Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: RED HERRING

RED HERRING by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

A man overboard, a murder and a lot of loose ends ... In Auckland 1951 the workers and the government are heading for bloody confrontation and the waterfront is the frontline. But this is a war with more than two sides and nothing is what it seems.

Into the secret world of rival union politics, dark political agendas and worldwide anti-communist hysteria steps Johnny Molloy, a private detective with secrets of his own. Caitlin O'Carolan, a feisty young reporter, is following her own leads. Together they begin to uncover a conspiracy that goes to the heart of the Establishment - and which will threaten their own lives in the process.

What a cracker!  A noir novel set in tea-drenched 1950s New Zealand. With the 1951 waterfront strike as the backdrop, Red Herring sets PI Johnny Molloy on the track of a murky character who has supposedly drowned in the Gulf of Alaska but who has turned up in a photo taken in New Zealand alongside the organisers of the strike.

Molloy is engaged by Furst, an investigator for a California insurance company, and his case is one of probable insurance fraud, but more nefarious stuff and interesting characters keep emerging – including a feisty Caitlin O’Carolan, a reporter with a dream of being a war correspondent for a UK paper. For this is a New Zealand where for many ‘home’ is still seen as somewhere else – the place we send frozen mutton to, or the place we may look to for political guidance. #

And even if the recent war has some thinking that it might not be true that any good idea must be one imported from overseas, we still see representatives of the U.S. persuading us of the ‘yellow peril’ and the eagerness of the heads of big business to compromise those here to protect their overseas markets. But being in the recent war also allows guys like Molloy – who have lived through the Great Depression as well as the war - to have a fair amount of cynicism, and a gun, which comes in handy when his hunt puts him in the firing line.

Red Herring is a dark and complex tale; people's allegiances and choices of allies often not being what you would expect, but making a ‘long game’ sense. And of course civil unrest is a handy rationale for those in support of ‘Public Safety’ legislation. This book reminds us how rich and interesting New Zealand history is; at once unique to us and also continuous with the political tides that shaped the rest of the world. The writing is solid and blokey: “A look passed between them of such intensity that two strong men could have carried a double bed across it” and everyone answers the phone by demanding “Are you there?”

And it is not without humour – Prime Minister Sid Holland spends a lot of his time in his underwear; Molloy’s landlady is ‘unable to get to grips with the physics’ to enquire too much into the relationship of sisters with little family resemblance who live together in her boarding house; and an historian might have called Fintan Patrick Walsh the closest New Zealand had to an American-style industrial gangster, but in the book Walsh is the one bemoaning the fact that people keep misinterpreting his desire for them to ‘get rid of’ people.  There is even early Auckland/Wellington rivalry: “But wouldn’t that mean living in Manchester?” said Molloy. “I’ve been there. It’s like Wellington.”

Who was doing what to whom and why was never entirely clear to me, but I think that was part of why I liked this book – the reader is like the ordinary citizen at the end of whatever deals and decisions are being made by those in charge, supposedly on their behalf, but without their knowledge or consent.  A great debut novel – and hopefully we haven’t seen the last of Johnny Malloy.

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. You can check out her blog here

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review: SANTORINI CAESARS

SANTORINI CAESARS by Jeffrey Siger (Poisoned Pen, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When a young demonstrator is publicly singled out and assassinated by highly trained killers in the heart of protest-charged Athens, Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis is convinced the killing was meant not to take out a target, but as a message. A message from whom? To whom? And why?

While British and Scandinavian authors tend to dominate the conversation about European crime writing, there are some very fine authors operating in other continental locales. Crime-loving bibliophiles can easily take a literary Contiki tour, sampling tasty tales from France to Russia and all sorts of spots in between. 

Greece is packed with tourist hotspots. Thanks to Wall Street lawyer turned crime scribe Jeffrey Siger, it's also home to a superb modern-day mystery series. SANTORINI CAESARS is the eighth adventure starring Chief Inspector Kaldis and his likable team of Greek cops, who delve into the darkest corners of a troubled nation that is rich in history. 

Athens is a capital city beset by protests. Many Greeks are upset about the current state of their country, and their lives. When a young demonstrator is chased through the streets and coldly gunned down, public anger quickly turns against the police. The new government (which has roots in past protest movements) is keen to avoid the unpopularity of its predecessors, and Kaldis fears the police may be hung out to dry for political reasons. But who is really responsible, and why?

When the victim turns out to be the daughter of a Greek general, and the trail leads to a secretive meeting of military minds away from the tourist crowds on the island of Santorini, Kaldis and his team wonder just what is going on. Why is someone stoking discontent among the military? In a country with a tumultuous political history, how hard would it be to spark a military coup?

Siger weaves a fast-paced tale packed with intrigue - in plot, characters, and underlying issues. I particularly enjoy how the author highlights many members of Chief Inspector Kaldis's team, and the relationships between the 'extended family' of the cops and their friends and loved ones. Kaldis may be the leader, but the supporting characters all have nuance and layers too. There's a real humanity to the characters, and some great banter too - a realistic sense of team dynamics, adding zest to a very good crime tale. SANTORINI CAESARS brings modern-day Greece, and its varied challenges, to life. This is in an exciting, engaging crime thriller textured by real-life issues, such as the spiderwebs entangling big business, politics, and citizens. A fine crime novel from a fine writer. 


Craig Sisterson writes features for leading publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed crime writing at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, and on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Poe Toasters and celebrity chefs: an interview with Laura Lippman

Welcome to the latest issue of 9mm, the long-running author interview series here on Crime Watch. At the end of May we hit the 150 interviews mark, and I took a moment to reflect on all the authors who have been interviewed thusfar (full list here), and where I could take 9mm in future.

Thanks to a number of great crime authors giving their time during the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, and on other recent occasions, I have several terrific new interviews 'in the can', which I'll be publishing over the coming weeks. Lots to look forward to!

If you have a favorite crime writer you'd love to see interviewed as part of the 9mm series, please do let me know, and I'll look to make it happen.

Today, I'm very pleased to welcome a true superstar of the crime world to 9mm, the wonderful Laura Lippman. You may have recently seen plenty of acclaim about the place in relation to her latest novel, WILDE LAKE, which is a tour de force of a crime tale. Read Ali Karim's review here. I wouldn't surprised if that very fine book adds to Lippman's impressive mantelpiece of literary awards, which already includes the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Nero, Gumshoe, Quill, and Shamus Awards.

The former Baltimore Sun reporter debuted as a crime writer with BALTIMORE BLUES in 1997, which introduced private eye Tess Monaghan. Lippman has been a finalist for the Dagger Awards on this side of the pond, and has now written a dozen novels in her Tess Monaghan series (the latest being last year's HUSH, HUSH), as well as short stories, and nine standalone novels.

I met Lippman briefly, in passing, at my first Theakston festival in 2012, so I was very pleased to be able to sit down and interview her at this year's festival. She's an interesting and engaging person, as well as an excellent crime writer. In one of life's random moments, I'd actually been reading WILDE LAKE on the train from London - and it turned out Lippman was sitting a few seats behind me in the train carriage. I'd been so engrossed in the story (I read the whole thing on the train journey from South London to Harrogate), that I hadn't noticed the author was only a few metres away. As we got off to transfer at Leeds, I was clutching her book and looked up to see Lippman right in front of me. It was quite the memorable writing festival moment, before the festival even started.

I'd highly recommend getting your hands on WILDE LAKE, as well as reading Lippman's impressive backlist. But for now Laura Lippman becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH LAURA LIPPMAN

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Sam Jones appeared in a series of books by Lauren Henderson during the 1990s and early 2000s. She was a punk Miss Marple. It was an amateur sleuth series about a sculptor in London with a very meta sensibility about Golden Age mysteries. And very fun and funny.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I think it has to be a book called BETSY-TACY by Maud Hart Lovelace, which started a series of books about a girl called Betsy Rae growing up in the American Midwest at the turn of the 20th century. It starts from when she's five and goes up 'til she's married. It's about a little girl who wants to be a writer, and no one in her family ever doubts her. Even though they were set 60 years before I born, she was a role model to me. I wanted to be that little girl. The books are still in print, and they're really beloved by a small amount of women. There's a Betsy-Tacy Society who's catch-cry is "I thought I was the only one". The stories have a really modern sensibility. I would love - I openly yearn - to be a keynote speaker at a society gathering.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I was a journalist. I had studied fiction writing in college and took it pretty seriously. I got As in creative writing but not journalism - I should have paid attention to the writing on the wall! In my 20s I wrote the obligatory serious autobiographical novel, but not much had happened to me. It was like the same 60 pages over and over. Then I realised that in crime novels something has to happen. The unfinished crime novel has no reason to be - it's either bad and no one wants to read it or it's 'what happens next?'. So I switched to 'what if?' scenarios.

In the early 1990s there was a recession in the United States, and I was low on the totem pole at the Baltimore Sun, so I feared for my job. I wrote the first Tess Monaghan novel based on what might happen if I lost my job. A colleague had talked about being a private eye for an insurance company if he ever lost his job. It gave me the idea of what career opportunities would be open to me.

So I learned how to write a crime novel, which meant I had to learn how to plot, how to have things happen, which solved all the problems of these autobiographical literary novels. I started with the character of Tess, and a situation.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love to eat. I love to exercise. I love to travel. I love to read. I love to watch reality TV, the Real Housewives channels. One time on one of my husband's shows [ed note: Lippman is married to David Simon, writer/producer on Homicide: Life on the Street, and creator of The Wire and Treme], they had a lot of real-life chefs guest starring, so I went to the set - I usually didn't - to meet Tom Colicchio (Top Chef) and the other top chefs.

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?
The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) devoted to "outsider art", has a wing showcasing a Baltimore art form, 'painted screens'. In working class Baltimore where people lived in narrow row houses, the custom emerged of people painting bucolic scenes on window screens and doors. It became recognised as a legitimate form of folk art.

I'm the very proud owner of a painted screen that has Edgar Allan Poe's grave and roses on it. Dee Herget painted one especially for me when she heard my story of losing my screen after my first marriage break-up. The Poe Toaster was a Baltimore tradition - he used to go to Poe's original gravesite on his birthday and leave three red roses and a bottle of cognac. I witnessed it one year (had to get permission as on private property). It was one of the coolest things, but now he's stopped, after doing it for almost 80 years.

My husband David will also take people on Homicide tours of Baltimore.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Susan Dey, who played Laurie in The Partridge Family. When I was young and she was young, there was an uncanny resemblance, flattering myself. Or the person I'm a dead ringer for is the female reporter Sweet Polly Purebred in the cartoon Underdog.

7. Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
Right now it's probably WILDE LAKE. I have a complicated relationship with it. My Dad died while I was in the middle of writing it. He hadn't been my Dad for a while. He wasn't as sharp in the last three to five years of his life. He was still lucid, but quieter. He'd been really funny and quick. When he lost that quickness, he deflated and went into himself. His death was liberating in a way because I didn't have to worry about how much he'd project into the father-daughter relationship. It's a book that I'm proud of, but it's impossible to imagine what the book would have been if my father had still been alive. It's like that Updike quote, "The great thing about the dead, is they make space".

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?
It was a beautiful October day in 1995 and I came to work and my agent said there was an offer... there wasn't a bidding war but there were a few offers, so by the end of the day I'd have a book contract. My friend and colleague Rob Hiaasen - Carl's younger brother - and I went across the road for coffee. I saw David Simon there, one of my colleagues who'd published a book, and he bought me a cup of coffee to celebrate as he knew the thrill of getting published. We were both married to other people at the time - five years later we weren't and he asked me out. It's funny how it circled back.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
It's a little bit bragging, but it made me happy. In 2007 I was in Colorado, and I'd just landed my first book on the New York Times bestseller list. A woman came up to me in Denver airport and said 'Are you Laura Lippman? She was from Baltimore, where I'm a little bit of a public figure, compared to everywhere else. She asked if her daughter could meet me. 'This is Tess'. She'd named her daughter after my character, which was such a cool feeling. I knew I could have a career at this.


Thank you Laura. We appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 


You can read more about Laura Lippman and her books at her website, or follow her on Twitter

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: THE ALO RELEASE

THE ALO RELEASE by Geoffrey Robert (2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Nine days before the global release of a genetically modified seed coating set to make starvation history, the IT advisor for an environmental group receives a cryptic email from an old friend working for the seed corporation. The email triggers a frantic manhunt from the glass towers of Los Angeles to the towering rainforests of New Zealand as the corporation’s security chief tries to track down and silence the English IT advisor and his colleagues ...

This debut eco-thriller from a Kiwi journalist based in Southeast Asia is an engaging, helter-skelter tale that raises some thought-provoking concerns about how media coverage of 'big issues' can be massaged by businesses, governments, and interest groups.

Robert does a good job setting an early hook, with a whistleblower reaching out to an old acquaintance, with deadly consequences. The stakes are very high, with a big-money launch of a new 'wonder' seed on the near horizon. A lot of powerful people have an interest in the seed release going well, for a variety of reasons, so the idea that secret information has escaped the company's clutches sets alarm bells ringing. Discreetly, behind closed doors. The end is seen as so important that the company's trouble-shooter has no compunction using any means necessary, and easily getting the buy-in of various authorities as he hunts his prey.

There's an awful lot to like about this eco-thriller. In particular, Roberts creates a real narrative momentum, a propulsive drive to the story, and does a very good job with characterisation and setting. The players, across the spectrum from heroes to villains, have some nice depth and we understand why they see things the way they do. In such a high stakes, big threat thrillers, it's easy for characters to become moving pieces, even caricatures, there to just serve the high concept plotline. But Roberts gives readers a little more, with some nuance and a few shades of grey.

Understandably, being a debut, there are some areas that Roberts could look to improve in his future novels. The dialogue veers into info-dump and on-the-nose territory at times, with characters laying things out a little too obviously, or in ways that seem more designed to convey things to the readers rather than being natural or subtextual. The storyline has a lot of exciting incidents, and plenty happens to keep reader interest, but at times it seems a little linear; one then another then another.

Robert does a nice job with the New Zealand setting, taking readers into some smaller towns and rural/wilderness areas, not just cities. That strong sense of the environment plays well in what is a thriller centred on humanity's at-times complicated relationship with the environment. Robert creates some adrenalin-packed moments, but also pricks readers minds, raising questions about the ways in which groups, powerful and impassioned, interact with authorities, the public, and the media.

Overall, I found THE ALO RELEASE to be a good read that shows Robert has plenty of promise as a thriller writer. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Craig Sisterson writes features for leading publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed crime writing at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, and on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Sunday, September 4, 2016

New Kiwi Noir: A MOMENT'S SILENCE

A retired quantity surveyor from Palmerston North, a small city in the central North Island of New Zealand, has become one of the latest additions to the growing Kiwi Noir canon, publishing his first thriller, A MOMENT'S SILENCE, recently.

Christopher Abbey has been working on the novel on and off for a few years, having to shelve it for a while due to work commitments. More recently he's gone through a manuscript assessment and revision process via the New Zealand Society of Authors, leading to the publication of his taut debut thriller.

Here's the blurb:

Set against a backdrop of actual events in 1995, Martyn Percival, a middle-aged New Zealander, seeks adventure on his first OE to the United Kingdom. A chance sighting, providing a possible link between an explosion and the whereabouts of a renegade IRA operative, has him reporting his suspicions to an attractive police sergeant in the Cotswolds. Scotland Yard becomes involved when the bomber is identified as a serial killer who has embarked on a mission seeking revenge on the tourist who shopped him . Martyn's burgeoning feelings for the sergeant have him agreeing to participate in a planned trap for his nemesis. When this backfires, Martyn returns to New Zealand. Followed by his stalker.Faced with fear for his own survival, Martyn has no alternative but to turn the tables and stalk the stalker. Thus setting up a face-to-face finale in New Zealand's North Island wintry landscape.

I'm looking forward to reading this one. It's published by Mary Egan Publishing, who published two of our eight Ngaio finalists this year. I understand that Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel winner Ray Berard also went through a similar manuscript assessment an rewriting process via the NZSA, so that's a good pedigree.

In a recent newspaper book review, A MOMENT'S SILENCE was praised as:
"uncompromising in its description of human weaknesses yet is equally sensitive to the need for love, courage and dependability as it focuses on the characters and the landscape... This crime novel is gritty, well-crafted, and stresses that no matter what happens, however minor, it has an influence on the rest of our lives. 

You can read the full review here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Bloody Scotland reveals the four finalists of The McIlvanney Prize


Two years ago I travelled up to Stirling, only a couple of days after arriving in the United Kingdom to start a new chapter. It was a spontaneous trip to Scotland for the Bloody Scotland festival. I discovered a lovely, historic town, and a fantastic crime writing festival.

It was a wonderful trip - I caught up with several authors I'd met and interviewed in the past, either when they'd visited New Zealand or when I'd gone to my first-ever Harrogate while over in the UK for a mate's wedding a couple of years before. It was great to see the likes of Denise Mina, Mark Billingham, Ian Rankin, and Stuart MacBride and others. Fantastic writers and fun people.

I also met a plethora of new-to-me authors, many of whom I've since had the pleasure of catching up with multiple times while living in the UK for a couple of years. As well as reading their books. It was at that first-to-me Bloody Scotland where I met the likes of Luca Veste, Kati Hiekkapelto, Ragnar Jonasson, Howard Linskey, Douglas Skelton, Parker Bilal, Neil Broadfoot, Alex Sokoloff, Ed James, Caro Ramsay, and Eva Dolan (among many others), along with organisers Lin Anderson, Craig Robertson, Alex Gray, and Gordon Brown (not the Prime Minister), and publisher extraordinaire Karen Sullivan.

Festivals are about storytelling and the celebration of the power of words, but they're also (mainly) about the people. The authors and readers, gathered together. In a weekend jam-packed with good times, one of my highlights of that 2014 edition was getting to meet and have a drink with William McIlvanney, the doyen of Tartan Noir. His son Liam had just won the 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel at the WORD Christchurch Festival a couple of weeks before, so we had a nice chat about that, among other things. Sadly, Willie didn't make it to Bloody Scotland last year due to illness, and later passed away. As we say in New Zealand, 'a mighty totara has fallen'.

I was very pleased to see that they have now renamed the Scottish Crime Writing Award the McIlvanney Prize, a fitting tribute to a man who led the way for his crime writing compatriots.

And today, a panel of judges chaired by Magnus Linklater, have revealed the four finalists for The McIlvanney Prize from a ten strong longlist featuring some of the best names in Scottish crime fiction.

The finalists include two leading crime writers – Val McDermid and Chris Brookmyre – who the judges praised for keeping their established series fresh, with contemporary themes which are immediately relevant to society today. In addition, Doug Johnstone, with a stand-alone psychological thriller and E S Thomson with an atmospheric historical crime novel, the first in a planned series, have made the cut.

The winner of the Scottish Crime Book of the Year will be awarded The McIlvanney Prize in memory of William McIlvanney at the opening ceremony of Bloody Scotland. His brother, Hugh McIlvanney OBE, will travel to Stirling to present the award on Friday 9th September. The winner will receive £1000 and all four finalists will be presented with a full set of William McIlvanney novels.

The judges who included award-winning librarian Stewart Bain and journalist Lee Randall commented that the list demonstrates the huge variety and vigour of crime writing from Scotland and explained why each book made the final four:

BLACK WIDOW by Chris Brookmyre  - this novel is like watching Olympic diving – just when you think the plot can’t twist again, it takes a new turn. Even the twists have twists. With a theme of cyber-abuse, this shows an author taking a long running series to new heights.

THE JUMP by Doug Johnstone – a taut psychological thriller with a powerful and absorbing narrative which makes this work a compelling read. The reader is drawn into a family drama, suicide, murder -- and a plot whose outcome remains nail-bitingly unresolved until the final pages.

SPLINTER THE SILENCE by Val McDermid - set in a totally believable world of internet trolling, this novel features established characters but moves their relationship into a new place, suffused with longing. Easily accessible, even to those readers who have not been introduced to earlier books in the series.

BELOVED POISON by ES Thomson - an ambitious and original novel, full of vivid historical detail about Victorian medicine, and a richly gothic atmosphere, with a large cast of wonderfully named characters, including the strong lead character.

All four authors will be at the presentation. They will also be appearing in various events at Bloody Scotland during the weekend. For further information please contact fiona@brownleedonald.com.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: A DEADLY THAW

A DEADLY THAW by Sarah Ward (Faber & Faber, September 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Lena Grey is found guilty of murdering her husband, who was smothered in their bed. She offers no defense, and serves fourteen long years in prison. But within months of her release, his body is found in a disused morgue. Who was the man she killed before, and why did she lie about his identity?

'The difficult second novel', the 'sophomore slump' - as tough as it can be to break through in publishing (or screenwriting, acting, the sports world, etc), turning a promising start into sustained success can be even more difficult. Derbyshire writer Sarah Ward deftly avoids such concerns in A DEADLY THAW, which continues the high standards of her impressive 2015 debut IN BITTER CHILL.

One of the things I most enjoy about Ward's writing is the way she weaves history and present together, threading in some important social issues (particularly issues facing women), without it being jarring. She has a subtlety and elegance to her storytelling which in a way almost obscures the thematic layers going on beneath the main crime plotline, so they cleverly sneak up on you rather than being shouted from a bully pulpit. Ward blends traditional British mystery writing with Nordic sensibilities, creating something that feels both fresh and timeless.

The early hook in A DEADLY THAW is a good one: a local woman, Lena Fisher, confessed to murdering her husband in their bed, served a long prison sentence, has been released, but now Lena's husband turns up recently murdered. Ward immediately has the reader's mind stirring: who was the man killed all those years ago? Why'd Lena identify the body as her husband's, and confess to killing her husband? Where has her not-then-murdered but now-murdered husband been for the decade-plus in between? And who killed him now, and why? Did Lena settle old scores? What is going on?

Similarly to her debut, Ward delivers a tale told from the perspective of both an interesting group of Derbyshire police, and a civilian character caught up in the investigation. So we welcome back DI Frank Sadler and DC Connie Childs, along with their colleagues, and this time around the non-cop protagonist is counselor Kat Fisher's, Lena's sister.

For a long time, Kat has had to live with the fact that she's the sister of a convicted murderer. Now, just as the sisters are trying to move on their lives and heal from the past, it all comes crashing into the present. When Lena vanishes after her husband's body is discovered, things become even worse. Then a teenage boy starts delivering bizarre packages to Kat, including an ancient gun from the First World War. Kat and the cops are both left scratching their heads and scrambling for answers.

Ward adroitly builds intrigue in A DEADLY THAW, switching between the past and present, and Kat's perspective and that of the cops. She has a particularly good touch for authentic characters; flawed and very human, full of foibles and inconsistencies. The interplay between the detectives feels very believable, and Ward does well to ensure none of them comes across as too heroic or favoured by the author. They each stumble, they're each full of good intentions and poor choices, and none come across as moving pieces existing solely as foils or to underline a pet authorial point.

Sarah Ward is a fresh talent who tells a good story, and has something to say. Recommended.


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This review is part of the blog tour celebrating the release of Sarah Ward's second crime novel set in her home county of Derbyshire.

Over the next fortnight you'll be able to read a variety of crime blogger's takes on Sarah's sophomore effort, as well as interviews or other pieces.

Click on the image to the left to see the blogs that will be hosting Sarah and her book over the coming days.

You can read my 9mm interview with Sarah Ward here.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: CALENDAR GIRL

CALENDAR GIRL by Stella Duffy (Serpent's Tail, 1991)

Reviewed by Alice Stringer

Stand-up comic Maggie has fallen for "the girl with the Kelly McGillis body", a mysterious woman who can't commit herself. Meanwhile, South London detective Saz is hot on the trail of a woman known only as "September", who commutes between London and New York in a whirlwind of drug smuggling, gambling, and high-class prostitution. A murder brings Saz and Maggie and their respective mysteries together.

Perhaps it’s because I am a queer woman that I love novels about lesbians so much. Patricia Highsmith’s CAROL (originally published as THE PRICE OF SALT) made me sob, and is high on my list of favourite books. I travelled from London to Manchester and back in a day so that I could see a theatre adaptation of Sarah Waters’ NIGHT WATCH. I recently put forward Jenny Downham’s UNBECOMING as a suggested read for my Young Adult book group (then missed the meeting). I tore through Lucy Ribchester’s THE HOURGLASS FACTORY.

A key common factor in these is that, aside from CAROL, they are about more than their main characters’ sexualities, though this element is always prominent and important. The exception here is CAROL, which is important because it is a romance between two women, with a happy ending, and clearly and openly treats homophobia as the social ill that it is, published at a time when that simply did not happen. The rest of these books are about things that books without lesbians in them are about: disease, journalists, circuses, paramedics, mysteries. I love a good romance, but there are other genres: lesbians can be spies, astronauts, pirates, sports stars, rock stars, journalists, dancers, artists, bankers, parents, gardeners, pilots, adventurers... and detectives.

CALENDAR GIRL is without a doubt a novel about lesbians: detective Saz Martin, the two women at the centre of the murder are lesbians, their friends are mostly – though not exclusively – lesbians, and there are connections throughout that reflect just how small the community can be. It’s also worth noting that CALENDAR GIRL was published over twenty years ago: it would be brave and, sadly, rare, to publish it now, so to have done so then was even more so. It’s interesting to consider how some of the details, such as women being unable to get married, have changed, but other hints of homophobia are still seen and experienced all the time. Though I do concede that my early-1990s references are slightly out, and I had to google Kelly McGillis...

CALENDAR GIRL is Stella Duffy’s first novel, and the fourth of her books that I’ve read. I recommend her often, to all sorts of people (one of the perks of working in a library!). Her books unnerve me, intrigue me, draw me in and won’t let go, long after I read the last page. While I don’t enjoy horror, I love a good creepy murder story, and hers never disappoint: her 2013 collection of short stories, EVERYTHING IS MOVING, EVERYTHING IS JOINED is wonderfully unsettling, and there are parts of THE ROOM OF LOST THINGS that made me cringe. CALENDAR GIRL, too, delivers exceptionally well on that front, with a particular detail that still makes me shudder months later. The characters are slippery, difficult to define or pin down – it’s always uncomfortable to wonder when the bad guy is going to turn up next.

The story is clever, it twists and turns so it’s not obvious where it’s going – always such a disappointment to be able to guess too easily – but nor is it so obscure that it doesn’t make sense. There is plenty of mystery to make it difficult to put down, enough suspense to be occasionally quite stressful, enough action to keep any James Bond fan happy and, crucially, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is good fun but far from ridiculous, funny without being A Funny Book, smart without being hard work. I enjoyed it so much that it was a real struggle to save WAVEWALKER, the sequel, for my holiday, though I can now confirm that it, too, is fantastic.

Alice has been blogging since early 2015 at Alice's Adventures in Bookland, mostly about books but also about theatre, travel, and sexuality. She has worked in a school library for three and a half years, and is always happy to recommend you a book.