Friday, May 6, 2016

Review: SAYONARA SLAM

SAYONARA SLAM by Naomi Hirahara

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Elderly Japanese gardener Mas Arai is at Dodger Stadium to help out his son-in-law and watch Japan play South Korea in the World Baseball Classic. Instead, he finds himself caught up in the mysterious death of a disliked sportswriter. When a young man with ties to Mas’s past arrives, further complicating matters, the pair look to uncover a killer.

California writer Naomi Hirahara may have created one of the most unlikely sleuths in mystery history. Mas Arai is nearing eighty years old, a curmudgeonly almost-retired gardener, with only one regular client, a dilapidated car, failing eyesight, dentures, and a house in Altadena filled with his no-longer-estranged daughter and her family. A survivor of Hiroshima, Mas is a simple widower who doesn’t get why the younger generation is so flashy, or needs to talk so much.

In this sixth instalment in Naomi Hirahara’s Edgar Award-winning series, Mas is helping out his son-in-law Lloyd, now head groundskeeper at Dodger Stadium, before Japan faces South Korea in the World Baseball Classic. What should be a leisurely day sharpening mower blades ends up as something else altogether. First Mas is surprised to see a female pitcher throwing to the Japanese team in warm-ups. Then he meets Smitty Takaya, a Dodgers executive who played in Japan and explains the woman, Neko Kawasaki, is a minor league knuckleballer preparing the Japanese hitters to face Korea’s elite closer, a rare master of the unique, hard-to-hit pitch. The day gets more bizarre as Mas learns there’s a largely forgotten Japanese Garden at Dodger Stadium, and is then questioned by police after an abrasive and disliked Japanese sportswriter, Itai, keels over dead. A man Mas had given a bottle of water to, just minutes before.

While the death doesn’t delay the game, things get more complicated when young journalist Kimura Yukikazu arrives from Japan to replace Itai. ‘Yuki’ is the grandson of Akemi, Mas’s childhood girlfriend, and had stayed with Mas and gotten into trouble many years ago. Now he wants to hire Mas as a driver and translator as he investigates Itai’s death. It wasn’t a heart attack, you see, but cyanide poisoning. Files are missing from Itai’s computer. Scandals unexposed.

Mas has many doubts about the young man, but he could do with the proffered $100 a day, especially with his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson still living in his house. Then there’s his nebulous relationship with ‘lady friend’ Genesse.

Hirahara has crafted a pitch-perfect blend of mystery with threads of history in Sayonara Slam. As Mas and Yuki try to uncover just what got Itai killed, and who killed him, readers get fascinating insights into several  lesser-known aspects of Japanese-American and Japanese-Korean history, from wartime internment camps and comfort women to prisoner exchanges and the rise of Asian baseball. To her credit, Hirahara displays a very deft touch, never becoming lecture-y or overwhelming the forward drive of her enthralling mystery. Historic facts are adroitly woven in as texture to the tale.

I have to admit I was entranced: everything feels organic, arising from characters and situations, creating a pleasingly multi-layered mystery that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. There was never a sense of an authorial hand wedging research in for effect or to ‘teach the reader’ anything. It just fit naturally. At the same time, Hirahara evinces an atmosphere and pacing that feels leisurely, timeless, almost nostalgic, in a book that is a one-sitting hard-to-put-down read. The pages flow past quickly, but nothing feels hurried or frantic. A modern tale with an old-fashioned feel.

At the center of it all is Mas Arai, a truly unique and unforgettable hero. In a forest of familiar crime characters, he stands out; a bonsai among the pines. Though, having said that, in the story itself one of Mas’s traits is that he is a man easily overlooked. A man who, despite his ‘bank robber cool’ tinted glasses, can go unnoticed.

But who notices things.

What I noticed was a superbly crafted mystery, with an engaging lead character and a strong sense of setting. I can certainly see why the series, centered on a lovable curmudgeon who endearingly fumbles the English language, has won Hirahara the Edgar Award. With shades of Mr Miyagi and various Clint Eastwood latter-career characters, I could also envisage Sayonara Slam translating well to the big screen too. Regardless, I’ll definitely be reading more of the books.

Craig Sisterson is a New Zealander who writes features and reviews for publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Review: REDEMPTION ROAD

REDEMPTION ROAD by John Hart (Thomas Dunne Books, May 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A boy with a gun waits for the man who killed his mother. A troubled detective confronts her past in the aftermath of a brutal shooting. After thirteen years in prison, a good cop walks free. But for how long? And deep in the forest, on the altar of an abandoned church, the unthinkable has just happened… This is a town on the brink, a road with no mercy.

I once heard someone say, during a debate about popular fiction 'versus' literary fiction, that if anyone snobbishly claimed crime writing was an inferior form that could never meet Booker Prize standards, you should just throw a Peter Temple book at that person's head. I replied that you could alternatively push an entire bookshelf of James Lee Burke novels atop such snobs.

Irish author John Connolly, himself a poet of the crime genre, calls Burke (who is flat-out one of the best American novelists of any kind) the world's greatest living crime writer. I agree. But with REDEMPTION ROAD, I think John Hart has cemented his place as Burke's heir apparent.

After a five-year absence, Hart has returned with a powerful, intoxicating tale that manages to be both skin-crawlingly disturbing and achingly beautiful at the same time. Filled with a vivid cast of chasm-deep characters, REDEMPTION ROAD is a tour de force of Southern Gothic storytelling, a potent concoction of tense thriller, atmospheric evocation of the rural Carolinas, and literary mastery.

Elizabeth Black is a cop under pressure. She pumped 18 bullets into two black suspects while rescuing a young girl. Questions swirl, as does the media frenzy, and Black refuses to help herself with how she responds. Meanwhile Adrian Wall, another North Carolina cop whose career went even further off the tracks, is released from prison, body and mind deeply scarred by 13 years of tortured existence. He still protests his innocence, but few believe him. Black always did but she's not sure now. A young boy wants revenge, a young woman struggles to deal with her abduction and rescue, and behind the scenes a dark soul stalks the local byways and back roads like a malevolent wraith.

It seems like there are a lot of ingredients to juggle in this complex, multi-layered story, but in Hart's adroit hands REDEMPTION ROAD never feels over-egged. It's elegant, lyrical, and absorbing. Deeply satisfying as a crime novel and a very fine piece of literature. In a way, it just gets under your skin, becoming a stay-up-all-night page-turner even though Hart doesn't resort to staccato chapters, ticking clocks, or other gimmicks. Instead, suspense seems to flow naturally, organically, from his richly drawn characters, their internal battles, and the way in which their lives connect and collide.

Similarly, although Hart luxuriates in language, and deftly evokes the unhurried nature of the American South, REDEMPTION ROAD never feels too leisurely in pace. It's not a fast-moving thriller - there's too much richness, depth, and texture for that - but then it doesn't feel underdone when it comes to tension and action either. Hart finds the sweet spot, then knocks it out of the park.

A small caveat, as I fear this review could almost read too cheerleader-ish: not everyone will connect with REDEMPTION ROAD in the way I did, or appreciate Hart's blend of literary quality and first-class crime writing. While John Connolly, myself, and many others may consider James Lee Burke the greatest living crime writer, his books certainly aren't for everyone. Likewise those who prefer 'airport thrillers' with cracking plotlines unslowed by character, setting, and deeper themes may not click quite as strongly with REDEMPTION ROAD. But regardless, I think John Hart's latest tale of deeply wounded people scrabbling for something good in a tough world would still be an enjoyable read for most crime fans, and an exquisite read for many. And it just might make Hart the first author to ever win three Edgar Awards for Best Novel. He's certainly my leader in the clubhouse.

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Craig Sisterson reviewed REDEMPTION ROAD for the Spring 2016 issue of Mystery Scene magazine (out now). This is a longer and more in-depth review, unhindered by word counts. Some phrasing may be similar. 

Craig Sisterson is a world-wandering New Zealander who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. A former lawyer, he has interviewed more than 150 crime and thriller writers, discussed mystery writing onstage at many literary festivals and on national radio, and is a judge for the Ned Kelly Awards in Australia and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards in New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Review: THE LONG COUNT

THE LONG COUNT by JM Gulvin (Faber, May 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Ranger John Quarrie is called to the scene of an apparent suicide by a fellow war veteran. Although the local police want the case shut down, John Q is convinced events aren't quite so straightforward. When his hunch is backed up by the man's son, Isaac - just back from Vietnam, and convinced his father was murdered - they start to look into a series of other violent incidents in the area, including a fire at the Trinity Asylum and the disappearance of Isaac's twin brother, Ishmael.

Jeff Gulvin may be British, but he beautifully captures the texture of Southwestern USA in this outstanding crime thriller. Returning to crime writing after a hiatus where he concentrated on non-fiction books (such as co-writing the account of actor Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman's motorcycle journey from the northern tip of Scotland to the Southern tip of Africa), Gulvin delivers an exquisite tale that introduces a fascinating new hero who finds himself knee-deep in a series of puzzling and violent events among the small towns and rural expanses of 1960s Texas.

John Quarrie is a Texas Ranger and solo father looking to lead a simple life and raise his son well at a time the wider world is in flux. With his fellow Rangers tied up dealing with student protests against the Vietnam War, he has to drive across his large state to attend to an incident, only to be detoured by the body of a man found in his basement. While signs point to suicide, Quarrie has seen enough bullet wounds in his time to have suspicions the scene was staged. Similarly the son of the dead man, a returning veteran from Vietnam, can't believe his father would kill himself, and as Quarrie investigates a number of violent incidents occurring across Texas, including the killing of a cop, he realises that something very disturbing is going on, something powerful people are looking to hide.

This is a book that I liked immediately, and then grew to like even more as it developed. Gulvin draws the reader in with a smooth style that like his setting still has a bit of grit to it. Quarrie is an engaging hero, an honorable man who's been a little battered by life but is still trying to do the right thing. I particularly enjoyed Gulvin's evocation of the setting, the natural and sociological geography of Texas decades ago. In some way it's a simpler time - before the Internet and lots of forensics - but also a complicated time as wars rage in Southeast Asia and the world is rapidly changing.

THE LONG COUNT is wonderfully crafted - with plenty going on beneath the surface of the mystery story, without it ever becoming over-complicated or overwritten. The dust and heat of Texas was almost tangible, along with a creeping sense of unease as the truth starts scratching through.

There's a spare elegance to Gulvin's storytelling and prose, a deceptive simplicity - in a way it reminded me a little of Wiley Cash's Gold Dagger-winning novel THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY; multi-layered and lots going on, but never feeling rushed or crowded. Subtext aplenty, but not heavy-handed. That sense of timelessness and space that seems to bleed into Southern Gothic tales.

Like Texas barbecue, THE LONG COUNT may have slow-cooked for a long time, but the result is mouth-filling and packed with layers of flavour. A little heat, a little spice, and plenty to savour.

A delicious and satisfying South(west)ern Gothic tale. More please.

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Craig Sisterson is a world-wandering New Zealander who writes features and reviews for newspapers and magazines in several countries. A former lawyer, he has interviewed more than 150 crime and thriller writers, discussed mystery writing onstage at many literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Friday, April 29, 2016

Review: NIGHT VISION

NIGHT VISION by Ella West (Allen & Unwin, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson


Viola was born with a genetic condition that makes sunlight deadly. In the dark of night, when most teenagers are tucked up in bed, Viola has the run of her parents' farm and the surrounding forest. She is used to seeing hidden things through her night-vision goggles, but one night she sees something that could get her into a whole lot of trouble...

Like the rare Kiwi or even rarer Kakapo (native New Zealand birds), young Viola is a truly unique creature living a nocturnal life exploring the New Zealand bush. Born with unusual genetic condition Xeroderma Pigmentosum, XP for short, Viola is at risk from anything that emits ultra-violet light, including the sun. Burning, blistering, alterations to her DNA, cancer.

In danger from daylight, Viola is one of 'the moon children', and while her parents sleep she explores the family sheep farm and surrounding forest by night, sharing the natural world with the moreporks, possums, and other creatures prowling the darkness.

One night, she witnesses a vicious and violent crime, and sees the perpetrator bury a sack of money. With her parents in financial difficulties and in danger of losing their farm, Viola decides to take the money to help her family, drip-feeding it to them over time. While the Police are looking in the wrong direction, Viola finds herself in the criminal's crosshairs after a newspaper interview about her and her condition tips off the local drug dealer as to just who might have taken his money. 

I think Night Vision would be a superb mystery thriller for adolescent readers (middle graders for those in the United States) but can also be enjoyed by older teenagers and adults. I certainly liked it a lot, even though it's quite a bit 'simpler' than the adult crime novels I usually read. The tale is smoothly written and West does a great job weaving in lots of interesting characters, themes, and setting in among the page-turning 'how will Viola outwit a dangerous criminal?' plotline.

Viola is the heart of Night Vision, a unique adolescent who's had to face many challenges and restrictions in her young life and has no chance to live the life of a 'normal kid', no matter how much she might want to. Her first person narration draws us into her world, her perspective, her life. Viola's a remarkable 14-year-old who still feels very real, mature for her age but still her age and not too adult or 'author in a teen body' (a flaw in some young adult books). She's engaging and interesting.

I also enjoyed the way West brought the New Zealand rural setting to life, life on the farm and in the forest. The nocturnal perspective on the local bush, the dual serenity and danger of nature, was well evoked and created an atmospheric backdrop to the tale. Night Vision has an eerie elegance to it, absorbing more than helter-skelter thrilling in tone, full of interesting characters and information that is adroitly parsed out in an engaging manner that doesn't disrupt the way the storyline unfolds.

From medical conditions to music, nature to questions of natural justice, Night Vision tickled my mind as I turned the pages, just as Viola tickled my heart. A very good read from a talented storyteller.

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Craig Sisterson is a New Zealander who writes for newspapers and magazines in several countries. He has interviewed 150 crime and thriller writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review: THE JADED KIWI

THE JADED KIWI by Nick Spill (Amazon, 2016)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

The summer of 1976 in Auckland, New Zealand. There is a severe marijuana drought. Two couples; a gynaecologist and a physicist, together with a violinist and an actress meet by accident in a pub and help a Maori evade the police. A group of Maori plans to deliver a truckload of cannabis to Auckland. A Chinese family has harvested four greenhouses of enhanced sensimilla. A criminal mastermind plots to start a drug war. A police Inspector hunts a fugitive Maori. The war on drugs starts in New Zealand.

A gynaecologist, a physicist, a violinist and an actress all walk into a pub and help a Maori leader evade the police. With no apologies to anyone for the pun because really, that's part of what THE JADED KIWI is all about. An absolutely madcap plot, peopled with a cast of seeming thousands and a lot of crazy behaviour.

Heaps of pace where it mattered really helps what's not so much a complicated plot, as a complex execution, scamper along. Many of the rapidly expanding character set are wonderfully engaging, if not slightly over the top. Whether it's the gynaecologist paired up with the physicist who find themselves back in his (the physicist's) home territory, or the bear like violinist with a heart of gold and concern for his musician's hands, who has gone to New York and back to rescue his girlfriend with the Asian background. All of whom meet up with the Maori fugitive from the law, and somehow find themselves at the centre of a drug war/organised crime sort of plot with stolen cars, mysterious phone calls, and much sneaking around in the back streets and byways.

It's a very busy story though, and readers will have to concentrate hard to keep up with what seems like an ever expanding cast, to say nothing of some incredibly complicated connections. For this reader, a little pairing down of some of the byways and offshoots may have uncomplicated some elements, allowing the central themes more concentration - and therefore a little more clarity.

However, everything is delivered with great verve, almost gusto, papering over any potential logical cracks with sufficient engagement to make you wonder if you actually saw what you thought you might have just seen. The added bonus is a real feeling of affection for New Zealand and it's people. All of which makes THE JADED KIWI a debut thriller which shows promise, delivered as it is, with a slightly tongue in cheek, very New Zealander sort of sense of humour, style and language.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime NovelShe kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Friday, April 22, 2016

Put down the smartphone, turn off the TV, and read a book: Earth Day reads

So today, 22 April, along with being my mother's birthday, is Earth Day, marking the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement back in 1970.

Kickstarted as a national day in the United States by a Senator dismayed by a massive oil spill the year before, (and looking to harness the passion and energy for the student anti-war movement towards environmental concerns), Earth Day is now an annual celebration of this glorious planet we get to live on. A reminder that in among all the stresses, distractions, and busy-ness of everyday life, we should do our best to not just use but also look after the natural world.

Janet Rudolph of Mystery Fanfare has today shared a list of crime novels with environmental themes, for readers keen to explore some of these issues via the pages of an exciting story. Adding a little New Zealand flavour, here are three locally written eco-thrillers you might want to try.

MILKSHAKE by Matt Hammond (2011)
The globally renowned New Zealand dairy industry is put under threat when it intersects with the fuel industry in this eyebrow-raising thriller from Nelson author Matt Hammond. Here's the blurb:

"On the day David Turner is supposed to emigrate to New Zealand, he witnesses a savage murder and becomes caught in a ruthless global conspiracy.

A thirty year-old technological discovery threatens his own future and jeopardises the lives of millions of others as David discovers that starting a new life is about to become a deadly game of cat and mouse... and cows.

Modifying milk so ethanol can be processed from it could be the solution to the impending global oil crisis, but drinking it will kill you. Can the truth be uncovered before an entire country is sacrificed to satisfy the world's demand for bio-fuel?"

You can read my full review of MILKSHAKE here, and buy the novel here.

ECHOES IN THE BLUE by C George Muller (2006)
An eco-thriller from a New Zealand wildlife biologist that won a Silver Medal at the Nautilus Book Awards. Here's the blurb: "Ignoring a 20-year moratorium on commercial whaling, Japan sends its whaling fleet deep into the Antarctic to kill whales under the guise of ‘scientific research’.

Thrust into this volatile situation is an unlikely hero accompanying a whale research expedition. On the High Seas he must confront a terrifying adversary - a ruthless fishing industrialist who would wipe out entire species to satisfy an insatiable lust for money and power. From the windswept Southern Ocean to the opulence of corporate Japan, the battle has many fronts.

Mirroring a real-life tragedy looming in our own lifetime, this is a haunting exploration of mankind’s continual conflict with nature, and the heroism of those who would risk everything to defend a future threatened forever."

Based on the real-life battle that went on in the Southern Ocean between Japanese whalers and environmental activists (Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, etc), and written before the Whale Wars television series, ECHOES IN THE BLUE provides readers with a page-turning tale that also illuminates what has been going on in our oceans. You can buy it here.


THE ALO RELEASE by Geoffrey Robert (2015)
Nine days before the global release of a genetically modified seed coating set to make starvation history, the IT advisor for an environmental group receives a cryptic email from an old friend working for the seed corporation.

The email triggers a frantic manhunt from the glass towers of Los Angeles to the towering rainforests of New Zealand as the corporation’s security chief tries to track down and silence the English IT advisor and his colleagues – an American biologist and New Zealand eco-warrior. As the clock ticks down to the much-anticipated and highly stage-managed release of the coated seeds, the trio are pitched against ruthless corporate thugs, law enforcement agencies, politicians, journalists and bloggers … and the overwhelming weight of world opinion.

Aided by an unlikely cast including a gun-toting geriatric, reclusive hacker, toothless lobster fisherman, Oxford-educated Maori elder, native hardwood poacher and extreme multisporter, the fugitive trio race the clock to unravel the truth behind the email. In this debut novel, author, journalist and former communications advisor Geoffrey Robert delivers a pulsating thriller exposing the potential for public opinion to be manipulated during an international crisis. You can buy it here.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Petrona shortlist: six superb tastes of Scandi-crime



CRIME NOVELS from Finland, Norway and Sweden have made the shortlist for the 2016 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, announced today. 

It's celebration time for six Scandinavian authors who have today been named on the shortlist for the prestigious Petrona Award, which will be presented at the upcoming Crimefest in Bristol on 21 May. The Petrona Award celebrates the very best in translated Scandinavian crime fiction, as well as remembering prolific British book reviewer and blogger Maxine Clarke, who sadly lost her battle with cancer a few years ago. Last year's winner was Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

On a personal note, I had the privilege of getting to know Maxine in an online sense - we shared and discussed our opinions about crime fiction (not always agreeing - in fact sometimes vehemently disagreeing) and both reviewed for some of the same outlets. Maxine was a real force in the world crime fiction blogging when it was just getting started, and it is terrific that this award, celebrating the Scandinavian novels she particularly loved herself, continues her remarkable legacy every year.

Without further ado, here are the six books now in the running, with judges' comments:

THE DROWNED BOY by Karin Fossum tr. Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway): Fossum’s spare prose and straightforward narrative belie the complexity at the heart of this novel. After the drowning of a young child with Down’s Syndrome, Chief Inspector Sejer must ask himself if one of the parents could have been involved. The nature of grief is explored, along with the experience of parenting children with learning difficulties. There’s a timeless feel to the writing and a sense of justice slowly coming to pass.

THE DEFENCELESS by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland): The second in Hiekkapelto’s ‘Anna Fekete’ series is an assured police procedural rooted in the tradition of the Nordic social crime novel. Its exploration of immigrant experiences is nuanced and timely, and is woven into an absorbing mystery involving an elderly man’s death and the escalating activities of an international gang.  A mature work by a writer who is unafraid to take on challenging  topics.

THE CAVEMAN by Jorn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway): this book begins with the discovery of a four-month-old corpse just down the road from William Wisting’s home. Troubled by his neighbour’s lonely death in an apparently uncaring society, the Chief Inspector embarks on one of the most disturbing cases of his career. Beautifully written, this crime novel is a gripping read that draws on the author’s own experiences to provide genuine insights into police procedure and investigation.

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB by David Lagercrantz tr. George Goulding (MacLehose Press; Sweden): The late Stieg Larsson created the groundbreaking, two-fingers-to-society, bisexual anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander. When Larsson’s publishers commissioned a fourth book, they turned to David Lagercrantz, whose The Girl in the Spider’s Web often reads uncannily like Larsson’s own text. His real achievement is the subtle development of Salander’s character; she remains (in Lagercrantz’s hands) the most enigmatic and fascinating anti-heroine in fiction.

SATELLITE PEOPLE by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson (Mantle/Pan Macmillan; Norway): An accomplished homage to Agatha Christie, Satellite People adds a Nordic twist to classic crime fiction tropes. References to Christie novels abound, but Lahlum uses a Golden Age narrative structure to explore Norway’s wartime past, as Inspector Kristiansen and Patricia investigate a former Resistance fighter’s death. Excellent characterisation, a tight plot and a growing sense of menace keep the reader guessing until the denouement.

DARK AS MY HEART by Antti Tuomainen tr. Lola Rogers (Harvill Secker; Finland): Tuomainen’s powerful and involving literary crime novel has a mesmerising central concept:  thirty-year-old Aleksi is sure he knows who was behind his mother’s disappearance two decades ago, but can he prove it? And to what extent does his quest for justice mask an increasingly unhealthy obsession with the past? Rarely has atmosphere in a Nordic Noir novel been conjured so evocatively.


A few thoughts about the shortlist. Firstly, as an awards judge myself, I understand just how tough it is to select longlists, shortlists, and winners for crime writing awards. It is rare to have clear-cut decisions when there are very often a large number of very good and very different books out there - far too many for too few spots. So there are bound to be strong differences of opinion among keen crime fans about who should win, or books that 'should' have been there instead of some that are.

At first glance though, I think that is an incredibly strong shortlist, with six very fine authors (I haven't read all these specific books, but am familiar with all six authors). Interestingly, given a deserved recent rise in profile, Yrsa Sigurdardottir winning last year, and plenty of critical praise for Arnaldur Indridason and Ragnar Jonasson, there are no Icelandic crime writers on this year's shortlist. Just goes to show what a tough 'competition' it is among Nordic authors.

Three of the shortlisted authors were also shortlisted last year (Hiekkapelto, Horst, and Lahlum), so that's a very fine achievement regardless of who takes home the trophy. I'm very pleased to see David Lagercrantz's novel make the shortlist, as I felt that was a very good book that was rather unfairly maligned by many Larsson fans in a knee-jerk manner, on principle, but judging it simply on its own merits, was very well written story and a great continuation of the Millennium trilogy.

I'm also pleased to see that some high quality Nordic authors who don't yet have the broader following of compatriots like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Liza Marklund, Camilla Lackberg and others are getting much-deserved attention. All the authors on this shortlist are excellent writers and storytellers, and I think there's something there for any crime fan, regardless of style preferences.

Congratulations to organiser Karen Meek (Eurocrime) and judges Dr Kat Hall (Mrs Peabody Investigates, CRIME FICTION IN GERMAN: DER KRIMI) Sarah Ward (Crimepieces, IN BITTER CHILL), Barry Forshaw (Crime Time, The Financial Times, NORDIC NOIR, DEATH IN A COLD CLIMATE, EURO NOIR, etc) on the fine job they've done and all the effort that does into it.

You can read more about the Petrona Award, including past winners and shortlistees, here.

Review: THE LOCK ARTIST

THE LOCK ARTIST by Steve Hamilton (Orion, 2011)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Taunted as a freak because he was unable to speak, school is a nightmare for Michael until he discovers that he has a special talent that makes people sit up and take notice: he can open locks. But breaking into the house of a rival school's quarterback lands him in hot water, and he soon finds himself on a downward trajectory.

Michigan author Steve Hamilton steps away from his Alex McKnight series with this Edgar Award-winning standalone (that also won the CWA Steel Dagger and Barry Awards). Centred on Michael, who has been mute since surviving a terrible accident as a child, it's an intriguing tale that is a pretty fascinating character study of a unique young man with talent and troubles, as well as providing plenty of thrills and chills as the plot unfolds.

After the accident that took his parents and rendered him mute, school becomes unbearable for Michael, until he discovers he has an eye-catching skill; he can open locks with ease. A teenage prank gone wrong, burglarising a rival quarterback’s house, brings him into contact with a man, and his daughter, who will end up changing his life. Perhaps not for the better, as he has to graduate to safe cracking and put his skills to use to save the daughter, under threat thanks to the father’s debts.

The narrative of THE LOCK ARTIST switches between two key time periods in Michael's life, with Hamilton building the tension well as we roll along. It's a very interesting, intriguing story, although occasionally I felt that I admired the tale more than feeling totally connected and drawn fully into it. Michael is a fascinating character, a troubled young man who's seen a lot in his life - far beyond his years, and Hamilton certainly delves deep into his unique view and experiences of the world. I definitely felt that the reader was brought fully into Michael's world, the way he looks at things.

THE LOCK ARTIST flows very well, even as it blends crime with elements more akin to a coming of age tale and a love story. Michael is a young man trying to get out from under his tough life, wanting nothing more than a fresh start with a girl he adores. It's a unique crime tale, and I can see why it attracted a lot of acclaim from award judges. A very good book.

I read and really enjoyed this book when it was originally released in 2011. At the time I wrote a short review for the Herald on Sunday. This is an extended review based upon my notes from the time and further thoughts. 

Craig Sisterson is a journalist from New Zealand who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed 150 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson