Saturday, October 10, 2015


THE DOMINO KILLER by Neil White (Sphere, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

DC Sam Parker investigates the brutal killing of a man in a local park, who evidence later places at a prior murder, while his brother Joe, a defence lawyer, thinks he's found the culprit who killed their sister almost two decades ago: Joe's new client. 

Some crime novels grab you immediately, with an obviously distinctive style, character or premise. Others grow on you as the pages turn, as you get deeper into the story and  characters. For me THE DOMINO KILLER, Neil White's ninth crime novel (and third to star the Parker brothers), fell into the latter category, going from 'hmmm... promising, I'm intrigued' to 'I'm really enjoying this' to 'ah, very nicely done - I'll definitely be back for more' as I followed along the story.

It all starts with an unassuming man waiting on a park bench in Manchester as night falls, flowers in hand: hopeful, nervous, and expectant. But rather than a first date or secret lover, he's met with a hammer. Detective Constable Sam Parker of Manchester's Major Incident Team is assigned to the murder, which at first seems as random and unexplained as it is vicious and bloody. Meanwhile Sam's brother Joe, who also works within the criminal justice system, but 'on the other side' as a criminal defence counsel, is electrified when he looks into the eyes of his newest client; a man with a clean record who's accused of stealing his own car from the police impound, only to later torch it. Joe is certain he's seen those eyes before - on a teenage face who glanced at 18-year-old Joe before following Joe's little sister Ellie down a path that was a short-cut home; Ellie was never seen alive again, an incident that's haunted Joe, Sam, and others for 17 years.

It was Ellie Parker's murder that inspired both Sam and Joe to follow careers in criminal justice, if from different perspectives. But Joe has been hiding a secret from everyone closest to him since that fateful day, and the events in THE DOMINO KILLER bring that secret to the surface, with chilling results.

Neil White can tell a gripping crime tale, but for me it is really the relationships between his characters and the ways in which they respond to events where he excels most. I hadn't read any of his Parker brothers books before, so I didn't have any background to the characters and 'came in clean', so to speak.

Perhaps because of this, at the beginning I found myself enjoying THE DOMINO KILLER, and intrigued by what was going on and what might happen (White sets the hooks well), without being particularly blown away. The book fits nicely into the British police procedural subgenre - of which there are a sea of offerings. White writes in a straightforward style, so the elegance of the plotting and the depth of the characters, in particular, kind of sneaks up on the reader. Or this one, at least. Both Joe and Sam are very interesting characters - the more I got to know them, the more I was curious about them.

An understandable moment of teenage fear has gnawed away at Joe for 17 years, and as it's finally revealed in THE DOMINO KILLER, it undercuts how many people feel about Joe, and how he feels about himself. Neil White does a terrific job at demonstrating how all sorts of relationships - family, friends, colleagues - can be threatened by past secrets, and how everyone involved doesn't quite know what to think and how to act. There's anger, frustration, pain, in amongst the care and love and concern. Joe isn't the only one keeping a secret in THE DOMINO KILLER, so it's a theme that the reader gets to experience throughout the book.

There's a real humanity to the characters in THE DOMINO KILLER, despite the book having a particularly disturbing and chilling killer at its core. Life gets messy, people make mistakes... so what do you do then?

Even though I thought I had a lot of things worked out quite early, plot-wise, White impressively keeps up the intrigue and narrative drive, building to an exciting climax and throwing in some lovely twists. Quite where the events in THE DOMINO KILLER leave the Parker family is beautifully unclear.

Overall, THE DOMINO KILLER is a very enjoyable read that gets tenser and more layered as it goes along. The litmus test: would I read more about the Parker brothers in future? Absolutely.

9mm interview: Matthew Frank

Happy Friday everyone! Welcome to another edition of Crime Watch's popular author interview series, 9mm. Today, for the 132nd instalment in the series, I'm pleased to welcome British author Matthew Frank.

I had the pleasure of meeting Frank at the Penguin Crime Drinks in Soho earlier this year (see photo below, with me in full travelling bear mode), before I hopped on a plane back to New Zealand. His debut novel, IF I SHOULD DIE, came out last year in hardback, and got a lot of rave reviews. It introduced London detective Joseph Stark, a veteran of the Afghan war, and revolves around an investigation into someone attacking homeless people in South London. Some reviewers have called it the best start to a new crime series they've read in the past decade. IF I SHOULD DIE is now also available in paperback and I understand we'll see Frank's sophomore novel hit shelves this year.

But for now, Matthew Frank becomes the latest teller of crime tales to stare down the barrel of 9mm.

Craig Sisterson and Matthew Frank
at the Penguin Crime Drink in Soho

Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I always feel slightly shy admitting that crime fiction forms only a small part of my eclectic reading. I get most of my crime fix from TV, everything from Morse/Endeavour and Sherlock to guilty-pleasure American pulp like Blue Bloods and Elementary. I really enjoyed Zen, and was disappointed when the BBC cancelled it. I’ll definitely read the books in the future when someone invents a machine for squeezing extra hours in the day.

But, put on the spot, my favourite literary detective might have to be Samuel Vimes, from the late great Sir Terry Pratchett. I hear purists wincing, but if you want a copper dragging himself from the gutter (literally) and doing the right thing because all he has left is his principles, a rookie-with-a-destiny and a police lycanthrope, then look no further.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I wasn’t much of a reader as a child. I vaguely remember Brer Rabbit. My mum used to read to my elder siblings and I books such as Watership Down soon after the film came out and the images were fresh in our minds, and Jennie by Paul Gallico - both gems. There’s a cute animal theme there…

But the first book I remember reading that really gripped me was The Hobbit, followed in the shortest possible order by Lord of the Rings. The latter remains one of my favourite books, for its portrayal of friendship, endurance and sacrifice; and shear imagination. The last thing I read that engrossed me completely was the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I started writing late, probably when I realised that day-dreaminess could have a productive outlet. How I got going is another story (see my website, but the first thing I finished was a novel, working title: 'Fear To Tread' – a present-day comic fantasy thriller with a surreal theological twist (and, I later realised, a strong police thread that I thoroughly enjoyed). Hard to pitch, though. They say ‘write what you know,’ but I wrote what I wanted to read – at that time, often Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The opening chapters quickly amassed a crushing two rejections before I moved on to Stark, but I’d love to dust it off; it was a blast to write and read back.

Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I work full time as an Architect but my chief and best occupation is my wife and three young sons. Before writing took off, my primary hobby was wreck diving. UK coast waters may be cold and dark, but they are littered with history. For now the rebreather gathers dust, waiting for that time-machine I mentioned earlier. In the meantime I get out on my mountain bike when the trails are just too perfect to ignore and write in whatever marginal time presents itself.

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?
Herne Bay is a town on the north coast of Kent. It’s best asset is the sea. I grew up swimming, skimming stones, sailing dinghies and playing video games in the arcades. It’s upstart neighbour, Whitstable, seems to have grown in fame since the oysters became popular with Londonites, and nearby Canterbury has all the best History. Herne Bay used to have the second longest pier in the country until most of the neck was destroyed by a storm in 1978. I remember walking out past the wreckage at low tide.

Hot summer-day top-tip for kids of all ages - after paddling and throwing stones into the brown sea, bouncing on the trampolines and ice cream in the bandstand… Dropping coins into the Telly-Go-Round (google it – words don’t do justice).

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
I could only hope for Mark Rylance, because he’s probably the only actor in the world capable of turning doing-nothing-much-out-of-the-ordinary into something utterly compelling.

Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
IF I SHOULD DIE - without a doubt. Partly because it’s the first book I got published, but mostly because it’s the only book I’ve got published so far. I hope the sequel becomes my new favourite when it’s finished, and so on… My current second favourite for now is the one in the drawer (see question #3); maybe someday people will read it (#PublishFearToTread - smiley face emoji etc.).

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 don’t know how common this is, but there wasn’t one big moment. I got an agent by luck, went through edits and then IISD went off to the usual publisher suspects, who all said no. Luckily their reason was consistent and addressable. The publisher that had come closest (Penguin - Michael Joseph) offered a sit down, so I stayed up half the night drafting a tweaked synopsis, which was met with enthusiasm. Not long after we got ‘the call’. I was overjoyed, but still had to deliver the rewrite.

After that it was a series of thrills – getting a great reaction to the rewrite, receiving bound proofs in the post, getting a finished hardback handed to me at a Penguin PR do, and finally first seeing my debut in a bookshop. I’ve yet to spot a stranger on a train reading it, but I live in hope.

My debut Publication Day actually coincided with my 10th Wedding Anniversary, and we celebrated both in style – It doesn’t get better than that.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
My first literary festival panel (Crimefest 2014) was in itself one of the strangest experiences. A room full of people expecting words of wisdom, when my book wasn’t even quite out. Luckily there were four other much more experienced authors on the panel to help me through.

Of course when you book isn’t quite out yet, it makes the after-panel book signing a bit awkward. Luckily my publisher moved heaven and earth to get a box-load delivered next day, and a lovely lady named Emily rushed up to me with two copies to sign. So I met the very first person to buy my book. – It doesn’t get much stranger, or memorable, than that.

Thank you Matthew, we appreciate you taking the time to chat with Crime Watch

You can read more about Matthew Frank at his website here

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Ten Tastes of Dame Ngaio Marsh

As some of you will know, I run a crime writing award named after Dame Ngaio Marsh, one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Marsh famously wrote 32 novels featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn, which have been roundly praised for her stylish writing, comic touches, and particular flair for settings and characters with depth. Although Marsh may not have rivalled her fellow Dame Agatha Christie, as a puzzling plot wizard, Marsh is considered to have elevated the detective fiction of the time, bringing in 'rounder, fuller' aspects of the novelist craft to the popular crime genre.

Back in the day she was called "the finest writer in the English language of the pure classical whodunnit", and the New York Times said that "in Ngaio Marsh's ironic and witty hands the mystery novel can be literature". Here on Crime Watch we've reviewed ten of Dame Ngaio's 32 detective novels so far, so today I thought I'd bring those novels and reviews together in one post - ten tastes of Dame Ngaio, if you will. If you are interested in reviewing any of the other 22 of her novels for Crime Watch, please do get in touch.

Ten Tastes of Dame Ngaio

Ngaio Marsh and Inspector Alleyn both made their debuts in this murder mystery which has plenty of the hallmarks of a classic cosy. A group of people gather in an English country estate for a weekend of leisure and fun. While playing a popular parlour game (Murder), a real murder is committed. Inspector Alleyn arrives at the estate following the death, and must sift through all the evidence, accounts, motives and alibis to unmask the culprit.

"This is not Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn's first murder case, although it is Ngaio Marsh's first novel," says Kerrie Smith in her review. "Alleyn is already a seasoned detective, with a reputation for thorough and careful sleuthing. His reputation precedes him."

Australian crime critic Smith notes that Marsh's debut was very British in tone and style, with no hint of Marsh's antipodean origins. Another interesting aspect is the hint of 'the Russian threat', given the novel was written in the early 1930s. But overall Marsh's debut is most important for introducing and establishing the character of Roderick Alleyn, who would be the backbone of a series that ran for half a century, was adapted for radio and television, and remains in print.

"In essence what Marsh does in this first novel is establish some of the characteristics which will become Alleyn's "signature" in subsequent novels," says Smith. "Alleyn does not appear as the other characters expect a detective to be. He is tall, cultured, detached, thorough, and objective. He professes to have a poor memory and keeps a small note book of important facts, with an alphabetical index. We learn that Alleyn is an Oxford man who initially became a diplomat, before turning to policing. He likes to inspect things first hand, and likes to reconstruct events until he gets them right. He may also lay traps for suspects. In A MAN LAY DEAD he decides one of the characters is innocent, and then uses him as his "Watson", not only involving him in some of the sleuthing, but also as a sounding board for his deductions. Thus we see the action often through two sets of eyes, both Alleyn's and the other characters."

You can read Smith's full review here.

As Ngaio Marsh settled into her groove as a mystery novelist, this third Alleyn tale is memorable for a number of reasons. The Times of London credited it as a book which “transformed the detective story” from a mere puzzle to a full-blown and fascinating novel. It was also the only book Marsh wrote alongside another person: in this case H Jellett, a surgeon who provided inside knowledge of British hospitals and was originally credited as a co-author in the first edition. It is also the book a character in an Agatha Christie novel, MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA, is seen reading, and it remains one of Marsh's most popular novels.

Although we're used to seeing plenty of dramas played out in hospitals nowadays (particularly on television), eighty years ago this was much rarer. It's perhaps overlooked now, but Marsh took the classic British murder mystery to some interesting settings. In THE NURSING HOME MURDER, the British Home Secretary goes to hospital with suspected appendicitis, after collapsing while introducing a parliamentary bill relating to terrorists and anarchists, only to end up dead on the operating table minutes after the operation.

When Alleyn arrives on the scene, he uncovers plenty of suspects, from the Home Secretary's wife, to various political foes, and a number of staff at the hospital.

For reviewer Kerrie Smith, THE NURSING HOME MURDER is a precursor to the popular Robin Cook medical thrillers of more recent times, and even being almost eighty years old, she "didn't think there was anything dated about the writing or the plot" of Marsh's third effort. Unlike in A MAN LAY DEAD, where Alleyn seconds a potential suspect as his sounding-board, in this third mystery the refined detective has two 'Watsons': his colleague Inspector Fox, and his friend and journalist Nigel Bathgate.

You can read Kerrie Smith's full review here.

The first of only four Alleyn tales to be set in Dame Ngaio's home country of New Zealand finds the detective taking a train journey through the New Zealand countryside while on vacation, before being pulled into a mystery when a group of travelling actors he's sitting with - the Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company - get caught up in some dastardly deeds.

It could be said that Ngaio Marsh, now settling in to her career as a mystery writer, brought a little more of herself to VINTAGE MURDER - the book is notable for blending some of Ngaio's national heritage, and a lot of her theatrical heritage (Marsh had been part of a travelling theatre company herself), into the storyline, bringing some interesting texture and insights as the mystery unfolds. For Canadian reviewer Andrea Thompson, it was a very good read, without being her favourite Alleyn tale.  

In VINTAGE MURDER, the beautiful leading lady of the touring company has married the pudgy producer, much to the bewilderment of her lover. But who was it that rigged a huge jeroboam of champagne to kill her husband during a cast party?

"Marsh’s great knowledge of actors and the theatre shows here, with her funny, detailed, and poignant descriptions of all of the actors," says Thompson in her review. "This is the first book in the series set in New Zealand, and one of the main characters, Dr. Rangi Te Pokiha is a Maori. He plays a pivotal role in the plot, and explains a tiki – a Maori fertility symbol – which also has an important part to play. As well, there are a number of scenes where the beautiful New Zealand landscape is vividly described."

Thompson was also intrigued by the discussion in the book of the potential of a new war on the horizon (the book was written in the mid 1930s), and the way Alleyn interacted with the local police.

You can read Andrea Thompson's full review here.

In her seventh Alleyn tale, Dame Ngaio takes us into a different kind of 'closed society' - a trope popular in classic detective fiction. In this case, the insular group is those who orbit their lives through the hoity-toity world of debutante balls and champagne and caviar-catered social functions among London's higher society. Lord Robert "Bunchy" Gospell, an old friend of Chief Inspector Alleyn, is a charming and popular figure on the circuit, but the morning after the season's most glittering ball, he's asphyxiated in a taxi. He'd been Alleyn's eyes and ears as the detective was investigating a blackmail threat, so the death strikes close to home.

I've had people tell me DEATH IN A WHITE TIE is one of their favourite Dame Ngaio books, for a number of reasons: some great examples of witty dialogue that Marsh was renowned for, her evocation of the elegant London high-society set, and the growing insights into Alleyn's personal life. Although Alleyn is a sophisticated and gentlemanly character who isn't particularly demonstrative or garrulous, here we touch on his understated romance with Agatha Troy, as well as his relationship with his mother, and the loss of a friend to murder.

Having a murder victim that is charming, likable and well-humanised is a pleasant, if emotionally jarring, departure from the classic trope of a victim that's either a mere prop killed off early or a dislikable lynchpin that many characters and readers alike don't mind seeing murdered. "I particularly liked the way that death is treated so seriously in the book, and the depth of the loss portrayed so carefully," says Andrea Thompson. 

"Alleyn’s mother helps the investigation, as well as family friend Bunchy, and the relationship between Lady Alleyn and her son is interesting," says Thompson in her Crime Watch review. "This glimpse into a certain set of people in a certain era is also fascinating ... a lifestyle that’s very difficult to imagine these days. Marsh writes beautifully, so it’s simply a pleasure to read her descriptions of anything." 

Thompson says Marsh is extremely entertaining in DEATH IN A WHITE TIE, and also "unflinching in her examination of various characters, from supposedly innocent young ladies to elderly tyrants.

You can read Andrea Thompson's full review here

After delving into elegance and betrayal in London high society in her previous novel, Marsh takes us back to the English countryside and village life in her eighth Alleyn mystery. In OVERTURE TO DEATH the central characters (Alleyn and his offsiders aside) are two gossiping spinsters in the quaint and quiet village of Chipping. 

The two woman make the lives of many in the village miserable, with prying eyes and poisonous mouths, and when one is shot during a charitable amateur theatre production, Alleyn comes to town, only to realise that the murder might be a case of mistaken identity. If he doesn't do something quickly, another killing could ensue.

While this book seems well-liked by readers throughout the decades, it is one in Marsh's ouevre that divides people. Inspector Alleyn doesn't turn up for quite some time, as Marsh lays the groundwork of the various personalities, connections, and life in the village of Chipping. A lot of time is spent with the rather nasty characters of Eleanor Prentice and Idris Campanula, the two gossiping spinsters, so while some readers find this intriguing, others get impatient for the sophisticated hero. 

"If you've ever known any mean, unattractive older ladies, who seem angry and upset whenever other people are happy and fulfilled, and yet who prefer to express their anger by using indirect insults often disguised as compliments or helpful hints, you will have a riot reading OVERTURE TO MURDER," says Andrea Thompson in her Crime Watch review. While some have struggled with the focus on the two woman - one of the few below-average ratings on Good Reads (96% of people liked it) simply says 'Beware. Anti-spinster propaganda!' - our reviewer appreciated what Marsh was doing here. 

"Marsh’s careful writing style, with a strong focus on the inner thoughts, emotions, and motivations of the characters, is perfect here, in describing these two difficult characters, as well as everyone else in the story,: continues Thompson. "In addition to being very revealing and evocative, Marsh’s writing is humorous, and so even though many of the people in the book are quite unpleasant, I didn't find any of the scenes boring.

Overall, Thompson found OVERTURE TO DEATH a "satisfying and entertaining read", and was particularly grateful for the way "Marsh didn't hold back when she wrote". 

You can read Andrea Thompson's full review for Crime Watch here

Considered one of Marsh's most interesting novels, and one that Dame Ngaio herself reportedly thought was perhaps her best-written tale, COLOUR SCHEME - another of the four set in New Zealand - certainly has one of the most memorable murders in Golden Age crime fiction. Maurice Questing was well-disliked: he hated the British exiles, despised New Zealanders, insulted the local Maori, and hindered wartime spies! So when he's lured into a pool of boiling mud and left to die in the volcanic plateau of New Zealand's central North Island, Chief Inspector Alleyn has plenty of suspects to choose from!

Australian critic Karen Chisholm, one our Ngaio Marsh Award judges, recently re-read COLOUR SCHEME after first reading it more than thirty years ago, and found that it still held up well as an enjoyable read. "There's a lovely underlying sense of humour about it, a bit too much stuffed shirt middle class English twit in some of the characters maybe" says Chisholm, before singling out (doubling out?) two aspects of the novel she particularly enjoyed: the setting, and the way Maori characters were included.

The book is set in the Rotorua region of New Zealand, which for those from the United States is perhaps best described as a place akin to Yellowstone National Park, without the bison and bears: bubbling hot pools, thermal geysers, forests, rivers, lakes, and rugged landscapes. "The smell of the sulphur and the bubbling of the mud along with the moonlike look were very evocative," says Chisholm in her review.

Chisholm also appreciated the way that the indigenous Maori were described, their cultures and customs included, without hitting the reader over the head or making a big deal of their inclusion as something special. "They were just there. There was no particular over-statement of their existence, of their involvement or of their interactions. In other words, what I'm trying to say, is that no big deal was made of their presence."

You can read Karen Chisholm's full review here.

Following on from the grisly and unique New Zealand-based murder in COLOUR SCHEME, Marsh unleashed one of the most innovative and memorable ways to deal with a body in classic crime fiction in DIED IN THE WOOL. Another war-time novel, in which Marsh touches on issues surrounding the Second World War, which was still raging in Europe as she wrote - she incorporates aspects, issues, and perspectives on the war climate into the murder mystery plotline.

But first, the unique discovery of the body: One summer evening in 1942, formidable Member of Parliament Florence “Flossie” Rubrick goes to the wool shed on her high country sheep station to rehearse a patriotic speech, and disappears. Three weeks later, she’s found – dead, wrapped inside a bale of wool at an auction.

Chief Inspector Alleyn, in New Zealand on war security matters, comes to the high country property more than a year later, after Rubrick’s husband has also passed away, and tries to piece together what happened to the polarising MP, based on the testimonies of several acquaintances. At the same time, concerns are raised about the top-secret security work being carried out by two young men – have the blueprints for a new anti-aircraft device been leaked?

In effect, Marsh transported the classic British ‘country house’ murder mystery, with its closed environment and small amount of characters (all of whom with a motive for killing the victim), into a rural New Zealand war-time setting. But she also does a few things differently that make DIED IN THE WOOL stand out. Alleyn arrives a year after the murder, so can’t rely on clues and observations usually available to detectives – instead he has to weigh differing recollections of the residents (each has its own chapter, eg “According to Terence Lynne”). This device gave Marsh a different structure and investigative method, and also the opportunity to ‘voice’ varying views about what was going on during the war, through her characters.

DIED IN THE WOOL again evidences that Marsh’s plots weren’t as intricate as Christie’s puzzles, but she was the superior writer when it came to setting, description, and giving her characters depth and layers. Compared to today’s crime novels, the pace is somewhat languid, and at times, the language used dates the book, but decades after it was published, DIED IN THE WOOL remains an absorbing, enjoyable read.

For her 27th Alleyn tale, Dame Ngaio returned to the classic 'group of people gathered for a vacation at a manor estate' set-up of her debut, forty years before. This time, it's Christmas, and the story starts with Troy, by now Roderick Alleyn's wife, invited to Hilary Bill-Tasman's estate to paint the man and view the Druid Christmas pageant.

Inspector Alleyn isn't at the estate for the festivities - which Troy enjoys alongside the classic crowd of eccentric guests - but arrives soon after, having returned from Australia, when one of the pageant's players mysteriously disappears into the snowy night. An interesting twist - all of the hired help at the estate are convicted murderers on parole from the nearby prison. Did one of them have something to do with this Christmas mystery of the disappearing Druid?

"TIED UP IN TINSEL was among the last of Dame Ngaio Marsh's (1895-1982) mysteries," notes reviewer Kerrie Smith, "although she continued to publish another five titles, right up to her death. It reflects not only her gift for clever plotting but also has a very theatrical feel to it. Characteristically, an early page displays a very useful cast of characters, and the whole story feels as if it could easily be dramatised. There are lots of places that have the reader grasping at straws in an attempt to solve the murder before Alleyn does."

Overall, Smith felt that even as Marsh approached 80 years old, TIED UP IN TINSEL showed the Grande Dame still "had not lost her ability to write a good yarn". You can read Kerrie Smith's full review here.

Dame Ngaio published this penultimate Alleyn novel partway through her ninth decade; it is the fourth and final of her tales to be set in New Zealand. Alongside the usual cast of intriguing, well-drawn characters and Marsh's gift for humour and setting, there are some different touches to this murder mystery, as Marsh incorporated issues that would become prevalent in our celebrity-obsessed culture in the decades since.

Famous soprano Isabella Sommita is at her wits end, having been hounded by a paparazzo, who continues to publish unflattering photos of her in newspapers, so her rich boyfriend has taken her on holiday to an island in New Zealand to rest and relax. She plans to perform an aria to her lover and a group of celebrities gathered on the island.

The Alleyns are also in attendance: Troy has been invited to the island retreat to paint a portrait of Isabella, while Inspector Alleyn is separately invited to help try to put a stop to the pesky paparazzo. But then the diva winds up dead, with a photo on her body, and Alleyn has a murder to solve. Meanwhile a storm rages, trapping all the celebrities and others on the island with the murderer...

Reviewer Sarah Plant (nee Gumbley), found PHOTO FINISH to be "simply a wonderful story", noting that the book has a very 'play-like' feel to it (unsurprisingly), and that it was the kind of book she wanted to finish in one go, and kept her guessing until the last moment. You can read Sarah's full review here.

The tenth and final Ngaio Marsh tale we'll look at here today was also her very final story, the 32nd Inspector Alleyn book (there were also a number of short stories), published in the year of Dame Ngaio's death, thirty three years ago. The lass from Christchurch was the final member of the Queens of Crime quartet to leave us (Sayers died in 1957, Allingham in 1966, and Agatha Christie in 1976).

Fittingly, Marsh finished in the theatre. And not just any old am-dram theatre production, but Shakespeare, one of her true loves (she'd acted as Hamlet in her earlier days, and directed Shakespearean plays). Performed by renowned actors in a top London production.

From the blurb: "Four murders. Three witches. A fiendish lady. A homicidal husband. A ghost. No wonder "Macbeth "is considered such bad luck by theatre people that they won't mention its name out loud. But the new London production of "the Scottish play" promises to be a smash until gruesome pranks begin plaguing rehearsals. And when the last act ends in real-life tragedy, Chief Superintendent Alleyn takes center stage-uncovering a heartbreaking secret, murderous jealousy, and a dark, desperate reason for 'murder for foul'."

Dame Ngaio was approaching 90 when this final novel was published, but like the great PD James (Baroness James of Holland Park, who was a big fan of Ngaio Marsh), even at an advanced age she still managed to craft an absorbing, page-turning tale that was well worth reading.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Marsh didn't mind having a murder occur much later in a book, rather than used as a kickstart for the plot, and that is once again on show in LIGHT THICKENS (sold as DEATH AT THE DOLPHIN in the United States). Instead, she sets the scene through character and setting, laying the groundwork. As Sarah Plant said in her review for Crime Watch, "By the time I was halfway through the story and no murder had been committed, I was starting to wonder if one was going to happen in time to be solved before the end of the book. But the tension was certainly in the air, and something terrible seemed inevitable. In the end, the killer wasn't who I had been so certain it would be. I got a surprise when it was revealed in the last few pages. But I suppose that’s how it should be. Marsh is too good to ever be predictable."

And in a nice, final nod to her homeland, there is a Kiwi character in this final book, who even performs a haka. You can read Sarah's full review of LIGHT THICKENS here.

So there we go - ten tastes of Dame Ngaio Marsh's renowned books, spanning her debut through to her finale, including all four novels set in New Zealand, and a nice selection of others. Thank you to Kerrie Smith, Karen Chisholm, Andrea Thompson, and Sarah Plant for providing reviews to Crime Watch over the years. If any readers are interested in reviewing one of the other 22 Alleyn novels for Crime Watch, please get in touch. In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts about Dame Ngaio in the comments section below. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


THE PETTICOAT MEN by Barbara Ewing (Head of Zeus, 2014)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

The Victorian gossip mongers called them The Petticoat Men. But to young widow Mattie Stacey, they are Freddie and Ernest, her gentlemen lodgers. It is Mattie who admires their sparkling gowns, makes their extravagant hats and laughs at their stories of attending society balls dressed up as the glamorous 'Fanny' and 'Stella'. But one fateful night Fanny and Stella are arrested, and Mattie and her family are dragged into a shocking court trial, described in newspapers all over England as 'The Scandal of the Century'. Outraged, Mattie is determined to save her family from ruin, and her friends from shame and penury. She embarks on a brave journey to expose the establishment's hypocrisy - including the involvement of Mr Gladstone the Prime Minister, and the Prince of Wales. For Fanny and Stella are dangerous ladies, and these are dangerous times... 

Based on the true story of the trial of two men in 1871, THE PETTICOAT MEN places real-life characters into a fictional scenario to create an extremely entertaining, and very readable story.

It is true that the young Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were put on trial for "conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence", they were both well-known cross-dressers and suspected homosexuals, although acquitted due to the prosecutions failure to prove either the sexual activity or that wearing women's clothing was actually a crime. The trial was a sensation due to the nature of the allegations, but also because of their connections to members of the aristocracy.

In THE PETTICOAT MAN there are more characters from society and establishment drawn into the story, which based on the circles they mixed in, comes across as reasonable conclusions to draw. This is probably helped by the feel of the entire book, which has a truthfulness to it that's incredibly compelling.

The central, and most vocal narrator, is Mattie Stacey. Daughter of the owner of the boarding house in which Freddie and Ernest rent a room to store their women's clothing, and to dress, Mattie is absolutely outraged when her family's good name and address are dragged into the gossip and innuendo surrounding the trial. She's not outraged at either of the men, one of whom she is particularly attached to after he had been particularly kind to her, but because she, her mother, and her brother are decent people, who run a clean house and are loyal to their friends, and they most definitely do not run a questionable establishment. Mattie's the star of this book, her voice is so beautifully crafted she's real, and she's fabulous. Brave and true, she might not have had a lot of formal education but she, and her brother, are self-educated, self-motivated and good people. As is her mother, and had been her father - both theatre people themselves which probably means that the men's antics came as less of a matter of comment than it might.

The situation that Mattie and her family are dragged into because of the cruel and mindless gossip is difficult, but it seems there is nothing like a difficulty to straighten Mattie's back, to firm her mother's resolve, and to ensure her brother makes the best. He's particularly exercised by the situation as he loses his much loved job as a clerk in Parliament, and in Mr Gladstone's office, and must make do with lesser employment, despite the unfairness. Mattie herself, has had her own trials, widowed at a very young age, betrayed by a lover, her malformed foot is a disability that means that she stands out when she least wants to, and seems to imply that life as a childless widowed hat maker might be her lot. Mind you, there's nothing maudlin about Mattie, nor any of them for that matter.

The only downside to THE PETTICOAT MEN is that much of the circumstances leading up to the trial are sketchy, and the fate of Freddie and Ernest a little brush-stroked towards the end. Whilst it's perfectly understandable that the focus would remain with the Stacey family, as this was presented to this reader as a "crime" novel, the balance was a little off. Call it a ripper of a yarn though, and there'd be no quibble at all.

THE PETTICOAT MEN was a finalist in the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel

Her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders will now be shared here on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction. We thank her for letting us republish this old review of Mark Abernethy's debut espionage thriller as part of our ongoing NZ crime fiction review project. Abernethy is a New Zealand born and raised journalist who moved to Australia as an adult.

Monday, October 5, 2015


SKELETAL by Katherine Hayton (2015)

Reviewed by Amanda O'Hara

Daina Harrow is fourteen-years-old. And she'll be fourteen forever because she's dead. She has been dead for ten years, but her remains have only just been found. With her missing persons case now re-opened and updated into a possible murder investigation, Daina's ghost (or is it spirit? Maybe energy?) lingers in the courtroom during the coroner's inquest, listening to the slew of witnesses recount their versions of events leading up to Daina's disappearance.

The book goes back and forth from present-day courtroom proceedings to ten years earlier when Daina was alive and enduring some seriously horrific experiences. Was she murdered? Did she commit suicide? Was it some sort of accident? As the witnesses share their knowledge of events during the final days of Daina's young life, Daina herself let's you know who's telling the truth and who's not.

First things first: this book infuriated me like I can't even describe. Not because it was bad, because it wasn't bad at all, but rather because of the actions of literally every single person in Daina's life. When I said Daina endured some seriously horrific experiences, I meant she endured some seriously horrific experiences. I wasn't exaggerating or being dramatic in the slightest. For starters, her mother is a reckless alcoholic who does nothing but host parties and forget to put food in the cupboards. She, meaning Daina, is severely bullied at school, meanwhile the teachers and principal refuse to do anything about it. When she reports a serious act of misconduct against one of her teachers, she's met with disdain and resistance. Plus a ton of other things, including undiagnosed mental illness, and I just couldn't believe how awful these people were or how on Earth Daina managed to keep her chin up through it all... even though of course it's all fictional.

I've read some other reviews that said the severity of the bullying in the book was too over-the-top and because of that it didn't ring true to life. And to an extent I agree - this was a book about bullying gone to the extreme. But with news articles in the media nearly weekly of kids committing suicide over bullying that went ignored or downplayed, or stories where incidents of bullying and assault are filmed and uploaded online for others to mock - just how unrealistic is SKELETAL really?

Anyhow. About halfway through the book, it took a major detour I would never have imagined. I won't call it a plot twist though because it really didn't play out as one - it was more just a thing that added to the progression of the story at hand, if that makes sense. I really didn't imagine that that's where the story was heading, and I'm not really sure how I feel about it, but what I can say is that it definitely added to the uniqueness of the book. And while the ending seemed quite rushed in my opinion, overall I did like SKELETAL and read it pretty quickly because I really wanted to know what happened to Daina. She was a character I immediately felt a lot of compassion for, and throughout the book I constantly wanted to hug her but also just shake her and convince her that she deserved so much better than the terrible hand she was dealt.

SKELETAL is a sad book. I would recommend it. Though, I think I have to caution a little warning in that recommendation by saying that if you're not in the headspace for, or up to reading a very depressing account of a troubled young girl's life, you might want to skip this one or wait to read it when you feel you're better able to handle the content.

Amanda O'Hara is animal-loving vegan, heavy metal fan, and lifelong booklover from Ontario, Canada. She reviewed books for the ReadDreamRelax website for two years, is an active Good Reads member, and earlier this year launched her own blog, The Darling Bookworm. You can see her website here, or follow her on Twitter: @belljars

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Contenders get Cleave-d in historic Ngaio Marsh victory

Paul Cleave became the Crown Prince of antipodean crime writing when his thriller FIVE MINUTES ALONE was awarded the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel tonight.

The internationally bestselling author made history when his “gritty and thoroughly absorbing” novel that “evokes complex feelings about retribution and morality” was revealed as the winner before a packed hometown crowd at a lively WORD Christchurch event at the Court Theatre on 4 October.

“In a year with a remarkable quintet of finalists, it’s fitting that Paul Cleave has become the first author to win the Ngaio Marsh Award twice,” said Judging Convenor Craig Sisterson. “For almost a decade he’s been leading our vanguard on the world stage in what’s becoming a new heyday of local crime writing.”

In FIVE MINUTES ALONE, “wonderfully complex protagonist” Theo Tate has been resurrected, as a cop and human being, after recovering from a coma. He finds himself chasing a killer he can empathise with: a vigilante who is disposing of society’s worst offenders, giving victims of crime their ‘five minutes alone’ with the culprits. But settling old scores is never as simple as it seems, as Tate knows well himself.

The judging panel, consisting of crime fiction experts – authors, critics, and editors – from Scandinavia, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, said FIVE MINUTES ALONE was packed with “moral dilemmas, and great writing, pacing, and characters,” and demanded to be read in one sitting. “The characters are sympathetic and human, never becoming black and white or easily classified as good or bad,” noted one judge. “Cleave’s prose crackles like a campfire, darkly hypnotic and dangerous.”

Cleave had previously won the Ngaio Marsh Award in 2011 for BLOOD MEN.  The Award is made annually for the best crime, mystery, or thriller novel written by a New Zealand citizen or resident. Cleave also received a set of Dame Ngaio’s novels courtesy of her publisher HarperCollins, a cash prize provided by WORD Christchurch, and an invite to appear at a European crime writing festival.

For more information on the Ngaio Marsh Award, go to or email, or to contact the Judging Convenor directly:  


NOBODY DIES by Zirk van den Berg (Black Swan, 2004)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A South African policewoman has found an easy way to make criminals in her witness protection programme impossible to find; she kills them. When Daniel, a relatively innocent man, is placed in her ‘care’, he must find a way to survive the cop and the criminals who both want him dead. 

I always find it an interesting experience plunging into a book I've heard lots of good things about. There's that strange mix of hopeful anticipation, and fear that it won't match the acclaim - meaning I'll be left disappointed, even if it would otherwise have been a good read. Expectations can be funny things.

Zirk van den Berg's debut thriller left no doubt. I closed the covers thinking, 'man, they were right' - it's a terrific tale that easily matched my high expectations, a searing literary thriller that's both beautifully written and an enthralling page-turner, the kind of book that lingers in your mind even years later.

It's also a book with an unusual history. Zirk van den Berg is a Namibian-born South African who moved to New Zealand, like a number of his countrymen, in the 1990s. After it's release in 2004, NOBODY DIES garnered superb reviews, was listed as a 'Top 5 Thriller of the Year', then later fell out of print. I discovered the book after Stephen Stratford, a former head judge of New Zealand's premier literary award who also loves good thriller writing, mentioned how great a book it was when interviewed for a Sunday Star-Times feature article about New Zealand crime writing in 2010. So I grabbed a copy from a secondhand store, but it sat on my shelf for a while. Recently it's been re-released in ebook form, then translated into Afrikaans for the South African market, going on to win a major award over there last November.

So NOBODY DIES has earned some big props, so to speak, in countries half a world apart, a decade apart. Very unusual. It's well-regarded by several esteemed crime critics who've read it, but due to the vagaries of the publishing world, continues to fly under the radar for even quite keen thriller fans.

The very definition of a hidden gem; a big old diamond in this case.

The beauty of this book begins with its characters. Erica van der Linde is a well-liked young cop on the career fast-track, but she has plenty of demons she keeps hidden, spurred by a tragic past. Her policeman father was gunned down, and Erica has very black/white views about criminals, including those under her care in the witness protection programme. Daniel Enslin starts out as a bit of a 'failure', a man with a broken marriage and crumbling life who gets his only kicks by hanging out with notorious Cape Town gangster Frank Redelinghuys. As van den Berg writes, Daniel's "personal life had little more allure than a game of solitaire played with an incomplete deck of cards".

Meanwhile, Frank likes to portray himself as a successful businessman, if embracing a 'slighty dodgy' image, but in reality he's a cold-hearted drug dealer willing to kill to retain his position. Nic Acker is a middle-aged cop relegated to the lower leagues after failing to nail Frank in the past.

When Daniel witnesses Frank kill someone, he realises he's way over his head, and goes to Acker for help. Buoyed by a chance at redemption, Acker ends up arranging witness protection for Daniel as the case is delayed. Frank wants Daniel dead - but he has Erica to protect him at least... right?

NOBODY DIES is a terrific page-turner, with plenty of action to keep the story moving at pace. But it never feels breezy or 'thin', there's a lot of depth to this thriller. It has an excellent plot, but is firmly character driven. Daniel, Erica, and Acker are all fully-formed characters who've lost their way, regardless of how their outward costumes of success or failure seem to fit. NOBODY DIES operates superbly as an exciting crime tale with depth, but it's also more than that; it's a story of the character arcs of three people who are all searching for something in their own lives, and themselves.

Powered by impeccable prose that veer poetic at times, van den Berg's debut brings South Africa vividly to life, from the social clutter of the big cities to the wide expanses of the countryside. An absorbing, tense tale that delves into the grey areas in human hearts and minds. Terrific.

If you speak Afrikaans, you can find NOBODY DIES in print form under the name N' ANDER MENS. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What a cool video! Grab yourself some free Tartan Noir!

Last year I met Scottish crime writer Gordon Brown (who writes under the name GJ Brown, for obvious reasons to anyone with any knowledge of British politics) at rhe Bloody Scotland crime writing festival.

It was great to catch up with Gordon again this year - he's a funny and talented guy. I really enjoyed his thriller writing panel with Mason Cross, Tom Wood, and Simon Kernick. It had quite a different vibe and perspective on storytelling to many of the other panels - Gordon and his counterparts write high quality high-octane thrillers rather than traditional murder mysteries or police procedurals.

This weekend he's offering his readers the chance to grab his first Craig McIntyre tale, THE CATALYST, for free on Kindle. I'd recommend clicking here (USA) or here (UK) to nab yourself a copy.

Check out the cool (and very well produced) video about the series above.