Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: CHARCOAL JOE

CHARCOAL JOE by Walter Mosley (Doubleday, 2016)

Reviewed by Shane Donald

Picking up where Rose Gold left off in LA in the late 1960s, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins finds his life in transition. He’s ready to - finally - propose to his girlfriend, Bonnie Shay, and start a life together. And he’s taken the money he got from the Rose Gold case and has, together with two partners, started a new detective agency. But, inevitably, a case gets in the way: Easy’s friend Mouse introduces him to Rufus Tyler, a very old man everyone calls Charcoal Joe. 

Joe’s friend’s son, Seymour (young, bright, top of his class at Stanford), has been arrested and charged with the murder of a white man from Redondo Beach. Rufus tells Easy he will pay and pay well to see his nephew exonerated, but seeing as how Seymour was literally found standing over the man’s dead body at his cabin home and the racially charged motives behind it, that might prove to be a tall order.

Between his new company, a heart that should be broken but is not, a whole raft of new bad guys on his tail, and a bad odor that surrounds Charcoal Joe, Easy has his hands full, his horizons askew, and a life in shambles on the ground around his feet.

The First Walter Mosley novel I ever read was DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS. It was 1996. I was supposed to be working on my MA dissertation, which funnily enough, was about detective fiction. I was writing about Ngaio Marsh and Walter Mosley’s 1940s Los Angeles offered a break from 1940s New Zealand. Easy Rawlins didn’t seem like a detective in that book; to me he seemed like an ordinary man caught up in events beyond his control and just trying to get out alive.

CHARCOAL JOE is the 14th book in this series. Easy’s life has moved on from a lot from DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS. It’s 1968 and he’s asked by his dangerous friend Mouse to help the son of a friend. Seymour Braithwaite, PhD, has been found standing over two dead men…which is not a good place for an African American man to be in 1960s Los Angeles.

Walter Mosley has stated in interviews that his purpose is to write stories about black male heroes. In Easy Rawlins he has done more than that – he has created a character that grows and develops as his life changes. Over the course of the series he has become a parent, fallen in and out of love and solved a number of crimes, been a private unlicensed detective, worked as a school custodian, and in this novel, a fully licensed investigator who still does favours for friends and often lives to regret it.

As is common with a Mosley novel, there are twists and turns as you (and Easy) are never sure who is lying and who isn’t. Characters here come across as real people and Easy is embedded in his community, picking his daughter up from school, giving advice to friends and being involved in the odd shootout. I’m a fan of noir and especially of Dashiell Hammett, but Mosley is more of a realist novelist than Hammett. Easy has a life beyond his job that makes you want to read more. In this novel Easy is coming to terms with the end of a relationship and to his surprise has no bitterness, just a desire to do the right thing.

The sense of time and setting here is a major part of the story. As you read you get a real feel for the 1960s. For Easy, who has spent most of his life exposed to racism, meeting people who accept him for himself is still a novelty. He navigates his way through a social world that is evolving and seeks to understand who he is as he solves crime.

Mosley is a prolific writer and CHARCOAL JOE sees Easy assisted by Fearless Jones, lead character of three other Mosley novels (the last of these appeared in 2006). A strength of Mosley is that he has a large cast of characters; each is unique and fully formed. As a prose stylist he is sparse but each sentence packs a punch.

If you’re looking for a something new to read, any detective novel by Walter Mosley is worth your time.

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

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review: LAW BREAKERS & MISCHIEF MAKERS

LAW BREAKERS & MISCHIEF MAKERS: 50 NOTORIOUS NEW ZEALANDERS by Bronwyn Sell (Allen & Unwin, 2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

New Zealand was supposed to be a model society at the end of the world, a utopia for "men and women of good character" who were willing to work hard for a better life. And, for most, so it proved. But this book is about the others—the misfits, the swindlers, the fallen women, the love rats, the escaped convicts, the hoaxers, the charlatans, the highwaymen, the mass murderers—from the earliest days of European settlement to the present day. 

Murder and Mischief gives the scandalous details of those who've made a name for themselves in New Zealand for all the wrong reasons. Take for example, Charlotte Badger, a pistol-wielding English thief who launched a mutiny on a Tasmanian convict ship in 1806 and sailed over to hide among the Maori of the Bay of Islands; and Amy Bock, a con woman who masqueraded as a wealthy man to marry the daughter of her landlady in 1909. Some of the people featured in this book are monsters, some are merely rascals, but all make fascinating reading. A lot of the people featured in it have somewhat disappeared into the mists of time and readers will be surprised at the shady characters in this country's past. 

Our colonial forbears made long journeys across vast oceans in search of a better life. By and large they found what has been called a ‘model society at the end of the world’, but like any society, the land of the long white cloud had its underbelly.

It’s some of the people that have made up that underbelly that award-winning journalist Brownyn Sell has focused on in her latest book. Law Breakers & Mischief Makers provides short vignettes of some of the misfits, swindlers, love rats, escaped convicts, murderers, charlatans, highwaymen, dodgy politicians, and other shady characters who have speckled New Zealand’s history.

And let’s be honest, whether it’s literature, drama, or history – it’s the ‘bad guys’ that can intrigue us the most – good stories often need great villains, whether it’s Shakespeare’s Iago, Richard III and MacBeth, or Darth Vader in Star Wars.

Sell has combed historic newspaper reports to compile an interesting collection of great Kiwi ‘villains’, and Top of the South readers will find a few recognisably ‘local’ characters, such as the Burgess gang of Maungatapu Murders infamy, and visionary if tainted settlement founder Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

Sell has done a good job mixing the famous (baby farmer Minnie Dean, Aramoana gunman David Gray) with the somewhat forgotten but equally fascinating (cross-dressing swindler Amy Bock, flamboyant Otago superintendent James Macandrew who declared his own house a prison to avoid going to the real gaol for unpaid debts). However the short chapters can leave readers wanting a little more.



Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Note: this review was originally written for a print magazine in New Zealand on the book's release. For reasons lost to the mists of time, I didn't upload this one to my then-very-new blog at the time, so have rectified that now. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Review: CRISIS

CRISIS by Felix Francis (Simon & Schuster, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Harrison Foster, a crisis manager for a London firm, is summoned to Newmarket after a fire in the Chadwick Stables kills six very valuable horses, including the short-priced favorite for the Derby. There is far more to the "simple" fire than initially meets the eye... for a start, human remains are found among the equestrian ones in the burnt-out shell. All the stable staff are accounted for, so who is the mystery victim?

Harry knows very little about horses, indeed he positively dislikes them, but he is thrust unwillingly into the world of thoroughbred racing, where the standard of care of the equine stars is far higher than that of the humans who attend to them.

The Chadwick family is a dysfunctional racing dynasty. Resentment between the generations is rife and sibling rivalry bubbles away like volcanic magma beneath a thin crust of respectability.

Harry represents the Middle Eastern owner of the Derby favourite and, as he delves deeper into the unanswered questions surrounding the horse's demise, he ignites a fuse that blows the volcano sky-high. Can Harry solve the riddle before he is bumped off by the fallout?

In the six and a half decades history of the Edgar Awards given out by the Mystery Writers of America, only a rare few crime writers have won the prestigious Best Novel prize multiple times. There is only one author who’s won it thrice, and he's not even American: Dick Francis.

It’s a bit of an open secret that the legendary jockey turned thriller writer’s output was increasingly a family affair as he aged, and son Felix has fully taken the reins over the last decade.

While still sub-headed as ‘a Dick Francis novel’, these recent books are completely original tales with new characters and situations - the main continuation from father to son being the broader horse racing setting and the galloping pace set by both.

In CRISIS, Harrison Foster is a ‘fixer’ for a London consultancy firm, sent to Newmarket, a market town considered the birthplace and global heart of thoroughbred racing. A stables fire has claimed the lives of several top racehorses, including the Derby favorite owned by a powerful Middle Eastern Sheik who is a client of Foster’s firm. If that wasn’t bad enough, human remains are found among the torched ruins. News that would be considered worse, by some. Foster isn’t a horse-lover but must quickly get up to speed as he tries to navigate a world where horses are worth more than humans.

Dealing with a crumbling racing dynasty, he uncovers a dangerous maelstrom of sibling rivalry, simmering resentments, and well-guarded family secrets. CRISIS is a ripsnorter of a read, a page-whirrer that tears out of the gate and keeps a frantic pace throughout, right to the winning post.

There's a lot of different crime writing out there, that caters to a wide range of tastes and reading preferences. CRISIS probably isn't the book for readers craving huge character depth or lots of social commentary (though there is some), but it is an interesting and engaging tale. A fun read where Francis vividly plunges readers into the world of horse racing and the machinations behind the glamour. I enjoyed going behind the scenes and learning more. Like the Alistair McLean and Desmond Bagley tales I read growing up, CRISIS is the kind of book that's a good fun adventure.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Review: NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU

NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU by Nikki Crutchley (2018)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Troubled teen Faith Marsden was one of several girls abducted from Crawton, a country town known for its picturesque lake and fertile farmland. Unlike the others, she escaped, though sixteen years on she still bears the emotional and physical scars. 

Zoe Haywood returns to Crawton to bury her estranged mother Lillian, who has taken her own life. As she and Faith rekindle their high-school friendship, they discover notes left by Lillian that point to two more young women who recently disappeared from Crawton. But Lillian’s confused ramblings leave them with more questions than answers. 

As Faith and Zoe delve deeper into the mystery, they become intent on saving the missing women, but in doing so are drawn into Auckland’s hidden world of drugs, abduction and murder. And then Faith decides to confront the mastermind – on her own. 

Small towns and close knit communities are under scrutiny again in Nikki Crutchley's second novel NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU. Not part of a series with NOTHING BAD HAPPENS HERE, this second outing is built around another interesting and complicated female character Zoe Haywood. Haywood has returned to her hometown Crawton to bury her estranged mother Lillian, who recently committed suicide. Despite the difficult circumstances of returning home to the suicide of a mother she really didn't get on with, living in her mother's house, back in the community she grew up in, Haywood finds herself drawn back into high-school friendships, and stumbling over details that make the likelihood that her mother did, indeed, suicide, less clear.

Crutchley builds an interesting story in a deliberate, slowly paced manner in NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU. Haywood has gone on from a difficult childhood of neglect and disinterest from her mother to forge a teaching career - one that's had plenty of ups and downs. Meanwhile her mother Lillian is a popular, respected counsellor of kids back at home. It seems that Lillian may also have been increasingly suffering from dementia, but not so bad yet that she's failed to notice a worrying pattern in the disappearance of some marginalised young women from the town. Unfortunately the clues she has left behind clearly indicate her struggles with memory and reasoning and the chances of Haywood and her high-school friends understanding what Lillian was trying to remind herself are difficult enough, without a series of very complicated relationship problems along the way.

The sense of small town, small community, hidden secrets, and odd goings on in picturesque places plays out well in this novel - as it did in Crutchley's debut. Here again we have somebody struggling with inner demons - Lillian seems to have had more than her fair share, and visited a lot of them on her daughter as a result. Haywood is remarkably together given her childhood, not without her own flaws and problems, regrets and mistakes, as is just about everybody in this novel. There's a sense that small town growing up can be very safe in some ways, and fraught and risky in many others. The contrast between seemingly happy families next door, and the complicated goings on in the home of Lillian and Zoe is nicely done, as is the lives of high-school friends who stayed in town, and those that tried to cut ties.

Crutchley does a particularly good job with complicated female characters. Haywood may not be the alcoholic mess that her main character in the first novel was, but she's got more than enough problems, doubts, insecurities, positives and negatives to be going on with. She's instantly sympathetic and engaging, without being straight-forward and always easy. The same could be said of Lillian who obviously wasn't a good mother, obviously had her good and bad points, and seems to have been a friend to young girls when they needed one.

The plot here is complex and intricate, although many readers may increasingly feel some confidence in the who and even the how of the ultimate solution. The why is less straight-forward and in many ways the more important question. NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU has moments of great insight and clarity into the nature of small towns, small communities, and the people who can slip under the radar in those situations.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Ngaio Marsh AwardsShe kindly shares some of her reviews of crime and thriller novels from Australian and New Zealand authors on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction. where this review was first published.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Review: SIDNEY CHAMBERS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH

SIDNEY CHAMBERS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH by James Runcie (Bloomsbury, 2012)

Reviewed by Shane Donald

It is 1953, the coronation year of Queen Elizabeth II. Sidney Chambers, vicar of Grantchester and honorary canon of Ely Cathedral, is a thirty-two-year-old bachelor. Tall, with dark brown hair, eyes the color of hazelnuts, and a reassuringly gentle manner, Sidney is an unconventional clerical detective. He can go where the police cannot.

Together with his roguish friend, inspector Geordie Keating, Sidney inquires into the suspect suicide of a Cambridge solicitor, a scandalous jewelry theft at a New Year's Eve dinner party, the unexplained death of a jazz promoter's daughter, and a shocking art forgery that puts a close friend in danger. Sidney discovers that being a detective, like being a clergyman, means that you are never off duty, but he nonetheless manages to find time for a keen interest in cricket, warm beer, and hot jazz - as well as a curious fondness for a German widow three years his junior.

Ecclesiastical detectives have a long tradition in detective fiction. GK Chesterton’s Father Brown springs to mind as one of the best-known examples of blending spiritual concerns, such as the soul of the murderer, with the need to apprehend the killer and restore society to a sense of balance. Priests who dabble as detectives have a double-duty and this sometimes means the reader can feel bogged down in the story, rather than entertained.

However, several of these types of stories have been brought to the screen. Father Brown plays on the BBC and initially remained true to Chesterton’s plots. The rival ITV has The Grantchester Mysteries. The novels, written by James Runcie, son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, feature Sidney Chambers, a young canon and World War II veteran. This first novel, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, is set in the early 1950s. Established in his parish, Sidney enjoys jazz and does not like sherry, a beverage everyone assumes a clergyman drinks. He is slightly out of keeping with those around him and has a streak of independence. His best friend is Geordie Keating, a police detective. In the evenings they like a pint and a game of dominos. When a woman comes to him with a story about the death of her married lover, Sidney feels compelled to go against his instincts and investigate this death.

This first book in the series is a collection of six stories. Each sees Sidney Chambers in a different context, investigating murders and thefts, all the while pondering if playing detective is a fitting pursuit for a member of the clergy. Given access to his inner life, the reader gets a sense of Sidney as a person and his struggle to fulfill his duties. This doesn’t mean that Sidney comes off as earnest; his struggles seem real and well-realised, especially as he confronts his own limitations as a detective and canon.

I can see why these stories have been adapted for the screen – they take a well-known trope and offer the viewer a sense of familiarity. The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency comes to mind as these novels (and the TV series) are a bit like a comforting meal. However, everyone needs a bit of comfort now and then. I’d recommend this book for those who like stories with a hint of the Golden Age about them – crimes solved, the guilty punished and things returned to normal.

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Antarctic research and green room misogyny: an interview with LA Larkin

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the 35th instalment of 9mm for 2018, and the 207th overall edition of our long-running author interview series.

Thanks for reading over the years. I've had tonnes of fun chatting to some amazing  writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you.

You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. If you've got a favourite writer who hasn't yet been featured yet, let me know in the comments or by message, and I'll look to make that happen for you.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome 'British-Australian' thriller writer LA (Louisa) Larkin to Crime Watch. She is the author of several action-packed thrillers which take readers to fascinating locales. Her storytelling has been likened to Michael Crichton by The Guardian and Alistair MacLean by The Times. I grew up loving the tales of Alistair MacLean (my father recommended him to me as an adolescent), that wonderful combination of exciting, page-turning tales that took me as a reader into fascinating new-to-me worlds. Louisa is herself an adventurer at heart, and brings those sensibilities to her thriller writing. In the video below she talks about the inspiration for DEVOUR.


Born in England, Louisa studied literature at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College. Now living in Australia, she's worked in a variety of corporate careers, including for one of Australia's leading climate change consultancies. Her passion for the environment comes through in the thrillers, which are globally minded and weave in 'big issues' among the page-turning threats.

Louisa spent time in Antarctica as research for her two thrillers set there, THIRST and DEVOUR. The latter introduces journalist Oliva Wolfe, and was inspired by a real-life British Antarctic expedition that planned to drill 3km into the ice in search of ancient life that had never had any human contact. Louisa also writes humorous animal mysteries under the name Louisa Bennett.

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

9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH LA LARKIN

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I don’t have a favourite and I have a very wide taste in reading. I’ve loved James Rollins’ Sigma Force series, not just because I love adventure stories but because Commander Gray Pierce develops across the series. At the other end of the reading spectrum I have really enjoyed Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series set in and around London about a Met police officer who becomes the only apprenticed wizard in England and has to solve spiritual crime. I’m big on strong female central characters as crime fiction heroes, so of course I adore the trailblazing Jane Tennison, and more recently, Meg Gardiner’s Caitlin Hendrix character.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Famous Five and Secret Seven = adventure.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I’ve written little stories and poems since I was a child, but always kept them to myself. I once adapted Joseph Conrad’s lesser known novel, Arrow of Gold, into a play. My first manuscript was my first published novel, The Genesis Flaw.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Swimming, Pilates, Spin, Zumba, walking the dogs and traveling to remote locations like Antarctica or volunteering at a South African wildlife reserve. When I’m exhausted with all that, I read novels.

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?
I live in Sydney, Australia, which is an amazing place. But I think visitors should get out of Sydney and take a beach house in Jervis Bay, or enjoy the wine tasting in the Hunter Valley, or trek through the Blue Mountains.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I always did like a challenge!

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or particularly special, and why?
The new one I’m working on, which I can’t tell you about. I can tell you why. Because it’s the most challenging book I’ve ever written and it touches my heart every time I sit down to write it.

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?
First question: Squeal, followed by a glass of wine.
Second question: Squeal, followed by a glass of wine.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I was on a panel at a writers’ festival and in the green room, waiting for our panel discussion to start. I went to join my fellow panellists. One of them looked around and said he wondered when L.A. Larkin would turn up. I said I was already here. He looked shocked, then proceeded to tell me that if he’d known I was female he wouldn’t have read my action thriller. Apparently, women just can’t write this kind of thriller! I couldn’t believe it.


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

You can read more about LA Larkin and her books at her website, and follow her on Twitter. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Review: THE SUFFERING OF STRANGERS

THE SUFFERING OF STRANGERS by Caro Ramsay (Severn House, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When a six-week-old baby is stolen from outside a village shop, Detective Inspector Costello quickly surmises there's more to this case than meets the eye. As she questions those involved, she uncovers evidence that this was no impulsive act as the police initially assumed, but something cold, logical, meticulously planned. Who has taken Baby Sholto - and why?

Colin Anderson meanwhile is on the Cold Case Unit, reviewing the unsolved rape of a young mother back in 1996. Convinced this wasn't the first - or last - time the attacker struck, Anderson looks for a pattern. But when he does find a connection, it reaches back into his own past ...

Scottish author Ramsay doesn't go easy on her readers in her series starring her detective duo Costello and Anderson. She's unafraid to address and explore some really tough, gritty issues. In this ninth instalment, the pair have been split up and are operating in different units, and each is plunged into a tricky, testing case. It's an apt title.

DI Costello is still smarting from her sidelining, and is now focused on domestic abuse and looking for a missing six-week-old baby, snatched in her mother's car outside some village shops. Bizarrely, when the car is found another baby - one with Down's Syndrome - was left behind instead.

Anderson is on the cold case unit, reviewing the rape of a young mother back in the mid 1990s. When the victim dies, Anderson's superiors want him to convince Sally Logan, another victim of an historic unsolved rape to do a television appeal for people to speak out about violent and sexual crime.

Sally Logan was Anderson's old college girlfriend, putting him in a very tricky position.

As the cases unfold some unexpected connections begin to appear. With the help of a force-of-nature social worker, Costello realises something far deeper and more organised is going on than just one randomly snatched baby. Meanwhile Anderson has tried to reacquaint himself with Sally and her doctor husband, but at what cost? Will the college reunion be a help or a hindrance, or worse?

Ramsay writes in a straightforward manner with little frills, delivering via character and plot, and some mind-pricking themes. She takes readers into places most British police procedurals avoid. Lots happens, there's some nice action and a multi-layered storyline with memorable supporting characters and situation that really test our two protagonists. They, and readers, may be put through the emotional wringer. A good solid crime read unafraid to address some really tough issues.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: PHNOM PENH EXPRESS

PHNOM PENH EXPRESS by Johan Smits (Mekong Media, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A young Cambodian returns home. 
A diamond shipment goes missing.
A foreign assassin arrives in Phnom Penh.

And then there's the chocolate - lots of it. 

Phirun is determined to make it as Cambodia's first chocolate chef. But things don't go quite as plannned when he gets unwittingly caught up in a deadly turf war between rivalling diamond mafia and those who are after him. Falling in love with a mysterious Khmer-Australian doesn't help him. 

Throw in an overzealous post-9/11 American intelligence officer and a corrupt Belgian ex-Colonel, from Tel Aviv through Belgium and Bangkok right up to Phnom Penh - in this fast read of crime and intrigue, chocolates have never tasted so good!

I love travelling, and I love mystery writing, so whenever I'm abroad I like to dip into the local genre where I can, even collecting books from the places I've travelled. Ahead of three weeks in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam a few years ago I'd looked up some possibilities ahead of time, so I knew what to look for in the bookshops. Landing in Bangkok, I grabbed some John Burdett thrillers (his Sonchai Jitpleecheep series is excellent) and this then-new Cambodian-set crime novel. 

Written by a Belgian expat who'd spent years in Cambodia, PHNOM PENH EXPRESS is not your typical southeast Asian crime novel (not that they're all homogenous of course - far from it - but this one has some particularly unique flourishes). An international thriller with a chocolatier at its heart. 

Phirun has a dream. Half Cambodian and half Belgian, he wants to combine his heritages by making it as Cambodia's first chocolate chef. But his plans go awry when a shipment of chocolates containing diamonds is mistakenly delivered to his chocolate shop in Phnom Penh. That's just the first misstep in what becomes a dangerous and slightly madcap dive into the world of international diamond smuggling. Rival 'diamond mafia' in the middle of a turf war zero in. Rather than dealing with customers who he makes happy with his chocolate creations, Phirun is faced with a far nastier and less forgiving world full of diamond smugglers, arms traders, and professional assassins. 

As the same time, he gets romantically entangled with an intriguing Khmer-Australian. 

Danger and humor mix throughout PHNOM PENH EXPRESS. Smits, a Belgian who has spent years in Cambodia, gives his hero that same ‘insider-outsider’ perspective and takes readers on a journey through modern Phnom Penh in all its fragrant glory and grime. 

This is a solid read; a rather straightforward story and writing style that’s boosted by the vivid setting, unusual characters and events, and a vein of sardonic humour. When I read the book it suffered a little from comparison with Burdett's Bangkok thrillers (which provide a similarly vivid insight into a southeast Asian city while having stronger characters, deeper issues, and crackling prose), but PHNOM PENH EXPRESS still has something to offer too and is worth a look. 

Smits gives readers a sensory experience of Phnom Penh, from the pervasive aroma of fermented fish to the karaoke soundtrack beloved by citizens. The situation is a little surreal, and there's some lovely wry humour in what can at times seem a bit of a madcap story, careening around the globe. All centred on a local guy who just wants to make chocolates. A good beach read. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter.