Wednesday, July 23, 2014

First tastes: 11 terrific female crime fiction stars

Earlier this week I debuted a new series here on Crime Watch, "First Tastes", which will be looking back at novels in which some terrific authors first introduced their series protagonist (often the author's debut novel). I already have some great guest bloggers lined up to contribute to the series - message me or leave a comment if you're interested in being part of it - and it seems there is something in the water, as today The Reading Room, an Australian books website, highlighted "11 Must-Read Debuts of Female Leads in Crime Fiction", listing some great books and characters that I am intending to cover in more depth in my series.

While the men of crime fiction often grab the attention, there are some terrific female leads out there too, and so it's great to see The Reading Room making this high-quality list of intriguing crime characters:

  • THE OLD SCHOOL by PM Newton (Nhu "Ned" Kelly);
  • ONE FOR THE MONEY by Janet Evanovich (Stephanie Plum);
  • THE MERMAID'S SINGING by Val McDermid (Carol Jordan);
  • STILL MIDNIGHT by Denise Mina (Alex Morrow);
  • BLINDSIGHTED by Karin Slaughter (Sara Linton);
  • INDEMNITY ONLY by Sarah Paretsky (VI Warshawski);
  • POSTMORTEM by Patricia Cornwell (Kay Scarpetta);
  • COCAINE BLUES by Kerry Greenwood (Phryne Fisher);
  • THE SURGEON by Tess Gerritsen (Jane Rizzoli);
  • A IS FOR ALIBI by Sue Grafton (Kinsey Millhone);
  • DEJA DEAD by Kathy Reichs (Temperance Brennan). 
That's a pretty good list. Like any list, there are of course many other authors/heroines that could be added, that some readers will think are better than some on the list. I commend The Reading Room for putting together what is a pretty damned good list though, and highlighting some great female crime writers and crime characters. I own books by all of those authors, but have only read three of those specific 'character debut' tales. Worth going back to the beginning, perhaps. 

For my own part, I'd add the following authors and characters to a "Must-Read Debuts of Female Crime Reads" list: 
  • OVERKILL by Vanda Symon (Sam Shephard);
  • THE BOMBER by Liza Marklund (Annika Bengtzon);
  • THE ICE PRINCESS by Camilla Lackberg (Erica Falck)
  • THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson (Lisbeth Salander). 
I'd also put a plug in for CUT & RUN by Alix Bosco (Anna Markunas), SURRENDER by Donna Malane (Diane Rowe), and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson  - books that introduce three of the best, most layered and interesting female leads that I've read in the past decade. At the moment the first two characters have only appeared in two books each so far, while Salander was part of a trilogy, so perhaps they don't quite fit in a mix focused on longer-running series. Definitely worth reading though!

Interviewer turned interviewee: my thoughts on Paul Cleave and Kiwi crime writing

While I was working in North Carolina and travelling throughout the United States last year, I was contacted by New Zealand journalist Kelly Andrew, who was putting together a feature article on Kiwi crime writer Paul Cleave for the Herald on Sunday, a major nationwide newspaper. Cleave had won the Ngaio Marsh Award in 2011, is massively popular in Germany and France, and I've had a fair bit to do with him due to my involvement in local crime fiction, from reviews to interviews to sharing the stage together at events.

With Cleave's then-latest book, JOE VICTIM, about to be released, Kelly wanted my perspective on Cleave's writing, and where it stood in terms of local and international crime writing, along with some other comments about New Zealand crime writing. It always feels a little strange for me to be the interviewee rather than the interviewer, but it was fun to have a think about these things too.

As is always the case, many of my comments didn't make it into the final article (I know what that's like from a writer/interviewer perspective, trying to work out which of the 6,000 words of terrific interview with an author I use or don't for an 800-1,500 word article). I've recently rediscovered the interview while going through some old files, so thought as well as sharing the link to Kelly's feature here (it's worth a read), I'd share some of my other thoughts and comments that didn't make it into the piece:

KA: How does Paul Cleave stand out from other Kiwi crime/thriller writers?
CS: I think the thing that makes Paul Cleave stand out is the vividness of his writing, the way he treads the darker edge of crime fiction whilst still managing to instil some humour and a really keen eye for protagonists who see the world in a unique, slightly askew way. He really gets readers into the head of his main characters (which isn't always the most pleasant or comfortable place, but is intriguing and rather captivating), as well creating an almost character-like sense of place. 

KA: Is there a growing market for New Zealand crime writing overseas? 

CS: I think there is potentially a growing market for New Zealand crime writing overseas. Readers worldwide seem to be becoming more open to crime fiction set outside of the US and UK - not only Scandinavian crime fiction, but mysteries set in Asia, the Mediterranean and Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. There are a lot of terrific things about New Zealand as a setting, and we have good writers, so there is definitely potential for New Zealand crime writing to grow in a global readership sense. With the breaking down of geographic barriers when it comes to book publishing and distribution, there is perhaps more than ever an opportunity for NZ writers to succeed worldwide. 

KA: Why is the crime and thriller genre so popular in Germany?

CS: Germany seems something of a 'canary in the coal mine' when it comes to crime fiction - they 'discovered' authors such as Stieg Larsson, Linwood Barclay, and Paul Cleave before the UK/US markets caught up. The Germans do seem to devour crime fiction - but in all honesty it's the most popular genre in many markets. The Germans, like other continental Europeans, do seem to have less of a 'literary vs popular fiction' prejudice (which is sometimes apparent amongst literary critics and award judges in English-speaking countries), though I'm not sure how much this affects book sales anyway, given readers don't seem quite so worried about those types of delineations. 

KA: Do you think NZ book buyers are reluctant to buy crime novels written by local authors compared to the big international names such as Michael Connelly etc?
I'm not sure if New Zealand book buyers are reluctant to buy crime novels written by local authors as much as just being reluctant to buy books from lesser-known or new authors from any country. The biggest sellers in New Zealand when it comes to crime fiction are almost brand-like: Lee Child, Stieg Larsson, Michael Connelly, Kathy Reichs, James Patterson, etc. They are well-known names that readers recognise and feel they can count on. Crime fiction readers seem very 'tribal' - they find an author they like, and will read many/all of their books. Book prices in New Zealand are high, in a global sense, so I can understand why crime fiction readers might not rush to try newer authors, Kiwi or otherwise, until they have experienced them and are confident about liking them. For example, there are outstanding non-New Zealand crime writers who don't sell that well, relatively speaking, here too. However, things do seem to be improving on this front - at least from a sense of keeping an eye on the appearance of New Zealand crime writers such as Cleave, Paddy Richardson, Paul Thomas, Vanda Symon, and Ben Sanders on the Neilsen Best Seller Lists over the past  two to three years - they seem to be featuring more than in the past. Quite how this translates to the actual quantities of books sold, I couldn't tell you. 


So what do you think of Kelly's article, and what I had to say? Fair comments? Do you agree or disagree?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

James Lee Burke in discussion with Kim Hill (audio interview)

It's no secret that I'm a huge admirer of James Lee Burke, both for the quality and depth of his storytelling, and his generosity, wit, and wisdom when I've had the privilege to interview him.

I was chatting to John Connolly, himself a heck of a writer and terrific raconteur, recently at the Sydney Writers Festival, where he'd told an audience that Burke was the world's finest living crime writer. That you could disagree, but you'd be wrong.

I agree with Connolly. As much as there are many exceptional crime writers around nowadays, who take the genre into amazing depths, with fantastic prose and characters, for me Burke sits atop the mountain. He is the crime writer's crime writer, even if he is not as widely appreciated by mainstream readers as some others. It's no surprise that when I talk to other crime writers about the writers they most admire or enjoy, or their favourite characters in crime fiction, Burke and his long-time protagonist Dave Robicheaux, are mentioned more than any other. In a field of giants, Burke towers at the tallest Kauri. Though in his humble and self-effacing nature, I'm not sure you'd ever get him to even consider that.

As I said in a post last week:

"Like many, I don't like to pick favourites, as I guess there's that underlying feeling that by picking one thing over another, one awesome person over others, we are in some way diminishing the other people, ... But deep down I know the truth. If someone was about to go all Sons of Anarchy or Game of Thrones gruesome death scene on me if I didn't spill my guts, it would take less than a second for me to take a stand and choose my favourite interviewee: James Lee Burke. 
There are so many reasons I could give, but perhaps a snapshot of my most recent interview with the great man provides some insight: we chatted for more than an hour, and his then-latest book was mentioned for less than a few minutes of that. It was an interview timed for a book release, but we chatted about everything from the nature of war, social media as the modern Roman Coliseum, the Anzacs, art in genre writing, humanity, and so much more. Burke was engaging, intelligent, compassionate, and kind. I know his books aren't for everyone, but I am very glad that I enjoy them so much, and that I've been lucky enough to interview him over the phone a couple of times. His work, and he himself, resonate with me."

Last weekend, renowned Radio New Zealand host Kim Hill had a similar experience with Burke, on the eve of the publication of his latest novel, WAYFARING STRANGER. The 45 minute interview covers all manner of thought-provoking topics and world issues, and will make you think. Have a listen:

9mm: An interview with PM Newton

As I pointed out in my blog post last week, strangely I have only covered one Australian author so far in the 9mm series. This wasn't a conscious thing, just the way it unfolded with various interviews and opportunities cropping up. However, since I made the move to Sydney several weeks ago, after a year of travels and other random times, I've found myself reconnecting with the Antipodean crime fiction scene, this time with a slight Aussie twist (don't worry, it's revitalised me to remain plugged in with all things Kiwi crime fiction too).

I've already been sent several Australian crime novels to review, and met some new-to-me Australian crime writers at the Sydney Writers Festival in May. One of those was former NSW police detective PM Newton, who garnered a lot of well-deserved acclaim for her debut THE OLD SCHOOL, and whose sophomore novel, BEAMS FALLING was released earlier this year. I really enjoyed that latter book - Newton has a terrific, exciting writing style (read my review here).

And now, PM Newton stares down the barrel of 9mm, in the series 74th instalment.

9MM: An interview with PM Newton

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Detective Emmanuel Cooper the lead protagonist of Malla Nunn’s series set in 1950s South Africa. He’s a fabulous lead who combines a lot of the expected tropes of crime fiction with some really unique characteristics. Damaged from his experiences in WWII he becomes a classic outsider/insider within South African society as it goes through the experience of apartheid being codified into law. Cooper faces the moral challenge of seeking justice in a fundamentally unjust world.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Probably the Silver Brumby books by Elyne Mitchell. I was a horse mad kid and these were the first books about horses that I read which were not set in England but in the high country of the Snowy Mountains, with wallabies and wattle instead of fox hunting and village fetes.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I’d written about music and travel. I had gone to Mali because I loved the music and ended up working with a Malian music producer, taking photographs for the album covers and helping out with translating lyrics and writing the CD liner notes. My first big break was having an article with my photos published in a travel magazine about a trip I made to Timbuktu. I then wrote a crime novel that didn’t work, followed by a SciFi novel that didn’t work, before I returned to the crime novel and realised that I had the right character (Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly) but she was in the wrong book.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I like to swim at North Sydney Olympic Pool and walk (and run very slowly) around the harbour bushland reserves of Berry Island and Balls Head. Nothing more lovely than being in amongst those stands of Sydney Red Gums and sandstone of the headlands, sitting and looking at the water, drinking coffee, reading, making notes on ideas. I’m a cricket tragic so I love going to test cricket in summer and watching it in the dead of night on TV during our winter. I love really good TV drama, so box sets like BSG or The Wire will keep me very happy.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Take a walk around those harbour headlands – on Berry Island walk the Gadyan Track, you can see rock carvings, shell middens, you can get a real sense of how beautiful this place is, was, has always been, and consider our place in it and the place of those who loved it long before we arrived.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
A question I have honestly never considered. I’m more interested in who could play my character Ned, as any TV talk has always tended to go along the lines of how ‘difficult’ it would be to cast an Australian/Vietnamese woman. And that just makes me cross, because after all this time there ought to be HEAPS of young actors who we could ‘see’ in that role. The fact that we can’t is pretty shameful.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite, and why?
The one I haven’t written yet, because while it’s in that nascent, thinking about it, filled with potential stage, it’s still perfect.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication?
Not what I expected really. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful agent, Sophie Hamley from Cameron’s handling it all because I ended up with quite a few offers and found myself in the situation of having to choose. I’d anticipated I’d be lucky to have ‘a’ publisher interested and I’d just be pathetically grateful. Instead I felt quite stressed. Would I make the right choice? Would the ones I didn’t choose hate me, etc. Once I’d finally made the decision it was more a sense of nervous exhaustion rather than elation.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had thus far as an author, at a writers festival or other public appearance?
Finishing a really good In Conversation event with a marvellous interlocutor then throwing it open to audience questions and the first question being great admiration for my shoes and where did I buy them ….. But I’ve not been at this too long. I’m sure there will be more.

Thank you PM Newton! We appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch


You can read more about PM Newton and her novels here:


Have you read OLD SCHOOL or BEAMS FALLING? What do you think of detective Nhu "Ned" Kelly and the Sydney setting? Are you a fan of Australian crime fiction?

Monday, July 21, 2014

First Tastes: Jack Kerley's Carson Ryder

In a new ongoing series for the revamped Crime Watch, we will be regularly taking a look at novels in which some terrific authors first introduced their series protagonist (often the author's debut novel).

As I said on Saturday, although crime fiction is full of twisting, exciting plots, and can have great settings or delve into social and other issues, for me, in the end, what makes it particularly great at times is the fantastic characters. I've decided to start with a character I first met a few years ago after picking up a debut novel from one of those 'five books for $20' type bins at Whitcoulls in downtown Auckland (overseas readers - that is very cheap for books in New Zealand): Jack Kerley's Carson Ryder in THE HUNDREDTH MAN.

It's fun to absorb the first raw notes of a new voice, crossing fingers and hoping to uncover a gem of an author and/or character worth following through books and years ahead. Kerley, John Burdett, and Stuart MacBride (whose debuts I also picked up around the same time), were the new-to-me authors who stood out for me in that way that year - I fell for their storytelling styles and unique voices and ended up reading several of each of their books over the following months, all that were then-available.

In THE HUNDREDTH MAN, advertiser-turned author Kerley’s debut tale hits like a hammer right from the opening pages, quickly moving from missing fingers to missing heads, all in the sweltering heat of Mobile, Alabama. Detective Carson Ryder is both admired and loathed by colleagues and superiors, having hitched onto the fast-track following a successful serial killer pursuit the year before – seemingly thanks to Ryder’s innate understanding of “crazies and freaks”. The thing is, Ryder also has a secretive ace up his sleeve, or perhaps more of a joker or wildcard: his brother Jeremy, an incarcerated serial killer. Ryder has done a lot, including changing his name, to hide this part of his past, but Jeremy helped him on the case that made his young career, leading to plenty of internal and external tension for Ryder.

The whole serial killer helping an investigator trope isn't that unique in crime fiction, but Kerley brings a fresh take to it, not just because of the familial relationship, but the well-drawn characters of Ryder and Jeremy. The relationship between the brothers, as well as Ryder's conflicted feelings about his sibling, add extra layers to what is a well-plotted and exciting book, storyline-wise. I remember thinking at the time that there were some great possibilities to see how things evolved both with the character of Ryder, and his relationship with Jeremy, over the course of more than one book, and that did prove to be the case. Jeremy is one of the most fascinating 'villains' I've read in any book series in a long time. The Alabama setting was also fresh, and to me seemed well-evoked (I had travelled through that area during some US travels).

In THE HUNDREDTH MAN, two headless bodies scrawled in barely decipherable ranting spark junior detective Ryder (something of a young upstart) and veteran partner Harry Nautilus onto the trail of another serial killer, one that dredges up past secrets for many people, including Ryder himself. He's forced to turn to his brother, something he doesn't want to do as he's trying to further establish his career. Ryder and Nautilus are the Mobile PD’s Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team (PSIT), which is dismissively called “Piss-it” by other police colleagues.

On his website, Kerley says that Carson Ryder's name came from combining Kit Carson, the renowned frontiersman and Albert Pinkham Ryder, the 19th and early 20th-Century American artist. I found Ryder, at first offering, to be a very interesting character, a little different to the typical detective, although he of course exhibited some classic traits: doggedness, courage, a murky past (despite his youth) that created ongoing issues to deal with, etc. For me, the best storytelling strikes a balance between the familiar and the unique, and matches engaging characters with exciting plots and well-drawn settings.

In THE HUNDREDTH MAN, Kerley’s writing puts a huge tick in all boxes, but more importantly, brings everything together into a gripping tale unfolding naturally from the characters, backstory and setting – never feeling forced by an authorial puppet-master. It was a gem uncovered, and made me want to read more.

At the time, I gave the book four and a half stars out of five for Good Reading magazine. Looking back, I stand by that rating. The series as a whole is great, and it was kickstarted in terrific, gripping fashion. but


You can read more about Jack Kerley and his Carson Ryder series here:


Have you read any of the Carson Ryder novels? If so, what do you think of the character and setting? What other recurring crime fiction heroes would you like to see featured in the First Tastes series moving forward?