservedly won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and the LA Times Prize, among other accolades. That was a novel that made you sit up and take notice, the crime writing equivalent of a late summer lightning strike as you were peacefully watching rain pockmark the surface of a lake in the woods. As a fan of rural noir, Bouman's debut immediately put him on my 'must-read-whatever-they-put-out-next' list. And then I waited...

Now at last we’re back alongside Office Henry Farrell on his beat among the backwoods and byways of rural Pennsylvania. Farrell is having a trouble-filled summer in his small township of Wild Thyme. While he’d rather be hunting turkey, drinking IPAs, and playing his fiddle, instead he’s busy dealing with the arrival of heroin, a surge in burglaries, and an adulterous fling from which he can’t seem to extract himself. Meanwhile the shadow of his wife still haunts the widower.

When local handyman Kevin O’Keeffe’s drug-addled girlfriend disappears from their trailer, and O’Keeffe gives a rambling semi-confession to maybe shooting a man, Farrell’s life gets even more complicated. He’s pulled in all sorts of directions by the various powers and influences in his community, as he tries to sort the truth from everything that obscures. And there's a lot that obscures. His investigations take him across the state border to the backcountry equivalent of vice-filled back alleyways, as well as digging without much success into the lives of the eclectic folk in his patch.

Fateful Mornings is an interesting, at times frustrating, read.

Bouman’s elegant prose and knack for evoking backcountry life in vivid detail is again on show, but this sophomore effort lacks the tension and narrative drive of his debut.

Dry Bones in the Valley earned comparisons to rural noir masters like John Hart and James Lee Burke, but in Fateful Mornings Bouman veers more towards James Sallis territory, with formless and meandering plotting, in among lots of lovely description and characterization. He doesn’t quite, yet, have Sallis’ touch for making that work, but there’s still plenty of quality here.

The plotline is not so much two steps forward, one step back, as one step forward, three to the side, circle back around, and bow to your partner. Bouman's writing is elegant, poetic, and unique, and there are interesting strands of philosophy and different ways of looking at the world threaded throughout, but I can imagine that many readers may find the storyline's looseness off-putting.

I couldn't quite make up my own mind about it, but in the end felt like I admired what Bouman was trying to do rather than being fully engaged in his telling of the tale.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Monday, June 19, 2017

Paul Cleave returns with an unusual, brilliant piece of crime writing

New Zealand readers won't have to wait long for the latest thriller from our most successful modern crime writer, as Upstart Press announces it will publish Paul Cleave's ninth novel, A Killer Harvest, in August. 

Joshua is convinced there is a family curse. It has taken loved ones from him, it has robbed him of his eyesight, and is the reason why his father is killed while investigating the homicide of a young woman.

Joshua is handed an opportunity he can't refuse: an operation that will allow him to see the world through his father’s eyes. As Joshua navigates a world of sight, he gets glimpses of what these eyes might have witnessed in their previous life. What exactly was his dad up to in his role as a police officer?

There are consequences to the secret life his father was living, and these consequences come in the form of a man hell bent on killing, consequences that bring this man closer and closer to Joshua. Joshua soon discovers a world darker than the one he has emerged from…

Paul Cleave has won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel a record three times, including the 2016 prize for his standalone thriller Trust No One. He has also won the Saint-Maur book festival’s crime novel of the year award in France, and has been shortlisted the Ned Kelly Award in Australia, and the Barry and Edgar Awards in the United States. His works have been bestsellers that been translated into over a dozen languages and have sold over a million copies.

I recently read an advance copy of A Killer Harvest, which will also be published by New York publisher Atria Books in the United States in August, and it is terrific. A brilliant, dark read. I'll publish a full review soon, but in the meantime you can see quotes from some advance reviews in the United States below.

‘Starting with a macabre setup, Cleave keeps upping the stakes till any scrap of plausibility is left far behind and only an increasingly effective series of hair-raising thrills remains.’ Kirkus Reviews

‘Edgar-finalist Cleave makes an implausible, but very creepy, premise work in this powerful, thought-provoking novel…impressive crime thriller.’ Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Sunday, June 18, 2017


PRESUMED GUILTY by Mark McGinn (2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When feisty lawyer Sasha Stace secures the acquittal of a sleazy politician charged with rape, it’s one legal victory too many. Disillusioned, she looks to the High Court bench for more fulfillment. But before she can become a judge, there’s one more criminal defense – a trial with complications, a trial like no other. 

The man arrested for murder is her former lover, the lawyer seeking Sasha’s help in the case is the daughter she gave up for adoption over thirty years ago and the ambitious, grudge-holding prosecutor is closely connected to an attorney general who does not want her involved. 

Legal thrillers are a hugely popular 'subgenre' of crime fiction in the United States, but rather rare in New Zealand, so it was with a fair dollop of curiosity that I started Presumed Guilty. How would the parry-and-thrust of courtroom drama translate to a Kiwi setting, where we don't have the threat of the death penalty, the added politics of elected judges and district attorneys, or the splintered law enforcement jigsaw of local and state police, sheriff's departments, FBI and other federal agencies, all vying for a slice of the action?

While the New Zealand criminal justice system might be simpler on the surface, with less room for graft and corruption to fester, McGinn shows that there can still be plenty of drama. Presumed Guilty is a very good read that drew me in early, and I thoroughly enjoyed throughout. The combination of interesting, flawed characters, and an intriguing storyline both in and out of the courtroom, had me kicking myself for not getting to McGinn's Sasha Stace books earlier (this is the third in the series).

Sasha Stace is a middle-aged woman with a great reputation as a criminal lawyer. She's a QC, or Queen's Counsel, which is a high-ranking honour awarded to only the most eminent lawyers. But in Presumed Guilty, she's ready to throw it all away after she successfully defends a sleazy politician on a sex charge. Questioning herself professionally and personally, she's tempted by a new opportunity to become a judge (note: judges are appointed based on experience and merit in New Zealand, like elsewhere in the Commonwealth, rather than being elected by locals as they are in some places in the United States, or a career track you specifically study for like some places in continental Europe).

But then one last case crops up. One Sasha Stace isn't sure she wants to take. Her ex, a journalist who's often called politicians and police to account for their actions, is accused of murdering his wife. A fellow journalist who he left Sasha for, years before. While Sasha wants to believe the man she knew would never do anything like that, she also knows that he's capable of obscuring the truth.

Can she trust him? Should she defend him? And if she does, how can she possibly save him when the police and politicians are bringing everything to bear to convict him. Justice, or payback?

Throw in the sudden reappearance of the daughter Sasha adopted out decades ago, and the failing health of her father-like mentor, and Sasha is tip-toeing through an emotional and legal minefield.

I really liked this book. It was a great page-turner, where McGinn drew me in well and made sure I really wanted to know how the legal case would turn out (had Sasha's ex done it or not? where would the verdict fall, regardless?). But there is also more to Presumed Guilty. The character of Sasha Stace is a fascinating one. She's a top lawyer, but very human - she makes mistakes, has doubts, is affected by her past and needs to work through her own issues while trying to help others. She's strong without being rigid or superhuman - a character that is easy to follow and empathise with.

I also enjoyed the cast around Stace, who had layers and weren't just moving pieces. There was a real sense of believability with many of the relationships, professional and personal, and even if events were dramatic (as you want in good fiction), they felt organic and 'fitted' the world McGinn has created, rather than feeling forced by the author for plot reasons. Some nice shades of grey among the 'heroes' and antagonists. People clash not just because they're good/bad, but because they're people.

Overall I found Presumed Guilty to be a really engaging read that was a pleasant surprise: a top quality Kiwi legal thriller. I'll definitely be going back to read the other Sasha Stace books.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading newspapers and magazines in several countries. He's interviewed more than 180 crime writers, appeared onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson