Tuesday, May 30, 2023

"A good final outing": BACK HOME IN DERRY review

BACK HOME IN DERRY by David McGill (Silver Owl Publishing, 2022)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

After six Dan Delaney mysteries following a Kiwi family through the 20th century, the story comes full circle during the fragile beginnings of the 1995 Northern Irish ceasefire. The Delaney family are touring Ireland in search of their relations connected to a convict. In the process they confront ancient enmities. Dan is now 79, which is also the age of the author.

In County Cork car theft and a clumsy horse frustrate, but Dan likes the Clonakilty black pudding and an IRA song about Derry. In Dublin his daughter is almost killed in a grenade attack outside the Abbey Theatre. In Belfast he is caught up in violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics. His mother’s wrong-side-of-the-blanket relations in Derry bequeath disinheritance hassles and an old foe aims to make them terminal.

David McGill draws on his diaries of travel around Ireland and a journalistic assignment in the Falls Road, Belfast, at the 1970 flashpoint of the Troubles. He throws in his abiding love for Irish folk music and literature, and Guinness.

Dan Delaney’s first adventure was as a young cop placed on assignment on Somes Island in 1935 (The Death Ray Debacle, 2015). Since then, we have read of him in incidents every decade. In Back home in Derry, it is the mid-1990s, Dan is nearing 80, and he is reluctantly travelling around Ireland with Jas, his wife. Dan would rather be at home in New Zealand, safe with his family around him. The story starts in small rural villages in Ireland, and unfolds in Dublin, Belfast, and the walled Londonderry.

Dan’s world is closing in; he struggles to see through his graduated lenses, he hears through the squeal of his hearing aids, or the roar of his tinnitus, and he finds most of what is going on around him a puzzle. Dan and Jas’ spend some quiet days when there is an incident with their car, and they hire a “gypsy caravan” (from a village where Roma are not “permitted within village boundaries”). Jas takes photos of the countryside flowers as they amble along, Dan wishes he was at home, thinking “he had nothing in common with the place his ancestors fled”. Dan is increasingly living in his past, having nightmares, and worrying. One evening in a village pub they listen to a local band singing songs of rebellion. Dan finds himself inexplicably in tears when they sing the Bobby Sands poem, Back home in Derry.

After these “idyllically uneventful days”, Dan and Jas are dramatically embroiled in violence in Dublin. As their daughter, Ali, might have been the target, Dan and Jas are keen to work out who is behind the attack. A delicate job during the shaky ceasefire recently agreed between sectarian factions. Ali is a forensic linguistics expert and was meeting them in Dublin to help Jas research the genealogy of Dan’s Irish forebears. In the violent attack, her life is saved by a man called Jack McBride, who Dan is alarmed to discover is related to an old nemesis from Somes Island. Jas and Dan reconnect with the tear-inducing singer from the village pub, and things start to get very complicated. What is clear is that whether grudges are held for decades or for hundreds of years, they can still be the cause of violence and mayhem. And in Ireland those grudges are often held across religious divides.

Jas is a devout Catholic, and Dan becomes more and more irritated at her subservience to a Western-movie-loving priest they encounter, and strangely also to Jack’s wealthy English uncle. However, being ex-law enforcement, Jas and Dan are both suspicious of the local police, specifically the helpful Detective Inspector Gerry Murphy – who ends up being able to continue his investigation over the border in Northern Island due to agency cooperation during the ceasefire. Incidents pile on and adding to the tension is the nearing of the marching season in Derry. Dan and Jas run into an Ian Paisley rally on the way to the airport to pick up their other daughter, Maria. Jas manages to get some interesting photographs of people attending the rally – further complications.

Maria, a hyperactive human rights lawyer with the United Nations, arrives with Max, a journalist, in tow. Max has a prodigious appetite for alcohol when not working on a story, and an equally prodigious number of contacts, which enable him to source information on goings on and related police investigations. The plot proceeds with a possible kidnapping, a definite kidnapping, most of the characters getting trapped underground, and various explosions and threats of explosions. And despite all the chaos Jas and her daughters manage to fit in some sight-seeing and hitting the shops. Needless to say, Dan isn’t so sanguine, “he once again wished he had never come here”, and as old horrors come back to haunt him in the present, he realises how much of his past he has kept hidden from his wife and grown-up children.

The plotting of Back Home in Derry is helped by a preface that sets up the motivation for two of the characters. The book has impetus, and although I did get a bit confused in places, McGill manages to keep the various strands of the story moving, and to finally resolve the mysteries. The book is full of allusions to 1990s popular culture, sometimes with too much exposition. But the various and varied characters work well, and mirror the political situation nicely, with some having to tiptoe around others for fear of causing offence. The uneasy relationship between Jas and Dan works too, as at its base they are a solid team.

Dan is, as always, a troublesome character. If you have read the Dan Delaney novels, you can’t help but think of the lovely young man who started the series. But this Dan has lived a long and difficult life. He has old attitudes, is slightly condescending towards Jas, and describes people in quite offensive ways. I found Back home in Derry a good final outing for Dan. He travels a long way in the novel, surprising himself as well as the reader with the possibility of future peace and reconciliation. And he finally claims a political position, although he will probably continue believing: “Bloody politics … another word for abdicating personal responsibility”. If you haven’t read the Dan Delaney books, give them a go.

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

"An extraordinarily tense read": PAPER CAGE review

PAPER CAGE by Tom Baragwanath (Text Publishing, 2022)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Masterton isn’t a big town. The community’s tight, if not always harmonious. So when a child goes missing it’s a big deal for everyone. And when a second kid disappears, the whole town’s holding their own children that little bit tighter.

Lorraine doesn’t have kids, but she has a nephew. She’s holding him a bit tighter, too, because she works for the police, and she knows they don’t have any idea. Lo’s not a cop, she’s a records clerk. She sits out back among the piles of paper, making connections, remembering things. Working things out that the actual cops don’t want to hear about.

Until the new investigator, Hayes, arrives from Wellington, and realises Lo’s the only person there with answers to any of his questions. Which is just as well—because the clock is running down for the children of the town.

Lorraine Henry is living in Masterton with a dicky hip and the memories she shared with her husband Frank, a cop who died through misadventure on the job. She works as a file clerk at the local police station, and she sneaks rent money to her niece, Sheena. Lorraine and Sheena’s mum were Pākehā sisters who married into Māori families. Lorraine took Sheena in when her parents died in an accident, and Sheena and her son Bradley are now Lorraine’s only family.

The community Lorraine lives in is not flash, and when peaceful “Some might call it peace, but that’s not it. It’s more like something lying in wait”. Ads for rental accommodation are for garage space, “ family of four max”. The Mongrel Mob is a clear presence, and Bradley’s dad, Keith, is a big man in the gang. Lorraine has struck up an unexpected friendship with a recently arrived neighbour, Patty. She and Patty often share a meal, a gin or three, and some telly of an evening.

The current worrying case at the station is a missing child, a young girl. And when a second child goes missing, this time a young boy, a detective comes over from Wellington to help the local cops investigate. Lorraine is being kept well away from the centre of the investigation, her colleagues seeing her as aligned with the ‘bad’ community. There’s also a suggestion she’s only kept her job through pity for what happened to Frank. But Detective Hayes from over the hill, “Dressed like a stork that’s fallen through a wardrobe”, soon realises the asset Lorraine is, with her knowledge of the local police files alongside her ties in the community.

When a third child goes missing, and all three of the kids’ families have either direct or indirect gang connections, the local cops jump to conclusions. And the ‘us-and-them’ shutters fall into place, hindering the investigation. Lorraine and Hayes start working together, trying to negotiate a way forward. Lorraine is used to such negotiations, as well as being seen as suspect by her colleagues, she is also viewed as an outsider by the community, due both to her being Pākehā and her working for the cops.

Lorraine hangs between two worlds; she compares Tangi she has experienced to the quick modest funeral organised for her sister; she automatically notices when Patty first enters her house without taking off her shoes. She knows Hayes is using her to get information from the community, just as Moko, one of Keith’s gang members, wants her to use her influence with the police: “You just keep them on track”.

Lorraine is intent on finding the kids. And she knows Keith and his boys want that too, despite what the local cops are saying. She hates the meth culture that accompanies Keith and his cohort, including Sheena – and she would prefer that Keith keep away. But she also knows Keith as a gifted gardener, just as Frank had been. And she knows how gentle he can be with Bradley. As things unroll, she is taken aback by the kindnesses shown to her by Moko.

Lorraine and Hayes manage to get some leads, and despite the local station trying to keep her away from the investigation, she persists and ends up in the most awful situations. Paper Cage is an extraordinarily tense read, there is a nail-biting sequence at the end of a long forestry track, and a similarly harrowing sequence on a remote farm: “Anyway, hell doesn’t have to be a big place, or hot. No reason it couldn’t be a shed out past Martinborough”.

The novel starts and ends in rain and the reader is totally immersed in the environment, and in the lives of the characters. The plotting is great, with the reader finding out crucial information ahead of Lorraine, adding a further layer of poignancy to her situation. And Lorraine, Aunty Lo, is the real heart of the novel. She is staunch despite all the unkindness around her. She has suffered great loss, yet still lives for others.

Lorraine’s efforts to find the kids are unswerving, kids with “the absolute halo of joy holding them, their glee not yet checked by rules and preferences and us-and-them eyes”. Somehow Lorraine manages to keep her world from spinning apart – the pressure she is under is brilliantly shown in an outburst in a supermarket carpark. And the resolution of the mystery is extraordinary, the reader being as gob-smacked as Lorraine, “Sometimes we know so little”. A great #YeahNoir novel.

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

Friday, May 19, 2023

"Entertaining and thought-provoking": NIKOLAI'S QUEST review

NIKOLAI'S QUEST by Diane Robinson (Rose & Fern Publishing, 2022)

Reviewed by Jacqui Lynne

Russia 1996. 11-year-old Nikolai and his 9-year-old sister, Anna, have lived most of their lives in an orphanage, built inside a 300-year-old former monastery. Their city has changed its name from Leningrad back to St. Petersburg. The teachers and other staff at the orphanage are always grumbling about ‘too much change.’ Some children are being adopted by people from New Zealand. Adoption seems like a good escape. Then, just when Nikolai and Anna are on the brink of being chosen, a stranger tells Anna that she looks like her mother, but then disappears. Could it be that their birth parents are not really dead after all? Mysterious incidents and a secret tunnel. Nikolai and Anna can’t solve the puzzle alone, but who can they really trust to help them?

The subheading of this YA  book, a search for answers and belonging, sums up the storyline very well. Nikolai and Anna are brother and sister in an orphanage in St Petersburg. Or, are they truly orphans? Who is the man they see outside the gates watching them – could he be their father, or is he really dead as they’ve been told? That’s one of the answers they want to know.

Their search for the truth involves a map, secret tunnels and political intrigue. Working around the system, they use methods of information gathering that readers of the target age will identify with. I liked the fact that senior students at the orphanage work with the pair to bring about the conclusion. While all the children hope to find relatives or to be taken into new families, any threat is from outside the walls. Within the institution there is a sense of belonging – a family for children without one. 

The novel is realistic, helped by front papers showing a map of the orphanage’s layout and copies of birth certificates for both children. The New Zealand link to the story is that Nikolai and Anna are to be adopted by a Kiwi couple and brought here to live.

Along with the entertaining and thought-provoking story there’s an opportunity to learn a little about Russian history of the last century. The cover, book design, and readable writing are all good and suitable for YA readers. A slight disappointment is that, despite a note that the book is written in UK English, US convention is used in the case of honorifics.

Recommended as a very good read for ages 10 to 16, or beyond.

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Flaxflower founder and editor Bronwyn Elsmore. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

"A tour de force literary eco-thriller" - BIRNAM WOOD review

BIRNAM WOOD by Eleanor Catton (Orenda Books, 2023)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Birnam Wood is on the move ... Five years ago, Mira Bunting founded a guerrilla gardening group: Birnam Wood. An undeclared, unregulated, sometimes-criminal, sometimes-philanthropic gathering of friends, this activist collective plants crops wherever no one will notice: on the sides of roads, in forgotten parks, and neglected backyards. For years, the group has struggled to break even. Then Mira stumbles on an answer, a way to finally set the group up for the long term: a landslide has closed the Korowai Pass, cutting off the town of Thorndike. Natural disaster has created an opportunity, a sizable farm seemingly abandoned.

But Mira is not the only one interested in Thorndike. Robert Lemoine, the enigmatic American billionaire, has snatched it up to build his end-times bunker--or so he tells Mira when he catches her on the property. Intrigued by Mira, Birnam Wood, and their entrepreneurial spirit, he suggests they work this land. But can they trust him? And, as their ideals and ideologies are tested, can they trust each other?

Birnam Wood starts with mellifluous prose revealing the motivations, attitudes, and self-doubts of three characters who started the gardening co-op that gives the novel its name. Birnam Wood was Mira Bunting’s idea, using unused land to grow vegetables, sometimes without the owners’ permission – some of the produce being donated “to the needy”. Shelley Noakes has always been Mira’s 2IC, and she is getting a bit tired of it. Tony Gallo left the co-op soon after it started five years ago, and has now returned, just as changes are afoot. Changes that will significantly alter Birnam Wood, affect all the characters, and turn this literary novel into an eco-thriller.

An encounter between Mira and billionaire Robert Lemoine triggers these changes. They meet when Mira is scouting out private land adjacent to the alpine beech forest of Korowai National Park. An earthquake has blocked the main pass into the area, killing five people, and thwarting the landowner’s plans to subdivide. Mira is excited at the prospect of setting up an illicit operation there – after all, Owen Darvish, the landowner, was about to be knighted for his contributions to conservation, surely he couldn’t object if he found out – they were an eco-collective after all. But as she is leaving, she encounters Robert, and, like Macbeth on the blasted heath, the fates of all are changed.

Birnam Wood explores hypocrisy through all forms of human action, whether that be political, commercial, or environmental. The motives of businesses launching green programmes, those of young women entering into arrangements with older rich men, those of the ultra-rich who are planning bolt holes in remote locations, are all exposed through the storytelling. Robert is charming and generous, but surely one of the “Crypto-fascist dirty tricksters”? His technology is helping the critically endangered Fairy terns in Northland, but it is also being used for less benign purposes.

Mira is walking the thin line between compromise and sell-out. Owen wants to retire in peace with his knighthood, ignoring his wife Jill’s concerns about his new business arrangements – the land is his through marriage, Jill’s family has owned the land for generations. Tony sees through everyone’s deception but his own – he is on a mission to expose wrongdoing, while dreaming “he saw himself on stage, at a podium, collecting an award”, and when he stumbles onto something so much worse than he had imagined “I am going to be so fucking famous.” Robert has a way with IT, and not much concern with other people’s privacy, but his wealth can be used for so many good purposes …

The plotting of Birnam Wood is like dynamite with a long fuse – a slow burn leading to a massive explosion. The Shakespearean allusion of the title is carried throughout the novel, with guilt-ridden women, unexpected coincidences, choruses of doom, themes of deceit and fate, and a bloody denouement. It is set in 2017, pre-pandemic, pre- the catastrophic results of anthropogenic climate change occurring in Aotearoa as I write this review, and it feels the more prescient as a result. Even the name Lemoine resonated for me – it is the name of the IT engineer who was stood down from Google last year for claiming the chatbot he had helped develop had become sentient and was in need of protection.

Birnam Wood has no innocent characters, except perhaps the endangered Fairy terns in Northland, or the few remaining Orange-fronted parakeets who live in Korowai National Park. And readers are implicit in the crimes too, for being consumers, for being pragmatic, for writing book reviews while parts of the North Island are disaster zones, for using their cell phones. To understand the cell phone connection, read Birnam Wood – you’ll feel part of those who’d “known that he was bad from the start. And still they’d courted his business. Still they’d courted his approval, his respect. Still they’d courted him.” A tour de force literary eco-thriller!

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

"An undeniably fresh and authentic sleuth" - KILLING JERICHO review

KILLING JERICHO by William Hussey (Zaffre, 2023)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Murder this twisted demands a new kind of detective. Fresh out of prison, former Detective Constable Scott Jericho is a desperate man. Disgraced and penniless after his assault on a violent suspect, he is forced to seek refuge with the fairground family he once rejected. Now, troubled by his failure, Jericho’s brilliant mind stagnates.

That is until a series of bizarre murders reawaken his interest. Men and women with no obvious link to each other are being ritualistically slaughtered. Slaughtered in ways that recall an old legend of the Jericho Travelling Fair. Now, in a race against time, he must unpick the threads of a baffling mystery. But as his investigation unfolds and the corpses pile up, a shocking truth awaits him. A revelation that will test not only Jericho’s intellect but challenge the very core of his morality...

It can be difficult among the ocean of crime fiction that's out there to enjoy to conjure a sleuth who's undeniably fresh, while still feeling authentic as well (rather than try-hard or forced by the author's hand). A main character that seems very different to what's gone before but also real and organic to the particular story and setting, not just shoved in by the author in a 'look at this, look how unique my character is' way, like they've cobbled together a jigsaw puzzle of lesser-used character traits.

So it's really fabulous to discover award-winning kids’ and YA author William Hussey, whose oeuvre swarms across horror, crime, and romcoms, has managed this hard task with real flair and aplomb in his first adult thriller, Killing Jericho. Like Hussey himself, Scott Jericho is a gay man who grew up in the travelling fairground community. Unlike Hussey, Jericho is a former cop recently out of prison, having lost his job and freedom for beating a violent arsonist during an interrogation. He's also balanced earlier stints of being a 'heavy' for bad men with university studies among dreaming spires. 

And now he's hiding away, retreated into himself among the cocoon of his fairground family he once rejected. Alcohol, pill popping, casual sex; anything to numb his failures and escapes his ghosts. Burned children. Yet somewhat like Patrick Jane in television's The Mentalist, growing up in the showgrounds had once helped hone Jericho's rare observational skills and ability to read human nature to an uncanny degree. Not that he's using that insight lately; instead his life is withering on its self-poisoned vine. 

It's only when Jericho is lured by a suspicious punter then an unexpected offer to privately investigate a bizarre series of murders linked to fairground folklore that he begins to come alive again. Does it take darkness and death for him to feel his best? And will his hunt bring death nearer to those he's loved?

Hussey casts a superb tale that plays with dark and light, while taking readers behind the frivolity of dodgems, candy floss, and Ferris Wheels to glimpse the backbreaking slog and prejudices casual and blatant faced by the travellers who bring fun and magic to fairgrounds and communities, before being shunted on. Killing Jericho is a gritty, tense thriller that’s vividly told and full of surprises, with some remarkable characters, including a lead who keeps readers (and most around him) off-kilter. 

This may be Hussey's first adult thriller, but I certainly hope for several return visits. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, series editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

Friday, May 12, 2023

"A character as human and complex as Sam" - EXPECTANT review

EXPECTANT by Vanda Symon (Orenda Books, 2023)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

A killer targeting pregnant women. A detective expecting her first baby…

The shocking murder of a heavily pregnant woman throws the New Zealand city of Dunedin into a tailspin, and the devastating crime feels uncomfortably close to home for Detective Sam Shephard as she counts down the days to her own maternity leave.

Confined to a desk job in the department, Sam must find the missing link between this brutal crime and a string of cases involving mothers and children in the past. As the pieces start to come together and the realisation dawns that the killer’s actions are escalating, drastic measures must be taken to prevent more tragedy.

For Sam, the case becomes personal, when it becomes increasingly clear that no one is safe and the clock is ticking…

When an atrocious murder of a pregnant woman is committed in Dunedin, Detective Sam Shephard’s boss wants her off the investigation – he doesn’t believe “because of your own advanced state of pregnancy, that you would be able to remain objective and emotionally detached from this case.” But Sam is not having a bar of it, it’s not that she can’t remain objective or detached, but because subjective and attached is how Sam does her best work.

Expectant deals with the most inhuman and the most human of crimes, those that involve babies. The book scans every case and scenario, from Minnie Dean in the 1800s, convicted of infanticide, through the various cases of new-born infants being stolen. They are taken from hospitals, cars, prams. Sometimes taken by desperate women who have lost children, or by those who can’t conceive or carry a baby to term. And then there are the darker motives, those taken for money, for exploitation, for medical purposes.

And the novel doesn’t shy away from Aotearoa/New Zealand having “some of the worst statistics in the world when it came to the domestic abuse of children”. Sam, who will give birth in just over three weeks, must confront these realities. But her condition, with the odd Braxton Hicks contraction, her frequent need of the loo, and the constant attacks of the munchies, spurs Sam on to find the culprit and their motive. Time is always of the essence in solving crimes, and Sam has her own deadline looming: “This week coming is my last one at work.”

Sam Shephard is one of my favourite crime-solving characters – she is outspoken, clumsy, off-side with many of her colleagues and most of her superiors, but she is caring and empathetic and doesn’t ignore her gut instincts. There are lovely moments in the book, such as when she is talking to the brave young man who, along with his tagging gang, found the dying woman – and who chose to stay with her as she died rather than scarpering with his mates. And when she sits with a young woman and her mother, the young woman having ended up being of interest to the police for doing something terrible, because she had been scared and feeling totally alone.

Sam is a fearless detective, and she is also funny – getting her baby bump wedged between stools and needing to be rescued (“Jesus, Sam, you’re a goon”), having a love/hate but mainly love relationship with her Mum, bantering with her best friend Maggie and partner Paul. Although Sam is a strong character, others are not completely eclipsed – even her unborn child demands attention, already displaying a temperament, much to the annoyance of Sam’s cat. One of the stars of Expectant is Dunedin. The spring flowers, the funky eateries, the oddly shaped streets, and the banks that even added all together couldn’t scrape up a million dollars in cash for a ransom. And the text is so familiar, with its use of Kiwi slang: “It wasn’t a ‘Dunner stunner’ day”, “the dungier the car the better”.

Sam’s respect for the victims and empathy with the perpetrators is compelling – she imagines the emptiness felt by the bereaved and those who have had people taken – the vacuums left by the loss of people, and by the loss of a feeling of safety. The neighbours who no longer know each other or care about each other, who might dob each other in if someone suddenly is seen with a baby, or who might do so in an act of petty revenge.

Contrasted with this lack of information about those near us are the dangers of social media, where it is easy to glean personal information about strangers, and the risk of official electronic records that can be manipulated and inappropriately accessed. Sam’s investment in the case given her pregnancy is a great device, not only on the emotional side, but the practical too – her knowing what it is to be a pregnant woman going through the health system. Sam might be a cipher in the health system, but she refuses to be one in the police system, and the reader feels her outrage when one of her bosses tells her off for contaminating a crime scene – when not to do so would have been an act of cruelty.

“This investigation was starting to feel like a juggling act in which, every few seconds, someone tossed in a new ball” – the plotting of Expectant is lively and intriguing. There is one of those lovely moments when you realise a possible outcome before the protagonist, and you must read about them moving into danger with no way to tell them! And in the final resolution, Sam must make the most amazing choice, a plot turn that would only work with a character as human and complex as Sam. Expectant can be read as a stand-alone, or first go back and read Overkill, The Ringmaster, Containment, and Bound – you won’t regret it!

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

Tracking Wolves and Seaside Slots: an interview with Fiona Cummins

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the 232nd instalment of our long-running author interview series, 9mm - but the first in around 18 months. Not to mention the first post of any kind on Crime Watch for six months. 

Yikes, where has the time gone. 

I apologise for the long hiatus; 2022 was a rough year in many ways on a personal front, including the terminal illness and passing of a very close family member, so many things fell by the wayside, including my posting here about crime fiction.

For transparency and accountability: I only did 34 posts on Crime Watch last year, after averaging more than 200 per year the previous 12 years of this blog's existence. They were all pretty much reviews, some written by guest reviewers, and a handful of posts about the Ngaio Marsh Awards. While I did write some very cool author features for some magazines and newspapers, my mental headspace was stretched thin and I didn't do lots of the 'extra' things I usually did here and elsewhere. 

But I still love crime fiction, and I'm still reading it, writing about it, and discussing it in many ways (including being asked to be a judge of several prestigious awards in 2023-2024), so it seems only right that I give a little love back to Crime Watch, given this place is one of the earliest things I did as a crime reviewer, before I wrote for several major publications, or founded the Ngaio Marsh Awards and the Mystery in the Library series of events, appeared onstage at international books festivals on three continents, became an awards judge, co-founded Rotorua Noir, or wrote and edited my own books. 

Thanks for reading and sharing the 9mm series, and Crime Watch in general (and my work elsewhere) 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 9mm interviewees here. What a line-up. 

With lots more fun to come. 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 now I'm back on deck more fully, I'll look to make that happen for you. We've got some 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 fabulous Fiona Cummins, a terrific British crime writer who I had the pleasure of chairing onstage at two superb Scottish festivals last year (Bute Noir in August, Bloody Scotland in September), before I went back to Aotearoa for three months. 

Chairing the 'Without A Trace' panel about missing persons stories, with Fiona Cummins,
Alex Dahl, and Tim Weaver at Bloody Scotland, September 2022 (audience photo)

Fiona Cummins is an award-winning former journalist and a graduate of the Faber Academy "Writing a Novel" course. Rattle, her debut novel, was the subject of a huge international auction and has been translated into several languages. It received widespread critical acclaim from authors and reviewers. She has since written bestsellers The Collector, The Neighbour, When I Was Ten and Into the Dark in which she introduces DC Saul Anguish, a brilliant young detective with a dark past.

I got to chat with Fiona about Into the Dark in particular, at last year's festivals. It's a fascinating, dark thriller that kickstarts with an entire family vanishing, seemingly without a trace. Fiona takes us on a writhing journey into some dark waters that flow beneath the 'picture perfect' surface of various relationships - marriages and friendships. Betrayals and nasty people abound. It's a great read that also sees the (re)introduction of DC Saul Anguish, a detective with a deeply troubled past (he featured in Cummins' first two books as a youth, before being a cop), and Dr Clover March. An intriguing duo who I hope we'll see more of in future - there's lots to dig into there with both of them. 

But for now, Fiona Cummins becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.  


Who is your favorite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
This is a tough one as there are so many writers who have influenced my love of crime fiction, but I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with MW Craven’s Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw series. I love their dynamic, and Mike’s humorous and accessible style.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Hmmm. This is HARD. I read voraciously as child, literally anything I could lay my hands on and some of it wildly inappropriate. My earliest memories are of reading almost all of Enid Blyton’s books, Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and other authors including Judy Blume, Virginia Andrews and Stephen King. But the first novel that blew me away was Crooked House by Agatha Christie. I was laying on the grass in the back garden of our family home and I remember putting the finished library book down, stretching out in the sun and thinking, ‘I didn’t see that coming.’ I bought myself a first edition from Goldsboro Books when I signed my first publishing deal.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I was a journalist for twenty years before I signed my first deal, so I’d written a lot of newspaper and magazine articles. A bit of poetry. A few short stories which had never seen the light of day and a chunk of a children’s novel. I’d also written about 30,000 words of a crime novel, but the only part of that which survived was the character of DS Etta Fitzroy, who appears in my debut Rattle.

Outside of writing and writing-related activities (book events, publicity), what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love photography, particularly nature photography. I’m interested in wildlife and the natural world. In another life, I’d be living in Mexico, documenting whale sharks, or tracking the wolves in Yellowstone National Park or chasing tornados in Oklahoma. I enjoy walking, singing (badly) and dead-lifting (I’m up to 110kg). I love travelling, going to gigs and the theatre. Reading and baking always make me feel good.

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?
Oooh. Good question. I live in Leigh-on-Sea on the Essex coast. It’s a pretty seaside town with slot machines down the road, fish and chips aplenty, and sandy beaches. But if I was going to recommend something off the beaten track, it would be a visit to Ten Green Bottles, a tiny pub with great food that hosts live music most nights.

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Ha! No idea. Over the years, I’ve been likened to Christina Ricci, Claire Danes (in her My So-Called Life era), Kimberley Walsh from Girls Aloud and Gok Wan, so take your pick!

Of your writings, which is your favorite or a bit special to you for some particular reason, and why?
This question is like asking me to pick a favourite child, but I think When I Was Ten is particularly special to me because this book almost wrote itself. I decided its three-part structure very early on and the words flowed onto the page. I wonder now if this was partly because the protagonist is a journalist and I wrote myself into her character. The novel I’m just finishing – All Of Us Are Broken − also feels important because although it centres on a horrific spate of killings, it’s about love too, in its various forms.

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 set myself a deadline of getting a publishing deal by my 40th birthday and I squeaked it by a month. I cried my eyes out when we received our first offer, and at every offer after that. I think because it felt like validation of some kind. I remember walking into Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus and seeing Rattle on the shelves for the first time. I bought a copy and the bookseller who served me said, ‘This looks like a great book to read on a winter’s night,’ and I said, ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard it’s very good.’ Ha! I didn’t tell her I was the author.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I travelled to an event in Germany, but neither my publicist or publisher was coming, and the details were a bit sketchy. The driver who picked me up from the airport spoke no English and I don’t speak any German. We drove for two hours in silence. I had no idea if we were travelling in the right direction or where he was taking me. I had no idea what time my event was or where I was staying. When he dropped me off at the hotel, I asked him if he was picking me up in the morning to take me back to the airport but he didn’t understand and walked off before I could ask someone to translate. It was like being in the middle of a slightly creepy and bizarre film. Happily, all was well in the end, and I lived to tell the tale, but it did teach me the importance of obtaining details!

Thanks Fiona, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch.

Fiona's new novel ALL OF US ARE BROKEN, which sees the return of DC Saul Anguish, will be published on 20 July. You can keep up to date with Fiona and her writing by following her on Twitter. 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Entries open for the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards


In a slight break with recent tradition, the entry period for the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards has opened early today, with the organisers looking forward to supporting, highlighting, and celebrating great crime writing from New Zealand authors that's been published during the past year (or two years, in the case of the biennial Best Non-Fiction prize). 

Also, after a hiatus in 2022 for the popular Mystery in the Library series, due to COVID restrictions, the Ngaios organisers are keen to bounce back with a terrific line-up of events all across New Zealand, and beyond, early next year (more than 70 free library-based events celebrating local crime writers were run in association with the Ngaio Marsh Awards between 2015-2021, across dozens of city and rural locations). 

Since 2010, the Ngaio Marsh Awards have supported, highlighted, and celebrated literary excellence in crime, mystery, and thriller writing from New Zealand storytellers.

In 2022, Ngaio Marsh Awards will be presented in the Best Novel and Best First Novel, categories. Entries can be made by publishers or authors. E-book originals and self-published authors are eligible, along with traditionally published works. Entries close 17 March.

To be eligible for consideration for the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards: 

  1. The author must be a New Zealand citizen or resident; 
  2. Novels must have been published for the first time in 2022; Best Non-Fiction entries in 2021 or 2022;
  3. For the fiction categories, entered books can be crime, mystery, thriller, or suspense fiction. "Crime" is meant in a broad sense and can include violent, white collar, or geopolitical crimes. Novels that strongly address the investigation of crime or impact or effects of crime are eligible. Traditional (detective fiction, thrillers, cosy mysteries) and non-traditional (experimental, cross-genre) books may enter. E-books and self-published novels are eligible.
  4. True crime and biographies/other non-fiction related to crime or crime writing may enter Best Non-Fiction.

For more information or to enter a book, contact the Ngaio Marsh Awards through their social media accounts, email ngaiomarshaward@gmail.com, or contact the Judging Convenor Craig Sisterson directly.