Wednesday, August 5, 2020


WE ARE ALL THE SAME IN THE DARK by Julia Heaberlin (Penguin, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

It's been a decade since Trumanell Branson disappeared, leaving only a bloody handprint behind. Her pretty face still hangs like a watchful queen on the posters on the walls of the town's Baptist church, the police station, and in the high school. They all promise the same thing: We will find you. Meanwhile, her brother, Wyatt, lives as a pariah in the desolation of the old family house, cleared of wrongdoing by the police but tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion and in a new documentary about the crime.

When Wyatt finds a lost girl dumped in a field of dandelions, making silent wishes, he believes she is a sign. The town's youngest cop, Odette Tucker, believes she is a catalyst that will ignite a seething town still waiting for its own missing girl to come home. But Odette can't look away. She shares a wound that won't close with the mute, one-eyed mystery girl. And she is haunted by her own history with the missing Tru.

Desperate to solve both cases, Odette fights to save the lost girl in the present and to dig up the shocking truth about a fateful night in the past--the night her friend disappeared, the night that inspired her to become a cop, the night that wrote them all a role in the town's dark, violent mythology.

A young cop with a prosthetic leg. A teenage runway with a glass eye. A troubled pariah who talks to his long-vanished sister like she’s still in the room. Texas author Julia has once again crafted an absorbing rural thriller centred on damaged, complex characters.

WE ARE ALL THE SAME IN THE DARK is a clever tale full of emotional depth. Ten years ago Odette Tucker lost part of her leg in an horrific crash. On the same night cheerleader Trumanell Branson and her violent father vanished from their Texas town. Wyatt Branson, Trumanell’s brother and the boy Odette had been seeing, fell under a cloud of suspicion and spent years in a mental hospital despite being cleared. By the police, not the public. Now a TV documentary has vilified him again, so when Odette hears he’s been seen with a young woman she rushes to his house. Did Wyatt really rescue one-eyed ‘Angel’ from a field of dandelions? Or has he been a predator all this time?

Heaberlin weaves an absorbing slow-burn thriller that delivers in spades on its small town full of secrets setting, while elevating that familiar backdrop with her rich characterisation and the way she casts light on real-life issues that don’t always get a lot of prominent coverage (eg amputees).

There are some real jolts – including a huge swerve that would be the #hashtag-creating focus of other books (#CantBelieveTheTwist, etc), but here that is only one part of the overall tale, and to my mind is made even more impactful by the deep characters Heaberlin has crafted.

I've become a big fan of Heaberlin's storytelling over the past decade. Her thrillers are full of rich characterisations, centring on unusual protagonists including a former rodeo rider who discovers she may have been kidnapped as a baby (PLAYING DEAD), the sole survivor of a serial killer beginning to question if an innocent man is about to be executed (BLACK-EYED SUSANS), and a young woman who tricks an ailing old man she believes might be a murderer into taking a road trip into the desert (PAPER GHOSTS).

While Julia Heaberlin writes standalones rather than series novels, there is a constancy among her bibliography, threads running through the disparate tales: each is a clever standalone thriller full of different plotlines and characters, but each time we're offered rich characters and a terrific sense of the Texan setting. It's a resume full of atmospheric and emotional depth.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020


THE SHADOW FRIEND by Alex North (Penguin, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Twenty-five years ago, Paul's friend Charlie Crabtree brutally killed their classmate - and then vanished without a trace.

Paul's never forgiven himself for his part in what happened. He's never gone back home. Until his elderly mother has a fall. It's finally time to stop running.

It's not long before things start to go wrong. His mother claims there's someone in the house. Paul realises someone is following him. And, in a town many miles away, a copycat killer has struck.

Which makes him wonder - what really happened to Charlie the day of the murder? And can anyone stop it happening again?

I've been a fan of Alex North's storytelling since before he was born. While the pseudonymous scribe of dark and disturbing thrillers made a great first bow with last year's THE WHISPER MAN, I'd already enjoyed several great crime novels from the man behind the (pen) name.

This second Alex North thriller continues the high standards that have run through the entire resume. It's an unusual take on a 'main character returns to their hometown, bad things happen now, entwined with a mysterious past, secrets and dangers come to light' sort of storyline that isn't uncommon in the crime genre. North delivers something fresh, disturbing - and to be fair, that may sit a little uneasily with some readers given its flirtations with the supernatural or things a little 'out there'.

THE SHADOW FRIEND soaks in a creepy, spooky atmosphere as Paul Adams returns to the small English town of Gritten for the first time in 25 years. A quarter century ago a brutal murder occurred there; one of Paul's school friends was killed by two of his other classmates. Boys that Paul had hung out with a lot over the previous months, a quartet led by the troubled and charismatic Charlie Crabtree. A boy who seemed to believe that if they all trained themselves, they could dream lucidly, giving them unknown powers beyond their drab lives in a drab town.

Teenage fun to pass the time, or something far more dangerous?

The latter, as it turned out. Paul's world was rocked when one friend died, another of the gang of four was sent to prison for the murder, and ringleader Charlie disappeared. Was he still out there, haunting the town and those who remembered? When a similar killing occurs in another town, just how much influence does long-lost Charlie Crabtree have? A killer who believed in lucid dreaming...

Candidly, I think THE SHADOW FRIEND may divide readers a little more than THE WHISPER MAN. I really enjoyed it, soaking into the atmospheric tale and enjoying where North lead us. I wondered (even worried) how far down the supernatural track we might go, but overall felt the balance was good. Creepy, spooky, yet believable too. Other readers may struggle with certain aspects. The storyline bounces between past and present, building to some gut-wrench moments.

Another fine tale from a very fine storyteller, whatever name he uses.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 


THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by Richard Osman (Michael Joseph, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved killings.

But when a local property developer shows up dead, 'The Thursday Murder Club' find themselves in the middle of their first live case.

The four friends, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, might be pushing eighty but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer, before it's too late?

When you’re reading a book about murder and trying to unmask a dangerous killer, the words ‘exuberant’, ‘charming’, and ‘delightful’ aren’t usually the first descriptors that come to mind. But in the case of THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB, a grin-inducing debut from British television quizmaster and celebrity Richard Osman, they’re entirely appropriate.

There’s just something wonderful about this tale, which has echoes of classic mystery fiction while still feeling fresh and contemporary.

Elizabeth, Ibrahim, Joyce, and Ron have all lived vastly different lives over their many decades, but now the pensioners are all living alongside each other in the rather swanky Coopers Chase retirement village in the Kent countryside. Death is not an unknown or unexpected visitor to their usually peaceful retirement home, given the advancing years and myriad ailments suffered by many of the residents. But usually it’s natural causes that bring the Reaper and add to the nearby cemetery.

So when a contractor linked to their village’s greedy owner is bludgeoned to death, it's quite a jolt for the quartet. Though not in the way you might think. For these four retirees share a love of mysteries and meet regularly to discuss real-life crimes. Could they now solve one that's happened right where they live. The killing of a man suspected of using his building business as a front for drug dealing piques the interest of not only the police, but the four members of the Thursday Murder Club.

After young constable Donna de Freitas visits the retirement village to give a talk on ‘Practical Tips for Home Security’, she finds herself officially involved in the homicide inquiry. But is she being helped or manipulated by a group of pensioners who might be undertaking their own amateur investigations rather than leaving the crime fighting to Donna and her colleagues?

Then, a second death.

Full of wit, charm, and sharp observations about life, THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB showcases Osman’s deep love and understanding of the crime genre. It's the kind of book that may have you grinning the whole way through, despite the killings and some poignant moments. Dosed with wonderful, unforgettable characters and a rich vein of fun among the dastardly deeds, there's plenty to love here. Please Mr Osman, can we have some more?

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Monday, July 27, 2020


FIFTY FIFTY by Steve Cavanagh (Orion, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Alexandra Avellino has just found her father's mutilated body, and needs the police right away. She believes her sister killed him, and that she is still in the house with a knife.

Sofia Avellino has just found her father's mutilated body and needs the police right away. She believes her sister, Alexandra did it, and that she is still in the house, locked in the bathroom.

Both women are to go on trial at the same time. A joint trial in front of one jury. But one of these women is lying. One of them is a murderer. Sitting in a jail cell, about to go on trial with her sister for murder, you might think that this is the last place she expected to be. You'd be wrong.

Five years ago Belfast lawyer Steve Cavanagh published his first novel, THE DEFENCE, an excellent legal thriller set in New York City and introducing con man turned defense attorney Eddie Flynn. It was a great debut, and it kickstarted what has grown into one of the very best ongoing series to be added to the crime writing canon in recent years.

Cavanagh certainly knows how to tell a hell of a story. After delivering an intriguing standalone last year, TWISTED, he's now returned for the fifth time to his main character Eddie Flynn, the battered but honorable lawyer trying to find some measure of justice within a system that isn't always just.

Once again, Cavanagh sets an appetising hook. Two sisters on trial for the brutal killing of their father, the former mayor of New York City. Each accuses the other of the horrific crime; the prosecution just wants someone to pay. Can Eddie Flynn save the innocent sister?

And once again Cavanagh delivers depth and thrills beyond his high-concept hook, zooming past 'great beach read' and adding further layers and depth to a storyline ripe for twists. Cavanagh delivers great twists without being reliant upon them. He also has a terrific touch for in-court ingtrigue and out-of-court action, for providing plenty of emotional oomph to the stakes his characters face.

Overall Cavanagh brings some zing and real freshness to a sub-genre of crime writing (legal thrillers) that can at times be circumscribed by the binary 'guilty or not guilty' outcome of most criminal trials. In FIFTY FIFTY he continues the evolution of a superb main character in Eddie Flynn, delivers a compelling storyline that keeps the pages whirring, fills out the cast with plenty of fascinating characters beyond the lead, and places it all among a well-evoked New York legal setting.

Another great instalment in an outstanding series.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

McKinty scoops Theakston Prize for THE CHAIN

Last night in a virtual event held due to the cancellation of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, one of the world's best book festivals, Adrian McKinty added another prestigious award to his mantlepiece. His high-concept, standalone thriller THE CHAIN won the 2020 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, a prize for outstanding crime writing from British and Irish authors, ahead of a brilliant shortlist. 

Watching along last night, McKinty seemed genuinely shocked when his name was read out by Simon Theakston on the virtual session with McKinty's fellow nominees Jane Harper (THE LOST MAN), Helen Fitzgerald (WORST CASE SCENARIO), Oyinkan Braithwaite (MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER), Abir Mukherjee (SMOKE & ASHES), and Mick Herron (JOE COUNTRY).

As some readers of this blog will know, THE CHAIN has quite the fascinating backstory. McKinty was living in Melbourne for the past decade or so, and had earned himself a reputation as a superb writer within the crime writing community, and had won the Edgar Award and Ned Kelly Awards.

However, his readership was small, despite the critical praise and accolades. To the point where he'd announced he was giving up writing and going back to some sort of other work to help support his family - who'd also been evicted from their home in Melbourne. Some phone calls changed his life.

I interviewed Adrian about this for a feature in the New Zealand Herald last year, ahead of the release of THE CHAIN. Subscribers can read that piece here. Unfortunately it's behind a paywall (as 'premium content'), but you can read that story in lots of articles elsewhere too, including today.

After last night's announcement McKinty said: “I am gobsmacked and delighted to win this award. Two years ago, I had given up on writing altogether and was working in a bar and driving an uber, and so to go from that to this is just amazing. People think that you write a book and it will be an immediate bestseller. For twelve books, my experience was quite the opposite, but then I started this one. It was deliberately high concept, deliberately different to everything else I had written – and I was still convinced it wouldn’t go anywhere… but now look at this. It has been completely life changing.”

McKinty – previously nominated in 2011, 2014 and 2016 for his Sean Duffy series – will now receive £3,000 and an engraved oak beer cask, hand-carved by one of Britain’s last coopers from Theakstons Brewery.

Executive director of T&R Theakston, Simon Theakston, said: “Looking at the titles in contention for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2020, it is clear to see why crime fiction remains the UK’s genre of choice. Adrian McKinty is a writer of astonishing talent and tenacity, and we could not be more grateful that he was persuaded to give his literary career one last shot because The Chain is a truly deserving winner. Whilst we might be awarding this year’s trophy in slightly different, digital circumstances, we raise a virtual glass of Theakston Old Peculier to Adrian’s success – with the hope that we can do so in person before too long, and welcome everyone back to Harrogate next year for a crime writing celebration like no other.”

Thursday, July 16, 2020


DEAD MAN SINGING by Frances Housden (2019)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Could a rock-star's first big hit have predicted his death?

Landing the major murder case of rock star Jim Munro was everything ambitious Detective Joni Johns could ask for. Having little patience for a female running the investigation, the remaining band members of We Own the Night, hire private investigator Frankie Buchanan, a long-time fan of the rock group, to help solve the murder.  

In a group of millionaire rockers, who stands to gain from Munro's death? As the body count mounts, Frankie is forced to collaborate with Joni, the woman responsible for ending his police career. Racing against time Frankie and Joni need to uncover the dark secret, rock-star idol Munro, had kept from his band brothers all these years.  

But will the truth come out too late?

As the blurb puts it - could a rock-star's first big hit have predicted his death? First in what looks like it's going to be a series DEAD MAN SINGING introduces Detective Joni Johns and private investigator Frankie Buchanan who find themselves investigating the death of rock star Jim Munro. Johns because it's her job and Buchanan when he's hired by the members of Munro's band - We Own the Night. Only problem is that Johns is the person responsible for ending Buchanan's police career, so needless to say there's a bit of tension there.

Given the reference to the first big hit, this is a story about the past coming back to bite big time, and there's a dark secret at the centre of all of this - something that Munro's kept from the band for many years. That idea of past catching up is always an interesting one, and the setting here is particularly intriguing - you have to wonder how somebody with idol status can keep a secret, and the stakes if the truth gets out. Definitely a clever idea for a plot, although the execution of the story does need a little tightening up, and maybe work on the style - there's something overtly mannered / regency styled about the tone here that didn't quite jell with the high octane, high stakes, high drama of rock and roll that this reader has in her mind.

A strong investigative pairing, it will be interesting to see if this does expand into a series and how it matures as it goes.

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Doin' It For Themselves: 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award longlist revealed

Doin' It For Themselves: 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award longlist revealed

A widow on the run while living with mental illness, a teenager growing up in a rural cult, and a pre-teen girl in small-town Otago inspired by Nancy Drew to investigate the murder of her schoolteacher are among a diverse array of heroines whose stories and escapades have today been named on the longlist for the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel.

“In what has been a really unusual year for so many people around the world, we’re really glad to be able to once again highlight some great Kiwi storytelling,” says founder Craig Sisterson. “So many people turned to the creative sector while in lockdown – reading books and watching films and shows for entertainment, comfort, and escape. While we were saddened to have to cancel a dozen or more library events in April and May, to help keep everyone safe, we are stoked we can now celebrate some of our local authors.”

The Ngaio Marsh Awards judges, spread throughout the world and in a variety of rāhui and lockdown situations, were impressed by the variety of this year’s entrants and the many new voices who had joined the ‘yeahnoir’ scene, says Sisterson. “Along with some wonderful debut authors, we’ve had a number of experienced writers from other genres – ranging from kids’ books to literary fiction to playwrighting and paranormal romance – bring their storytelling talents to the crime, thriller, and suspense realm for the first time.”

The Ngaio Marsh Awards have celebrated the best New Zealand crime, mystery, thriller, and suspense writing since 2010. The longlist for this year’s Best Novel prize is:

  • SHADOW OF A DOUBT by SL Beaumont (Paperback Writers Publishing)
  • TRUST ME, I'M DEAD by Sherryl Clark (Verve Books)
  • WHATEVER IT TAKES by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press)
  • ONE SINGLE THING by Tina Clough (Lightpool Publishing)
  • GIRL FROM THE TREE HOUSE by Gudrun Frerichs
  • AUE by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press)
  • THE NANCYS by RWR McDonald (Allen & Unwin)
  • HIDE by SJ Morgan (MidnightSun Publishing)
  • THE GREAT DIVIDE by LJM Owen (Echo Publishing)
  • IN THE CLEARING by JP Pomare (Hachette)
  • THE WILD CARD by Renee (Cuba Press)
  • A MADNESS OF SUNSHINE by Nalini Singh (Hachette)

The longlist is currently being considered by a judging panel of crime, thriller, and suspense writing experts from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

The finalists for both this Best Novel category and Best First Novel will be announced later this year. The finalists will be celebrated, and the winners announced, as part of a special event at this year’s WORD Christchurch Festival, held from 29 October to 1 November.

For more information on this year’s longlist, or the Ngaio Marsh Awards in general, please contact founder and judging convenor Craig Sisterson, craigsisterson[at]hotmail[dot]com. 

Friday, June 5, 2020

SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME and thoughts on COVID lockdown

SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME by Craig Sisterson (Oldcastle Books, 2020)

We are living in strange times, with many countries around the world battling a global pandemic, and lots of uncertainty. The books world has found itself in a strange place as the citizens of many nations have been in lockdown, quarantine, or 'sheltering in place', effectively asked to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus. Streaming services and e-book and audio downloads have provided a welcome relief, and plenty of entertainment for millions of people. At the same time creators are struggling. Bookshops have been closed, planned book releases delayed, events cancelled.

At the very time many people are consuming even more arts and entertainment than usual, from their home if not out and about in their cities, the artists and creators are losing their jobs, having their projects cancelled or delayed, and having many of their income streams wither away to nothing.

People need information, yet media companies are culling journalists and other staff. People are devouring books and other entertainment, yet creators are at risk.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately, and almost forgetting I've personally been caught up in it too. Some of the publications I write for have closed or cut back. My own first book, a bit of a labour of love and a culmination of more than a decade as a professional critic, interviewer, and awards judge, has actually been released during the COVID-19 crisis - though the print version has been delayed due to the lockdowns (it was at the printers as the UK went into lockdown).

I often forget that my first-ever book is out there in the world, in e-book and audio download. It doesn't feel very real, with no official book launch, no London celebration, and the many books festivals I was to attend over Spring to Autumn all cancelled. All the tangible things stripped away.

But my book is out there, I have to remind myself now and then. A celebration - I hope - of the growing stature of Australian and New Zealand crime writing on the global stage. The farthest edge of the former British Empire has been contributing to teh world of detective fiction since its earliest days, had one of the Queens of Crime, but has really taken flight in recent years (in terms of global notice). It's great to see so many terrific Aussie and Kiwi writers building overseas readerships.

My book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, is a readers' guide to the modern era of Australian and New Zealand crime fiction, film, and television. It includes more than 300 novelists, TV dramas, and films. It sits alongside the likes of British Noir, Nordic Noir, Historical Noir, and American Noir guides by Barry Forshaw - offering an overview of a slice of the global crime writing pie.

While the paperback copies won't be out there until late September, the e-book and audiobook has been getting some lovely feedback, which I do appreciate. Here's a few things said:

  • "Southern Cross Crime is a valuable and illuminative resource for crime fiction fans everywhere." - Book'd Out
  • "This is an essential purchase for crime fiction readers ... an authoritative guide to what to read ... I now have a list that will keep me busy for many years." - Mysteries in Paradise
  • "This is a great reference to have at your side when you're hunting out a different spin on crime - the books reviewed here are none of your ordinary tales. The Australia and New Zealand settings give a frisson of difference with sensibilities and attitudes that twist your expectations even while lulling you into thinking they are more of the familiar." - David Ivory

I've had several people ask on social media whether the book is out or not. To clarify, while the paperback has now been delayed to late September, the e-book & audio download are available now from KoboKindle (UK)Kindle (Australia), Apple Books, and other outlets. 

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or ask away on social media.