Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Review: CODE ME MISSING

CODE ME MISSING by PMA Hayes (2019)

Reviewed by Fran Hartley

Tension rises in a hospital clinical coding office when beautiful Keely doesn’t turn up for work. Everyone is worried. Or are they? Is Keely seen as a love rival by Emily who likes the handsome Nick and wants him to ask her out? Or is she unpopular because of someone's auditing results? Then there’s the manager’s position, soon to be advertised. Keely is highly qualified and could get the job. Perhaps their current manager is worried she’s not going to be rehired. Keely's best friend, Julie, faces danger while trying to unravel what has happened to her friend.

This book is described as a 'Hospital Thriller'. The main characters work in a hospital clinical coding department that analyses critical statements, and assigns codes for a multitude of data for any disease, condition or circumstance that occur to hospital clients. This information may be a surprise to those who did not know that every conceivable condition in hospital has to be coded. However, this is the only department featured in this story and I was expecting more of a medical scenario and hospital drama.

The story begins when the main character, Julie, goes to work as usual on a Monday morning to find that her work- mate, protege and best friend, Keely, fails to appear for her shift, and a creepy message is left on her computer.

The characters are well described and the reader can quickly form a picture of the different personalities; and one character provoked my dislike! Which is a compliment to the author! The plot makes for a good story with a few twists and turns, highlighting the destructive elements of jealousy and the importance of good friends.

It is a murder, mystery story, but does lack a bit of excitement and suspense to keep the reader gripped. I prefer a more intricate story that keeps the interest going, and guessed the perpetrator of the crime early into the plot.

I found the style of writing rather simplistic and would probably recommend it to readers of early teens. Or – an easy book for a poolside holiday, quickly read, uncomplicated and easy to follow. There is very little gruesome detail and no sexual content that would make it an adults-only book.



This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Flaxflower founder and editor Bronwyn Elsmore. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Basset hounds and finding her voice through Yelp reviews: an interview with Steph Cha

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the first instalment of 9mm for the New Year (and new decade). 9mm has been running for almost a decade itself now, on and off, and today marks the 212th overall edition of this author interview series.

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.

You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here.

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

Today I'm very pleased to welcome the brilliant Steph Cha to Crime Watch. A Los Angeles native of Korean descent, Steph first hit the crime scene back in 2013 with FOLLOW HER HOME, an edgy amateur sleuth tale that introduced Korean American investigator Juniper Song. One of my favourite crime writers, Denise Mina, raved about Steph's debut, calling it: "compelling from first to last page" and "LA Noir at its finest", praising Steph for taking on contemporary Los Angeles, "sweeping the reader through Chandler's twilight, heartbroken city from mansions to faux K-town hostess bars."

There have been three Juniper Song novels, but more recently Steph has been getting huge raps from peers and reviewers due to her stunning standalone YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY, which was released in the United States late last year and in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand this week. Inspired by a real-life case somewhat entwined with the LA riots in the early 1990s, YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY is an extraordinary novel; character-centric crime fiction with plenty of social consciousness. I loved it.

If you enjoy novels that explore social issues and race relations, or just very well-written crime fiction, I'd highly recommend grabbing a copy of YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY.

But for now Steph Cha becomes the latest storyteller to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPH CHA

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I think I have to go with Philip Marlowe here. I’m an LA native, and I came to the genre through Raymond Chandler. I love Marlowe’s wounded idealism and wry voice, and like many a crime novelist, I started writing in conversation with Chandler. Of the contemporaries, though, (and I’m cheating here, since you only asked for one) I love Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt, Attica Locke’s Darren Mathews, and Michael Connelly’s Renée Ballard.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I read a picture book when I was very small called Sayonara, Mrs Kackleman. It was by the artist Maira Kalman, and it was full of fun images and wordplay. I also remember loving the Amelia Bedelia books and The Phantom Tollbooth, probably for similar reasons. These books showed me the delight of language.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I’d written a couple of short stories for an introductory fiction writing class. There was no crime involved—I remember one of them was about an immigrant Mom calling her American daughter a cunt. I’d also written hundreds of Yelp reviews, and I honestly think they helped me find my voice.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love to eat, drink, read, and cuddle my basset hounds. I also enjoy word games and poker and the occasional jigsaw puzzle (I can’t do them regularly, as I become fixated). I will make an excellent retiree.

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?
They should eat as much Korean, Thai, and Mexican food as they can manage. LA is home to every kind of person - it’s what makes the city great - and there’s no better way to experience it, in one glutton’s opinion, than to eat your way through its many neighbourhoods.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
I’d have to go with Awkwafina.

7. Of your books, which is your favourite or a little bit special for you, and why?
The new one is my favourite. I’ve liked each one of my books better than the last - I’ve only written four, so I’m still improving with every one just because I go back in each time with a whole novel’s worth more of experience. Your House Will Pay is the most ambitious and expansive of my books. I spent a long time on it, and it turned out the way I wanted.

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 thrilled, of course. I remember getting a phone call from my first editor while I was on a temp job and taking it in the hallway outside my office. It had been a year and a half since I finished my first draft of Follow Her Home, and I’d gone through the whole process of finding an agent and editing without knowing whether the book would see the light of day. It was such a relief and a joy to have it accepted, and I loved seeing it for the first time at my local bookstore.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I don’t know about strangest, but I’ll tell you a recent one that I rather enjoyed. I did a reading at a bookstore in San Francisco, and two women I’d never met before came with their basset hounds. They’d discovered my writing through an essay I wrote years ago on the cult of the basset, and somehow ended up reading my very unbassety crime fiction. One of the basset gentlemen had quite a bit to say when I was taking audience questions. I spent a lot of time petting both him and his friend during the signing. I would encourage anyone reading this to bring bassets to my events.


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

You can find out more about Steph Cha and her writing at her website, and by following her on Twitter

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Review: THE WORST LIE

THE WORST LIE by Shauna Bickley (2019)

Reviewed by Jeannie McLean

Their college days are long-gone, but their reunion will be murder…

When Lexie Wyatt’s close friend Helen is frightened by an unexpected visit from an ex-university flatmate, Lexie is determined to help. She contrives an invitation to a weekend reunion of the group at one of England’s ancient stone circles. While there one of them admits they believe their long-dead friend was murdered. Digging into the flatmates’ secrets, Lexie discovers they have lied. Could they also have committed murder?

There is another murder at the stone circles, and Lexie uncovers information that may connect the two crimes… and implicate her good friend. Is someone targeting the former students, or is the killer one of the group? After another murder, Lexie is in a race against time to discover the killer before there are yet more deaths. 

Is one lie worse than another? Is a lie by omission, still a lie? If a lie only affects one other person, is it less of a lie than one that impacts on the lives of a number of people? If another person reacts badly to the first lie, whose fault is that?

The Worst Lie, New Zealand author, Shauna Bickley’s sequel to Still Death, opens with a sacrificial body placed on a fallen slab within a stone circle. It soon becomes apparent this is not the first death.
And so the reader is drawn in. We meet lead character, Lexie Wyatt, a year on from our first acquaintance with her and we keenly follow her quest to uncover the truth not only of that death but how it links to events of more than a decade previously.

Lexie’s friend Helen’s is overly anxious at the unexpected arrival of a former friend. Helen admits to Lexie that, in a fluster, she offered accommodation, which she now regrets, to well-known investigative journalist Eden Sandiford and Hunter Munroe, Eden’s partner in public and private life. Lexie offers her support to Helen, but at the same time she is curious to know why Helen is so unhappy at meeting up with a mate from university days. Lexie’s curiousity only increases when Helen cryptically asks Lexie if she believes that the past comes back to haunt you. For all the right reasons of friendship and kindness, Lexie finds her busy, happy, ordered life in the fictional Dorset town of Nettleford, is once again disrupted.

In order to help Helen understand Eden’s motives for turning up, Lexie, herself a writer for a newspaper supplement, concocts a plan to write an article about women in dangerous jobs and she persuades Eden to be interviewed. During the interview, Eden confides to Lexie that she believes her best friend from university days, Madelaine, did not commit suicide, but was murdered. Although the police returned an open verdict, believing that Madelaine was responsible for a fatal hit-and-run accident and committed suicide in remorse, Eden is convinced the murderer is one of the university group. She intends to reunite the former friends in an effort to get to the truth.

Hesitating only for a moment, Lexie accepts Eden’s invitation to join their weekend away, purportedly to finish off the interview but at Eden’s insistence, to be the objective eyes watching them all. From Lexie’s point of view it also gives her the opportunity to absolve Helen and Helen’s husband Gareth of any involvement.

Eden arranges for everyone to meet at Little Stillford where the group last were all together. It’s known for its historic, ancient stone circles, and for the group, it has an eerie link to the death of Madelaine. The weekend is not quite the relaxed, children-free weekend that Lexie’s husband Nathan was promised. Tensions flourish, old animosities resurface and Lexie sets out to piece together events of the last time the group were at the stone circles and why Eden is convinced Madelaine was murdered.

Gareth had been Madelaine’s boyfriend, and is now married to Helen, Renelle had not been particularly well-liked and few seemed overly concerrned when she was effectively removed from university, suspected of having an affair with a lecturer. Now, Renelle is married to Mitch, who was then, and still remains, very close to Eden. Spike, a close friend and influencer of up-and-coming actress Madelaine is now a successful film director. Laurence works in IT and brings his latest girlfriend. Helen, a late comer to the group, joining on the departure of Renelle, has since married Gareth,

Just as Lexie thinks she’s getting to know each member of the group and get her head around the undercurrents swirling between them, Helen’s worry that the past returns becomes prophetic. Renelle is found dead, posed on the fallen circle slab, reminiscent of the well known poster advertising Madelaine’s last film, The Legacy of Time (a clever nod to the key theme. As Hunter says at one point ‘Some people need help and others need to pay for what they have done.’).

After the memorial service, Eden reconvenes the group to support Mitch and Lexie realises she is not the only one who thinks the recent murder of Renelle is linked to Madelaine’s death. In pursuing the truth, Lexie gives little thought to the danger she puts herself in.

The Worst Lie is a pyschological study of relationships built on lies. Madelaine’s death creates the first crack and the group effectively disbands, although individuals stay in touch. Eden has her reasons for wanting to get to the truth of Madelaine’s death, but by drawing the group together again, she reinforces their need to stick to the lies they’ve told. Events are set in motion that lead to further tragedy but also, eventually, to the truth and resolution of past wrongs.

There is a cast of characters. The reader needs to keep track of who was friendly /sleeping with/ignoring/downright rude to whom originally and their subsequent interelationships. Bickley has an innate understanding of human emotions and motivations, positive and negative and she gives us a study of human behaviour when personal interest is put before the needs of others. Pay attention to Lexie’s conversations with the various characters. The clues are there. Lexie is a true friend to Helen, ready to help and support her but, convinced as she is that neither Helen nor Gareth could be in any way directly involved in murder, her inquisitive brain insists on knowing the truth. We learn of Helen’s and Gareth’s back story and come to understand their natural reticience. Eden is adventurous and intelligent, egotistical and selfish and not averse to manipulating others to her own end, yet she is fiercely loyal to the memory of her close friend, Madelaine. Renelle is a misunderstood scapegoat and to an extent, a victim of her own insecurities. Unlike in the first book, Still Death, in this outing, Lexie’s husband, Nathan is mainly a support and sounding board for Lexie as she works through her theories of what really happened all those years ago.

While most of the story takes place in 2018 and is seen through Lexie Wyatt’s eyes, Bickley makes use of limited dual-time, and multiple narrative, with just enough detail given from the point of view of Eden, Helen, and Renelle to fill in gaps that Lexie or anyone else is unlikely to know. She also uses common crime story tropes; letters, photographs, eavesdropping, but given that the earlier events are before smartphones and the wide-spread use of the internet to document every aspect of one’s life, these literary devices fit smoothly into the overall arc of the story.

Bickley explores a number of themes; responsibility, friendship, forgiveness, love and loyalty, and as often happens when any one of these is out-of-kilter, the flip-side, revenge. She gives us a story of ordinary people whose past actions resurface and must be faced. Sometimes humans behave well in such circumstances, and sometimes, they do not.

The Worst Lie, is a stand alone story but it delivers more of Lexie, her husband Nathan and their chidlren and the goings on in not-so quiet-under-the-surface Nettleford. The novel fits into the cosy crime genre; it’s set in a small urban setting, sex and violence do not dominate, an amateur is at it’s centre. It’s a very good who done it, with twists and layers that will have you guessing to the very end.

Jeannie McLean is crime writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Her manuscript, Caught Between was shortlisted for the inaugural Michael Gifkin prize in 2018. It will be published in 2020.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Review: FROZEN SUMMER

FROZEN SUMMER by Ian Austin (2019)

Reviewed by Carolyn McKenzie

Dead isn’t always followed by and gone. An all but forgotten cold case, all for one person that is. No one in their right mind would go back again… Right mind? Correct!

Frozen Summer is the nickname Dan Calder’s girlfriend Tara gives to a cold case, the coldest one of all. Who else but Calder would contemplate investigating an unsolved killing where he’s the only suspect?

Psychologically tortured by Zoe Summers death to this day. Being there, being involved, covering it up. Armed with the police files from the original investigation, now he can inject his own witness evidence into the mix to generate new leads.

The time’s come to revisit the scene of his blackest experience in order to try and move on once and for all. At stake are the relationships with Tara, their new son Bradley and possibly his very liberty.

One way or another it ends here. Right here, right now.

Intriguingly, Frozen Summer begins at chapter 14. This and the seemingly contradictory words in the title and the gaunt, loosely defined figures on the cover are a promising indication that Frozen Summer ​is no ordinary whodunit.

Several years back, while working for the British police, undercover agent Dan Calder lost consciousness while on surveillance in a drug den. When he came to, he and a young female drug user were alone in the house. The teenager, Zoe Summers, had been murdered and, unable to account for how she had died, Dan decided to cover up his presence at the house. Now resident in New Zealand, Dan has returned to Britain to try to find out who killed Zoe: this means facing up to the possibility that has troubled him all this time: that he may have killed Zoe before he blacked out.
   
In Britain Dan quickly forms a team with other former police colleagues and their contacts in the force. Added to the mix are Dan’s partner, Tara, along with his friends’ wives and families.

Austin has drawn on his own knowledge of the British police system to assist Dan Calder in his quest and this gives the readers an interesting insight into investigative procedure in a cold case, even if Calder’s revisiting of the circumstances surrounding Zoe’s death is strictly off-the-record. The use of the Winthrop search technique is described in careful detail and I found this aspect of the investigation particularly engaging. The drug scene setting is very convincing and relevant.

Although Frozen Summer lacks the suspense, twists and red herrings of many whodunits, Dan’s team’s absolute dedication to uncovering how Zoe died highlights once again how much work is involved in re-examining in minute detail the many facets of a cold case.

Frozen Summer is the third book in Austin’s Dan Calder series. While occasional mention is made of previous cases that Dan has worked on, this book stands alone.

Discerning readers may be disturbed by some of the hiccoughs that more thorough proofreading would have picked up. In particular, to quote www.dictionary.com, "it is not all right to use alright in standard English". This and a number of other glitches detract from an otherwise very readable story and will hopefully be ironed out in future editions of Austin’s work.

Frozen Summer’s startling ending suggests there may be more Dan Calder still to come.

Carolyn McKenzie is a freelance proofreader, copy editor, and Italian-English translator. She also offers holiday accommodation for writers and others in Thames, New Zealand and Ventimiglia Alta, Italy. 

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of website editor Bronwyn Elsmore. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Review: THE LOST DEAD

THE LOST DEAD by Finn Bell (2019)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

When a huge earthquake causes massive landslides across the isolated Southern Alps everyone scrambles in a frantic search for victims. No one is looking for a perpetrator.

But hidden now by the anonymous chaos of the massive disaster he seizes his opportunity and takes her. Like so many others who are missing young Sophie is simply counted among the earthquake’s lost. A perfect crime, unseen and unknown. Almost. Because this time, as he attacks, he’s seen. Caught in the act. But the three brothers, the only witnesses, are themselves not innocent, not safe. Wanted criminals, they are already hunted and on the run. Barely keeping ahead of both the police and the gangs.

Now the sudden disaster and this chance encounter with a criminal much more dangerous than themselves thwarts their desperate flight into the wilds. Trapping all the wrong people in exactly the wrong place. Forcing the three brothers to choose: Between family and what’s right. Would you sacrifice a child to save your family?

The Lost Dead is a psychological thriller, not at all lacking in thrills but also working hard to round out the characters: the Rarua brothers, young Sophie, Eustus Grey and her fellow cops, and the psychopath: Charles Atkins – The Accountant.

The story opens with Tarana, Nikau and Googs Rarua – the older brothers already jaded by their lives, being hated by their West Coast community, being constantly let down by their father.  But Googs is still hopeful about their escaping and “going up north together.” Fast forward ten years and we start learning about the warped views of The Accountant and find out the Rarua brothers have a plan to score some money and get Googs to a scholarship interview in Christchurch, which will enable him to finally escape their life on the Coast.

Given that the brothers’ plan involves stealing from drug dealers, things are bound to get complicated.  A new cop makes a right/wrong decision and the boys end up having to flee the Coast, but Googs wants to say goodbye to his girlfriend Sophie in Moana first. Which is where they are, along with Sophie and The Accountant, when the earthquake and landslide hit. The reader finds out about the methods and identity of The Accountant, and when the cops arrive things have got pretty topsy-turvy.

The main theme through the novel is an analysis of “the right thing to do”, and how that often depends on who you are and what choices you have: “Doing good things for other people means nothing, it only matters if doing that good thing actually costs you something and you still do it.” Key to pulling this off in the middle of a thriller is good character building.

The Rarua brothers have the odds stacked against them: “No getting out. No getting clean.” Bell has done a good job of presenting them as decent blokes who just can’t get a break. As Tarana and Nikau explain to Googs about mana: “when you’re born, you get given as much of it as your parents got.”  Googs is a smart cookie (nick-named after the search engine), and he gets it: “Mana’s like karma working backwards.” The brothers decide: “Doing bad shit doesn’t count if you got no choice.”

Eustus and her fellow cops Sheryl and Caldwell walk a similarly fragile ethical line. Caldwell is a highly educated city cop who has been sent to the remote West Coast due to breaking the rules for the ‘right’ reasons, but he finds himself in an area where his colleagues expect him not to follow strict rules, in order to get the best results for their small isolated community. All the cops have found the Police Force to be somewhere where “Your choices can’t match your ethics.”

Bell’s attempts to get inside the head of a psychopath are most successful when the character moves into delusion, believing nature is arranging things just for his ends. The Accountant’s methods are chilling and calculating, and the tension in the novel doesn’t come from any understanding or sympathy for him, but from just wishing he gets caught soon enough. And there is one aspect of his methodology that has you wondering …

I read The lost dead really wanting to know what was going to happen. And there is a fair amount of trying to guess what has already happened – in a great device Bell has Googs working out the latter, linking all the clues dotted through the text. The environment of a small remote community where drugs are a scourge is well depicted, as is the addiction to violence, on both sides of the law. While the brothers are drawn sympathetically, my favourite character was Eustus, finding herself in one of those weeks “where every single day is its very own special kind of bastard.”

Another good read from Finn Bell.


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

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Review: THE NIGHT FIRE

THE NIGHT FIRE by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Back when Harry Bosch was just a rookie homicide detective, he had an inspiring mentor who taught him to take the work personally and light the fire of relentlessness for every case. Now that mentor, John Jack Thompson, is dead, but after his funeral his widow hands Bosch a murder book that Thompson took with him when he left the LAPD 20 years before -- the unsolved killing of a troubled young man in an alley used for drug deals.

Bosch brings the murder book to Renée Ballard and asks her to help him find what about the case lit Thompson's fire all those years ago. That will be their starting point.

The bond between Bosch and Ballard tightens as they become a formidable investigation team. And they soon arrive at a worrying question: Did Thompson steal the murder book to work the case in retirement, or to make sure it never got solved?

For decades Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch has been a guardian of Los Angeles, patrolling its streets and suburbs, working hard to find justice for anyone who’s had their life taken. Everybody counts or nobody counts. While partners, friends, mentors and adversaries have moved on – some permanently – Bosch has relentlessly continued. But now the mileage is beginning to catch up with the great detective.

Walking with a cane, no longer actively working for the tiny San Fernando PD, and ailing in other ways, Bosch is becoming more aware that the road behind him is far lengthier than the one he still has ahead. His investigative instincts are still sharp, however, and get kicked into gear when the widow of Bosch’s old mentor gifts him the murder book of a long-unsolved killing, swiped from archives years before. Meanwhile fellow maverick detective, Renee Ballard of Hollywood’s midnight shift, has an arson-killing of a homeless man to investigate and Bosch’s half-brother Mickey Haller is trying to work his magic defending a man who confessed to the murder of a judge and whose DNA was on the judge’s body.

There’s plenty for readers to enjoy as Connelly gathers and partners his three greatest protagonists in The Night Fire. Bosch and Ballard team up on some matters, while Bosch and Haller do on others. Can Ballard help Bosch reignite the long-cold investigation his mentor didn’t seem to progress at all? The detective duo work in tandem and separately, juggling cases and angering other cops as they go.

Over the past quarter century Connelly’s Bosch tales and other books have provided a scrapbook of the gritty realities and festering issues that contrast the sunshine and celebrities veneer of Los Angeles. There is no finer modern chronicler of that sprawling, diverse city, and while The Night Fire perhaps doesn’t hit the highest heights of Connelly’s outstanding oeuvre, it’s yet another great read


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

Review: A MADNESS OF SUNSHINE

A MADNESS OF SUNSHINE by Nalini Singh (Hachette, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

On the rugged West Coast of New Zealand, Golden Cove is more than just a town where people live. The adults are more than neighbors; the children, more than schoolmates.

That is until one fateful summer—and several vanished bodies—shatters the trust holding Golden Cove together. All that’s left are whispers behind closed doors, broken friendships, and a silent agreement not to look back. But they can’t run from the past forever.

Eight years later, a beautiful young woman disappears without a trace, and the residents of Golden Cove wonder if their home shelters something far more dangerous than an unforgiving landscape. It’s not long before the dark past collides with the haunting present and deadly secrets come to light.

Nalini Singh brings an unusual pedigree to her debut crime novel A Madness of Sunshine. While she may be a fresh name to many crime readers, the Fijian-born Aucklander has already racked up around thirty New York Times bestsellers, shelves full of awards, and legions of ardent fans.

Open the pages of her prior books and you'll find passionate tales, often involving vampires, shapeshifters, archangels, and psychics. Singh is a global high priestess of paranormal romance, so the announcement that she was penning a rural crime tale caused a bit of a stir in the books world.

Romance and crime are the two biggest oceans in the world of fiction, but can Singh nimbly leap from one to the other? How will her longtime fans react to a story sans supernatural, and can the bestselling author draw crime fans in with her mystery plotlines and realistic characterisation?

A Madness of Sunshine shows that Singh's storytelling talents translates across genre. This atmospheric tale begins with concert pianist Anahera returning with some reluctance to her tiny hometown on the rugged West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, after many years of living an urban life in London. She’d never intended to live in Golden Cove again; it’s a place full of painful memories as well as old friends. Recuperating from the loss of her husband, and the betrayal revealed at his funeral, Anahera finds herself living in her mother’s old cabin near the sea.

Meanwhile Will is a new cop in town, exiled to the backblocks after a case went wrong in the city.

The disappearance of a vibrant young woman about to leave Golden Cove for her own adventures rocks the small community, who come together for the extensive search even as fears and suspicion grow. Is a killer lurking among them, or has danger arrived from the outside? Could the disappearance be linked in any way to missing hikers from when Anahera was younger?

Singh adroitly shifts gears from paranormal romance to crime, crafting an immersive and near-claustrophobic sense of place as well as some fascinating characters that power an intriguing and twisting mystery. The primal nature of the West Coast environment, where human life is hemmed in by wilderness, is well portrayed, as are the personal demons Anahera and others are battling.

There are some interesting characters, as you'd expect in a small town mystery, and Singh does a good job portraying the interlocking relationships and the ways in which the past is never far away when you regularly see people who've known you since childhood. There's some romance for those who've followed Singh from her past territories, and while long-time fans may miss the greater lashings of steamy sex or the paranormal characters of her prior novels, mystery readers are likely to be reasonably well satisfied, and keen to see Singh return to the crime scene again in future.

An engaging tale that flows well and is a good read overall.

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

Friday, December 6, 2019

Review: WRITTEN IN DEAD WAX

WRITTEN IN DEAD WAX by Andrew Cartmel (Titan Books, 2016)

Reviewed by Shane Donald

He is a record collector — a connoisseur of vinyl, hunting out rare and elusive LPs. His business card describes him as the “Vinyl Detective” and some people take this more literally than others.

Like the beautiful, mysterious woman who wants to pay him a large sum of money to find a priceless lost recording — on behalf of an extremely wealthy (and rather sinister) shadowy client. 

Given that he’s just about to run out of cat biscuits, this gets our hero’s full attention. So begins a painful and dangerous odyssey in search of the rarest jazz record of them all…

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I first came across the work of Andrew Cartmel at a young age. In the late 1980s he served as script editor of Doctor Who, as well as writing novels and audio plays for that series. You might also have seen his work with Ben Aaaronovich for the latter’s Rivers of London graphic novels.

In more recent years, Andrew Cartmel has created The Vinyl Detective series (currently there are four novels in print, with a fifth due out soon) about an unnamed ‘crate diver’ who hunts for rare pieces of vinyl in charity shops. This is done to put food on his table and in his cats’ bowls. When Nevada Warren turns up on his door step asking him to find a rare album for a collector who wishes to remain in the background, our hero has no choice but to agree; he needs the money and the challenge appeals to him.

I really enjoyed this novel and it sets up the series very well. A sense of place is established early on as the Vinyl Detective scours London to find a rare jazz album and we are introduced to his best friend Tinkler, another audiophile, and his domestic set up in which his two cats figure as strongly as any human character. We also meet Stinky Stanner, a radio DJ who steals ideas for playlists from the narrator who we learn is a failed DJ himself.

Having an unnamed protagonist adds interest to the story as you read for details to fill in what you think you know about him. I don’t know much about jazz and how to set up a sound system for playing vinyl, but I do after reading this novel.. Cartmel is a jazz fan and vinyl collector and it shows. If you like music and mysteries that are fun and reimagine the domestic world as one in which almost anything can happen, I recommend this as a good place to start this series.


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.