Friday, June 24, 2016

Review: DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD

DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD by Steven Bochco (Fawcett, 2003)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson


From the acclaimed co-creator of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue, Death by Hollywood is a suspenseful, shocking, and darkly comic crime novel about a screenwriter, a billionaire’s wife, a murder, and, of course, a cop. 

I've been a big fan of Steven Bochco's television crime writing - while Hill Street Blues was a bit before my time, I loved LA Law and Doogie Howser, MD as a kid. Then, for my mind, it was actually NYPD Blue that began our current golden age of television writing (most people point to the West Wing/Sopranos when cable TV like HBO started pushing boundaries and delivering very high-quality narratives - but NYPD Blue was truly groundbreaking, and led the way for those shows, even doing so on network television).

More than twenty years on, NYPD Blue still stands up remarkably well if you watch re-runs. I also thought Raising the Bar, a New York legal series Bochco created, was excellent - sadly it didn't last beyond its second season. The vagaries of television land.

So I was both curious and excited when I came across this crime novel from a master of high-quality television crime drama. Could Bochco transfer his screen talents to the page? The premise of the novel certainly seemed interesting: a fading screenwriter witnesses a brutal murder but instead of reporting what he saw finangles himself into the police investigation and the lives of those involved, using it as inspiration to pen his comeback screenplay, but entangling everyone in a dangerous game.

There is plenty to like about DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD, but overall I was left a little underwhelmed. The whole is less than the sum of the parts, and Bochco too often veers quite cheesy, eschewing nuance for lurid Hollywood tales that no doubt have some basis in reality, and would have been very interesting as seasoning or texture to his mystery, but overwhelm it when they're wall-to-wall.

I've had a lifelong interest in Hollywood and the film industry, so would be more forgiving than many readers. But for some reason I couldn't quite put my finger on, DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD never really gelled for me, despite having some interesting characters and events. Too often it felt a bit shallow or thin - which is interesting given that Bochco's television work often had characters of great depth and complexity. There are some good wisecracks, plenty of action and humour, and several 'inside jokes' about the Hollywood scene, and Bochco has an engaging narrative voice.

File this one in the 'airport thriller' category - a relatively entertaining and engaging book in a fascinating if lurid setting that veers cheesy and often seems more style than substance.

But then again, perhaps that's a point Bochco was trying to make about Hollywood life?

Craig Sisterson writes features and reviews for print publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Nordic Noir meets Kiwi Crime: a special Ngaios event in Reyjavik



The Ngaio Marsh Awards and Reykjavik City Library invite booklovers to a special Ngaio Marsh Awards edition of the Library's popular 'Dark Deeds' summer walking tours.

The walks are centered on dark deeds of various kinds in Icelandic fiction, happening in or around Reykjavík, and give a taste of Icelandic crime fiction, ghost stories and history. The walking tours are led by library staff.

On Thursday 30 June, in a special event, Reyjavik-based crime writer Grant Nicol, longlisted for this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards, will be part of the walking tour, reading from his works, and available for questions from participants.

Nicol's THE MISTAKE has been praised by judges as doing "a superb job taking a simple premise and layering it with complexities and intrigue... a dark tale that draws on the chill of Reykjavik surrounds to deliver caution about avenging in haste."

There will also be readings from Ngaio Marsh Awards' judge Yrsa Sigurdardottir's works.

The special Ngaio Marsh Awards Dark Deeds walk starts at the library in Grófin, Tryggvagata 15. The walk is at an easy pace and takes around 90 minutes. There is no reservation or booking necessary, just show up at the library in time.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Review: THE GARBAGE DUMP MURDERS

THE GARBAGE DUMP MURDERS by Rose Beecham (Silver Moon Books, 1993)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A New Zealand-based thriller starring tough and unconventional Detective Inspector Amanda Valentine. A monster dubbed the "Garbage Dump Killer" is on the loose leaving dead bodies in Wellington, and a beautiful TV reporter has designs on Amanda's living body as well.

Published in the United States under the title INTRODUCING AMANDA VALENTINE, Rose Beecham's first crime novel does just that, giving readers a first look at an intriguing and multi-layered police detective of that name. It's an engaging start to a series that still reads well, two decades on from publication.

Like Beecham, a New Zealander living in the United States, Amanda Valentine has ties to both countries (NZ father and US mother), and in this series-starter is working as a homicide detective in Wellington, New Zealand's capital, after leaving her job with the NYPD following the tragic death of her partner.

Beecham was one of a cadre of talented crime writers, including Val McDermid and Stella Duffy, who launched crime series in the late 1980s-early 1990s featuring lesbian protagonists. Valentine's sexuality is a strong and well-developed thread, adding extra hurdles for her in a career in such a male-dominated subculture as a police force. Already something of a celebrity due to her past on-the-job successes and her exotic pedigree, Valentine has to negotiate an interesting array of personalities both on and off the job, knowing that being fully herself often isn't an option. She has to shutter part of her life away, while doing her best to catch killers and keep her fellow citizens safe.

When body parts begin surfacing in Wellington's garbage dumps, Valentine and her colleagues come under increased pressure as the media, politicians, and the public all demand fast results. The spectre of 'The Garbage Dump Killer' grows, in a nation that's never had a serial killer, and Valentine finds herself in danger at work and home. Meanwhile a beautiful television reporter is showing strong interest - but what does she really want? Is she setting Valentine up for a 'gotcha' story, or could the talented but troubled detective finally be swimming in the warm waters of new love?

Beecham delivers an enjoyable mystery tale that despite being more than twenty years old, doesn't feel too dated. Of course technologies have changed (computers weren't as ubiquitous back then, and cellphones were rare and never 'smart'), but the interaction between a diverse cast of characters - the tension and drama of human relationships and criminal investigation, is timeless.

Overall, THE GARBAGE DUMP MURDERS is a more-than-solid start to the Amanda Valentine series that not only introduces a fascinating heroine but offers readers an exciting and engaging story that will have you wanting to read the subsequent books. I immediately did. 

Craig Sisterson is a New Zealander who writes for publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review: THE QUEEN OF PATPONG

THE QUEEN OF PATPONG by Tim Hallinan (William Morrow, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Poke Rafferty has an unusual family life: his wife Rose is a former dancer in Bangkok's most lurid red light district on Patpong Road and their adopted daughter Miaow lived on the streets. When a dangerous man from Rose's past reemerges, Poke realises to keep them all safe he may need to dig far deeper than what his wife has revealed about her former life. But will what he finds out shatter his entire world?

Tim Hallinan manages to take readers into some very dark places in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, the fourth in his excellent Poke Rafferty series, without ever becoming bleak or gratuitous. There's a vibrancy to Hallinan's writing, an electricity running through his prose, characters, and vivid Thai settings that helps balance things, bringing a little brightness to the blackness.

Bangkok is a sensuous city, and Hallinan uses that with aplomb to texture what is a cracking page-turner full of character and emotion as well as a storyline that grips, intrigues, and disturbs.

Travel writer Poke Rafferty has finally found some semblance of stability to his topsy-turvy life. He's married Rose, the bar girl turned businesswoman who stole his heart, and together they're living in 'domestic bliss', raising their adopted daughter, challenging adolescent Miaow. A 'real family', at last. The biggest issue on their plate seems to be that Miaow is in the local school production of The Tempest, but is miffed she's missed out on the lead role, instead playing Ariel. But for all the adventures and intrigues Poke has experienced throughout the series, he's never faced the truly dark side of Thai life that the women in his life, Rose and Miaow, suffered and survived.

Then it returns...

It is Rose's past, rather than series hero Poke's, that we delve into deeply in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG. Hallinan has taken a leap of faith centering this tale on Rose's story, but he pulls it off adroitly, deepening our understanding of Poke's world and the lives of those he loves.

Even Poke doesn't know all that went on during Rose's journey from rural village girl Kwan to star of Bangkok's notorious red light district, but the covers are painfully lifted when a malevolent man Rose thought was dead comes calling. When he interrupts Poke and Rose while they're out dining, Howard Horner comes across to Poke like another boorish ex-pat in Bangkok, but his appearance terrifies Rose. She knows the truth of his nature, and the danger that crackles beneath his surface...

As the present danger ratchets up, and violence ensues, Rose is forced to confess her full past to Poke and Miaow. It's a harrowing tale, and Hallinan intercuts between past and present, keeping the emotional needle high as THE QUEEN OF PATPONG unfolds. The twin timelines and strong focus on a supporting character's past could stumble in the hands of a lesser writer, but Hallinan proves once again he is a true master of the crime genre, finely balancing a powerful, page-turning narrative with a real sense of humanity in a vivid, evocative setting. Bangkok can be a bewildering metropolis full of sparkle and grime, flavour and heat, joy and danger - and Hallinan brings it to vibrant life.

Tim Hallinan is one of those writers who scores top marks across the board. He doesn't write pacy airport thrillers light on character, character studies light on plot, or tales with a strong sense of time and place while leaving readers wanting on other fronts. Instead he weaves a ferociously good story that blends all those elements into a near-perfect concoction. Like a Thai master chef who picks the freshest ingredients and expertly blends and balances them, bringing out their best, Hallinan has created a moreish feast that tantalizes and delights on a multitude of levels.

I can't wait for the next course.


Craig Sisterson writes features and reviews for print publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


Monday, June 20, 2016

Review: STONEDOGS

STONEDOGS by Craig Marriner (Vintage, 2002)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

In between drug deals and binge-drinking, reckless driving and street fights, the delinquents of the Brotherhood wage the holiest of wars. Yes, they will derail the Juggernaut before it can suicide … or have a ball trying at least. But when one of them falls prey to Roto-Vegas gang members, the cultural terrorists mobilise in earnest. Revenge takes them on a road-trip - a coming of age from hell. 

Sometimes you pick up a book, start reading, and instantly start wondering what on earth is going on. Yet for some reason, you cannot put the darn thing down. That's exactly what happened for me with STONEDOGS. Mind you, if I'd have read the blurb that states that Craig Marriner is New Zealand's answer to Irvine Welsh and Quentin Tarantino, I probably could have recognised a hint about what I was in for.

STONEDOGS isn't a recent book - it won the Montana New Zealand Book Award Deutz Medal in 2002, but it is a book that was recently bought to my attention by a correspondent on my website. Boy am I pleased about that pointer, otherwise I might have missed reading this completely.

Not that STONEDOGS is a particularly easy or pleasant read. The book is manic, rapidfire, and insane at points. Basically you've got a small group of teeanagers - the Brotherhood, waging the holiest of wars. Against something. Or somebody. Not sure. But they are a bunch of kids who stick together through drug deals, binge-drinking, abortive attempts to pick up girls (and not so abortive attempts for some of them), reckless driving and street fights. At heart, a bunch of fun-seeking young lads, there's a closeness and a supportiveness in this little band that just makes them so likeable - even though you have to scrape through a fair amount of trash talk and faux toughness to get to the reality. But as in so many of these coming of age type tales, things go awry and revenge takes over and the journey gets mad, bad and very dangerous.

Undoubtedly cringe inducing, STONEDOGS will also have you laughing out loud. As well as feeling vaguely reassured that whilst the language may change, and perhaps there's a tighter, tougher, slightly more dangerous edge to some of the activities, teenagers, basically haven't changed that much. Or at least they are still recognisable. As are the bonds of friendship, the lunacy of risk taking, the rites of passage.

I definitely had no idea what was going on at points in this book, but I also found I simply could not put it down. Dark, violent, very in your face, this isn't going to be a book for everybody. But for anybody who does pick it up - I think I can guarantee it will stay with you for quite a while.


STONEDOGS won the Hubert Church Best First Novel Award from the New Zealand Society of Authors, and the Deutz Medal for Fiction (Best Novel) prize in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards. 

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and the Ned Kelly Awards. She kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Stella Duffy - In Ngaio Marsh's World (radio interview)

Earlier today Stella Duffy was interviewed by Kim Hill on her popular "Saturday Morning" show on Radio New Zealand. Stella spoke about her OBE for services to the arts, work with Fun Palaces, the Women's Equality Party, issues facing modern Britain, and her work on an upcoming new Ngaio Marsh novel, based on four chapters and some notes discovered in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

It's a really excellent interview that is well worth a listen. If you'd like to go straight to the Ngaio Marsh stuff, that kicks in just after the 16 minute mark, but I'd recommend listening to the whole thing. I was left feeling inspired and hopeful afterwards, and wanting to get out there and do more.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Review: TROUBLE BREWING

TROUBLE BREWING by Edward Winslow (2011)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Dave's no superhero, even if he does have a very unusual talent. But when a major New Zealand crime lord comes looking for two million dollars that Dave's wife embezzled, he needs to learn to act like one.

This book surprised me: a self-published novella about a pretty ordinary guy who hates his job and has a bizarre tea-related 'superpower' that he ends up using while trying to survive the criminal underworld his incarcerated wife has pissed off. 

I really didn't know what to expect, but what I found was something delightful, quirky, and very readable. 

Winslow does a terrific job bringing us into Dave's world, quickly setting things up and populating it with interesting characters and lurking danger, so that it's easy to suspend our disbelief and just enjoy the ride, even when things get a little loose or farcical. Dave's a likable if wimpy guy in a miserable situation - largely thanks to his imprisoned wife Belinda's actions, but perhaps he was just fooling himself all along about their good life together, and his obliviousness and lack of spine has played a part too.

When some dangerous people Belinda bilked in a Ponzi scheme demand their money back, Dave has to find some backbone, otherwise his shitty life could get a whole lot worse. With some help from new friends, the tough-as-guts ex-con Liza and her flamboyant friend Jean, Dave discovers that his ability to heat or freeze tea may actually be far more useful than just a weird party trick.

Can Dave recover the missing money and save himself from a fate worse than death? 

This is a self-published book, and there are moments here and there where that shows (it could have done with an editor to just tweak or tighten little things up), but overall I came away pretty impressed, and with I largely had a big smile on my face while reading. Winslow had me turning the pages, wanting to know what would happen to Dave, and just how he, Liza, and Jean would get themselves out of a series of sticky situations. It's just a fun wee story. 

The short length of the tale perhaps explains the way the plot leaps a little at times, and Dave goes through a fair character transformation in a short period, but for me at least Winslow did enough to keep me engaged and suspending disbelief that I was happy to go along with it all to the end. 

Overall, a fun, leaning-to-farcical novella that flows along smoothly, with some interesting and memorable characters and a nice tone - light-hearted, almost comic crime. 

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Craig Sisterson is a features writer from New Zealand who writes for publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the founder and Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson 


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Review: COYOTE

COYOTE by Colin Winnette (No Exit Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A daughter disappears in the middle of the night. What happens in the aftermath of this tragedy - after the search is abandoned, after the TV crews move on to cover the latest horrific incident - is the story of Coyote. There is a marriage and a detective. There is a storm, a talk show host, and a roasted boar. People are murdered and things are hidden. Coyotes skulk in the woods, a man stands by the fence, and a tale emerges within this familiar landscape of the violent unknown.

Evocative? Affecting? Poignant? I'm struggling to find a pithy way to describe Colin Winnette's pocket-sized but powerful COYOTE: the words I think of either don't quite fit, or have lost much of their meaning as they've devolved into book reviewer cliches, often thrown about willy-nilly for weaker works.

Redolent, perhaps. Or maybe one of those classic Hollywood style tag-lines could nail things down better. For COYOTE, I'd go with "for fans of James Sallis or pre-Gone Girl Gillian Flynn".

I'm still not entirely sure what I think of COYOTE, but one thing is for sure; it has stuck with me. It's bleak and beautiful, a snapshot of tragedy and subsequent descent into madness. A sort of rural melancholia, harrowing in a way without being too overt about it. Things are not spelled out, there are loose ends aplenty. I imagine this would be the kind of book that some people will really love, and others just won't connect with - in both cases perhaps being left a little bewildered.

Fragmented, perhaps. While being tied together by a rich and unique authorial voice.

Winnette's prose has a spare elegance to it. The story flows quickly, while having moments that will gut-punch you, making you pause and re-read to drink it all in. The reader is given a lot of leeway to work things out for themselves as Winnette proffers vivid vignettes of an unnamed couple's faltering life following the disappearance of their daughter. We see things through the eyes of the mother, a woman who is unreliable and - surprisingly, given such a sympathy-generating tragedy - at times quite unsympathetic. But there's a fascination, while something sinister scuttles about out of sight.

Unsettling, definitely.

Whether you like this book or loathe it, I can't imagine you will forget it. It's the kind of crime novel that could create plenty of discussion and disagreement among aficionados. 'Enjoyed' may not quite be the right word, given its content and emotional impact, but overall I'm glad I read COYOTE, and as I look back on it a few days after reading it in near-one-sitting, my ratings needle oscillates between 'good' and 'extremely good'.

Winnette has crafted something quite masterful, even if it won't be for everyone.

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Craig Sisterson is a features writer from New Zealand who writes for publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the founder and Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson