Saturday, May 19, 2018

Duffy and Dame Ngaio feature among the Daggers drawn at Crimefest




















A New Zealand mystery that began more than seventy years ago has been longlisted for the prestigious CWA Dagger Awards, announced at Crimefest in Bristol last night. 

While the Second World War was raging, Ngaio Marsh brought her famed British detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn to her native New Zealand, exploring her own country and wartime issues.

Along with being an ambulance driver during the global conflict, Marsh continued to write and published novels like COLOUR SCHEME and DIED IN THE WOOL. She also began writing another wartime mystery set in New Zealand, MONEY IN THE MORGUE, but it was never completed or published. Decades later, its opening, a few chapters, and some notes scrawled on the back of a Shakespeare script were discovered at a research library in New Zealand.

From those seeds, New Zealand-raised novelist and theatremaker Stella Duffy resurrected the mystery and wrote the first Inspector Alleyn novel to be published in more than 30 years. Last night in Bristol, Marsh and Duffy's 'collaboration' was named on this year's longlist for the CWA Historical Dagger, which honours great crime novels set in a time period of at least 50 years ago.

The Marsh/Duffy book was just one of many interesting talking points among this year's Dagger longlists. Philip Kerr, who recently passed away, was also named on the Historical Dagger longlist for PRUSSIAN BLUE. Several books were longlisted for multiple Daggers, including debuts THE SEVEN DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE by Stuart Turton (Gold Dagger and John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger), and RESURRECTION BAY by Australian author Emma Viskic (Gold and Creasey), along with A NECESSARY EVIL by Abir Mukherjee (Gold and Historical Daggers) and LONDON RULES by Mick Herron (Gold and Ian Fleming Steel Daggers).

Rotorua Noir Guest of Honour and Icelandic crime writer Lilja Sigurdardottir was among the translated authors named on the CWA International Dagger longlist, for SNARE, translated by Quentin Bates.

Here is the full list of Dagger categories and longlisted tales.

CWA Gold Dagger:

  • Head Case, by Ross Armstrong (HQ)
  • The Liar, by Steve Cavanagh (Orion)
  • London Rules, by Mick Herron (John Murray)
  • Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane (Little, Brown)
  • Sunburn, by Laura Lippman (Faber and Faber)
  • Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke (Serpent’s Tail)
  • You Don’t Know Me, by Imran Mahmood (Michael Joseph)
  • A Necessary Evil, by Abir Mukherjee (Harvill Secker)
  • The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton (Raven)
  • Resurrection Bay, by Emma Viskic (Pushkin Vertigo)


CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger:

  • The Spy’s Daughter, by Adam Brookes (Sphere)
  • The Switch, by Joseph Finder (Head of Zeus)
  • London Rules, by Mick Herron (John Murray)
  • If I Die Before I Wake, by Emily Koch (Harvill Secker)
  • Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke (Serpent’s Tail)
  • An Act of Silence, by Colette McBeth (Wildfire)
  • A Necessary Evil, by Abir Mukherjee (Harvill Secker)
  • Fierce Kingdom, by Gin Phillips (Doubleday)
  • The Chalk Man, by C.J. Tudor (Michael Joseph)
  • The Force, by Don Winslow (HarperFiction)


CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger:

  • Gravesend, by William Boyle (No Exit Press)
  • IQ, by Joe Ide (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Soho Dead, by Greg Keen (Thomas & Mercer)
  • Girl in Snow, by Danya Kukafka (Picador)
  • Lola, by Melissa Scrivner Love (Point Blank)
  • East of Hounslow, by Khurrum Rahman (HQ)
  • Ravenhill, by John Steele (Silvertail)
  • My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent (Fourth Estate)
  • The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton (Raven)
  • Resurrection Bay, by Emma Viskic (Pushkin Vertigo)


CWA International Dagger:

  • Zen and the Art of Murder, by Oliver Bottini, tr Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose Press)
  • The Shadow District, by Arnaldur Indridason, tr Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker)
  • Three Days and a Life, by Pierre Lemaitre, tr Frank Wynne (MacLehose Press)
  • After the Fire, by Henning Mankell, tr Marlaine Delargy (Harvill Secker)
  • The Frozen Woman, by Jon Michelet, tr by Don Bartlett (No Exit Press)
  • Offering to the Storm, by Dolores Redondo, tr by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garzía (HarperCollins)
  • Three Minutes, by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, tr by Elizabeth Clark Wessel (Quercus/Riverrun)
  • Snare, by Lilja Sigurdardóttir, tr Quentin Bates (Orenda)
  • The Accordionist, by Fred Vargas, tr Sian Reynolds (Harvill Secker)
  • Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello, tr Alex Valente (Two Roads/John Murray)


CWA Historical Dagger:

  • A Necessary Evil, by Abir Mukherjee (Harvill Secker)
  • Death in the Stars, by Frances Brody (Piatkus)
  • Fire, by L.C. Tyler (Constable)
  • Lightning Men, by Thomas Mullen (Little, Brown)
  • Merlin at War, by Mark Ellis (London Wall)
  • Money in the Morgue, by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy (HarperCollins)
  • Nine Lessons, by Nicola Upson (Faber and Faber)
  • Nucleus, by Rory Clements (Zaffre)
  • Prussian Blue, by Philip Kerr (Quercus)
  • The Mitford Murders, by Jessica Fellows (Sphere)


CWA Short Story Dagger:

  • “The Corpse on the Copse,” by Sharon Bolton (from Killer Women: Crime Club Anthology #2: The Body, edited by Susan Opie; Killer Women)
  • “The Last Siege of Bothwell Castle,” by Chris Brookmyre (from Bloody Scotland; Historic Environment Scotland)
  • “Too Much Time,” by Lee Child (from No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories, by Lee Child; Bantam Press)
  • “Second Son,” by Lee Child (from No Middle Name)
  • “Authentic Carbon Steel Forged,” by Elizabeth Haynes (from Deadlier: 100 of the Best Crime Stories Written by Women, edited by Sophie Hannah; Head of Zeus)
  • “Smoking Kills,” by Erin Kelly (from Killer Women: Crime Club Anthology #2)
  • “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit,” by Denise Mina (from Bloody Scotland)
  • “Accounting for Murder,” by Christine Poulson (from Mystery Tour: CWA Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Martin Edwards; Orenda)
  • “Faking a Murder,” by Kathy Reichs and Lee Child (from Match Up, edited by Lee Child; Sphere)
  • “Trouble Is a Lonesome Town,” by Cathi Unsworth (from Deadlier: 100 of the Best Crime Stories Written by Women)


CWA Dagger in the Library:
(Selected by nominations from libraries)

  • Simon Beckett
  • Martina Cole
  • Martin Edwards
  • Nicci French
  • Sophie Hannah
  • Simon Kernick
  • Edward Marston
  • Peter May
  • Rebecca Tope


Shortlists in all of these categories are anticipated by July, with winners to be declared during a Dagger Awards dinner in London on Thursday, October 25.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Review: THE FLOATING BASIN

THE FLOATING BASIN by Carolyn Hawes (2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Another boat reversed into one of the berthing bays not far from where Ru stood. He watched the wake spread across the lagoon to the bank in front of the car park, where the water rounded at its edges and formed the continuum of a basin. The ripples raced across to the islands; the rushes shuddered and were sucked beneath the water; seconds later they sprang back in surprise.

First-time Kiwi crime writer Carolyn Hawes brings her hometown of Westport, on the 'wild West Coast' of New Zealand's South Island, to vivid life in this engaging murder mystery. It's a small town, isolated from the cities by hundreds of miles of winding roads over or around the Southern Alps.

That isolation plays a part in this book, which has a somewhat gothic feel. Westport is a place with a fascinating, rugged history, a frontier type of place that some locals dream of escaping from, and others have escaped to. When a body emerges from the town's tidal lagoon, the eponymous floating basin, local cop Ru Clement is tasked with finding the killer.

As you'd expect with a small-town murder mystery, there are plenty of secrets being kept behind closed doors, even in a place where people feel like they know lots about their neighbours. There's also an eclectic cast of characters befitting such a place, an interesting mix of personalities that rings true even if it might seem quirky or bizarre to readers who've only ever experienced city life.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this read. Hawes has planted her first authorial foot firmly, with a very solid debut. She shows a really good touch for the West Coast setting, and has a nice writing style that flows along pretty effortlessly, as well as a good storytelling sense and feel for dialogue.

The characterisation in THE FLOATING BASIN is good - Clements is a decent 'hero' who doesn't overwhelm the rest of the cast, which provides plenty of flavour and interest. Having lived in smaller places in New Zealand's South Island as well as cities around the world, and having explored the West Coast a few times, the sense of character and place that Hawes evoked rang very true to me.

Hawes definitely has something to offer as a crime writer, sometimes it felt like she was kind of feeling her way into it with this debut, dipping her toes into the lagoon to see how she fared.

I certainly hope she continues and writes more, whether a series with Clement and his fellow Westport cops at the core, or other West Coast crime tales. There's plenty to like about this debut Kiwi crime novel: a good sense of place, interesting characters, and solid mystery. Worth a look.


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: CLEAR TO THE HORIZON

CLEAR TO THE HORIZON by Dave Warner (Fremantle Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

In 1999, a number of young women go missing in the Perth suburb of Claremont. One body is discovered. Others are never seen again. Snowy Lane is hired as a private investigator but neither he nor the cops can find the serial killer. Sixteen years later, another case brings Snowy to Broome, where he teams up with Dan Clement and an incidental crime puts them back on the Claremont case. CLEAR TO THE HORIZON is a nail-biting Aussie-style thriller, based on one of the great unsolved crimes in Western Australia’s recent history.

Back in the late 1970's Dave Warner released music that became part of the soundtrack of my life. When I discovered CITY OF LIGHT, MURDER IN THE FRAME, EXXXPRESSO and other books by him in the late 1990's / early 2000's I was more than a bit chuffed to think a musical hero was also a lover of crime fiction. And I bloody loved all of those books.

CITY OF LIGHT was Dave Warner's first book (from memory), it won the 1996 West Australian Premier's Award for best fiction, and it introduced a young police constable, and aspiring footballer Snowy Lane. In this book Lane is investigating the murder of a number of young women by the serial killer dubbed 'Mr Gruesome'. If, however, you've not read any of Dave Warner's work then CLEAR TO THE HORIZON is a great place to start, as would be BEFORE IT BREAKS which was a very worthy Ned Kelly winner indeed.

CLEAR TO THE HORIZON is told in two later periods of time, basing itself around the true story of a number of young women who were killed by an undiscovered serial killer in Claremont, Perth. When the novel starts out in 1999, a number of young women have gone missing, with one body discovered, and the others never seen again. Snowy Lane is hired by the parents of one of the missing girls, but he, and the police, are never able to find the girls or the killer. Moving forward 16 years, Lane finds himself on an unconnected case in Broome (this time teaming up with Dan Clement from BEFORE IT BREAKS), and an incidental event takes him straight back to the Claremont investigation.

All of which probably sounds a little complicated, but if you've not read either of the earlier books it won't matter a bit. Nor will it matter if you're not across the details of the true cases on which a lot of the narrative is based. If there's one thing that Dave Warner excels at it's weaving yarns, and CLEAR TO THE HORIZON is a great yarn, with fully fleshed out characters, and plenty of action and pace.

Snowy Lane is an easy bloke to like. Dedicated to his job, he's also a loving family man with a very normal sort of a life. The Claremont case haunts him, but it hasn't twisted him. He's not one to forget, but he's also not one for dwelling. Having said that, give this man a hint of a possible solution and he's not easily distracted. He's very real, and there's more than enough back story dotted throughout this novel to give you an idea for where he's coming from.

There's also a terrific sense of place in Warner's novels. In this case the heat and light of beach-side Fremantle and Broome are clear and bright, contrasting well with the night-time pubs, clubs, alleyways, taxi ranks and parking lots where the young women disappeared. It's worth remembering that apart from the general details of the true crime around which the novel is based, everything here is fictional - much of it is so real, and so feasible in terms of possible suspects, and the final resolution.

I confess to having been a mad fan of Dave Warner's music. It makes me very happy that the stories he tells in his books are longer in form, but still so clearly about life as it happens in Australia. It's particularly fortunate that there's no need to a lot of dancing when a new book comes out - my knees aren't what they used to be back in my punk days. But happy dancing of a slightly more sedate version still goes on.



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  Ned Kelly Awards and the Ngaio Marsh AwardsShe kindly shares some of her reviews of crime and thriller novels from Australian and New Zealand authors on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review: BABY

BABY by Annaleese Jochems (VUP, 2017)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Cynthia is twenty-one, bored and desperately waiting for something big to happen. Her striking fitness instructor, Anahera, is ready to throw in the towel on her job and marriage. With stolen money and a dog in tow they run away and buy ‘Baby’, an old boat docked in the Bay of Islands, where Cynthia dreams they will live in a state of love. But strange events on an empty island turn their life together in a different direction. BABY is a sunburnt psychological thriller of obsession and escape by one of the most exciting new voices in New Zealand fiction.

Cynthia, 21 but looks younger, thinks her dreams have come true when she takes off with her dog, her beautiful yoga instructor and her Dad’s money.  She buys a boat called Baby to live on off shore from beautiful Paihia, and cuts all ties with her friends and relations – what could go wrong?

Well quite a lot, quite quickly; BABY is told from Cynthia’s point of view and Cynthia’s point of view is informed mainly from reality TV, YouTube and online sex sites.  She is an unreliable narrator of her own life – fantasising constantly and getting pouty and churlish when the real world doesn’t conform.  As well as Anahera, the fitness instructor, there are three other significant characters in the novel, but we have no idea really who they are and what they are thinking – Cynthia’s perception of things being so self-obsessed.

BABY is quite mundanely horrific – Anahera’s fitness weights roll around above their heads inside the boat – an ominous noise that becomes more so when Gordon anchors them so the threat is still there but silent.  Gordon is a man they pick up, or are picked up by, on a nearby island – is he German?, a fake?, known to Anahera?, a threat?  All we have to go on is Cynthia’s warping thoughts.  The boat becomes a claustrophobic container of Cynthia’s psyche – within which she tells us of Anahera’s comings and goings (she is always swimming away and back), their daily routines, their childish diet and the annoying intrusions of those they invite in – a young boy from a Paihia school, Gordon, a man who lives on a nearby boat.

Cynthia is also really an unknown – she is either extremely attractive or not and overweight. She might have been blond but the roots are showing.  She might have been to university but has been unemployed and living on her father’s money.  She also might never have been able to secure a job, not being able to convince potential employers of her trustworthiness, so has been unemployed and living on her father’s money. She is extremely modern in the worst way, abandoning what she says she loves for something else she says she loves, being emotionless and mercenary about online sex related sites, being more interested in the image of herself than the reality of others.

The psychological suspense in BABY arises from not knowing whether Cynthia’s fantasy is complete – is it all in Cynthia’s mind – or will her negative thoughts towards others be expressed as violent action?  It can go either way for quite some claustrophobic time.

You will have to read BABY to find out the answer!

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

For another take on BABY, read here

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Enid Blyton and runaway couples: an interview with Graham Smith

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the sixteenth instalment of 9mm for 2018, and the 188th 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 author Graham Smith to Crime Watch. Graham leads a dual life as a crime writer and running a hotel and wedding venue in Gretna Green. I mention that latter as the little village of Gretna Green has quite the history with weddings. From the mid 18th century, English couples would regularly 'run away' to Gretna Green, popping across the border to get married at the closest village in Scotland - a place where younger couples didn't need parental consent and you didn't have to get married in a church. So as well as his action-packed crime tales, Graham is continuing a noble and centuries-old tradition among the northern borderlands.

Graham is the author of both the DI Harry Evans series, which is set in the United Kingdom, and the Jake Boulder series, which is set in the United States. He's also a great supporter of other crime writers, regularly attending various festivals as well as running the Crime and Publishment workshops, which have helped mentor several aspiring authors to eventual publication.

But for now, Graham Smith becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.

9MM INTERVIEW WITH GRAHAM SMITH

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
This is an almost impossible question to answer as I have so many favourites. Reacher, Logan MacRae, Roy Grace and many others are in the running, but if I had to choose just one, it would be Craig Russell’s Lennox. All the novels featuring the sardonic sleuth are dripping with atmosphere and every one of them are fantastic reads.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
That would have to be Five Go off to Camp. I read this book around the age of eight and I loved the idea that children could foil adult criminals. Yes the books now seem rather twee in today’s world, but that is the book which kindled my love affair with crime fiction. I read all of the Famous Five and Secret Seven novels as well as Blyton’s Adventure series.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I was very fortunate that the first novel I wrote went on to be published. However, it started out really badly and I broke off from writing it to learn my craft writing short stories. I have three collections of short stories available on Amazon and while I may write them a little differently now, I am proud of them all as they gave me the skills to write the way that I write now.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
As I have a full-time job running a busy hotel and wedding venue, my leisure time is very limited, but I do enjoy spending time with friends and family. Watching football takes up a fair chunk of my spare time and I am not adverse to spending a few hours on the Xbox.

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?
The little village where I live is the kind of one-horse town where even the horse is considering leaving. Therefore there’s not a lot to do and there’s only one thing which may count as a tourist attraction. However a walk along the banks of the River Kirtle is always a good way to clear the cobwebs from your brain.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
I’d like to say Tom Hardy as he’s a heartthrob, but the reality of the situation is that someone like Danny DeVito is more of visual fit. My life to date would also make for a very boring movie, although it’d be nice for me to have some of the blanks in my twenties filled in.

7. Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
This is such a tough question to answer. I love all my completed books equally as they all represent a time I’ve spent with characters whom I adore. The book I favour the most is usually the one I’m working on as it represents everything I’ve learned about writing and will hopefully show my progression as a writer.

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 rather predictably punched the air for a while and then had a couple of beers. The first time I saw my debut on a shelf was the night of the launch in my local Waterstones and that was a marvellous feeling. That I had my good friend and mentor in Matt Hilton chairing the evening made the whole experience even more special.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I’ve never had anything that really qualifies for this question, but I think the oddest experience I ever had was when I was approached by a lady I didn’t know. She confirmed my name and then told me how much she loved my book. It was such a gratifying and surreal moment for me as it was the first time this had happened with someone I’d had no previous contact with. She was telling me that she loved my writing and the way I told a story and I was trying to say something other than thank you in response to all her compliments.


Thank you Graham, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

You can learn more about Graham and his books at his website

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review: THE DEVIL'S DETECTIVE

THE DEVIL'S DETECTIVE by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Reviewed by Shane Donald

Thomas Fool is an Information Man, an investigator tasked with cataloging and filing reports on the endless stream of violence and brutality that flows through Hell. His job holds no reward or satisfaction, because Hell has rules but no justice. Each new crime is stamped "Do Not Investigate" and dutifully filed away in the depths of the Bureaucracy. 

But when an important political delegation arrives and a human is found murdered in a horrific manner—extravagant even by Hell's standards—everything changes. The murders escalate, and their severity points to the kind of killer not seen for many generations. Something is challenging the rules and order of Hell, so the Bureaucracy sends Fool to identify and track down the killer. . . . 

But how do you investigate murder in a place where death is common currency? Or when your main suspect pool is a legion of demons? With no memory of his past and only an irresistible need for justice, Fool will piece together clues and follow a trail that leads directly into the heart of a dark and chaotic conspiracy. A revolution is brewing in Hell . . . and nothing is what it seems.

Imagine being a detective in hell – a place where demons rule man and use him for sport. That’s the task facing the reader in THE DEVIL'S DETECTIVE. In this novel, Thomas Fool is the leader of hell’s small human police force, an Information Man. He has no memory of his life before hell and no knowledge of how or why he came to be there. His job is a cosmic joke; in a place where chaos reigns and humans are a subjugated by demons, he is expected to keep a semblance of law and order, while humans die all around him.

I’ve made the novel sound bleak so far, but this is a book worth reading as it asks big questions like does having a purpose in life matter if life is futile? Does truth matter in a setting where evil literally reigns?

The plot involves a delegation of angels visiting hell to decide who can ascend to heaven. During the visit, demons begin to turn up dead. Are humans rising up or is something more sinister going on? Thomas Fool is tasked by Elderflower, his demon supervisor, to find the truth.

As a character, Fool does not live up to his name. While going about his duties, he attempts to investigate his own existence, never sure of who he is or what he is but always looking for why. As he begins to see the truth of why hell exists and his function in this place, he begins to feel a very human emotion – hope.

The setting of this story is unique and while in some ways the detective element is utilized as part of a morality tale about guilt and how the guilty should be punished, this is also a crime novel that makes the reader think. However, given how unremitting the setting becomes – you never escape the fact that hell is a terrible place that makes sense only on a cosmic level – this novel had me pondering how the human condition shapes who we are and how we respond to evil.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, but don’t expect a very happy ending.



Shane Donald is a New Zealander living in Taiwan. An avid reader with 3,000 books in his home, he completed a dissertation on Ngaio Marsh for his MA degree, and also has a PhD in applied linguistics

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review: RUBY AND THE BLUE SKY

RUBY AND THE BLUE SKY by Katherine Dewar (2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Grammy night, 2021. Ruby wins 'Best Song' and makes an impulsive acceptance speech that excites nature lovers across the world. While Ruby and her band celebrate, an extreme evangelical sect, funded by covert paymasters, dispatches a disciple on a ruthless mission to England. As the band plays its sold-out tour, Ruby is pursued by eco-groupies insisting she use her new fame to fight climate change.

Back home, in rain-drenched Leeds, Ruby must confront a challenge not even tea, beer or her mum's veggie lasagne will make go away. In a storm and drought-plagued world, run by cynical old men and self-serving corporations, could one young woman lead change?

Torn between the demands of the climate campaigners and her bandmates, Ruby has to decide how much - and even who - she will sacrifice. 

First-time novelist Katherine Dewar delivers an intriguing tale that flows along wonderfully and gives readers plenty to think about: climate change and the environment, feminism and the marginalisation and abuse of women, fighting for things you believe, celebrity power, and music.

It's a concoction that will sit differently with different readers, but overall I really enjoyed the read.

With such an array of 'big issues' and challenging topics packed into the novel, it would have been easy for any author, let alone a debutant, to mishandle things and come off as preachy, but for me Dewar struck a good balance, weaving things into the narrative and action. Even where topics were directly addressed, it was in discussion between characters interested in such things who were debating what they could or should do - it tied into their character and relationships and actions rather than coming across as the author talking directly to the readership via a mouthpiece.

Ruby is an engaging character and a good 'in' for the readers. She's interesting, offbeat and individual enough to feel fresh but not forced. She's plunged into a whole new world of climate activism after speaking out at a music awards show. Suddenly she's seen as a hero to the cause by some, and a threat by others. When all she'd wanted before was to play music and make people care a little more.

RUBY AND THE BLUE SKY burbles along at quite a quick pace. The tale is largely told from Ruby's perspective, intercut with the voice of another who holds strikingly different views. Dewar handles the interchange well, building the tale and the tension, and gives the reader the opportunity to consider a various perspectives, not just her heroine's. There are times when the narrative lags a little, or not much seems to be happening, but even at these times Dewar keeps readers pretty engaged.

Along with the climate change theme, an issue that begets the 'inciting incident' early on in the story and continues to play a large part throughout, Dewar also doesn't hold back when illustrating the ubiquitousness of misogyny and violence towards women. Some of what's covered may be difficult to read for some, and Dewar certainly wouldn't be in the running for the Staunch Prize, but for me she handled things exceptionally well, making this reader pause and think both during and afterwards. Violence against women wasn't ignored by Dewar, instead it was portrayed and addressed in a nuanced and thoughtful way. It was done with meaning, and compassion and understanding towards the victims and their ongoing battles with healing and empowerment.

Overall, RUBY AND THE BLUE SKY was a highly enjoyable debut novel that's an eco-thriller with a lot of meaning and real-world thoughtfulness beyond 'in-book' high stakes or high action.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, appeared onstage at literary festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Review: THE LOST SWIMMER

THE LOST SWIMMER by Ann Turner (Simon & Schuster, 2015)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Rebecca Wilding, an archaeology professor, traces the past for a living. But suddenly, truth and certainty is turning against her. Rebecca is accused of serious fraud, and worse, she suspects – she knows – that her husband, Stephen, is having an affair.

Desperate to find answers, Rebecca leaves with Stephen for Greece, Italy and Paris, where she can uncover the conspiracy against her, and hopefully win Stephen back to her side, where he belongs. There’s too much at stake – her love, her work, her family.

But on the idyllic Amalfi Coast, Stephen goes swimming and doesn’t come back. In a swirling daze of panic and fear, Rebecca is dealt with fresh allegations. And with time against her, she must uncover the dark secrets that stand between her and Stephen, and the deceit that has chased her halfway around the world.

Writers who take the decision to build their novels around characters who are less than sympathetic, veering towards frustrating, appear to be making one of the braver literary decisions you can come across. Needless to say Rebecca Wilding is a difficult prospect in THE LOST SWIMMER.

The central narrator, with the story told in the first person, Rebecca has the sort of mind that's difficult to spend time in. Incredibly passive and dangerously whingy she seems to almost relish the things that go wrong in her life. For somebody who is a Professor, and Head of Department she's a surprisingly easy target to set up. From the allegations of financial impropriety and fraud, to the possibility that her husband Stephen is having an affair, Rebecca seems unable to perceive danger no matter how much piles up at her door, and seems strangely unwilling to actually precipitate any sort of confrontation, or any sort of action that might resolve things.

Instead, after she, and her favoured staff in her University Department are accused of everything possible from a Dean with a chip on her shoulder and a desire to annoy everyone in range, Rebecca heads off to Greece in the hope that whilst she's over there, she can solve the conspiracy that's happening back at home, and win her husband back. Which is an interesting decision on any level, not just because at this stage she can't prove / doesn't necessarily know for sure that Stephen's actually having an affair.

The pace of the book is also teasing and languid, building pace slowly, although there could be many readers who spend the first half wondering what the point of everything is - especially as there is a lot of opportunity to pick the instigator of the frame into which Rebecca willingly walks. Where THE LOST SWIMMER really excels is in the descriptions of landscape, and sea and in some of sub-characters who were vivid and engaging.

Obviously THE LOST SWIMMER is a book that's exploring the nature of love and trust. It's uncomfortable when you're looking at a relationship from inside the head of somebody so conflicted, so fragile, so unsure particularly when on other levels she must be competent, intelligent and capable. An odd experience to read, THE LOST SWIMMER is definitely quite a conversation starter and will probably be one of those books that readers either love or hate.

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  Ned Kelly Awards and the Ngaio Marsh AwardsShe kindly shares some of her reviews of crime and thriller novels from Australian and New Zealand authors on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction