Friday, June 22, 2018

Review: THE WILD INSIDE

THE WILD INSIDE by Christine Carbo (Atria, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

It was a clear night in Glacier National Park. Fourteen-year-old Ted Systead and his father were camping beneath the rugged peaks and starlit skies when something unimaginable happened: a grizzly bear attacked Ted’s father and dragged him to his death.

Now, twenty years later, as Special Agent for the Department of the Interior, Ted gets called back to investigate a crime that mirrors the horror of that night. Except this time, the victim was tied to a tree before the mauling. Ted teams up with one of the park officers—a man named Monty, whose pleasant exterior masks an all-too-vivid knowledge of the hazardous terrain surrounding them. Residents of the area turn out to be suspicious of outsiders and less than forthcoming. Their intimate connection to the wild forces them to confront nature, and their fellow man, with equal measures of reverence and ruthlessness.

As the case progresses with no clear answers, more than human life is at stake—including that of the majestic creature responsible for the attack. Ted’s search for the truth ends up leading him deeper into the wilderness than he ever imagined.

Recently I had my first taste of Montana author Christine Carbo's crime storytelling, and I enjoyed it so much I immediately ordered the first other books in her series. Starting back at the beginning with this, her debut, it's clear Carbo hit the ground running with her Montana mysteries. This is a really terrific read, with a unique and engaging protagonist - a federal agent specialising in crimes within the national parks who's never fully recovered from an horrific childhood camping experience.

Carbo brings an incredibly strong sense of the rural and small-town Montana environment to her tale, infusing an exciting crime storyline with plenty of local colour and flavour. She has a keen eye not just for the natural environment but also the people who populate it. Wild magnificence and not-so-scenic communities. There's a palpable sense of the harshness and danger that lurks among the beauty and space. The dark corners and broken lives among those who live on the old frontier.

The murder victim, a man left duct-taped to a tree in Glacier National Park, shot but left alive and then mauled to death by a grizzly bear, is local meth addict Victor Lance. His habit is not unique in the area, and Special Agent Ted Systead has to look into the burgeoning rural drug scene as well as many other avenues of inquiry to try and work out who could have left Vance to his horrific end.

The buddy cop relationship between Systead and Glacier Park police officer Monty Harris has an interesting dynamic that feels fresh. Systead may be the central figure in the book, but all the characters, big and small, have a good sense of depth. Each has a past that comes to bear, each feels like a real person, none are just pieces merely being moved around the storyboard by Carbo.

This is a texture, layered mystery novel that is about much more than just finding a killer. Carbo shows some serious writing chops, particularly given this is her debut. She brings the Montana setting to strong life, and digs into the internal and external worlds of her characters. THE WILD INSIDE is character-centric crime writing from a terrific new talent, set against a spectacular backdrop.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. 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's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

Review: THE QUAKER

THE QUAKER by Liam McIlvanney (HarperCollins, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A city torn apart.
Glasgow, 1969. In the grip of the worst winter for years, the city is brought to its knees by a killer whose name fills the streets with fear: the Quaker. He takes his next victim the third woman from the same nightclub and dumps her in the street like rubbish.

A detective with everything to prove.
The police are left chasing a ghost, with no new leads and no hope of catching their prey. DI McCormack, a talented young detective from the Highlands, is ordered to join the investigation. But his arrival is met with anger from a group of officers on the brink of despair. Soon he learns just how difficult life can be for an outsider.

A killer who hunts in the shadows.
When another woman is found murdered in a tenement flat, it’s clear the case is by no means over. From ruined backstreets to the dark heart of Glasgow, McCormack follows a trail of secrets that will change the city and his life forever

Fifty years ago, an unknown killer terrorized Glasgow. His clean-cut visage, an artist’s impression from witness statements, stared from newspaper front pages. ‘Bible John’ butchered three women after they'd enjoyed nights out at a local dance hall, and left the police chasing smoke.

He was never caught.

Literary professor and award-winning novelist Liam McIlvanney explores the effect of those killings on his home city in THE QUAKER, a novel with strong echoes of Glasgow’s real past. He shows a deft touch for character and setting throughout this absorbing, atmospheric read which uses a lightly fictionalised version of the Bible John killings as a launch-pad for a textured, nuanced novel.

DI Duncan McCormack is the man tasked with sorting out the long-stalled investigation into the murders of three women. He’s parachuted into the ‘Quaker’ investigation after recent success in the elite Flying Squad, with instructions to work out what’s gone wrong and why the Quaker hasn’t been caught. It’s a test for the fast-rising copper from the Highlands, and a poisoned chalice. His new colleagues are tired, frustrated, and dislike him on sight, the bosses are demanding certain outcomes for political purposes, and throughout it all he’s harbouring dangerous secrets of his own. A sense of dread still hovers over the city, even as months have passed since the last killing. Could it be over?

McIlvanney has created a really interesting main character in McCormack, but this novel is about much more than a singular detective trying to track an elusive serial killer, while dealing with internal politics and outside pressures. It's a superb tale with a vivid sense of time and place. 1960s Glasgow was a different era, but McIlvanney also brings some modern sensibilities, perhaps, by giving the female victims a strong voice, rather than merely being inert props for the male cops and criminals.

THE QUAKER is an evocative slice of the past that’s populated with an array of intriguing characters, tough issues, and some nuanced interplay between them. McIlvanney may call himself a 'slow motion crime writer', but he certainly ensures his books are well worth the wait.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. 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's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Sophisticated spies and surprise reunions: an interview with Emma Viskic

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the 21st instalment of 9mm for 2018, and the 193rd overall edition of our long-running author interview series!

Thanks for reading over the years. I've had a lot of fun talking to some amazing crime writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you. You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. What a line-up. Thanks everyone.

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been part of the 9mm series, please do let me know in the comments or by message, and I'll look to make that happen for you. We've got several further interviews with cool writers 'already in the can' that will be published soon, so lots to look forward to over the coming weeks and months.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome award-bedazzled Australian crime writer Emma Viskic to Crime Watch. I first came across Viskic's sublime storytelling when I read her debut, RESURRECTION BAY, back in 2016. It's a stunner of a debut, that went on to win four awards in one weekend later that year: three Davitt Awards (Best Adult Novel, Best Debut, and Readers' Choice) alongside the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel. It also was also named iBooks Australia’s crime novel of the year, and as it's become more available abroad it's continued to pick up many accolades. It was recently longlisted for both the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, and the CWA Gold Dagger.

Viskic's second novel starring deaf investigator Caleb Zelic, AND FIRE CAME DOWN, is out in the UK & Commonwealth, and will be published in paperback in the United States later this year. Viskic is a classically trained clarinetist who has performed alongside legendary singers like Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carerras, as well as in the London Underground. She learned Australian sign language while researching her Caleb Zelic books, and is currently working on a third novel.

But for now, Emma Viskic becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm


9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH EMMA VISKIC

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I’ll always love Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshakwski because she was such a breath of fresh air, but my all-time time favourite is John le CarrĂ©’s George Smiley. (Yes, he’s a spy not a detective, but I’m claiming  him for crime fiction anyway) Smiley is a wonderfully believable mix of contradictions: smart, unassuming, quiet and ruthless.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
When I was ten or eleven my parents gave me free access to their books because I was bored with the kids’ section of the library. They had pretty eclectic taste so I was able to get my hands on everything from Shakespeare to pulp fiction. I’d love to be able to say that I picked up a copy of Richard III and was transformed, but it was actually From Russia, With Love. I understood very little of it, but devoured it in a couple of days. For a kid growing up on the outskirts of the bush, it all seemed incredibly sophisticated, exciting and dangerous.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I wrote two unpublished manuscripts before Resurrection Bay. They were unwieldy, lumpen things, so I turned my hand to short stories in an effort to refine my writing. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Not only did I learn a lot about crafting sentences, plot and characters, but I went on to win both the Ned Kelly and Thunderbolt Awards for short stories.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love spending time with my family, reading, bushwalking, and binge-watching Netflix. I’m also a world champion napper.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I’d highly recommend a visit to the Napier Hotel in Fitzroy. The Napier is a great little pub by anyone’s standards, but I love it because it stars in Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels as the Prince of Prussia Hotel. The TV series was also filmed there. The Napier is cramped and colourful, and still very much a local pub.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Margot Robbie. After seeing her in I, Tonya, I think she could capture my obsessive side, and my early years as an very bad jazz ballet student. Plus, she’d already have the Australian accent down.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or particularly special, and why?
You’re killing me with this one. Resurrection Bay will always have a special place in my heart because it was my first novel, but its sequel, And Fire Came Down, currently holds centre place (out now in Australia & New Zealand, out in the UK on 30 August). I wrote And Fire Came Down during a difficult period of my life, and it was a difficult novel to write, but it’s also the most honest piece of writing I’ve ever done.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
I was in a doctor’s waiting room with my daughter when I read the email offering me publication. There was a moment of stunned silence, then a lot of  hugging and screaming.  The waiting room was empty, but the doctor came out to see what was happening.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
My grade three primary school teacher came to the launch of my second book. I’d last seen her when I was eight. It was one of the loveliest, and most surreal, moments of my life.



Thanks Emma, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

You can follow Emma on Twitter. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Review: THE THERAPY HOUSE

THE THERAPY HOUSE by Julie Parsons (New Island Books, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Garda Inspector Michael McLoughlin is trying to enjoy his retirement – doing a bit of PI work on the side, meeting up with former colleagues, fixing up a grand old house in a genteel Dublin suburb near the sea. 

Then he discovers the body of his neighbour, a retired judge – brutally murdered, shot through the back of the neck, his face mutilated beyond recognition. McLoughlin finds himself drawn into the murky past of the murdered judge, which leads him back to his own father’s killing, decades earlier, by the IRA. 

In seeking the truth behind both crimes, a web of deceit, blackmail and fragile reputations comes to light, as McLoughlin’s investigation reveals the explosive circumstances linking both crimes – and dark secrets are discovered which would destroy the judge’s legendary family name.

Returning to the crime scene after a decade away from the page, Kiwi-Irish author Julie Parsons offers readers a rich story that has many aspects of Ireland's complicated history woven throughout.

More absorbing than page-whirring, THE THERAPY HOUSE meshes a crime tale with a deep dive into the ongoing impact of violence and trauma on survivors and families at an individual level, and more broadly at a collective and national level too. This is a book that deals with complex issues and tough questions that don't have clear answers. Not your standard airport thriller or murder mystery.

THE THERAPY HOUSE has an historic murder and a contemporary murder as tent poles, though the book is about far more than those two crimes.

Decades ago, McLoughlin's father was murdered when he got in the way of an IRA robbery. It still haunts McLoughlin, especially given that some who associated with the killers are now hailed for their parts in the peace process and the politics of modern Ireland.

Now retired from the Garda, McLoughlin moved into a crumbling Victorian near the seaside outside of Dublin, known as 'the Therapy House' due to its history with counselling and medical practice. Next door lives a retired judge with a near-aristocratic pedigree in Irish terms: John Hegarty had a distinguished and influential legal career in his own right, but even more importantly, he was the son of Dan Hegarty, who had fought alongside Michael Collins before becoming very successful in business. But someone wanted the judge dead, and McLoughlin discovers his brutalised body.

The judge's family hire McLoughlin to look into aspects of his life, seeking to keep the judge's chequered past private. Information relating to the murder of McLoughlin's father is dangled as bait.

This is an atypical crime novel, with a lot going on. Plenty of layers, lots of thought-provoking issues that are dealt with subtly rather than bluntly. Questions are raised, not always answered. Situations are messy and grey. Parsons lets things unfold in a leisurely, measured pace, giving readers time to absorb things rather than skimming over them. She crafts a really vivid sense of the world her characters inhabit, and the ways in which the past is inextricably tied to the present.

Unusually for a crime novel, many of the main players are in their later years. They carry the weight of that past with them. There's a tangible sense of all their accumulated history and experiences. The compromises made, the regrets, the glories and failures that have passed yet faintly linger. There's a fascinating interplay between characters who've experienced so much.

THE THERAPY HOUSE is a clever and thoughtful crime novel told in stylish prose that is about so much more than the murders of two Irishmen, decades apart.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. 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's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

Review: FRONT RUNNER

FRONT RUNNER by Felix Francis (Michael Joseph, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In his role as an undercover investigator for the British Horseracing Authority, Jeff Hinkley is approached by a multi-time champion jockey to discuss the delicate matter of losing races on purpose. Little does he know that the call will set off a lethal chain of events, including the apparent suicide of the jockey and an attempt on Hinkley’s own life. 

Never one to leave suspicious events alone, Hinkley begins investigating the jockey and the races he may have thrown. But there are others out there who intend to prevent his inquiry from probing further . . . at any cost.

Felix Francis's second novel featuring BHA investigator Jeff Hinkley fair tears out of the gate, gallops along at high pace, and doesn't let up  until it passes the finishing post. The sequel to DAMAGE and fore-runner to the US-set TRIPLE CROWN, it could be read as a standalone and you don't need to have read the prior Hinkley tale to get the most out of this one. There's plenty enough salted in to give you a sense of the main character and something of his history before the first page.

Here, Hinkley is investigating claims that a bettor may be operating on behalf of someone who has been banned from racing, but ends up looking into something far more dangerous. Britain's top steeplechase jockey, who Hinkley is on friendly terms with, intimates to Hinkley that he did less than his best in a recent race, before clamming up. As Hinkley tries to find out more, without immediately reporting the jockey, everything goes wrong. He's locked in the jockey's sauna and left to die, and even after breaking out, later discovers that the jockey has been found dead in his car.

A suicide because of his guilt? Or is more involved.

This is a really fun, easy read that fair tears along. Francis has an unobtrusive writing style that flows quickly, filled with plenty of action and incident to keep the pages whirring. Hinkley is an engaging hero, likable and interesting. Some of the other characters feel a little more like moving parts. There's a lot going on plotwise, and readers get a bit of an adventurous treat when Hinkley ends up leaving the mud and thundering hooves of the British racecourses to vacation in the Cayman Islands. Of course trouble is not far away.

A fun, exciting read that shows Felix Francis is more than just a foal with good bloodlines. He's a storytelling thoroughbred in his own right.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. 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's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

Review: INTO THE NIGHT

INTO THE NIGHT by Sarah Bailey (Allen & Unwin, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Troubled and brilliant, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock finds herself lost and alone after a recent move to Melbourne, broken-hearted by the decisions she's had to make. Her new workplace is a minefield and the partner she has been assigned is uncommunicative and often hostile. When a homeless man is murdered and Gemma is put on the case, she can't help feeling a connection with the victim and the lonely and isolated life he led despite being in the middle of a bustling city. 

Then a movie star is killed in bizarre circumstances on the set of a major film shoot, and Gemma and her partner Detective Sergeant Nick Fleet have to put aside their differences to unravel the mysteries surrounding the actor's life and death. Who could commit such a brazen crime and who stands to profit from it? Far too many people, and none of them can be trusted.

Overseas eyes are increasingly turning towards Australian and New Zealand crime writing in recent years, with antipodean authors becoming more readily available to northern hemisphere booklovers.

Melbourne's Sarah Bailey showed plenty of promise last year with her debut The Dark Lake, which introduced troubled  small-town cop Gemma Woodstock, and saw Bailey join award-hoarding city-mates Jane Harper and Emma Viskic as rookie Aussie crime writers garnering global attention. 

Bailey tackles the ‘difficult second novel’ by plunging Woodstock into new challenges in a new environment: she’s said ‘see ya later’ to her rural hometown, her son and ex-husband, and is now looking to advance her career as a detective living a lonely life in the big city of Melbourne. 

Now Woodstock chases killers and battles emotional emptiness with plenty of bottles and a variety of beds. Keen to prove herself to her new colleagues, she gets a chance to shine when a homeless man is murdered, but is then quickly reallocated when a new case with a much higher priority shocks the nation: a young and beloved actor who seemed on the cusp of a Hollywood breakthrough is stabbed to death in front of hundreds of people on a big zombie film set in the city. The brazen nature of the attack, plus the chaotic aftermath, creates a big mess and plenty of problems for the police. 

It's a traumatic crime for those that knew the movie star as well as those they just felt they did, vicariously through the screen. The high-profile nature of the attack ramps up the pressure on Woodstock and her colleagues, while the homeless man's case is rather sidelined. 

There's plenty to like about Bailey's sophomore effort; she delivers another solid page-turner that deepens the character of Woodstock, whose behavior and choices may divide readers but is messily, authentically human. The crime storyline gets entangled with #MeToo - both in the film world and Woodstock's own industry - and other issues that give INTO THE NIGHT a very current feel. 

There are plenty of thought-provoking touches, though at times Bailey’s writing is a little overblown, having the effect of neutering the power that important themes and moments might otherwise have had. In THE DARK LAKE, Bailey brought the small-town setting to pretty vivid life, capturing some nice nuance to the place and people. With this follow-up, there are Melbourne references aplenty, but for me the setting didn't feel quite as vivid - more green-screen than 'on location', so to speak. 

But those are relatively minor things in what is overall a good solid crime read, centred on an increasingly fascinating (if at times a little unlikable) heroine who has 'ongoing series' written all over her. You get the feeling there's a lot for Bailey to explore with Woodstock, and it'll be interesting to see where the Australian author decides to take her centrepiece in future instalments. 


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. 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's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: A SHARP SOLITUDE

A SHARP SOLITUDE by Christine Carbo (Atria, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In the darkening days of autumn, in a remote region near the Canadian border, a journalist has been murdered. Anne Marie Johnson was last seen with Reeve Landon, whose chocolate Labrador was part of an article she had been writing about a scientific canine research program. Now Landon is the prime suspect. Intensely private and paranoid, in a panic that he'll be wrongfully arrested, he ventures deep into in the woods. Even as he evades the detective, Landon secretly feels the whole thing is somehow deserved, a karmic punishment for a horrifying crime he committed as a young boy.

While Montana FBI investigator Ali Paige is not officially assigned to the case, Landon—an ex-boyfriend and the father of her child—needs help. Ali has only one objective for snooping around the edges of an investigation she’s not authorized to pursue: to save her daughter the shame of having a father in jail and the pain of abandonment she endured as a child. As the clock ticks and the noose tightens around Landon's neck, Ali isn’t sure how far she will go to find out the truth. And what if the truth is not something she wants to know?

Two stoic individuals who share traumatic childhoods and fiercely independent streaks, as well as a daughter from their brief relationship, rally the narrative duties back and forth in Carbo's fourth mystery set against the spectacular backdrop of the Glacier National Parks and rural Montana.

Reeve Landon became an unwanted poster boy for changes to gun laws in Florida after a childhood accident with his best friend. He went off the rails as a teenager, before finding some degree of salvation in the Montana wilderness. He spends most of his time with his dog, searching for signs of wildlife, and living in a cabin. It's a quiet, mainly solitary life. The way he likes it.

But then a journalist is found dead. Anne Marie Johnson said she came to Glacier to interview Reeve about the canine research programme he and McKay, his chocolate lab, were part of. But she was asking an awful lot of questions about gun laws and gun deaths, tempering Reeve's attraction.

Tabbed by authorities as the last to see Anne Marie, Reeve quickly becomes the prime suspect. Which is a huge problem for FBI investigator Ali Paige. Like Reeve she left a troubled past behind on the East Coast, and enjoys the space and solitude offered in Montana. She's a mother to Emily, but keeps her private life private. Can she keep doing that when her daughter's father is a murder suspect?

Carbo delivers a fascinating tale that blends a tight mystery storyline with a great sense of the Montana setting - the place and the people. A SHARP SOLITUDE is character-centric crime fiction, seasoned with plenty of interesting psychological and societal issues. Challenges for individuals and the broader community. There's a really nice balance - the story feels 'well-rounded' for want of a better phrase: strong mystery, good characters that are interesting and have depth, great setting.

The narrative switches between Reeve and Ali's perspectives, building tension and deepening characterisation along the way. Carbo brings rural Montana to vivid life (I've visited for a few days on my travels, and things rang very true for me, as well as deepening my perspective on the region).

There are a few 'what the?' moments along the way, where characters make some poor choices, but rather than feeling like dropped notes or 'author hand' clunkiness to force a story, these end up fitting with their characters and the world Carbo has crafted. There's a messy humanity to it all. An authenticity that deepens our understanding of angst-ridden characters scrabbling through life.

This is the kind of book you can just sit back and enjoy as the tale unfolds, but will have you thinking too. And caring. There's some nice texture and depth as well as plenty of intrigue in the storyline.

It was a couple of sittings read for me, a book I kept wanting to get back to. And when I closed the back cover, I immediately wanted to read more of Carbo's Glacier Mysteries.

So I went and bought books one to three.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. 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's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

Review: JACKRABBIT SMILE

JACKRABBIT SMILE by Joe R Lansdale (Mulholland, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Hap and Leonard are an unlikely pair - Hap, a self-proclaimed white trash rebel, and Leonard, a tough-as-nails black gay Vietnam vet and Republican - but they're the closest friend either of them has in the world. Hap is celebrating his wedding to his longtime girlfriend, when their backyard barbecue is interrupted by a couple of Pentecostal white supremacists. They're not too happy to see Leonard, and no one is happy to see them, but they have a problem and they want Hap and Leonard to solve it.

Judith Mulhaney's daughter, Jackrabbit, has been missing for five years. That is, she's been missing from her family for five years, but she's been missing from everybody, including the local no-goods they knew ran with her, for a few months. Despite their misgivings, Hap and Leonard take the case. It isn't long until they find themselves mixed up in a revivalist cult believing that Jesus will return flanked by an army of lizard-men, and solving a murder to boot.

Although I've had some Lansdale books on my TBR shelves for a little while, I first experienced his riveting, quirky world via the screen drama Hap and Leonard. Adapted from his first three books in his long-running series, that stars James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams as the seemingly mismatched pair of lifelong best friends. It's a great show - full of action, humour, intrigue, memorable characters, social issues and more - and it's well worth visiting the original material.

Lansdale has been called 'the bard of East Texas', and he has a distinctive storytelling style and vivid world creation, a sort of 'swamp noir' that is both bizarre and brilliant. It's violent and action-packed, but also funny and thoughtful and laced with character and a potpourri of relevant issues. For readers who haven't yet experienced Lansdale, it's a little tricky to offer a comparison with other authors.

He's created something terrifically unique.

JACKRABBIT SMILE is the twelfth instalment in Hap and Leonard's escapades. Working as private eyes, they're approached by a couple of Bible-misusing redneck racists who are searching for their troubled sister and daughter, 'Jackrabbit'. Hap and Leonard don't care for the mother-son duo, but their concern for the young woman has them reluctantly on the case. Plus, they could use the cash.

The search takes Hap and Leonard back to Hap's hometown, a place full of striking characters and bizarre leads. From the local sheriff whose brothers are hired goons for a cult-leader-like white separatist-not-supremacist, to old friends and enemies, there are plenty of people keeping things off-kilter. Lansdale demonstrates his deft touch for character in among all the action and confrontation. He sprinkles the tale with 'grotesques' in the Southern Gothic tradition, without falling into cliche. There's a verve and freshness to his characterisation, an authenticity to the relationships and nice moments of surprise that ensure crime readers aren't just seeing the same-old, same-old.

Overall, there is a crackling, anarchic energy to Landsdale's storytelling in JACKRABBIT SMILE. It's a quick read that doesn't feel 'thin', that is overflowing with unusual moments and characters, while also raising plenty of thought-provoking issues, contemporary and evergreen. Landsdale veers towards 'pulp' in style and mindset, but he's so much more than such distillation. A terrific read.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. 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's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter