Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: A SHARP SOLITUDE

A SHARP SOLITUDE by Christine Carbo (Atria, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I went and bought books one to three.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

Review: JACKRABBIT SMILE

JACKRABBIT SMILE by Joe R Lansdale (Mulholland, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

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

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

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

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

He's created something terrifically unique.

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

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

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


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Key grips and candlelit museums: an interview with Valentina Giambanco

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the 20th instalment of 9mm for 2018, and the 192nd overall edition of our long-running author interview series!

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

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

Today I'm very pleased to welcome Italian born and raised crime writer Valentina Giambanco, who has worked as an editor in the UK and US film industry for twenty years. Valentina is the author of the Alice Madison series set in Seattle and the surrounding wilderness of Washington State. Although she lives in Southwest London - a city she first moved to for English and Drama studies at university - Valentina says she fell in love with Seattle years ago, and that city and the "ruthlessly beautiful" landscapes of the Pacific Northwest "have shaped and inspired her stories in every way".

Like our interviewee two weeks ago, Marnie Riches, I actually interviewed Valentina at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in 2016. Publication was delayed when I lost some notebooks (recently recovered during house renovations). Valentina and I have checked over her interview answers in case anything needed updating, but that wasn't the case. So here you have the interview Valentina and I did on a sunny summer's in 'the big red chair' at Harrogate.

So, at last, Valentina Giambanco becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm ...

9MM INTERVIEW WITH VALENTINA GIAMBANCO

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
This is a tricky one, but I’m afraid I have to go back to Clarice Starling, even though it was a very short series. But she definitely inspired me, and the first Thomas Harris books are as perfect as a thriller can be. Things went a bit haywire after that, but if you can have a two-book series, then she’s my favourite. Also, she’s 25 in the first and 32 in the second, and she changes a lot. I also love Ruth Galloway (from Elly Griffiths’ books), because she changes through time as well. I also love the settings, the idea of Norfolk, the wilderness and sea. The history of the background. The science. The combination of elements.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I was really into science fiction, things from Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury. So it was FAHRENHEIT 451 actually: the imagery, the sense of the story being told. It was about something that was beyond the events that were happening. Somehow it just chimed.

I’m a big film nerd, and they’ve affected me as much as books when it comes to storytelling. The film was Amadeus, though the first adult film I watched was Lawrence of Arabia. Which is a pretty good place to start.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything): unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Nothing. I had not written anything that was published. Short stories scribbled, definitely, but nothing published. I worked in film, but it was a completely unrelated field to writing. My debut was 147,000 words, which tells you it was my first crack at a novel! The second was 120,000 words and the third 108,000 words.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Movies! I’m a big film nerd. We’re talking about knowing the key grip for a particular film. I’m also a big reader, and not necessarily crime. I think it’s important - because everything goes into it, as is true of any artistic endeavour - it’s really important to get my head out of crime fiction mode. I also love travelling.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I’m going to talk about London, where I live now. There’s a small museum about Sir John Soane, which is three houses joined together. He was the architect for the Bank of England and a collector. He travelled and collected paintings, Italian and Dutch masters, sculptures from Egypt. He created this amazing museum in his own home, which you can visit. He bought the two nearby homes … there’s no electricity, just natural light. It’s in Lincoln’s Inn Field in London. It’s absolutely unforgettable, and once a month they keep the house open at night and just light it all with candles. If that’s not a perfect date, I don’t know what is!

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Are we talking reality or dream? Okay, okay… Mark Rylance, because he can play anything! (laughing). Oh God oh God, who would play me? Well, that’s obvious isn’t it? Meryl Streep – who else? Meryl Streep could play Batman and do a good job!

7. Of your books, which is your favourite or a bit special, and why?
A lot of people would probably say their first one, because it’s the one, the place and time where my characters all met each other. But at the same time, SWEET AFTER DEATH is very special to me too. That moment when you just capture your character. Each book has something special that makes it dear to you, but this one set not in Seattle but in the mountains. It was difficult to write, but a lot of fun. It’s named after a plant, the deer-foot, which smells sweet after you crush the leaves. It’s also called vanilla leaf.

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?
When I first saw my book in a store, I thought someone had put it there as a joke, someone I knew. It felt utterly and completely surreal, so out of place. “What is it doing there?” That feeling never goes away, a few years later. It’s very special, seeing it exist.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
For me, it’s been the chance to meet my heroes. At Thrillerfest in 2016 I got to chat with Walter Mosley a few times, talking about writing with a man who’s been a huge inspiration to my writing. That was just fantastic. And then meeting readers who buy your books and you can just have a chat for a few minutes, this is what festivals are so important.


Thank you Valentina. We appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

You can learn more about Valentina and her books at her website, and follow her on Twitter

Friday, June 8, 2018

Review: THE BLACK WIDOW

THE BLACK WIDOW by Lee-Anne Cartier (Penguin, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

The Black Widow almost got away with murder. But then her sister-in-law became suspicious...

The infamous Black Widow case shocked New Zealand. An average-looking suburban housewife carefully staged her husband's 'suicide'. At first it looked like she might get away with murder, but then her sister-in-law, Lee-Anne Cartier, became suspicious and started gathering evidence and presenting it to the police. Unfortunately they didn't believe it was enough to get a conviction and signed the death off as suicide. Lee-Anne then drove the case at the inquest and a finding of 'No proof of suicide' was pivotal in getting the police to reopen the case. 

This is a story that reads like something out of a movie script, but was all-too-horribly true, THE BLACK WIDOW goes behind the headlines and gives readers a much fuller story behind one of New Zealand's most infamous modern murder trials, that of Helen Milner. Milner was married to truck driver Phil Nesbit, who died in 2009. The police thought it was a suicide, but Phil's sister Lee-Anne had doubts, and grew to believe that Helen may have murdered him.

It wasn't an easy road to change minds, and THE BLACK WIDOW outlines the long, twisting struggle Lee-Anne had over more than two years, conducting her own covert amateur investigation, to find some measure of justice for her brother. It's a compelling story; Lee-Anne was a high-school drop-out with no expertise who showed Erin Brokovich-like levels of determination and resilience, even as so many people doubted, and had to put herself and family into debt to keep on going.

THE BLACK WIDOW is a compelling read about a heroic woman who put so much of herself on the line to try to right a wrong. There could be a danger in someone like that, sharing their story in book form, as coming across as trying to 'toot their own horn' (as my Mother would say) or point out how they were right and the police and 'experts' were wrong, all along. But THE BLACK WIDOW doesn't read like that. It's just Lee-Anne sharing her story so that readers understand what actually happened to her brother, and the battle that she and her family went through to prove it.

This is a very readable, very interesting story that flows along well. It's told in fairly straightforward fashion, without the literary flourishes of some true crime writing, but also without the garish or voyeuristic elements of others in the genre. It gives us an in-depth look at a victim/victim's family perspective on the machinations of the criminal justice system, which is eye-opening, valuable, and at times troubling. Lee-Anne shares things in a candid way, which is great for readers.

A book that's not going to blow you away stylistically, THE BLACK WIDOW is a tale well worth reading, especially for the underlying story of a determined and brave woman battling for justice.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Marvel comics and motorbikes: an interview with Lloyd Otis

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the 19th instalment of 9mm for 2018, and the 191st overall edition of our long-running author interview series!

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

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

Today I'm very pleased to welcome exciting new crime writer Lloyd Otis to Crime Watch. Lloyd did a reading from his debut crime novel DEAD LANDS before a session I chaired at Bloody Scotland last year, and it sounded intriguing and wonderfully written. Set in 1970s London, DEAD LANDS centres on a man accused of murder who escapes from custody, and the two cops who are trying to find him amidst right-wing marches and racial tensions. Lloyd has got a lot of big raps already, and looks like a writer to watch, bringing something different to the British crime scene. Craig Russell, winner of the CWA Dagger in the Library and the McIlvanney Prize, called him "a big new talent".

Lloyd is a Londoner with a background in media, finance, and technology. He's had short stories published and was a student of the Curtis Brown Creative Writing Course. He shapes as a really exciting prospect in the British crime writing world, and hopefully we'll see a second crime novel from him soon. But for now, he becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH LLOYD OTIS

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
This is a difficult one, but for me it has to be a detective that has something extra special. A person with a real doggedness to their approach and a steely determination that bypasses the red herrings and the untruths. Holmes, Marlowe, and Bosch, are often mentioned and with good reason, but I think I’ll have to go with  Columbo, an astute TV character that puts the ‘D’ into detective, rumoured to be based on Porfiry Petrovich, Dostoevsky’s investigator in Crime & Punishment.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Quite a few of the Marvel comic books resonated with me and they were stories that I really loved as a youngster, because of the artwork and the snappy ‘superhero’ dialogues. Later, Chandler’s short story collection, The Simple Art of Murder. Some of the raw essence of that crime writing still floats around today.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I had two (non-crime) stories selected for an anthology that was part of a Cultural Olympiad project. I also blogged for The Huffington Post, The Bookseller, and had my own fiction/non-fiction book review column for a monthly lifestyle magazine.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I’m undergoing a slight hiatus from the two-wheel biker lifestyle, I’d love to get back on a motorcycle, but I’ve been really too busy to start back up again. Other than that it’s time spent with the family, reading, and going to the gym because I don’t want to get that thing they call ‘writer’s bum.’ Oh, and practising the chords and notes on my guitars. I’m not quite ready to play at the O2 yet, but I can string together the theme from The Godfather, one of the best crime films ever made.

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?
Take a stroll through Dulwich Park on a sunny day, it’s a big park with a pretty landscape and it also has a boating lake. If you feel like exercising the dog, it has a dog walking area situated at the north end. Also, if you have time, visit the The Ship & Shovell, a pub that’s uniquely split into two parts, so that it sits on both sides of a street down at London’s Charing Cross.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Well, Idris Elba is the man of the moment, so it’ll have to be him. He was great in The Wire and strangely menacing as a brooding lone gun-slinging hero in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or particularly special, and why?
A piece I wrote at school before I realised I could be a writer was particularly special. A very insightful teacher gave me a high mark for the potential he saw, but a fellow pupil protested about it. The tutor obviously saw something in the writing though and refused to back down, but it made me think and gave me belief.

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?
When I got the call from my publisher, I didn’t believe it at first because a considerable amount of time had passed since the submission. After we had a conversation, it slowly began to sink in and it became surreal. We had to rush out a few copies for Bloody Scotland where I appeared on ‘Crime in the Spotlight’, then when I saw it there on the Waterstones’ shelf, alongside books from seasoned writers like Craig Russell, Craig Robertson and Georges Simenon, I felt very proud. I celebrated that night by spending a very long time at a local bar.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?

Arriving at an author event and being mistaken for a member of a church choir that were using one of the rooms nearby, with some guy hammering away on a piano and a woman singing at full pelt.  After informing the male receptionist that he had sent me to the wrong room, he looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him up. However, he attempted to make up for it the next night by feeling the need to ‘discreetly’ let me know that the additional rolls of toilet paper I had requested earlier in the day (for my hotel room) had arrived.


Thank you Lloyd, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch

You can learn more about Lloyd Otis and his writing at his website, and follow him on Twitter.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Review: A LINE TOO FAR

A LINE TOO FAR by BC Colman (Liberty Publishing, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Chinese commandos in a lightening raid have seized the vast, under-populated, resource-rich lands of Northern Australia. Thousands of Australian soldiers are held hostage. International realpolitik has left Australia abandoned by its supposed allies and its brittle social fabric is rapidly unwinding as the people panic. A Chinese ultimatum demands the annexation of the country’s top half in ten days, or face a full scale invasion. 

As other politicians clamour to sue for peace, Prime Minister, Gary Stone, in a desperate race against time and impossible military and political odds must commit to a risky and controversial plan to try and free the country ...

This was an interesting read on a number of levels. The debut novel from an author who has been heavily involved in antipodean business journalism for decades, it's the kind of tale that you can really enjoy if you just park your disbelief at the outset and go with the action-packed flow. It veers a little cheesy or overcooked at times, like an 80s action flick, but in the same vein if you just settle in and don't take it too seriously it's a pretty exciting and fun read.

The hook is quite an interesting idea: what would happen if China, perhaps becoming the world's major superpower, decided it needed more than what it has? The sparse, mineral-rich landscapes of nearby Australia could look very promising, and the way the world has responded to many recent conflicts around the world means the fictional Chinese government could feel like they might 'get away with it' - on a might-is-right and 'no-one else wants to start a World War' kind of footing.

This is a book with plenty of military threat, but is more of a political thriller as Australian Prime Minister Gary Stone tries to work out the best options he has (if he has any) and how to deal with both the Chinese excursion into northern Australia and the various machinations within his own government. The Chinese have managed to take over a chunk of Australia without firing a shot. But the menace is there. What price peace? How much would you risk to try to regain what you had?

It took me a little while to settle into this book, given the author's writing style, but Colman sets the hook well and keeps the pages turning. The underlying story is an interesting one, and there are some thought-provoking themes bubbling beneath the overripe action or melodrama. Overall, a good first outing that perhaps could have done with a stronger editorial hand, but is a fun, exciting read.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

Review: SCAVENGER HUNT

SCAVENGER HUNT by Meg Buchanan (Junction, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Train hard. Ride fast. And win! That's what moto trials rider Josh Reeves usually lives for. But lately, even with coaching and a new bike on offer, life keeps getting in the way. When a game of dare gets out of control, Josh can't see a way out without looking weak in front of his mates. But now the cops are getting too close for comfort. To top it all off, he crashes his bike, so it looks like his season is over. Can he find a way to make everything right? Or are the police going to work out who is behind the random weekly thefts?

This is an exciting Kiwi young adult tale, full of action and some danger, with interesting characters who are struggling to find their place as they grow up and their lives are going through plenty of changes. I'm not really the target audience for this book, but I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I think it would be ideal for keen adolescent and teen readers looking for interesting and exciting reads.

For some adult readers, the main characters could come off as 'silly kids' early on, but Buchanan does a good job drawing readers into the story, and providing some nice depth and character arcs. The pages fly. You may roll your eyes at the antics Josh and his mates get up to, or the decisions various characters make, but there's a good sense of authenticity throughout. Characters make mistakes and poor choices, but it feels real, not author hand. Buchanan makes you care about the characters.

I liked the inclusion of the moto trials sport, and the way Buchanan took us into that world, providing plenty of detail and education about what goes into it, why people love it, and how it's different to other types of motor racing, without overwhelming the forward motion of the tale. I think she got the balance right, very well done, and that the setting could interest teen and adult readers alike.

While Josh and many of his moto trial mates are male, there are also some interesting female characters, and Buchanan again does well here, being realistic about teenagers without falling into stereotypes. Buchanan sets the hook well early on, and keeps the revs high throughout.

A good read, especially for those that like young adult tales with adventure and intrigue.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Review: SNAP

SNAP by Belinda Bauer (Bantam, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

On a stifling summer's day, eleven-year-old Jack and his two sisters sit in their broken-down car, waiting for their mother to come back and rescue them. Jack's in charge, she said. I won't be long. But she doesn't come back. She never comes back. And life as the children know it is changed for ever.

Three years later, mum-to-be Catherine wakes to find a knife beside her bed, and a note that says: I could have killed you. Meanwhile Jack is still in charge - of his sisters, of supporting them all, of making sure nobody knows they're alone in the house, and - quite suddenly - of finding out the truth about what happened to his mother.

But the truth can be a dangerous thing . . .

Belinda Bauer is a powerhouse of British crime writing, one of those top-class authors whose lesser books are still the envy of many of her peers. She writes very human characters with acute insight, a range of people who are impacted by crime in a variety of ways. Her books feel very fresh, and real.

She announced her presence several years ago with the brilliant debut BLACKLANDS, a searing book set near the Welsh borders, featuring an adolescent boy who gets into a cat-and-mouse game with an imprisoned serial killer; the boy desperately trying to mend his broken family.

You'd have to go a long way to find a better crime debut than that from the past decade.

In SNAP, Bauer once again demonstrates her immense talent for crafting nuanced and memorable young characters in her crime writing. We begin with eleven-year-old Jack Bright, sitting in a broken-down car on a stifling day with his two younger sisters. The millennium has yet to turn, and their mother has walked up the road for help. She seems to have been gone for far too long. So Jack and his sisters stumble up the road, parched and upset. Only to find a dangling phone...

Three years later Jack is running their household, their distraught father having never recovered. Newspapers are piled everywhere, the kids home school themselves, and no one knows they're living without parents. Meanwhile pregnant Catherine is being left creepy messages and doesn’t want to let her partner know, a 'Goldilocks' burglar is on a crime spree in smalltown Devonshire, and local detective Reynolds struggles to cope with the arrival of grouchy new superior, DCI Marvel.

Marvel has been exiled from London, hates the countryside, and misses the action of the city.

SNAP is full of strands and a disparate cast, but Bauer brings it all together beautifully, like a master puppeteer or gleeful conductor. This is tale that's both harrowing and humorous, that's full of life and energy. It fair fizzes from start to finish, delivering and delighting on multiple levels. I enjoyed her most recent crime novel, THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD, but that was more of a very, very good version of the somewhat familiar 'obsessed and artistic serial killer' trope. SNAP shows Bauer in full flight, full of creativity and class. Crime writing of the highest order, from a true maestro of the craft.



Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter