Friday, February 26, 2021

Review: HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE

HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE by Kellye Garrett, narrated by Bahni Turpin (Dreamscape Media, 2020) 

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Dayna Anderson doesn’t set out to solve a murder. All the semi-famous, mega-broke black actress wants is to help her parents keep their house. After witnessing a deadly hit-and-run, she figures pursuing the fifteen-grand reward isn’t the craziest thing a Hollywood actress has done for some cash.

But what starts as simply trying to remember a speeding car soon blossoms into a full-on investigation. As Dayna digs deeper into the victim’s life, she wants more than just reward money. She’s determined to find the poor woman’s killer too. When she connects the accident to a notorious Hollywood crime spree, Dayna chases down leads at paparazzi hot spots, celeb homes and movie premieres. She loves every second—until someone tries to kill her.

And there are no second takes in real life.

You often see reviewers and readers saying things like 'this book made me stay up all night, I just had to read more', but in this case my first taste of award-winning American author Kellye Garrett's crime writing made me walk for miles and miles. Living through the COVID pandemic in London, I've taken to daily walks through local parks; it's great to be around some nature (trees, creeks, pigeons and crows, a few squirrels or the occasional fox, recently the first flowers of spring, etc) and walking is just flat-out good for mind and soul as well as body. As my walks got longer as the pandemic lengthened I started listening to audiobooks at times too, enjoying a great story among the fresh air and scenery. 

I was enjoying HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE so much I lengthened my daily walks that particular weekend and finished the whole thing (10+ hours of narration, though I may have sped it up slightly, but still 8-9 hours) in two days. Lots of miles under the feet that weekend!

Garrett's debut novel made quite the splash following its paperback release in 2017, going on to win an impressive quartet of awards (Agatha, Anthony, Lefty, and IBBY prizes for best first novel) along with nominations for the Barry and Macavity Awards. That's a huge haul, and a rare feat for any author. 

Lighter in tone than many of the crime and thriller tales I read, HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE has a rich vein of humour and some memorable characters that had me smiling and intrigued throughout. 

After having her 15 minutes of fame as the face of Chubby's Chicken, now-retired actress Dayna Anderson is struggling financially and living in a small room at a friend's house. 

Scraping together jobs for fuel and food, and desperate to find money so her parents don't lose their home, Dayna embarks on a scheme to earn the $15,000 reward for information on a deadly hit and run, leading to a series of hilarious and dangerous situations. 

I got into this more and more as I read (listened). Bahni Turpin's narration is on point, and there's just something eminently enjoyable about Garrett's storytelling. Dayna and her pals - fashionista and wannabe reality star Sienna, computer geek Emme who's an identical twin to an A-list actress, and budding TV cop drama star Omari - are a hoot. There's hijinks and humanity. 

Garrett crafts an intriguing vibe with the characters she creates and throws together, and the situations they stumble into. Dayna's hunt for the reward, then deeper thoughts of justice, takes readers (listeners) all over Hollywood. The reality not just the glamour seen on screen. From mansions to cramped rooms, TV sets to auto mechanics. The fame and the falling short (for so many). 

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE, and fully intend to read the other two books in what became a trilogy, in future (HOLLYWOOD ENDING and HOLLYWOOD HACK). 

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Birdsong and unconventional heroes: an interview with Mercedes Rosende

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the latest weekly instalment of our 9mm interview series for 2021. This author interview series has now been running for over a decade, and today marks the 220th overall edition. 

Thanks for reading over the years. I've had tonnes of fun chatting to some amazing writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you. 

My plan is to to publish 40-50 new author interviews in the 9mm series this year. You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. Some amazing writers.

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been featured, let me know in the comments or by sending me a message, and I'll look to make that happen for you. Even as things with this blog may evolve moving forward, I'll continue to interview crime writers and review crime novels.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome award-winning Uruguayan lawyer, journalist, and author Mercedes Rosende to Crime Watch. She is the author of the darkly comic thriller CROCODILE TEARS, a devilish tale of heists and betrayals set in the author's hometown of Montevideo. That book - her first translated into English - won the LiBeraturpreis in 2019, a German literary prize that celebrates the best books from female authors from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Arab world. It was made available for English-speaking readers this year thanks to Bitter Lemon Press and translator Tim Gutteridge.

I've read several Latin American crime writers over the years, from a variety of countries (even Bolivia), but CROCODILE TEARS was my first ever from Uruguay (a country where I farewelled 2007 and said gidday to 2008, during four months in South America). As I said in a review earlier this month, CROCODILE TEARS is "a real cracker. A darkly comic story of weak men, strong women, and a heist gone horribly wrong. A sort of Latin American calamity noir; shades of Fargo - though shifted to the grimy heat of Montevideo rather than the icy climes of the American Midwest."

As part of winning the LiBeraturpreis in 2019, Rosende - who also lives in France - received financial support to help implement a literary project for women or girls in Uruguay. She has won several other prizes for her novels and short stories, including the Premio Municipal de Narrativa for ‘Demasiados Blues’ in 2005, and the National Literature Prize for ‘La Muerte Tendrá tus Ojos’ in 2008. 

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


9MM INTERVIEW WITH MERCEDES ROSENDE 

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I have several crime fiction heroes but one of the first that really fascinated me was Georges Simenon’s detective, Maigret, who I initially read as an adolescent and I’ve continued to reread (or rewatch on TV) ever since. Later, I became more Latin American in my tastes and I was also drawn to less conventional heroes, people living outside the law, women. And that’s how I came up with Ursula, the protagonist of my own novels. But Maigret will always have a place in my personal pantheon.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I read books for younger readers that were generally translated into or, at best, written in European Spanish, which is not the same as the Spanish we speak in Uruguay. My first “grown-up” book was Montevideanos by the great Uruguayan author, Mario Benedetti, and it showed me it was possible to write in “Uruguayan”, in the language I used with my friends and family.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Before I wrote my first crime novel, I had written short stories – but hardly any of them were crime stories – and I’d published one book.

4. Outside of writing and writing-related activities (book events, publicity), what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love having free time, I cope very well with having nothing to do, I enjoy it without either feeling guilty or having the urge to fill every minute with activities to replace work. I enjoy gardening, I like watching movies with friends, and I really love travelling. I also do occasional work for an NGO monitoring elections in other countries. It’s completely different from my work as a writer and I really enjoy it and put a lot of passion into it.

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 best time to visit Montevideo is in early January, when the city is silent and abandoned, there are no cars on the streets, no people on the pavements. It’s the summer holidays and a lot of people leave town for the beach, although Montevideo also has its own beaches. In fact, I’m answering these questions in Montevideo in January, and every day I’m woken up by the deafening sound... of birdsong.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
It would need to be a Uruguayan actress because I’d like them to talk like me, in my local language.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or a bit special to you for some particular reason, and why?
My most recent book is always my favourite, so just now the one that feels special to me is a collection of short stories called Historias de mujeres feas (Stories of Ugly Women).

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 walking down a street in the centre of town, my first book had just come out, a book of short stories called Demasiados blues (Too Many Blues). I went past a small bookshop and there it was, sitting in the window. I was amazed but I also felt like a bit of an imposter. And I still feel like an imposter, like someone who’s passing herself off as a writer.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Taking part in the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2018 and 2019 was one of the most amazing experiences of my life: I went from a tiny fair, in Montevideo, to the largest in the world. Without any stopovers in between!


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

You can follow Mercedes on Twitter here, and nab a copy of CROCODILE TEARS here


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Review: THE CUT

THE CUT by Chris Brookmyre (Little, Brown, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Millie Spark can kill anyone.

A special effects make-up artist, her talent is to create realistic scenes of bloody violence.

Then, one day, she wakes to find her lover dead in her bed.

Twenty-five years later, her sentence for murder served, Millicent is ready to give up on her broken life - until she meets troubled film student and reluctant petty thief Jerry.

Together, they begin to discover that all was not what it seemed on that fateful night . . . and someone doesn't want them to find out why.

Since Chris Brookmyre jolted crime readers with his first Jack Parlabane tale back in the mid-1990s, the Scottish storyteller has delivered plenty of fresh takes and distinctiveness. Whether it was his quirky early tales that were a sweary Scots take on comic crime to the darker places some of his later books treaded, whether it's mysteries in Victorian Edinburgh co-written with Marisa Haetzman under the name Ambrose Parry or twisted space station whodunnits, Brookmyre always entertains. 

So I was very curious about his new standalone, THE CUT. 

Unsurprisingly, I came away impressed and delighted, after an engrossing few hours reading. 

Brookmyre seasons the stew and delivers plenty of fresh flavour with an unusual tag-team of sleuths trying to work out what happened in the past while surviving the present (I guess making this a thriller with a murder mystery component too), and an intriguing dive into horror movie fandom and some behind-the-scenes wizardry and machinations of the European film world. Having said see ya to her sixties a couple of years back, Millicent Spark is shuffling through life and prepping to bring her own curtain down a little early. A quarter century ago Millicent was Millie, a renowned makeup artist on the horror movie scene. She created magic onset, impressing everyone with gruesome deaths. 

Until she lived through the horrors of a gruesome death herself. One morning Millie woke up to a blood-soaked scene to rival those she created on film. Her lover dead, she went to prison. 

'The Video Nasty Killer' screamed the tabloids, stoking public outrage about horror films and their influence. Proclaiming her innocence for years, Millie-now-Millicent served a very long sentence, and doesn't know how to live in the modern world now she's finally out. A shell of her former self, fearful and anxious, yet sharp even brutal with her tongue. Out of place and off-kilter. 

Meanwhile Jerry is a film-loving fresher at a Glasgow University who's said goodbye to his days as a petty thief and burglar after the deaths of two elderly people forced a crisis of conscience. Somewhat. And not if his dangerous past associate has his say. Struggling with life in the halls, Jerry answers an ad to live with three old ladies, including the sharp-tongued Millicent. Two people split by more than five decades, but both harbouring secrets and guilt and feeling like they can't find their footing. 

When Millicent is jolted by an old photo, the duo try to uncover a truth from long ago, kickstarting an unlikely adventure across Europe where film fan Jerry get an up-close experience with movie history, but may not live to write about it. THE CUT is a true delight, a fast-paced thriller with strong characterisation and a good sense of its world, that takes readers behind-the-scenes of an industry that can seem glamorous from afar but is full of grime (and far worse). Brookmyre also raises some interesting issues about depictions of violence onscreen and how that is seen, or used as a political football or scapegoat by politicians and others looking to distract from larger issues or embarrassments. 

Well-drawn characters (beyond our Spring and Autumn heroes) create further tension and laughs - the cast is deep and good. Overall, THE CUT is a very good read from a very good storyteller. Thoroughly enjoyable, a thrill ride that also makes you think. Superb. 


Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Review: POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON'T LOOK FRIENDLY

POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON'T LOOK FRIENDLY by Adrian McKinty, narrated by Gerard Doyle (Blackstone Audio, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Belfast 1988: A man is found dead, killed with a bolt from a crossbow in front of his house. This is no hunting accident. But uncovering who is responsible for the murder will take Detective Sean Duffy down his most dangerous road yet, a road that leads to a lonely clearing on a high bog where three masked gunmen will force Duffy to dig his own grave.

Hunted by forces unknown, threatened by Internal Affairs, and with his relationship on the rocks, Duffy will need all his wits to get out of this investigation in one piece. 

As a long-time fan of Adrian McKinty's storytelling, I was absolutely stoked to see him have some long-overdue huge success with his most recent novel THE CHAIN. McKinty has been an outstanding storyteller for ages, racking up critical acclaim and awards wins and delivering rich, textured crime tales. But through the vagaries of international publishing and publicity foci, his books hadn't gotten into the hands of millions of readers like you thought they would have, given his talent and just how damned good they were.

Recently I've been doing lots of long solo walks through the parks and playing fields near us during the pandemic, and thus listening to a lot more audiobooks. So I decided to load up several of McKinty's outstanding Sean Duffy series for a revisit or a 'first read' (listen) as the case may be. 

Audibly, I began at the end, with POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON'T LOOK FRIENDLY, the sixth of McKinty's Sean Duffy tales. It took me a wee while into the first walk to adjust to Gerard Doyle's strong accent, but I soon settled into a rhythm with him and his narration really flowed well while fitting perfectly with the exciting and very Norn Irish story he was delivering. 

The sixth Duffy tale begins at what may well be the end for Duffy himself: a prologue where he's marched into the countryside to dig his own grave. We then flash back to the case that led to Duffy facing Irish paramilitaries' version of a gallows walk, the unusual killing of a local drug dealer. 

Called back from a holiday taking his baby daughter and girlfriend to visit his parents, Duffy encounters a chaotic crime scene. The victim has been shot by crossbow, neighbours are rubbernecking, and a hungry goat is threatening to munch away evidence after other cops have vacated following an incident. From fear to high farce, McKinty wastes no time showing his skill at eliciting an emotional response in readers (or listeners). Duffy then rolls through an increasingly knotted investigation, thwarted at several turns by his colleagues and superiors as much as the criminals. 

Most presume the crossbow bolt was vigilantes or paramilitary payback for the drug dealer, though there's no public declaration of responsibility. Then the victim's wife goes missing, and Duffy is pressured to end the investigation, while dealing with some internal police force foes gaining in power. 

Can he survive being investigated by his own colleagues, as well as hits puts out on his life? 

McKinty has taken readers through quite the journey with Duffy through the six books, and things come to crisis point in POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON'T LOOK FRIENDLY. 

There is so much to enjoy about this book, and the series as a whole. McKinty wonderfully evokes the 1980s atmosphere of Thatcherite Britain and the smouldering tensions and stark dangers of the Troubles. There's a real richness and freshness to McKinty's storytelling that elevates the Sean Duffy series among a plethora of police procedural series out there. We get keen insights into how it felt to be living through a now-historical period of a longstanding conflict on the Emerald Isle. And that's a key - McKinty makes readers feel, not just skip through a twisting plotline curious as to what may happen or how things may end. There's an emotional and intellectual connection, expertly crafted through the fullness of the characters and the richness of the setting, along with issues raised and explored. 

McKinty has been open about the fact that he initially conceived the Sean Duffy books as a trilogy. So readers are extraordinarily lucky that we've gotten twice that (hopefully with more to come). 

Duffy is a terrific central character. Though he exhibits some traits familiar to mystery lovers, in McKinty's hands he feels fully rounded and nuanced. In POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON'T LOOK FRIENDLY he's under pressure personally (as a new Dad with less-than-simple family and in-law relationships) and professionally. Huge pressure. Life and death - not just his own. 

It was a real joy to read (listen) to this tale, to soak in McKinty's wonderful writing. The Northern Irishman abroad brings style and substance to his storytelling, along with exciting plotlines. 

A terrific book in a superlative series. One of the very, very best around. In the well-stocked pub of crime fiction, McKinty ain't merely a fine Irish whiskey, he's a bottle of Midleton Very Rare. 


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Review: THE DEATH HOUSE

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough (HarperCollins, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Toby's life was perfectly normal... until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.

Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House: an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They're looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it's time to take them to the sanatorium. No one returns from the sanatorium.

Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear. But then a new arrival in the house shatters the fragile peace, and everything changes.

Because everybody dies. It's how you choose to live that counts..

Over the weekend, the Netflix adaptation of Sarah Pinborough's excellent novel BEHIND HER EYES trended on Twitter and hit #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. It reminded me a bit of the buzz when the book itself came out a few years ago, the #WTFthatending type of chatter on social media. 

For some crime fans, the Netflix adaptation is a chance to see a screen version of a story they loved in its bestselling book form. For others, it may be a first experience of Pinborough's creativity, quality storytelling, and warped mind. The good news is there's plenty more to sample; while BEHIND HER EYES was a breakthrough book, it's only one of more than twenty books on Pinborough's backlist - which ranges across YA, sci-fi/fantasy, fairy tale retellings, TV tie-ins, and various thrillers. 

Another book of Pinborough's that I really loved, but didn't review in longer form at the time (though I did include it in a roundup of my favourite new-to-me authors of 2015), was THE DEATH HOUSE. 

This is a beautifully written novel that dances across genre 'boundaries', mixing all sorts of elements into a really wonderful, suspenseful read that tickles the mind and tugs at the heart. It's set in a dystopian future where certain youngsters are segregated away in an isolated 'school', awaiting their fate after a blood test has marked them as having a 'defective' gene. A terminal diagnosis. Marking time until they too will get sick and be sent to the sanatorium, from where no kid has ever returned. 

There's a resonant sense of humanity in Pinborough's tale, which sort of mixes the British boarding school tales of decades past (lessons and chores, friendships and coming-of-age concerns) with something darker and creepier - though not utterly bleak. It's a story about life, love, and death. 

There's plenty of psychological suspense going on, among other elements. Readers - like the characters themselves - are left with plenty of questions and fewer answers about the genetic ailment that is seen as so dangerous and deadly that children are torn from their families and sent far, far away to an isolated British island to be watched, taught (for what, if they have no future?), and then to die. 

There's a sort of mesmerising quality to THE DEATH HOUSE, and Pinborough crafts an evocative sense of place - even if there are so many things we don't know. The adolescent characters are superbly drawn - from leads Toby and Clara to plenty of secondary characters - and what they go through packs a real emotional wallop. Pinborough makes us care, then takes a tenderizer to our hearts. 

Overall THE DEATH HOUSE is a superb novel from a talented storyteller. Readers who need everything spelled out or made clear may struggle with the open-endedness of many aspects, and the questions unanswered. But in the end this is a story about people more than plotlines. When I picked up THE DEATH HOUSE I'd been meaning to give Sarah Pinborough a go for a while, having heard good things. I was not disappointed; she added herself to my 'must-read' list. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Review: THE DEVILS YOU KNOW

THE DEVILS YOU KNOW by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin, 2021)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Vincent needs a change. He's spent the last fifteen years in covert operations for the US government, but after a botched and fatal mission, he decides he's done with pulling triggers.

He lucks into a dream job in Santa Barbara as head of security for supermarket mogul Eugene Lamar: nothing more than driving the boss to and from golf, with ample downtime for surfing, or sitting by the pool contemplating life-and how to live it with a zero body count.

But there's a problem: if Lamar's business is confined to supermarkets, why does he need a panic room full of assault rifles, and a .357 revolver in his car? It doesn't take long for Vincent to find out that Lamar owes a debt to bad people - and that's only the start of it. He's ensnared in a criminal enterprise, which soon brings costs in lives as well as money.

It seems that Santa Barbara is a sunny town full of dark talent, and Vincent will have to revert to dark talents of his own if he's going to survive . . .

Should you be judged by your intentions or by the consequences of your actions? This is the question throughout THE DEVILS YOU KNOW, from the rightness of taking a job, pursuing a fixation, or invading a country. Vincent decides to leave New York after his protecting a workmate ends up with three people in hospital and his house being blown up. He decides to take a “High pay, low stress” job protecting a California supermarket magnate, but things quickly start to get complicated.

Vincent is a jandal-wearing surfer with a lot of baggage from his past deployment with the military and special ops. His military disillusionment was complete after he read the Wikileaked CIA report on the use of torture. He is averse to guns, yet he seems to end up surrounded by them. Vincent is a big reader – at one point he uses Philip Roth and Martin Amis as protection, literally. He is writing a screenplay and is prone to a bit of philosophising, “…if a life’s got too much grey area, it doesn’t matter if you run it forward or back – it looks the same ethically”. Early on he decides he’s had enough of the supermarket magnate, but then things turn very bad and the magnate’s daughter, Erin, becomes the target of some very nasty people when she is set to inherit her father’s millions.

Erin is not unused to being a target, her first book outed drug crime families. But her second book, in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has brought on another level of fury. She is dropped by a publisher and some of her public speaking gigs are cancelled. She has a difficult ex-husband who is not keen on her talking to her only son, and she is barely in contact with her father, who dislikes her politics. But when she discovers her father and some of his staff seem to have been embroiled in something extremely unlawful and dangerous, and that people are after her for 30 million dollars, she is determined to find the truth. And she asks her father’s ex-bodyguard for protection, jandals and all.

Vincent and Erin’s enquiries proceed apace; there are thrills, a mystery, and the attraction between two people with similar outlooks but totally opposing views. Vincent is a great character, tough and deadly, yet self-conscious when around Erin. And their discussions about war, with her clarity and his “boots-on-the-ground perspective” are superb, a counter to the social media-driven “abandonment of the middle ground when it came to political discourse.” There is a penultimate moment when you get to imagine the narrative taking a turn away from the reality of the situation, but then the reality comes crashing in again.

There are other complex characters in THE DEVILS YOU KNOW: Locke, the US Marshall, realising he’s got everything worth living for yet wondering why he is fixated on catching one scumbag. Beauden, who runs Bluesmoke, the agency Vincent is working for, and who is slowly falling apart as the story unrolls. And the psychopath Andre, happy to be what he is: “All these levels to life. Money, people, the power and authority they got. You have to know where you fit in, what your score is. And I only got one side to my life and that means one way to measure it. So what am I worth if I let you out of here having said that I won’t?”

The plot of THE DEVILS YOU KNOW is satisfyingly wound up, but the joy of the book is in the characters and their ponderings, Vincent looking out a window at night: “The whole city like something biological, a brain map: every neuron glowing, some of them with bad ideas”, wondering about the contrast between civilian killing and wartime violence where you kill and move on and there are “No white sheets, no numbered markers by the drops of blood”. 

The descriptions of locale and action are sharp and visceral and through the book the California wildfires get closer and closer, adding to the tension. I have really liked Sanders’ writing over the years, and THE DEVILS YOU KNOW is a great addition. Read it and see if you agree!    

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

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Review: SMOKE SCREEN

SMOKE SCREEN by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, translated by Megan Turney (Orenda Books, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Oslo, New Year’s Eve. The annual firework celebration is rocked by an explosion, and the city is put on terrorist alert.

Police officer Alexander Blix and blogger Emma Ramm are on the scene, and when a severely injured survivor is pulled from the icy harbour, she is identified as the mother of two-year-old Patricia Semplass, who was kidnapped on her way home from kindergarten ten years earlier … and never found.

Blix and Ramm join forces to investigate the unsolved case, as public interest heightens, the terror threat is raised, and it becomes clear that Patricia’s disappearance is not all that it seems…

I'm a fan of both Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, as storytellers and just great blokes too (oh for the days when we all perhaps took for granted the many opportunities to hang out at crime writing festivals). So I was intrigued by their teaming up for a series starring Oslo cop Alexander Blix and online journalist Emma Ramm (interestingly the two protagonists reflect Horst and Enger's prior careers - though I don't know if this means they each write that particular character's viewpoint). 

SMOKE SCREEN opens with New Year's Eve celebrations at the harbour in Oslo, an icy borderline between one year ending and another beginning. But the year isn't the only thing to end as midnight approaches; a bomb goes off, and lives are lost. An investigation begins. Is it a terrorist attack - or something more targeted? The fact that among the victims is a woman some believe was involved with the disappearance of her own daughter ten years before, has Blix wondering if there was something more to the bombing than a random attack on the public at a busy time and place. 

After the explosive beginning, this novel settles into an absorbing tale that draws you in slowly and surely as Blix and Ramm both look to get to the bottom of both what happened at the harbour, and why, and what happened to little Patricia Semplass all those years ago (a case that still troubles Blix). 

Both are motivated by something more than just their professional roles. 

Horst and Enger almost lull readers with their smooth style as events unfold, setting us up for the revelations to come. Blix and Ramm are intriguing main characters, linked by tragedies and operating in ways similar and contrasting. It's a fascinating relationship. The characterisation and character interplay is good throughout, from our heroes to Blix's police partner Kovic to various individuals that crop up in the story: incarcerated father, grieving parent, immigrant hotel maid, and more.

There's a sense of humanity, and sorrow, throughout the book. Of the weight of actions taken and tragedies old and new. It's a clever tale that mesmerises more than hitting you over the head with obvious action or style. While at the same time it does pack some emotional oomph. 

A good read from two very good authors. 


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He writes about crime fiction for newspapers, magazines and websites in several countries, and has appeared onstage at festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Review: PASSENGER 23

PASSENGER 23 by Sebastian Fitzek, translated by Jamie Bulloch (Head of Zeus, 2021) 

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Every year, on average 23 people disappear without a trace from cruise ships. No one has ever come back. Until now.

Five years ago Martin Schwarz, a police psychologist, lost his wife and son. They were holidaying on a cruise ship when they simply vanished. A lackluster investigation was unable to shed any light on what happened—murder-suicide being the coroner's verdict. It is a verdict that has haunted Martin ever since, blighting his life. 

But then he is contacted by an elderly woman, a writer, who claims to have information regarding their fate and wants him to come on board The Sultan of the Seas immediately. She explains that his wife and son are not the only mother and child pair to have disappeared. Only a few months ago another mother and daughter also vanished. She believes there may be a serial killer on board. But when the missing daughter reappears—carrying the teddy bear of Martin's missing son—it becomes apparent that the truth could be much, much worse...

Berlin thriller author Sebastian Fitzek is an absolutely massive name across Europe, though until recently his tales have only sporadically been available in English (sometimes as audio dramas but not in print). His debut, THERAPY, knocked Dan Brown from atop the bestseller list in Germany. His books have now sold 13 million copies, been translated into 24 languages, won numerous awards, and been adapted for both screen (five films) and stage. Along with audio dramas and even board games. 

So I went into PASSENGER 23 quite curious - as I'd heard a fair bit about him as a thriller writer (the biggest in Germany), but hadn't yet read any of his work. I came away very much seeing what all the fuss was about. It's a high-concept book that also delivers on character depth and style. 

Like Stuart MacBride and Paul Cleave, Fitzek is unafraid about taking readers into some pretty dark places, yet does so with a touch that means things never seem gratuitous. There's emotional impact and suggestion and powerful writing. 

After suffering a huge personal tragedy while he was undercover, police psychologist Martin Schwartz is now addicted to the most dangerous undercover gigs. He has nothing left to lose. But he's lured onto the floating township that is The Sultan of the Seas cruise ship by something more personal after the missing daughter of a presumed murder-suicide reappears onboard months later. 

While looking to help the girl who came back from the dead - while fending off the machinations of those more concerned with publicity, business, and other matters than the girl's wellbeing - can Martin also uncover the truth behind his own tragedy? And perhaps hunt a serial killer – or worse – at sea?

Fitzek drops readers into a setting that when you stop to think about it, is like a floating town. Imagine a dizzying array of cultures, personalities, and vices all thrust together in a contained space, living side-by-side with no law enforcement. It's a dicey situation, and a landscape where it would be very easy to make someone disappear. A ship could have travelled many miles on the vast ocean before anyone even realised someone had been lost at sea - by suicide, accident, or something far more sinister. 

Evidence washed away by the currents. 

Overall I thought PASSENGER 23 was a terrific tale. Fitzek delivers a cracking good read that has personality and punch to its prose, along with the high-concept set-up and well-drawn characters that make you care. And fear. And laugh. There's several nasty topics that are explored (eg paedophile rings and child abuse), so it could be too dark for some. But it never feels gratuitous. 

While English-speaking readers are playing catch-up with Fitzek's oeuvre, the good news is that Head of Zeus are publishing five of his books in a 12-month period, so there's lots of great reading ahead. 

Take a look at this one. I'll certainly be reading the others (eg AMOK, SEAT 7A). 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter.