Monday, March 30, 2020

Review: KILLER SENTENCE - HAILEY DEAN MYSTERIES

KILLER SENTENCE: HAILEY DEAN MYSTERIES (Hallmark, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Hailey Dean knows District Attorney Paulina D'Orazio is innocent of the murder of a man she once put behind bars and must do all she can to prove it in the face of mounting evidence.

Recently I'd seen several listings for 'Hailey Dean Mysteries' on British television; what looked like multiple telemovies. I was curious, having never heard of the character before, so when one popped up this weekend, I decided to spend some 'lockdown' time checking it out. I learned later this instalment concluded a multiple telemovie arc last year where Hailey Dean, a former prosecutor who is now a therapist, and her friends and former colleagues deal with the pending parole of a wife killer.

I went into this completely clean, having no idea about the characters or storyline other than the tagline above. So, what did I think? Overall it's a so-so telemovie, nowhere near the quality of other crime dramas like the Jesse Stone series. It didn't help that the first few minutes were full of one of my personal pet peeves: unnatural info-dumps and clanging dialogue where characters recount in details things they'd know about others in order to deliver that information to the audience.

Honestly, it reminded me of the 'what not to do' sort of examples in screenwriting manuals. I was tempted to switch the telemovie off, however I persisted - curious to see if things settled down or the characters grew on me. The underlying story is a fairly interesting one. A man who killed his wife is paroled (he served 10 years for manslaughter) and is now back in town, in his old house and doing a book launch about his case. As you can imagine, that bothers many people, from Hailey (Kellie Martin and her former boss, District Attorney Paulina D'Orazio (Lauren Holly) to the sister of the killer's wife, neighbours, and townsfolk. When the man turns up dead, stabbed in his home, there are plenty of suspects, but the police eventually close in on Paulina, and Hailey has to clear her name.

While I wouldn't recommend fans of crime drama race out to immediately watch the Hailey Dean Mysteries (there are so many other great options with better acting and writing, whether you want cosy or edgy), it was a relatively pleasant 90 minutes. An okay storyline and some decent characters.

Note: I learned after I began watching that this popular Hallmark series is based on the books of Nancy Grace, a former Atlanta prosecutor who became a well-known TV pundit and host in the United States. I don't know how closely the telemovies match the books, but Nancy Grace makes a brief cameo in this tale, as apparently she does in all of the other Hallmark movies in the series.

Middling but not awful, not bad for whiling away the time.

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. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Review: BEAST

BEAST by Matt Wesolowski (Orenda Books, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In the wake of the 'Beast from the East' cold snap that ravaged the UK in 2018, a grisly discovery was made in a ruin on the Northumbrian coast. Twenty-four-year-old vlogger, Elizabeth Barton, had been barricaded inside what locals refer to as 'The Vampire Tower', where she was later found frozen to death.

Three young men, part of an alleged 'cult', were convicted of this terrible crime, which they described as a 'prank gone wrong'. However, in the small town of Ergarth, questions have been raised about the nature of Elizabeth Barton's death and whether the three convicted youths were even responsible.

Elusive online journalist Scott King speaks to six witnesses – people who knew both the victim and the three killers – to peer beneath the surface of the case. He uncovers whispers of a shocking online craze that held the young of Ergarth in its thrall and drove them to escalate a series of pranks in the name of internet fame. He hears of an abattoir on the edge of town, which held more than simple slaughter behind its walls, the tragic and chilling legend of the ‘Ergarth Vampire'…

At the tail end of the 2018 winter, the ‘Beast from the East’ storm raged across Great Britain, unleashing freezing winds, icy temperatures, and heavy snowfalls. Newcastle author Matt Wesolowski taps into that frigid setting for this fourth novel in his excellent ‘Six Stories’ series.

Journalist and podcaster Scott King once again (re)investigates a past crime from six different perspectives, interviewing related parties and providing context while leaving the audience to decide the truth. Candidly, a few years ago I thought Wesolowski’s debut Six Stories was terrific but wondered then whether its Rashomon meets Serial structure may better for a standalone than an ongoing series.

I needn’t have worried. Wesolowski has shown an apt hand for keeping the series fresh within its framework, continuing the arc of Scott King’s character, and avoiding the structure overshadowing the story(ies). In Beast, Elizabeth Barton was a vlogger whose popularity grew as she broadcast her attempts at an escalating series of internet challenges, only for her frozen body to be discovered in a decrepit tower on the outskirts of town (skyrocketing her online popularity even more).

While three local boys were convicted of luring Elizabeth to her death, questions remained. Why was Elizabeth targeted and why was her head cut off after she died? What part did local legends about the ‘Ergarth Vampire’ play? Was someone else involved?

Wesolowski does a fine job luring readers in as King meets a variety of people who give varying, self-serving, and contradictory perspectives of what lead to Elizabeth’s death in the abandoned tower. While the format could stumble in lesser hands, Wesolowski shines as he crafts a captivating tale that blends folklore, technology, and modern concerns.

Very good.

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. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Review: THE SECRETS OF STRANGERS

THE SECRETS OF STRANGERS by Charity Norman (xx, 2020)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

A gunshot rings out in a London cafe and the lives of five strangers will never be the same again. The only thing that's certain is that nothing is as it seems. Five strangers, one cafe - and the day that everything changed.

A regular weekday morning veers drastically off-course for a group of strangers whose paths cross in a London cafe - their lives never to be the same again when an apparently crazed gunman holds them hostage. But there is more to the situation than first meets the eye and as the captives grapple with their own inner demons, the line between right and wrong starts to blur. Will the secrets they keep stop them from escaping with their lives?

People are caught up in a hostage situation in a London café. At the heart of the crisis are five people: they hear each other’s stories, they form a little community in the centre of the chaos – and the reader gets drawn further and further into events.

A rough sleeper with a tiny windfall and a lawyer on her way to defend a client decide to start their day with a coffee from Tuckbox; a carer from a rest home coming off a night shift goes there to meet her daughter-in-law and grandson. The café owner is attractive and friendly with all his customers, all are fond of him and sad for him, as he has recently lost his wife, Harriet, to cancer. Harriet’s son, Sam, calls in to the café, and then leaves. Everyone’s day is unfolding as usual – until Sam returns …

I won’t say anything more about the plot, as it unfolds cleverly through the book, and the reader is always on edge wondering what will happen next. The plotting is great, but what is at the heart of this novel that keeps the reader engaged, are the characters, and their slowly revealed stories. Neil is a rough sleeper, his dog, waiting for him outside the café, his only friend. He was a teacher and an addiction has led to his life on the streets. Abi, the lawyer, is motivated, a ‘problem-solver’, and trying to cope with a series of unsuccessful fertility treatments. Mutesi, the carer, is the opposite of Abi, she is considered, gentle and caring, and her memories of the Rwandan genocide drive her empathy and her fear.

Outside in a room down the street is the police negotiation team, and Eliza is the police negotiator.  Eliza has her own problems, an increasingly intolerant husband, especially since the arrival of a second child, her socially awkward elder son … But nothing would get her to change her job, her “chance to reach into the tragedy and change its course”. Of course, negotiating is like “defusing a bomb: cut the wrong wire, use too much force, and it could be all over”. And the tension and coffee consumption continue to mount up in the negotiation room.

In the café, the feelings that they are all there by pure chance and the anxiety to leave, slowly change with the cups of tea and plates of café food: “Now we’re travelling together for a while”. Some of the characters start feeling they might be there for a purpose, that they are part of the problem, could be part of the solution. Abi realises at once point: “She can’t possibly be bored”. They begin to establish a community, and they hear each other’s and Sam and Robert’s stories.

Each person in the café finds their inner strengths, and their connections to each other. For Neil: “It’s been a long time since another human being has looked him in the eye, called him by name and voluntarily touched him.” For Mutesi she feels she might finally know why she had been spared, her chance to show that no matter how bad things seem, there is always something worse and always a chance for redemption. The tension moves from her Rwandan experience of “Every moment laden with the threat of death” – to the lower level but deeper tension of helping a man struggling with his own actions, and how his frustration might not end up hurting those around him, but himself.

Sam is a complex character, haunted since losing his father, haunted by a two-faced puppet that scared him as a child, haunted by the memories of his own temper. We feel his regrets and his uncertainty: “Three paces, swing around, three paces, swing around”, and his ‘wired-ness’ builds as he knocks back Ritalin pills. And we are with him when he realises that “he likes all three of these people” and that he’s “really trashed the changing room this time”. Robert’s back-story is one of the most chilling descriptions of passive aggressive behaviour and gaslighting that I have ever read.  We experience how people’s initial judgements of people and situations can be so inaccurate. And the awful dullness of not knowing what will happen, Abi: “She’s watching the setting sun touch the face of a murderer”.

The atmosphere is great, the tension is compelling and there is humanity in dollops, and I urge you to read The Secrets of Strangers!

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

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Review: AUE

AUE by Becky Manawatu (xx, 2019)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Taukiri was born into sorrow. Auē can be heard in the sound of the sea he loves and hates, and in the music he draws out of the guitar that was his father’s. It spills out of the gang violence that killed his father and sent his mother into hiding, and the shame he feels about abandoning his eight-year-old brother to a violent home.

But Ārama is braver than he looks, and he has a friend and his friend has a dog, and the three of them together might just be strong enough to turn back the tide of sorrow. As long as there’s aroha to give and stories to tell and a good supply of plasters.

Auē! – a cry of distress – calling out throughout this extraordinary novel of fear and violence, of families torn apart and people trying to find connection and safety.

Taukiri leaves his brother Ārama with Aunty Kat on her farm in Kaikoura after a family tragedy. He heads to Wellington, trying to get by, trying to forget. Skip to the past: Jade is a young woman who had “only known life with a man” – who missed her chance to get away the first time, so doesn’t want to miss her second chance. Auē is told through the points of view of Taukiri, Ārama and Jade, but is populated with many other rich and vibrant characters, plus the linking voice of a spirit that blows like the wind, “I am drowned”, twisting around the characters, trying to break free but tied by the sorrow of her relatives.

Auē starts relatively paced, feeling like a familiar story: confused children, women trapped in abusive relationships, young men turning to drugs to dull their memories and their pain. But as you read, you empathise so much with the characters, that the mystery of what exactly has happened and how the people are related to each other is totally absorbing. And the tension of the last few chapters almost unbearable.

Taukiri is someone who loves the sea, he experiences his emotions and heightened experiences as waves that wash over him, but the sea is at the heart of his trauma, and drugs only help for so long: “There was a price for emptying your head. It emptied euphorically on the going out, sure, but all the junk flooded back eventually.” Ārama, eight years old, just wants Taukiri back, singing to him, calming his sleepless nights, teaching him to play the guitar, how to surf.

Ārama feels abandoned, even his Nanny doesn’t respond to any of the many many messages he leaves on her phone. Aunty Kat is nice, and the neighbours, Beth and her Dad Tom Aiken, are a refuge, but Kat’s husband Uncle Stu is one of the many abusive men in the novel, and Ārama never really feels safe. The little boy tries to comfort himself with sticking plasters; putting them over his heartbeat, over his eyes to keep the tears in.

For Taukiri, Ārama and Jade, there are periods when their lives don’t feel real, they feel they are ‘acting’ their lives rather than living them, feel their chance to enjoy existence has been stolen from them. They are all guarded in what they reveal of themselves, little Ārama: “I thought about how many terrible words there were, and how when they were let loose in the world, they sucked up all the air around them”, he and Beth escape into a fantasy world – based on Django unchained! Jade hears herself speaking and hears someone else after finally escaping from a gang house, and Taukiri drifts with his demons: “I painted her skin with so much blood”, living with the gnawing knowledge that Ārama is waiting for him, thinking that other boys had a bottom to their fall but that “The bottomlessness to my life was dizzying.”

The writing in Auē is immersive, the smattering of typos a jolt. It is a tale of heartbreak and violence, but there are lighter moments; the two children are charming and funny and keep themselves, and the reader, entertained. All the substantial characters in the book are illustrative of one of the book’s messages: “No one is just anything.”

Reading Auē is a little like going to a tangi, as described by Ārama to Beth: you have to cry enough and laugh enough before being allowed to leave. A remarkable book.


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

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Review: BLOOD SONG

BLOOD SONG by Johana Gustawsson, translated by David Warriner (Orenda Books, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Spain, 1938: The country is wracked by civil war, and as Valencia falls to Franco’s brutal dictatorship, Republican Therese witnesses the murders of her family. Captured and sent to the notorious Las Ventas women’s prison, Therese gives birth to a daughter who is forcibly taken from her.

Falkenberg, Sweden, 2016: A wealthy family is found savagely murdered in their luxurious home. Discovering that her parents have been slaughtered, Aliénor Lindbergh, a new recruit to the UK’s Scotland Yard, rushes back to Sweden and finds her hometown rocked by the massacre.

Profiler Emily Roy joins forces with Aliénor and soon finds herself on the trail of a monstrous and prolific killer. Little does she realise that this killer is about to change the life of her colleague, true-crime writer Alexis Castells. Joining forces once again, Roy and Castells’ investigation takes them from the Swedish fertility clinics of the present day back to the terror of Franco’s rule, and the horrifying events that took place in Spanish orphanages under its rule

The third entry in the excellent Emily Roy and Alexis Castells series follows on from Gustawsson’s award-winning debut, BLOCK 46, which blended contemporary crimes in Sweden and the UK with historic horrors from Buchenwald concentration camp, and KEEPER, which had a present-and-past structure entwined with Jack the Ripper’s sadistic spree across Victorian London.

This time Roy and Castells are hunting a dangerous killer who strikes close to them, as a new Scotland Yard recruit’s wealthy family is found massacred back in Sweden. BLOOD SONG traverses issues from modern fertility clinics back to the terrors of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship.

Gustawsson crafts a tale that is deeply disturbing and yet captivating. She doesn’t shy away from the true-to-history atrocities of a past era and regime that has perhaps gone somewhat overlooked, relative to others. BLOOD SONG is not an easy read, but it is hard to stop reading.

Gustawsson does a fine job setting the hook then reeling us in across some jagged and painful ground. She is showing herself to be a masterful storyteller going from strength to strength, whose dark tales are brought to English-speaking readers thanks to an adroit translation from Canadian David Warriner. While I wouldn't recommended this novel or this series for cosy-only crime lovers, I do think it is very very good; a vivid and exciting tale for those who can handle the darker edge.


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. 

Thursday, March 5, 2020

"The Edinburgh of the south has never been more deadly," says Ian Rankin

Today in the United Kingdom, Vanda Symon's third Sam Shephard novel, CONTAINMENT, has been released. It's remarkable to see overseas reviewers, readers, and top crime writers all embracing these great tales from the south of the South Island.

Sometimes I feel that some of us Australian and New Zealand booklovers have been banging on about various local authors for ages, and the rest of the world is finally starting to catch up. Slowly. Vanda is a world-class crime writer, the kind who writes a great series with a terrific main character who could be beloved by millions of readers. Her stories would make for a superb television series.

Hopefully more and more readers all over the world will give this terrific series a try, along with other great crime and thriller tales from New Zealand and Australian authors. There's plenty of choice and tonnes of quality, no matter what part of the crime genre you prefer.

Happy World Book Day.


Review: DARKNESS FOR LIGHT

DARKNESS FOR LIGHT by Emma Viskic (Echo Publishing, Dec 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Caleb Zelic can't hear you. But he can see everything.
The latest pulsating thriller in the Caleb Zelic series

After a lifetime of bad decisions PI Caleb Zelic is finally making good ones. He's in therapy, his business is recovering and his relationship with his estranged wife Kat is on the mend.

But soon Caleb is drawn into the tangled life of his troubled ex partner Frankie, which leads to a confrontation with the cops. And when Frankie's niece is kidnapped, she and Caleb must work together to save the child's life. But can Caleb trust her after her past betrayals?

Melbourne scribe Emma Viskic burst onto the crime scene a few years ago with an outstanding and unusual novel centred on deaf private eye Caleb Zelic.

Reflecting on the thousand-plus crime novels I read during the 2010s, I'd have to say RESURRECTION BAY was one of the better debuts I read - and I wasn't alone in enjoying it as it went on to scoop numerous awards at home (Davitts, Ned Kelly Award, etc), then international acclaim including two CWA Dagger shortlistings.

Caleb returned in AND FIRE CAME DOWN, and now he and Viskic and Zelic are back for a third dance in DARKNESS FOR LIGHT, a really terrific novel in what has become a very fine series.

After all that has gone before, Caleb is now trying to turn his life around.

He’s seeing a therapist, connecting more with the Melbourne deaf community that he's avoided in the past, and hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife Kat, an indigenous artist. His credo to 'make good decisions' is put to the test however when a potential client turns up dead.

Federal cops swirl around the case - what is going on?

Caleb has unwittingly got himself entangled in a web involving corruption and a kidnapped young girl - as well as the return of Caleb's dangerous former business partner and friend Frankie. The former cop is a woman who may even outdo Caleb when it comes to self-destructive tendencies.

Can Caleb trust Frankie, or is she setting him up? What about the Federal cops?

Alarms screech everywhere.

Viskic conjures a superb crime tale that moves like a bullet train while never scrimping on character depth or emotional impact. There is tonnes of intrigue in both Caleb's professional and personal life, while Viskic delivers genuine insights into her deaf characters in ways that feel pleasingly nuanced rather than tokenistic.

Overall, DARKNESS FOR LIGHT is a fresh and masterful crime tale from a hugely talented author. Well worth grabbing a copy and diving into the continuing adventures of Caleb Zelic.



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. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Review: YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY

YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY by Steph Cha (Faber, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

ONE CITY. TWO FAMILIES. MANY SECRETS.

In 1991 Shawn, a young African-American teen, his sister Ava, and cousin Ray, set out across LA to a screening of New Jack City. But in the volatile atmosphere of that time, they never make it inside the cinema.

Nearly three decades later, police brutality still afflicts the city, but Grace, a Korean-American twenty-something pharmacist living and working with her parents, has her own problems, as she tries to figure out why her older sister, Miriam, still refuses to speak with their mother.

Across the county, Shawn is trying to ease Ray, fresh out of prison, back into everyday life, but both men are struggling, still haunted by the events of 1991 and their shared loss. When a shocking new crime strikes the city, the lives of Grace and Shawn - two people from different cultures and generations - collide in a way which could change them forever.

Almost thirty years after LAPD officers were videoed beating a black man with batons, the name Rodney King still resonates around the world. Injustice compounded by the later acquittal of the cops, sparking deadly riots that tore across Los Angeles.

Lesser remembered globally but significant for those involved: the killing of Latasha Harlins, an unarmed black teenager, by a Korean shopkeeper two weeks after King’s beating.

Los Angeles author Steph Cha shifts away from her series heroine Juniper Song – a Korean American amateur sleuth turned private eye – in this stunning standalone novel inspired by the Latasha Harlins case. YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY is a tremendous example of crime fiction being an ideal vehicle for exploring social and political issues.

Grace Park and Shawn Matthews are opposites in many ways; she’s a sheltered young Korean American pharmacist still living with her parents, he’s a middle-aged African American who’s walked away from gang life. But both are dealing with fractured families, and both are linked by past tragedy. The City of Angels is a powder keg in the wake of police shooting a black teenager, then another shooting brings the past crashing into the present, and Grace and Shawn’s families back into the media glare.

Put simply, Cha’s novel is brilliant, a best book of the year contender.

Beautiful writing meets nuanced characterisation in a thoroughly absorbing read. Cha takes readers deep into divergent communities and the nexus between personal and political. This is ambitious, brave, and powerful storytelling.

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.