Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hearsay and Red Herring

When does crime pay? Where do facts end and fiction begin? How can you stop the truth getting in the way of a good story? 

Auckland novelist Jonothan Cullinane will give his take on these and other questions at Hearsay and Red Herring, a free public event at Grey Lynn Library from 6pm on Thursday 23 March.

Cullinane’s debut novel RED HERRING, published in the lead-up to last Christmas, is a New Zealand bestseller. The Auckland Libraries waiting list has only recently dipped below 100 requesters for nearly 50 copies.

Set during Auckland's infamous waterfront dispute of 1951, RED HERRING stars Johnny Molloy, a private detective whose fraud investigation takes him on a car chase through Grey Lynn streets and earns him a pummelling out the back of the Returned Services Club.

Other characters include major players of the time, such as Federation of Labour ‘hard man’ Patrick Fintan Walsh, union leader Jock Barnes and PM Sid Holland. The author worked to make their voices in the novel as true to life as possible, even if some of the events are fictional.

The book is getting good reviews. “What a cracker!” writes Crime Watch blog contributor Alyson Baker of this “noir novel set in tea-drenched 1950s New Zealand”. The Spinoff calls Red Herring “a damned good read”, rating it one of the best fiction books of 2016.

Those attending Hearsay and Red Herring at Grey Lynn Library, 474 Great North Rd, can hear some rollicking good stories, enjoy a glass of wine, ask searching questions, and pick up a signed copy of the book at a cash stall staffed by indie bookseller Dear Reader.

Hearsay and Red Herring (with Jonothan Cullinane)
6pm, Thursday 23 March, 
Grey Lynn Library
474 Great North Road, Auckland

Monday, March 20, 2017


THE DIRECTION OF OUR FEAR by David Briggs (BMS Books, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

On a morning commuter train in New Zealand's capital city, Wellington, the lives of three people briefly intersect. Sally is a 17-year-old, tentatively stepping into womanhood. Brendan is a middle-aged widower, living in the shadow of his wife's death. Tamas is a Hungarian immigrant, missing his wife and child as he struggles to begin a new life far from home. Meanwhile, in a nondescript building near Dunedin's Otago University, Farida translates messages for the security services and catches glimpses of a plot that could threaten them all. 

What a great book! THE DIRECTION OF OUR FEAR looks at the many many small decisions we make every day that result in benefit or harm, to ourselves or to others. Sometimes small harms and slights, sometimes catastrophic. It deals with the networks we are a part of; those we know of and those we don’t – and the many alternative universes that shimmer before they collapse down to the one that we experience.

It is a tense and absorbing story of four people. Three – Brendan an Irish widower, Sally a young school girl, and Tamás a Hungarian immigrant – are all connected by travelling on the morning commuter train to Wellington each day. The fourth protagonist is Farida, a young Muslim woman working as a translator for the security services in Dunedin.

We follow all of them and learn of their dreams, their regrets, and their opportunities. They are all dealing with possible changes to their lives – Brendan thinking of starting a new relationship, Sally crossing into adulthood, Tamás trying to make a place in New Zealand for himself and his Hungary-based family, and Farida trying to make sense of her own world and that which she glimpses via her security work, and struggling with what to do when she thinks the two might be overlapping.  And we read of all of this within the frame of terrorist threats.

A sense of pending tragedy looms as you read of Brendan, Sally, Tamás and Farida – ordinary people whose lives may or may not soon be engulfed in disaster.  Highly recommended.

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: DRIVEN

DRIVEN by James Sallis (Poisoned Pen Press, 2012)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

DRIVEN is the sequel to DRIVE, now also an award-winning film. As we exit the initial novel, Driver has killed Bernie Rose, “the only one he ever mourned,” ending his campaign against those who double-crossed him. DRIVEN tells how that young man, done with killing, later will become the one who goes down “at 3 am on a clear, cool morning in a Tijuana bar.” 

Seven years have passed. Driver has left the old life, become Paul West, and founded a successful business back in Phoenix. Walking down the street one day, he and his fiancee are attacked by two men and, while Driver dispatches both, his fiancee is killed. Sinking back into anonymity, aided by his friend Felix, an ex-gangbanger and Desert Storm vet, Driver retreats, but finds that his past stalks him and will not stop. He has to turn and face it.

I haven't yet read DRIVE, or watched the award-winning Hollywood film of the same name that was adapted from James Sallis's acclaimed noir novel, so I approached this sequel without any preconceptions about whether or not the story of 'Driver' should be continued. But reading DRIVEN definitely cemented my appreciation and admiration of Sallis's talent, which I first experienced last year with SALT RIVER. This is a similarly short book, packed with powerful prose and a keen eye for the nooks and crannies of human nature. Sallis is a poet as well as a novelist, and that comes through in his noir tales, with plenty of layers and meaning distilled into his terse storytelling.

Paul West, as 'Driver' is now known, has left behind his old life of Hollywood B-Grade movie stunts and robbery getaway driving. He's found some form of happiness - a fiancee, honest work, hopes for the future - but that is all suddenly torn away when thugs come for him, killing his fiancee.

What does he do now? Just because he's dispatched the thugs and his sweetheart is dead, doesn't mean the threat is over. Someone seems very determined to hurt him. Or more than one someone.

This is a riveting book. A page-turner that draws you in and straps you to your seat with its exquisite and evocative prose, even if the plotting style can be rather loose at times. This is neo-noir with capital Ns. It won't be for everyone: it's stylistic, characters drift in and out, many things are left unresolved. But I was transfixed from page one. Sallis brings Driver's world vividly to life, as he regresses back to old ways, if with greater experience and a different perspective now, as he tries to avoid getting killed, and work out just who is trying to punch his ticket, so many years later.

Sallis's storytelling is gritty and violent. Mercy is sparse. DRIVEN is a short but powerful tale, one that I tore through like, well, a getaway driver fleeing the scene of a crime. Excellent.

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017


SKIN OF TATTOOS by Christina Hoag (2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Los Angeles homeboy Magdaleno is paroled from prison after serving time on a gun possession frameup by a rival, Rico, who takes over as gang shotcaller in Mags’s absence. Mags promises himself and his Salvadoran immigrant family a fresh start, but he can’t find either the decent job or the respect he craves from his parents and his firefighter brother, who look at him as a disappointment. 

Moreover, Rico, under pressure to earn money to free the Cyco Lokos’ jailed top leader and eager to exert his authority over his rival-turned-underling, isn’t about to let Mags get out of his reach. Ultimately, Mags’ desire for revenge and respect pushes him to make a decision that ensnares him in a world seeded with deceit and betrayal, where the only escape from rules that carry a heavy price for transgression is sacrifice.

When I first started reading this book, I was thinking there are only so many stories you can tell – and that this was the one about the guy that gets out of prison, wants to go straight, can’t due to societal stigma and intolerance, so he gets back into the criminal life big time and things do not go well.

The story was being told by ‘the guy’, in this case Mags (Magdeleno) a Salvadoran LA gangbanger. I was enjoying his narrative style – salted with patois that was exotic, but also familiar from all the movies and TV programmes I have seen about LA gangs.

But then, as well as just cruising through the book, I started to become totally engrossed in Mags’ world; the characters Mags engages with are flawed and have agendas, which make them untrustworthy and far from predictable, and Mags himself is a complex character who makes some very bad decisions about what and what not to do.

Mags’ gang is the Cyco Lokos, and while he has been locked up, the ‘shotcaller’ of the gang, Chivas, has also been imprisoned. Mags was Chivas’ lieutenant, but that place has been taken by Rico – the guy who set Mags up to take his rap for illegal firearm possession – and with Chivas locked up, Rico is calling the shots.  Although angry at this, Mags has decided to go straight, not wanting to go back inside and also wanting to grow his relationship with Paloma, his best friend’s sister. But he gets pushed back into gang action – and into confrontation with Rico. And there is a comfort in this: “Revenge is the regaining of control. There’s nothing so empowering, so elating.”

But truly terrible things occur as Mags tries to set things straight and get his homies back on track, and he starts to realise that the gang code gets more flexible the higher you go up ranks. If everyone is out for themselves, who can you ever totally trust to be on your side?  Even within his family, his alcoholic father, his hotshot firefighter brother, his Catholic turned Pentecostal Mother, and his sisters - one of whom has got involved with a banger from a rival gang – who will see him for who he is and not just see the gang tattoos that scream out what he is.

The tattoos are a great metaphor “They were a part of me, but not the whole of me”, they are a comfort as they give Mags identity, but they are a burden as they don’t allow others to want to see who he is and to what he might aspire.  Along Mags’ journey, as well as the fear and violence, there are some lovely moments: the family dinner where Mags felt “No matter what had happened in the past, I belonged at that table”, and when Mags’ clica crew sat around telling stories about a dead homeboy “til the wind blew through our clothes and the sea turned nimbus grey”.

SKIN OF TATTOOS is full of the inevitability of lost lives; of those who can’t escape the deeply worn tracks of their predecessors, even those “moving up the food chain who thought they were leaving the ghetto behind when they arrived in the San Fernando suburbs, but they just bought the ghetto with them”. The sympathy Hoag has for her unsympathetic characters is effective – whenever someone does something awful you find yourself thinking not that they are bad to the bone, but that something awful must have happened to them for this to be their reality. Mags even manages to conjure up sympathy for the despicable Rico: “For an instant I felt sorry for Rico. Just an instant.”

And it’s those instants that have you rooting for Mags and worrying about him – so, have a read and get to know him. This is a great debut novel from Hoag, who is an LA-based Kiwi writer.

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

Monday, March 13, 2017


A BRIEFCASE, TWO PIES, AND A PENTHOUSE by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Rachel McManus has just started at the New Zealand Alarm and Response Ministry. One of the few females working there, she is forced to traverse the peculiarities of Wellington bureaucracy, lascivious colleagues, and decades of sedimented hierarchy. She has the chance to prove herself by investigating a suspected terrorist, who they fear is radicalising impressionable youth and may carry out an attack himself on the nation's capital. 

The title of this novel refers to a true incident in 1981 when one of New Zealand's top SIS spooks lost his briefcase; when it was discovered by a journalist it had been left in the Aro Valley and found to contain his business cards, a diary of scurrilous gossip, three mince pies, two fruit pies, the NZ Listener, and a Penthouse magazine. The novel isn’t about this embarrassing incident, it is however about the inanity of government agencies, especially those tasked with impossible jobs – like for example keeping all New Zealanders safe from an ill-defined threat.

If you have ever worked in a government department, especially a risk-averse one, you will sympathise with Rachel McManus. Rachel has just started working for the New Zealand Alarm and Response Ministry. She has previously been a civil servant so isn’t totally unprepared for the experience – but this is a time of global panic in the face of the unfortunately termed ‘Islamic Threat’. Rachel faces the usual misogyny and racism – but writ large due to the ridiculously heightened stress levels. She suffers the lecherous co-workers, the embarrassing after-work drinks, the insane meetings where no one wants to admit they don’t know or don’t understand, the slavish subservience to hierarchy – but all dialled up to 11.5.

Rachel is tasked – sort of – with tracking a terror suspect. Having the most invasive technologies at her fingertips she plunges in. The suspect is suspected of inculcating youth with radical ideas picked up overseas, and there is a consequential concern that he might be planning an attack somewhere in Wellington.

The novel becomes farcical when the evidence and the suspicions grow further and further apart; and there is a crazy sequence where Rachel decides to do some old fashioned on-foot surveillance to try and clarify matters. She has no surveillance skills whatsoever.  In fact, she has no skills full stop given her parlous training – but possibly because of this rather than despite it, she is the only one in the Ministry who has any common sense. But due to her being young and a woman, she might as well be yelling into a Wellington gale when attempting to inform her colleagues and bosses of her views.

Given the novel’s inexorable style it has no real shape – but makes its point very compellingly regarding racial profiling and bureaucracy gone mad.  And there are enough real world incidents thrown in (not out of place at all amongst the absurdity) to keep the novel worryingly grounded.

So, given there are still questions to be answered around how a country should position itself in a world at threat from terror attacks, A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse is at once funny, tragic and disturbing.

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

150 #Yeahnoir Reviews

Back when I started this blog in 2009, one of the many things I wanted to do (other than sharing excess information from author interviews that didn't make it into the features and reviews I was writing for various magazines and newspapers, and sharing news, local events and general thoughts on crime writing) was to provide a space for sharing more information about New Zealand crime writers - many of whom didn't have websites at the time. Overall I think several of my original goals have been ticked off, even if Crime Watch has become a tad unwieldy with so many historic posts.

Today, I've realised that we've hit a bit of a milestone, publishing our 150th review of a book by a New Zealand crime writer. That's a lot of crime novels, good and great, by Kiwi authors. And honestly, there are still many #yeahnoir books we have yet to review. I say we because several other booklovers have contributed reviews to Crime Watch over the years. I'm very grateful.

I created the graphic above to illustrate the 150 #yeahnoir books reviewed thusfar. You can see an alphabetical list, with links to each of the reviews, here - or by clicking on the tab above.

So far we've covered 88 different authors, and a wide variety of books, from murder mysteries published in the 1930s right up until 2017. Lots of different types of crime fiction and settings too.

Thanks to all of the reviewers, and to all of the authors for the good and great reads.



NO RED HERRINGS by Mary Scott & Joyce West (Angus & Robertson, 1964)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A trip to Honolulu was Beth Sutherland's prize for winning a quiz contest. Soon after she comes back to her home on a New Zealand sheep farm she disappears suddenly. Her disappearance follows the discovery of a murder in the village. Inspector Wright, who has solved other mysteries no less perplexing in the heart of the New Zealand countryside, is soon on the spot.

Back in the early 1960s Ngaio Marsh was still going strong as one of the Queens of Crime Fiction, but she wasn't the only Kiwi women penning popular mystery tales. In fact two well-established authors, Mary Scott and Joyce West, teamed up and wrote five rural thrillers set in the New Zealand countryside.

Scott, then in her seventies, had written bestselling novels about life and romance in rural New Zealand that were translated into foreign languages (and were particularly popular in Germany), while West, then in her fifties, also wrote about farming life as well as being a children's author.

Both were rural women who loved and understood country life - who had farming and a love of animals in their bones - and that clearly comes through in this murder mystery.

NO RED HERRINGS is the fourth of five thrillers the pair wrote together, and its evocation of 1960s rural New Zealand is one of several things that makes it worth digging out (the book is out of print but can be found online or in secondhand bookstores). It was the first of the duo's crime novels that I've read, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but overall I really enjoyed the read. It is somewhat dated and old-fashioned, as you'd expect for a novel written and set in the early 1960s - and in farmland New Zealand, which really was the outskirts of the former British empire. Supposedly a land of milk and honey, but also of a hardscrabble life where people may struggle to make ends meet, even if surrounded by the kind of landscapes city folk and the urban poor could only dream of.

Beth Sutherland is a young woman who loves horses and gets a chance at a trip of a lifetime when a quiz prize rests on equine knowledge. After she returns, things don't go so well, however, as she disappears while out on a horse ride. It's a double blow for the small community, as someone else has been murdered. Surely it must be outsiders who've committed these awful acts? Or worse, is it someone they know? Inspector Wright - who features in other Scott & West crime novels - arrives to conduct the police investigation, also calling in a private citizen he knows and trusts. An expert in horses, who has more than that to offer. But they're not the only two on the hunt for the criminals.

NO RED HERRINGS is a pleasant read that would be particularly enjoyed by fans of the old-fashioned 'cosy' crime novels. There are violent acts committed, but it's not a violent book. Scott & West excel in bringing the rural community to vivid life, from the day to day work to social occasions like country fairs and large group hunts. There's a variety of personalities, all of whom are given enough depth to not be caricatures of country folk. There's a little bit of humour, and things never get too dark, even as evil deeds occur. The mystery plotline itself isn't particularly twisty or outrageous, but the book unfolds at a lovely pace, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

I'll definitely be reading the others in the series. NO RED HERRINGS is a tale from another time, written in another time, and was very nice palate cleanser from the slicker, often more violent, modern crime novels that dominate my 'to be read' mountain. Worth reading.

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


SECOND GUESS by Rose Beecham (Silver Moon Books, 1994)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When Detective Inspector Amanda Valentine is called to the murder scene of Sybil Knight, daughter of a former Ambassador to the United States, she already feels the case is a political hot potato. But when she arrives to find the body has been found trussed and battered in a private room of a lesbian sex club, she knows it will take every ounce of her skill and courage to track down the killer. Sure enough, the investigation is thwarted at every turn by a voracious media and a powerful family determined to cover up the facts. It soon becomes clear Sybil had many secrets, and just as many enemies. 

After reading Beecham's engaging crime debut THE GARBAGE DUMP MURDERS last year, which had the eponymous title INTRODUCING AMANDA VALENTINE in the United States, I immediately hopped online and sourced copies of the second and third books in her Amanda Valentine series from the early-mid 1990s. Although the first book fell into the 'good not great', enjoyable rather than excellent category for me, I had been thoroughly engaged, was keen to see how Valentine's story developed, and wanted to grab some Kiwi crime history. For Beecham was one of a group of talented and groundbreaking writers, including Val McDermid and Stella Duffy, who were bringing lesbian protagonists into popular crime fiction ore than twenty year ago. 

I found the second Amanda Valentine to be as engaging and readable as the first. I was quickly pulled into the story in SECOND GUESS, and enjoyed riding along with Detective Valentine as she carefully steps her way through a minefield of lurid media speculation and powerful interests to try and find a young woman's killer. Forced to keep her own sexuality private in the masculine world of policing, she has to delve into others' private lives - the very thing she tries to prevent the media doing to her - in order to solve the murder. This is one of several ways in which Beecham brings some depth to the intriguing character of Valentine, who is a talented and persistent investigator who is also filled with doubts, frustrations, and inner conflicts, despite her 'having it all together' outward appearance and hard-earned reputation. 

SECOND GUESS also threads in some interesting issues surrounding privacy, sexuality, media coverage of sensational crimes (and what the media think is news or not), and how power is wielded in relation to various groups of people. But at its heart it's a good murder mystery, a plot-based tale that takes readers on an excursion through 1990s Wellington, a capital city that has something of a smaller town feel, rather than its sprawling metropolitan counterparts abroad. I found the pages turning quickly, and immediately went and got the third off the shelf when I got to the end. 

The Amanda Valentine series is sadly now out of print, but you can find copies online and in secondhand bookstores. It's worth digging out. I'm glad I did. 

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