Monday, March 19, 2018


DEATH BY WATER by Kerry Greenwood (Allen & Unwin, 2005)

Reviewed by Shane Donald

'Who are you?' asked the doctor. 'You are not the standard cruise passenger, I can tell you that.' 'Thank you,' said Phryne in a self-possessed manner. 'You are correct. I am a lot of things, some of which do not concern you, but mostly I am Phryne Fisher.' 

The nice men at P&O are worried. A succession of jewellery thefts from first class passengers is hardly the best advertisement for their cruise liners, particularly when it is likely that it is a passenger who is doing the stealing. Phryne Fisher, with her Lulu bob, green eyes, Cupid's bow lips and Chanel travelling suits, is exactly the sort of elegant sleuth to take on a ring of jewellery thieves aboard the high seas - or at least, aboard the SS Hinemoa on a luxury cruise to New Zealand. With the Maharani - the Great Queen of Sapphires - as the bait, Phryne rises magnificently to the challenge.

There are shipboard romances, champagne cocktails, erotic photographers, jealous husbands, mickey finns, blackmail and attempted murder, all before the thieves find out - as have countless love-smitten men before them - that where the glamorous and intelligent Phryne is involved, resistance is futile.

I discovered Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series several years ago browsing at the Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden. The novel was URN BURIAL, book eight in the series. I think it was the cover that grabbed my attention and after reading the novel, I visited Kerry Greenwood’s website. In the FAQ section, it mentioned that the novels had been optioned for the screen but that Kerry Greenwood didn’t think it likely that much would happen in that direction.

Since then Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries has become a successful TV show that screens in several countries. It’s a funny thing when a book series you’re familiar with becomes a TV series or movie; the character on screen doesn’t necessarily match the one you construct as you read. For example, my idea of Harry Bosch doesn’t look like Titus Welliver. With Phryne Fisher, Essie Davis has become, over time, my idea of that character. Having enjoyed the TV series adaptation, I recently read my first Phryne Fisher novel since the books were turned into a series.

DEATH BY WATER is set on a P & O cruise ship SS Hinemoa, bound for New Zealand from Australia. Miss Fisher has been hired to find who has been stealing jewels from first class passengers. With all of Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher novels, it is clear that she has spent a great deal of time researching the setting and time period in which her novels are based (the 1920s). It’s a world of social hierarchies and proper etiquette which Phryne Fisher flouts in order to work effectively as a private detective and live as a woman of independent means.

Besides the name of the ship, there are further links to New Zealand in this story as the ship arrives in New Zealand and the passengers disembark to experience a Maori cultural show and see something of the landscape. This section reminded me of Ngaio Marsh’s VINTAGE MURDER in which Roderick Alleyn learns something of Maoritanga and the landscape serves as a representation of characters’ psychological states. Something similar occurs here with Phryne seeing in Maori culture an authentic expression of self that contrast with the facades presented by people on the ship. She develops a relationship with her cabin attendant and the stokers in the ship’s boiler room, learning more of their Maori culture and coming to appreciate the wildness of the New Zealand landscape, as it relates to her own nature.

As always, Miss Fisher brings the criminals to justice with style and flair. This is number fifteen in what is a long-running series that shows little sign of slowing down. Not all novels have been adapted for television (including this one) so for readers who like the show but don’t want to read the novel used in an episode, this one might work.

This is an entertaining series that has a point to make about social justice, inequality and the role of women. They’re a fun read and provide the reader with a great deal of knowledge of a time gone by.

Shane Donald is a New Zealander living in Taiwan. An avid reader with 3,000 books in his home, he completed a dissertation on Ngaio Marsh for his MA degree, and also has a PhD in applied linguistics

Friday, March 16, 2018


GREEN SUN by Kent Anderson (Mulholland Books, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Hanson thought he had witnessed the worst of humanity after a tour of duty in Vietnam and a stint as a cop in Oregon. Then he moves to Oakland, California to join the under-funded, understaffed police department.

Hanson chooses to live - alone - in the precinct that he patrols; he, unlike the rest of the white officers, takes seriously his duty to serve and protect the black community of East Oakland.

He will encounter prejudice and hate on both sides of the line... and struggle to keep true to himself against powerful opposition and personal danger. 

Kent Anderson’s first novel in more than twenty years sparkles darkly, like California iron sands shimmering under the baking heat of a midsummer sun; beautiful yet dangerously hot to the touch. It’s mesmerizing - violent and thought-provoking, full of flashes of brutality yet gorgeously written. Captivating and brilliant.

Green Sun belatedly continues the story of Hanson, who first came to the page in Anderson's debut novel, Sympathy for the Devil, way back in 1987. In that book Hanson was a young man, a poetry-loving college student turned Green Beret who discovers the savagery within himself as he scrabbles to survive the horrors of the Vietnam War. Perhaps surviving hell, too well. Anderson, who himself was a special forces soldier in that terrible war, earning two Bronze Stars, delivered a thunderclap of a war book, called an all-time classic in some circles, laying bare the seductive violence of war.

Ten years later, Hanson returned in Anderson's second novel, Night Dogs, this time as a police officer in Portland, Oregon (another reflection of Anderson's own real-life resume). Similarly authentic, chilling, and powerful, that book juxtaposed war-time violence with violence in the inner city.

Two books, two classics, a decade apart. And then two decades passed.

In Green Sun, Hanson is now approaching forty years old, but after a stint teaching at college, he's signed up for the Oakland police academy, looking to get back on the beat. He needs an outlet for the darkness and violence flooding his veins, while bringing a completely different mindset to the job than the young recruits. Despite his brutal past, Hanson sees himself as a social worker with a gun; he's someone willing to actually be a 'peace officer', as police were originally meant to be.

The Oakland streets of the early 1980s can resemble a war zone, and Hanson has colleagues as well as criminals gunning for him. He just wants to survive, get his months in, and move on.

Anderson tells Hanson's tale as a series of vignettes, slices of life for an unusual street cop. There’s not so much a central storyline to Green Sun as there is an accumulation of experiences that give us a startlingly raw look at the realities of cop life at that time and place. There’s a gritty authenticity rising to the surface among the spare beauty of Anderson’s prose. Hanson is an unusual, unforgettable character that’s easy to follow even as events and choices get sharp.

A searing insight into life on the streets, from a master storyteller.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at books festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, and has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Review: KEEPER

KEEPER by Johana Gustawsson, tr: Maxim Jakubowski (Orenda Books, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Whitechapel, 1888: London is bowed under Jack the Ripper's reign of terror. 

London 2015: actress Julianne Bell is abducted in a case similar to the terrible Tower Hamlets murders of some ten years earlier, and harking back to the Ripper killings of a century before. 

Falkenberg, Sweden, 2015: a woman's body is found mutilated in a forest, her wounds identical to those of the Tower Hamlets victims. 

Profiler Emily Roy and true-crime writer Alexis Castells again find themselves drawn into an intriguing case, with personal links that turn their world upside down.

French crime writer Johana Gustawsson is a bit of a wolf in sheep's clothing. She takes readers into some terribly dark places, based upon real-life horrors from the past and contemporary nightmares, but she does it so elegantly with her flowing prose seasoned with humour you don't fully comprehend until later just how black (noir, in French) some of the content is in her crime novels.

Following on from her excellent, award-winning debut, BLOCK 46, which blended contemporary crimes in Sweden and the UK with historic horrors from Buchenwald concentration camp, KEEPER sees the return of Canadian profiler Emily Roy and French true crime writer Alexis Castells in another disturbing case spanning borders and decades. This time Gustawsson takes readers back even further, to the late nineteenth century and one of the world's most notorious true crime sprees.

Gustawsson adroitly weaves several threads together. It can be easy for a book that leaps about in time, place, and point of view as much as this one to feel disjointed, but KEEPER flows effortlessly, building tension as we learn more about both the past and present. Gustawsson does a particularly good job bringing late nineteenth century London to life, in all of its sour and infested 'glory'. For the majority of Londoners, life wasn't the genteel fantasy portrayed in some nostalgic period pieces, but instead a Dickensian life of sordid, grimy horrors and a hard-scrabble, cut-throat fight to survive.

I liked this book a lot. It's a great read. Interestingly, I felt a little at a distance from Emily Roy and Alexis Castells, admiring and enjoying them as characters rather than feeling I was completely alongside them (yet), but this didn't take away from me thoroughly enjoying what is a terrific read.

The connections between the UK and Sweden, which mirror Gustawsson's own life (she's a French writer married to a Swede, living in London), never feel forced or 'author hand', instead very smooth and authentic. It may surprise some to learn that one of Jack the Ripper's real-life victims was from Sweden (we forget, in our modern world of easy international travel, that many working-class people immigrated to new countries more than a century ago; it wasn't just famous explorers who roamed the world, even if the journeys back then were much harsher and took much longer than nowadays).

Gustawsson does a great job bringing us into the lives of everyone involved, from the victims and families and investigators of the modern cases in London and Sweden, to the realities of living in Whitechapel at a time a brutal maniac was hunting women among the fluid-stained alleyways.

A very good read. I look forward to more from Gustawsson, Roy, and Castells.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at books festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, and has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Moose neighbours and the menace of Roald Dahl: an interview with Will Dean

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the seventh instalment of 9mm for 2018, and the 179th overall edition of our long-running author interview series!

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

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

Today I'm very pleased to welcome the author of one of my favourite 2018 reads to Crime Watch, Will Dean. A native of the East Midlands in the UK, Will grew up in a variety of English villages, before studying law and working in London for several years. But he must have missed the countryside, because he started building a wooden house in a "boggy forest clearing" in rural Sweden, eventually moving there with his wife in 2012. Their mailbox is a mile away from the house, they have no municipal water, and the closest neighbours are the moose that roam the forest.

Will has called it a great place to compulsively read and write, and in January this year his debut, DARK PINES, was released to great acclaim. It's a terrific book, introducing deaf reporter Tuva Moodyson, who works for a smalltown newspaper in rural Sweden while dreaming of bigger things. In DARK PINES, Tuva investigates after a body is found shot in the woods, its face mutilated in a manner that echoes the horrific 'Medusa' crimes of many years before. It's an atmospheric, chilling tale (not just because of the weather), and Tuva is a truly fascinating character. I'm very glad to see that Will is bringing her back in RED SNOW, out next winter.

But in the meantime, Will Dean becomes the latest crime writer to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Sherlock Holmes, Lisbeth Salander, Jack Reacher, Karen Pirie. My favourite authors write unnerving, unsettling stories. I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy, Muriel Spark, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, Stephen King, Thomas Harris, Sarah Waters.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
FANTASTIC MR FOX by Roald Dahl. I remember it vividly because I re-read it so many times (along with Dahl’s other stories). I love how dark his books are, and how they don’t speak down to children. They have danger and menace and dark humour. And with FANTASTIC MR FOX, I love the contained setting. There’s a wonderful (three-dimensional) sense of place. As a teenager my favourite books were TRAINSPOTTING, FRANKENSTEIN, and ALL of Stephen King’s novels.

3. Before your debut crime novel. What else had you written, unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I wrote a godawful first novel which is now locked securely in a drawer. Rewriting that bad book over and over again, battling with it for years on my own, was a free-of-charge creative writing course.

4. Outside of writing, touring, and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity wise?
I like to get out into the Swedish nature. Mostly the forest (trekking, building bonfires, chopping wood, ditch clearing, foraging) but also sea kayaking. We take our son - my wife and I paddle and he sits in the middle eating meatball sandwiches.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn’t in the tourist brochures, or perhaps wouldn’t initially consider?
There’s no town. There’s not really even a village. I’d say visit in the autumn and go mushroom picking with a local. Make sure you wear a bright hat so nobody mistakes you for a moose. Discovering a secret patch of chanterelles (and then cooking and eating them) is a real pleasure.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Either Hugh Jackman or Brian Blessed.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite and why?
DARK PINES will always be special as it was my debut, but book two of the Tuva Moodyson series (RED SNOW) is my current favourite. It’s set in February, the coldest, snowiest time of the year. The body of a local man is discovered inside Gavrik’s salt liquorice factory. And then the hunt for the killer, the so-called Ferryman, begins.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
When I heard Oneworld were buying DARK PINES and RED SNOW I was elated (my agent had discovered me in her towering slushpile just a month or so before). All the years of work and rejection and rewriting and self-doubt were worth it.  My wife and I celebrated with beers out in the forest. The next day I went back to work on book two.

The first time I saw my book in a bookshop was the week prior to my launch. I visited dozens of bookshops that week to meet booksellers and sign copies, but before all that started I stepped inside Waterstones Trafalgar Square. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t sign anything. I just took a moment, standing, looking, taking it all in.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had as a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I love meeting and chatting with readers and so far they’ve all been lovely! The most unusual experience was probably meeting my heroes at Harrogate last year (before I was published). I chatted at the bar with Lee Child and Fiona Cummins and Mark Billingham and Abir Mukherjee. I listened to Val McDermid and Jane Harper and Kristen Lepionka. I’ll never forget that first Harrogate.

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

You can read more about Will Dean and the building of his cabin in the woods in this fascinating feature in The Times, and you can keep up to date with his writing by following him on Twitter

Monday, March 12, 2018


BURNT RIVER by Karin Salvalaggio (Minotaur Books, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When Detective Macy Greeley is called to Wilmington Creek, a sleepy ranching community in northern Montana, she expects an open-and-shut, if high-profile, murder case. What greets her is anything but. John Dalton, a soldier returned home from serving in Afghanistan, has been shot dead in an alleyway outside a local bar. Macy can’t see any obvious motive for the attack, but John’s closest friends and his twin sister, Jessie, have been keeping secrets.

With a series of wildfires pushing the area’s resources to the limit and Darby Lake’s water level dropping to a record low, Jessie is becoming increasingly anxious about what may be uncovered if the rains don’t return to the valley soon. Haunted by what’s hidden beneath the still waters, she doesn’t know whether to help or hinder Macy’s investigation. And Macy herself is increasingly uneasy about what she discovers as she navigates the politics of a small town and the Dalton family clan, as well as her own complicated relationship with the father of her young son.

In the last decade since I've been reviewing for various publications, it's become much rarer for me to read two books in a row from the same author (due to reviewing, features, festivals, awards judging, reading challenges, and other commitments that all encourage me to read lots of different authors).

But after reading Karin Salvalaggio's really terrific debut BONE DUST WHITE last week, I couldn't help myself from immediately picking up the second in her Macy Greeley series, BURNT RIVER. And I wasn't disappointed: this book may be even better, and really cements Salvalaggio as a must-read crime writer for me. Great characters that have a real authenticity to them, smooth writing with plenty of subtext and space for the reader to engage and work things out (rather that having them spelled out), a terrific sense of the small-town Montana setting, intriguing spiderwebs of plotlines.

Salvalaggio has a strong voice, a great style, and hits it out of the park on many fronts.

While BONE DUST WHITE occurred during the snowy chill of the Montana winter, BURNT RIVER is set against a scorching summer where wildfires rage and water levels tumble.

Macy Greeley is now a single mother, and relying on her own mother to help care for her baby while she continues to work hard in her career. Her issues with the baby's father remain unresolved and frustratingly complicated, threading through her personal and professional life. The Dalton murder takes her away from her son, and she's determined to quickly dig through the secrets kept by many in John Dalton's circle of family, friends, and townsfolk to uncover who murdered the Army veteran.

The storyline of BURNT RIVER is great, with plenty of intrigue and surprises along the way. There's multiple strands, depth, and layers. But where Salvalaggio really elevates herself into the upper echelons of crime writers is with her great touch for place and character.

I've spent several summers in small-town and rural areas of the United States, and travelled through northern Montana. The Wilmington Creek setting in BURNT RIVER just really 'rang true' for me, vibrantly coming to life off the page in all its mix of community and grit, blue collar jobs and expansive ranches, forest roads and grimy back alleys. The kind of place where most vote red no matter what, but aren't the caricature bigots that those from outside the States might believe.

BURNT RIVER has a great 'cast', and whether characters are main players or bit parts, they all come across as distinct, interesting and fully-formed. There's an authenticity to the people who populate Salvalaggio's world; their beliefs and emotions, hopes and despairs, challenges and triumphs all feel real. We can understand and empathise, and follow them through their choices (even the bad ones).

Alongside Greeley are plenty of people who'll get varying reactions from readers. John's sister Jessie is a recovering addict and young mother who seems to have turned her life around, but her past actions and long-kept secrets may be putting people at risk. John's friends Tyler and Dylan are both wounded veterans who are variably dealing with the horrors they've seen. Tyler is on leave, heading back for another deployment soon; Dylan is battling with crippling PTSD. Chief Aiden Marsh of the local police welcomes Macy's involvement and help rather than feeling territorial, but may prove a problem for Macy. Meanwhile her boss, State Police Captain Ray Davidson, is keeping a close eye.

It's an assortment of lives full of loves and losses, that interconnect and crash into each other in a variety of ways. There are so many layers, but Salvalaggio keeps the pages moving with flowing writing and lots of interesting happenings. BURNT RIVER never feels 'dense' despite its depth.

A superb of piece of crime writing that has me thinking of leaping straight into the third Macy Greeley book very soon too. Salvalaggio is has quickly become a must-read author for me, and I certainly hope we'll see much more from her in future (currently there are four books in the series).

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at books festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, and has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


THE STUDENT BODY by Simon Wyatt (Mary Egan Publishing, 2016)

Reviewed by Bernadette Bean

A popular fifteen-year-old girl is strangled to death at a school camp on Auckland's west coast. The posing of the body suggests a sexual motive. Nick Knight, a week into his role as a newly promoted Detective Sergeant, is tasked with the critical job of leading the Suspects Team. Nick - who turned his back on a lucrative career as a lawyer - is well-versed at dealing with the dark sides of human nature. With no shortage of suspects, he sets out on the trail of the murderer, grappling his own personal demons along the way. But are things really as they seem?

The novel opens with Nick Knight, new to the role of Supervisor in the West Auckland Police’s Criminal Investigation Branch, being advised that 15 year old Natasha Johnson has been found dead in the grounds where her school class has been camping. Knight and his team are soon on the way to the scene and down to business with the myriad tasks requiring completion all being attended to with a minimum of fuss and appropriate professionalism.

Being a major case a lot of police are assigned to it and Knight’s team is responsible for one component: suspects. Other parts of the larger squad are responsible for evidence, witnesses and so on. I found it interesting to learn that this is how things are divided up in reality, at least in this part of New Zealand. So we spend most time learning about who might have killed Natasha. One of the teachers who was chaperoning the school camp? A fellow student? A suspicious outsider known to lurk in the area and ‘pleasure himself’ at will? The sometimes frustrating grunt work needed to rule people out of (or into) suspicion is well depicted and Wyatt also does a great job of exposing the reality of how investigations like this have to force their way into the private lives of many people, most of whom will be proven to have nothing to do with the crime but still have their lives turned upside down.

THE STUDENT BODY is squarely in the police procedural quadrant of the crime genre spectrum. Not only is its central character an active policeman but the story is told in the first-person perspective. The upside to this is that there is an authentic, quite immersive feel to the investigative elements of the novel: the reader really does get some sense of what it must be like to be involved with a fast-moving, high profile case. The pressure from everywhere – superior officers, victim’s family, the media – is quite palpable and Knight has to work hard to keep his own and his team’s morale up at times. The other consequence of Wyatt’s narrative choices is that Knight’s view of events is naturally limited – we can never know what’s going on with other team members or those affected by Natasha’s death unless Knight is present or being told first-hand. I did feel a few times like I was missing out on parts of the story – such as how Natasha’s parents and best friend were dealing with the events – but can appreciate that wasn’t the story Wyatt has chosen to tell here (I’m just really nosy, I want to know everything).

Nick Knight is pretty well fleshed out as a character though for me this meant he was not always the nicest person to be around. Although he takes his job seriously and is, mostly, very professional he can also be quite laddish and towards the end of the novel displays a willingness to commit violence that I found a bit disturbing. Still he is funny and caring at times too. I guess like most of us Nick isn’t perfect so it is a very realistic depiction. There really isn’t space given the book’s length and style to get to know any of the other characters very well and I would have appreciated an alternative voice or wider perspective at times but that’s a minor quibble. I’m sure Nick Knight will have many fans.

Overall THE STUDENT BODY is a solid procedural with an authentic feel and will be enjoyed by those who like getting into the nitty gritty of a case unfolding. It offers a good sense of its New Zealand setting, giving me the itch to visit Piha beach for example, and the resolution is a genuine action-packed, nail-biter.

Bernadette Bean was simply one of the best online crime reviewers. She is a former Ned Kelly Awards judge, founder of the terrific Reactions to Reading and Fair Dinkum Crime websites, both wonderful resources, and a long-time supporter of libraries, Australian crime writers, and women's writers. You can read more about her in this tribute piece I wrote for the Australian Crime Writers website. Bernadette passed away suddenly last month. 

In the past Bernadette and I have republished some of each other's reviews on our respective websites. I hadn't previously published this review of hers as someone else had already reviewed THE STUDENT BODY for Crime Watch. But it is a great example of her exceptional, insightful, detailed reviews, and given it was her final review of a New Zealand crime novel, I feel it's appropriate to republish it here today as a tribute to Bernadette. 


A TIME TO RUN by JM Peace (MacMillan, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A madman is kidnapping women to hunt them for sport. Detective Janine Postlewaite leads the investigation into the disappearance of Samantha Willis, determined not to let another innocent die on her watch. The killer's newest prey isn't like the others. Sammi is a cop. And she refuses to be his victim.

This was a fast-moving Australian crime debut that dialled up the thrills and a page-turning atmosphere while leaving me feeling a little wanting when it came to character, especially early on.

The plot is one you may have seen in episodes of shows like Law & Order: SVU in recent years: a madman abducts innocent women and takes them to a remote, forested wilderness to 'play' by releasing and hunting them at his leisure. Then the latest kidnapped woman has enough courage/moxie/luck to survive and it becomes a race against time as the cops try to close in before she's killed too. So far, so one-hour television crime drama.

The twist here in Peace's debut is that the latest victim is herself a cop. So we have cops trying to find out what has happened and identify a killer, and a cop struggling to survive inside his sick 'game'.

It's an intriguing and potentially powerful set-up, though Peace - herself a former policewoman - has a few rookie storyteller stumbles in the execution, which dilute the depth and strength of her tale. There's a tendency to info-dump and spell everything out for readers, in straightforward prose which reads a little cliched at times rather than having subtext or energy to it. Perhaps because of this, the characters seem a little 'thin', caricatures or cyphers rather than rounded human beings that draw you into what's happening in their lives. Fortunately the set-up is intriguing enough that there's plenty of 'I wonder what'll happen?' tension and page-turning drive to pull readers through, despite these flaws.

Peace crafts a good sense of pace in A TIME TO RUN; I found myself whirring through the pages even as I was sporadically pulled out of the story by some of the things mentioned above. There's plenty going on as Constable Sammi Willis tries to survive in the Australian bush, and Detective Janine Postlewaite battles all sorts of challenges to investigate her disappearance.

Overall A TIME TO KILL improves throughout, and builds to a very solid finish. A good 'airport thriller' or 'beach read' that I could being successfully adapted into an exciting film or TV movie. It has a good hook, an atmospheric small-town and rural Australia setting, and plenty of action.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at books festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, and has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Friday, March 9, 2018


THE STAKES by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin, 2018)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Rip-offs are a dangerous game, but heist man Miles Keller thinks he's found a good strategy: rob rich New York criminals and then retire early, before word's out about his true identity. New town, new name, no worries. Retirement can't come soon enough, though. The NYPD is investigating him for the shooting of a hitman named Jack Deen, who was targeting Lucy Gates - a former police informant and Miles's ex-lover. 

Miles thinks shooting hitmen counts as altruism, but in any case a murder charge would make life difficult. He's ready to go to ground, but then Nina Stone reappears in his life. Nina is a fellow heist professional and the estranged wife of LA crime boss Charles Stone. Miles last saw her five years ago, and since then her life has grown more complicated: her husband wants her back, and he's dispatched his go-to gun thug to play repo man. Complicating matters is the fact that the gun thug in question is Bobby Deen, cousin of the dead Jack Deen - and Bobby wants vengeance. The stakes couldn't be higher, but Nina has an offer that could be lucrative. Maybe Miles can stick around a while longer...

“And it’s like: you know on kind of a formal level that there’s laws, but then when you’re actually on the street and see it through their eyes, you realise it’s just dog-eat-dog, same as everything else” – even the cops don’t have a clear line on right and wrong in Ben Sanders’ latest novel, The Stakes, and most of his characters are conflicted, confused and making their moves “So you feel the strange weight of the strange moment”.

Miles Keller is an NYPD detective currently under investigation for a shooting. Keller has more at stake than the authorities finding out the shooting might not have been righteous; he has been ripping off bad guys for quite some time – since his wife left him over a brief affair with a confidential informant, Lucy Gates, who was also involved in the shooting. And the victim of the shooting has a cousin, Bobby Deen. Bobby is a failed actor who has ended up working for a crooked high-flyer Charles Stone, who launders his money through making movies. Bobby usually makes sensible calls, but when Stone’s wife Nina sets out to rip off her husband and Bobby is sent to retrieve her, he starts getting brain fails when he is around the charismatic Nina.

Miles and Nina have a history – her latest heist not being her first – and Miles being the cop who helped her avoid going down for a previous outing. When Nina catches a glimpse of Miles in New York, all the players are set on a collision course, with each having high stakes on the table – money, freedom, love, staying alive … Confused? … Well, you will be for most of this novel. But just revel in the homage to Leonard’s narrative style; in enjoying the characters, who know how they’re coming across – “This would be a long exercise in deadpan, but it was hard sticking to a cool tempo, his heart rate up and his breath coming short”, and who often inwardly falter as they fail to come up with the final witty riposte. The only character in The Stakes who isn’t at heart out to do ‘the right thing’, is Nina – she’s in it purely for the money: “… I’m always in charge … I’m just not used to people figuring it out”, but who she’s going to back to help her get the goods is an open question.

Sanders gets bits of Kiwiana into the story – Miles listens to his ex-wife’s audio-books, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is playing at one point; a ski mask in one of the heists is admired for being soft Merino; and illegal job coordinator, Wynn Stanton, recommends New Zealand as a tax haven where Miles can safeguard his money. But the story is gloriously set in the New York of movies and TV crime shows – seemingly both foreign and completely familiar.  Sanders’ descriptions are often both amusing and evocative: “He climbed the shaking steps to their appointed Gulf-stream, into a cocoon of leather and that metal taste of bottled air, like a taste of the future – the morning-breath of androids”. The Stakes is a wonderful trip into “Blood spatter and ballistics and all the moral angles of it”, ride it through to the end, where all the threads are laid out plain … sort of. The novel starts and ends with guys thinking they’ve got things sorted, but also knowing the world doesn’t often deal a fair hand – and you always have to wonder what the women might be planning. As Miles says to a guy he’s hi-jacked, and who is so quiet Miles wonder if he thinks he has already been killed: “That’d be strange wouldn’t it? Heaven and hell no different to where you were a moment ago.”

If you haven’t read Ben Sanders, do – he just gets better and better.

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