Sunday, March 17, 2019


NEW IBERIA BLUES by James Lee Burke (Orion, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Detective Dave Robicheaux’s world isn’t filled with too many happy stories, but Desmond Cormier’s rags-to-riches tale is certainly one of them. Robicheaux first met Cormier on the streets of New Orleans, when the young, undersized boy had foolish dreams of becoming a Hollywood director.

Twenty-five years later, when Robicheaux knocks on Cormier’s door, it isn’t to congratulate him on his Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. Robicheaux has discovered the body of a young woman who’s been crucified, wearing only a small chain on her ankle. She disappeared near Cormier’s Cyrpemort Point estate, and Robicheaux, along with young deputy, Sean McClain, are looking for answers. Neither Cormier nor his enigmatic actor friend Antoine Butterworth are saying much, but Robicheaux knows better.

As always, Clete Purcel and Dave’s daughter, Alafair, have Robicheaux’s back. Clete witnesses the escape of Texas inmate, Hugo Tillinger, who may hold the key to Robicheaux’s case. As they wade further into the investigation, they end up in the crosshairs of the mob, the deranged Chester Wimple, and the dark ghosts Robicheaux has been running from for years. Ultimately, it’s up to Robicheaux to stop them all, but he’ll have to summon a light he’s never seen or felt to save himself, and those he loves.

Mortality hovers over Dave Robicheaux’s life, scythe at the ready, invading his thoughts as much as his investigations as the thrice-widowed Cajun detective nears the end of his eighth decade on this earth. And while the language and settings may be lush and lyrical, death doesn’t come easy in the sumptuous stories of James Lee Burke. Brutality jars against beauty, and even our heroes often stride down the fierier end of the saints and sinners’ spectrum.

THE NEW IBERIA BLUES shows that Burke, now 82, hasn’t suffered any wilting of his talents even with almost forty books under his belt. His twenty-second novel featuring Robicheaux sees the Louisiana investigator once again crossing swords with some vile humans while calling into question his own choices and actions. A preacher’s daughter is found floating in the bayou, pumped full of drugs and crucified. A death row inmate looking for someone to tell his story has escaped. A former white supremacist, now an informant for Robicheaux’s long-time pal Clete Purcel (a rhino in a china shop sort of private eye), is tortured and dragged to his death. Meanwhile a Hollywood director who rose to fame from the streets of New Orleans has returned home and seems besotted with Robicheaux’s new, young partner.

Robicheaux has to juggle his own flaws, including jealousy, hypocrisy, and a lively temper, while sifting through the detritus to find some sort of justice. Burke somehow manages to perfectly mesh freshness and familiarity, to deliver timeless tales but not be stuck in time.

There’s a zest to THE NEW IBERIA BLUES even as it delivers a familiar Burke recipe of ornate prose, swirling and murky plotlines, deep characterisation, and plenty of symbolism. A well-seasoned and rich gumbo of a crime novel from a true master of the genre.

Note: this is an expanded version of a review first published in the New Zealand Listener on 19 January 2019. 

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. 

Friday, March 15, 2019


SWEET MONEY by Ernesto Mallo, translated by Katherine Silver (Bitter Lemon, 2011)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Superintendent Lascano is drawn into a war between the Buenos Aires chief of police and the Apostles, drug-dealing cops who want to control the city. When the chief of police is murdered, Lascano becomes the Apostles’ next target. His only way out of the country is to retrieve the loot from a bungled bank robbery.

Ernesto Mallo paints a scathing portrait of Argentina, where the Junta’s generals are paraded in court in civilian clothes and treated like mere petty thieves. Corruption and violence continue to rule, but at the center of the novel lies a touching portrayal of two broken men, a cop and a robber, whose humanity is sorely tested by the troubles racking their beloved country.

First published more than a decade ago and set in the 1980s among the messy aftermath of the military junta that terrorised Argentina for years following a right-wing overthrow of the Argentinean government in 1976, Ernesto Mallo's SWEET MONEY is a slim but powerful crime novel.

Buenos Aires is a city rife with corruption. Many of those in positions of power are more violent and criminal than the criminals they're theoretically tasked with stopping. Inside this maelstrom, Superintendent Lascano tries to maintain a semblance of honour and ethics even as those very things may get you killed by those who fear and cannot trust anyone who isn't on the take alongside them.

SWEET MONEY is a vivid and blistering expose of life in Argentina in the early-mid 1980s. Even as the military junta came to an end and some sort of democracy was restored, the after-effects of years where suspicion and fear were the order of the day and 30,000 people were 'disappeared' means that daily life is still turbulent and dangerous. The hyenas are scrapping for survival in a changing world.

Perro Lascano is recovering from being gunned down by a death squad, but returning to his old job may be even more dangerous after the new Chief of Police, a tainted man who despite his flaws valued and protected Lascano, is murdered. Dirty cops are circling like vultures. Lascano wants to uphold justice and be a good cop, but his world may not let him. Meanwhile another man with a broken life, 'Mole' Miranda, is released from prison. A non-violent robber who has his own sense of honour, Mole is forced to return to his former life despite wanting to go straight. When the ' one last job' goes horribly wrong, Mole finds Lascano on his tail. Two rather decent men in a corrupt society.

Mallo delivers a compelling, gritty, atmospheric tale in his own distinct style. For example, dialogue is run-together in italics, which takes a wee adjustment by readers, but the story is so good that I didn't find it too distracting and quickly got into the flow. There's plenty of 'bigger' ideas and issues touched upon as the crime story unfolds, giving SWEET MONEY a strong sense of layer and depth. Lascano is a philosophical character, and the author muses on various topics throughout, but this never takes away from the rich story. The second in a planned trilogy, SWEET MONEY is a terrific book and we can only hope that at some point English-speaking readers can look forward to a third.

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, March 14, 2019


UNDERWATER by Helen Vivienne Fletcher (2018)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Bailey has a lot of secrets, and a lot of scars, both of which she’d like to keep hidden. Unfortunately, Pine Hills Resort isn’t the kind of place where anyone can keep anything hidden for long.
When Bailey arrives, she just wants to get through summer quietly, spending as much time in the water as she can. Then she meets Adam.

Bailey’s not looking to make friends, but Adam isn’t easy to ignore. Neither is his ex-girlfriend, Clare. As Bailey grows closer to Adam, she draws Clare’s animosity. Will Bailey be able to keep her past a secret, or will Clare discover and reveal the sinister truth about how Bailey really got her scars? 

Bailey and her young sister, Tilly, have been taken by their Gran to multi-generational Pine Hills Resort to try and get over a traumatic experience.  They could stay in a cabin together, but Bailey opts for splitting up by demographic, and she enters the world of teenagers on their annual break – bitchiness, crushes, pranks and jealousies.  But Bailey also has her young sister to worry about, and the lasting effects of that terrible night …

Bailey used to be a competitive swimmer; she would literally submerge herself in her passion: “I never remember anything except the water.”  Her father used to criticise her for it – saying she used the water as a way of cutting herself off from her family.  But after the awful night when her parents were murdered, everything changed.  Realising that being amongst people she didn’t know meant she could lie, the lie she tells is that she can’t swim – not because she doesn’t want to; she doesn’t want people to see her scars.  She knows that people always want the gory details, but after that “they didn’t know what to say, and things got weird.”

Bailey makes friends: Adam who is there with his little brother Jack, and who has a lot in common with Bailey; Freya her cabin-mate; Amber and Jenny who have the cabin next door; and Clare, the most complicated, destructive and wounded of her new acquaintances.  All these people come to the resort every year, and it leaves Bailey playing catch-up, and vulnerable to mis-information.

Underwater is a ‘teenagers dealing with issues’ novel, Bailey sorting out what sort of relationship she wants with Adam, and shyness, sexual orientation, self-harm and gender difference all get an airing: “I guess they don’t realise the things that impress girls aren’t the same as the silly things other boys are impressed by.”  But beneath all of this is the slow burning dread of finding out what happened that night in Wellington, the consequences of extreme violence, the inability to talk about traumatic experiences – not even to counsellors, the guilt, the regret, and the nightmares.  And the realisation that your focus might be wrong, that a vital clue to what happened that night might be right there in front of you.

As well as being party to Bailey’s thoughts, there are clues to her state of mind: Seeing red board shorts at the pool as blood in the water, telling Tilly unbowdlerised versions of fairy tales, considering self-harm as a distraction … “… memories are like being underwater. You can see the real world, but it’s so remote you don’t feel connected to it” – like remembering how her mother used to wake her up in the night each year at her birth time – and turning seventeen and recognising for the first time “I had missed the moment I was born.”  Taking on the mother role for Tilly adds another veneer of sadness for Bailey.

I found myself wondering a bit about the existence of Gran and Tilly when they were apart from Bailey, Tilly and Jack spending a lot of time on the jungle gym, and I was hoping Gran wasn’t alone swigging G&Ts in her cabin.  But apart from that, Underwater is an absorbing read, there is a truly upsetting climactic scene, and the horror of what Bailey and little Tilly have lived though is skilfully revealed.  Another YA novel that will appeal to a wider group of readers.

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

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


CRYSTAL REIGN by Kelly Lyndon (Remnant Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Former Navy Lieutenant Commander and MMA instructor David Johnson has it all: an amazing wife, three beautiful kids and a great job. He’s the man who can handle anything, and anyone – until his wife Chrissie is introduced to methamphetamine at a friend’s New Year's Eve party. Slowly but surely, everything David has worked for and believed in is dramatically eroded as Chrissie’s ad­diction takes hold.

Then Chrissie disappears without a trace. In his effort to find her, David gets drawn into the dark world of meth. As the months pass, he becomes more and more afraid that she has been killed, and that the police will suspect him for her murder. The story of one man's fight to save his family from the drug that is engulfing and destroying New Zealand society

Chrissie has got everything: a devoted husband, three lovely children, her health and a self-owned business. She coaches her daughter’s netball team, is a martial arts practitioner, and has lots of friends. Hardly the person you would pick as a meth addict, but a moment of insecurity and weakness leads to a downward spiral that ends up ruining her life and the lives of all those around her.

Chrissie and Dave met in the Navy, and they live in Auckland, where Dave works for another ex-Navy mate, Marty, in his construction business. Dave is also a martial arts expert and teacher, and he coaches his son’s soccer team. They are at a party when Chrissie takes the fatal first step towards addiction, and CRYSTAL REIGN documents the horror of methamphetamine addiction with no pulled punches.

Chrissie’s deterioration is gradual at first, with her assuring Dave she is in control and her use will stop. But then she is more the drug than she is herself and her behaviour traumatises the children and makes Dave feel helpless for the first time in his life – well the first time since suffering from his father’s alcoholism when he was a child. Dave had vowed he would never put his own children through that, but his first reaction to Chrissie’s behaviour it to turn to his father’s best friend, Jack … Daniels.

The opening of CRYSTAL REIGN is so horrific that it is possible non-New Zealanders will see it as over the top – but New Zealanders will recognise it as a version of true events. The story is told backwards and forwards in time (chronology markers provided by key sporting events and classic rock concerts), the point of view does get a bit wandering in parts, but the plotting it solid and you really are in suspense as to what is going to happen to the central family that is losing everything. They have few friends who stay loyal to them, but those that do are remarkable.

Dave and his eldest daughter Megan are great characters, and through the events they end up supporting each other and the two younger children as mates rather than as father and daughter. Dave is flawed – his ‘locker room’ banter with Marty quite awful – and there is always the worry of how he will use his lethal martial arts skills in dealing with some of the ghastly people that Chrissie has become entwined with. We lose track of Chrissie for large parts of the novel, and the story is focussed on the devastating effects her addiction has on her family, friends and work-mates. The effects on the two younger children are particularly chilling.

There is lots of information about meth addiction in the book, and you find out about the legal processes, the rehabilitation options, and community support groups. But none of this is dry or cumbersome, there is a bit of clunky early history added near the beginning, but that is helpful in filling out Dave’s character. Oddly enough there are some funny bits as well! CRYSTAL REIGN is not a pleasant read, but it is a compelling one and one that gets beyond the stereotypes of meth addiction in New Zealand, highlighting the frightening scope of the problem.

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

Wednesday, March 6, 2019


GONE BY MIDNIGHT by Candice Fox (Century, 2019)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

On the fifth floor of the White Caps Hotel, four young boys are left alone while their parents dine downstairs. But when one of the parents checks on the children at midnight, they discover one of them is missing. The boys swear they stayed in their room. CCTV confirms that none of them left the building. No trace of the child is found. Now the hunt is on to find him, before it’s too late – and before the search for a boy becomes a search for a body... 

When Candice Fox opened up GONE BY MIDNIGHT with a missing child and a sick goose I wasn't sure if I could go on. I mean a missing child is one thing, but a sick, possibly life-threateningly ill goose felt like one blow too many. (Don't @ me - they are both fictional and I'm very fond of my geese...).

If for any reason any of this is worrying any other readers then I would counsel trust this author, read on. Read on through the bullying stand over cops who arrive and take Ted Conkaffey into custody (arrest of choice with anything to do with kids it seems); through to his, and Amanda Pharrell's arrival at the crime scene; their inclusion in the search for the missing boy, much to the annoyance of the local top cop; their confrontation with a very angry policewoman out for revenge (you'll have to have read REDEMPTION POINT to get the full story); right through Conkaffey's much anticipated access visit with his young daughter; Pharrell's friendship with local bikies; and on to the point where you find yourself in a croc sanctuary and a swamp.

The third book in the "Crimson Lake" series, there's something glorious, addictive, clever and mesmerising about the way that Fox weaves a tale around the most oddly likeable of characters - Conkaffey, ex-cop, recently cleared potential child abductor and assaulter, father of a patrol of geese, a dog and a much loved young daughter; and Pharrell, ex-con, tried and convicted killer, private detective, cat lover, odder than an odd thing on an odd things night out; both of these people are real, genuine and immensely likeable - in a peculiar sort of way, because goodness knows there are times when they seem to not like each other all that much. The tale in this instance is the vanishing of a young boy, part of a group of friends / families all holidaying together - the kids playing together, locked in a hotel room, being checked on every hour by the parents, while they are downstairs in the restaurant having dinner, letting their hair down a bit.

The balance in these novels between the threat, the absurd, the investigation and the day-to-day is always elegantly maintained, and so it is in GONE BY MIDNIGHT. As Conkaffey balances the first visit of his young daughter, with the urgency of the need to search for the missing boy, there's moves, finally, to repair his relationship with his ex-wife, a relationship destroyed by the missing child case that saw him drummed out of the police force and hiding out in Far North Queensland in the first place. It's also a chance for Pharrell to establish the oddest of relationships with a local bikie group, and again, the reader is given plenty of opportunity to see the damage that was inflicted by the case that saw her end up in jail. It will help a lot if you've read both the previous books in this series (CRIMSON LAKE and REDEMPTION POINT) as the back-story arc here is pretty vital, and whilst Fox plays fair with potential new readers, there is much to the reasons why Conkaffey and Pharrell are what they are, and do what they do, that should be clearly understood.

GONE BY MIDNIGHT is flat out good, and if you've not read the earlier books, then you're in for a treat. Fox is a dab hand at this crime writing gig, in the opinion of this humble reader, one of the best we've ever produced.

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.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

2019 McIlvanney Prize hunting for the best Tartan Noir

2017 McIlvanney Prize winner Denise Mina presents the
2018 prize to Liam McIlvanney  Credit: Bloody Scotland
The McIlvanney Prize – Bloody Scotland’s annual prize awarded to the best Scottish Crime book of the year – is now open for entries. It provides Scottish crime writing with recognition and aims to raise the profile and prestige of the genre as a whole. Scottish roots are a must for competition applications: authors must either be born or raised in Scotland, have lived there for six years or more or their books are substantially set there. Only fiction is eligible. The prize was renamed in memory of William McIlvanney, often described as the Godfather of Tartan Noir, in 2016.

Eligible novels must have been first published in the UK between 1 August 2018 and 31 July 2019. Full details here.

New this year we have a debut prize which will be selected from the highest scoring titles in the first round and judged by the board of Bloody Scotland including crime writers Lin Anderson, Craig Robertson, Gordon Brown and Abir Mukerjee.

The McIlvanney Prize itself will be judged by Alison Flood, books reporter for The Guardian and a former news reporter for The Bookseller; James Crawford, chair of Publishing Scotland and presenter of BBC series, Scotland from the Sky and Stuart Cosgrove, writer and broadcaster who was formerly a senior executive at Channel 4.

Entries should be submitted by 5pm on Friday 26 April 2019.

The longlist is expected to comprise up to 12 books which will be announced after the organisers meeting in June 2019 at which point finished copies will be sent to each of the three judges.

The winner of The McIlvanney Prize will receive a cheque for £1000 and a new prize of £500 will be awarded for the Scottish Crime Debut of the Year

Friday, March 1, 2019

Review: QUBYTE

QUBYTE by Cat Connor (2018)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Flu season is in full swing, surrounded by germs and illness, SSA Ellie Iverson reacts like any new mom, with hand sanitizer at the ready and a desire to keep away from anti-vaxers. Her newly hatched germaphobia escalates when Delta A is asked to investigate animal rights activists and a missing laboratory monkey. An incident in Lexington, Virginia leaves the Director of the FBI fighting for her life.

A sudden violent death of a colleague in Washington, the discovery of a spate of deaths linked to the Intelligence Community, herald the arrival of an old friend from the UK with news of a potential global disaster. With biker gangs, drugs, grudges, and a plethora of ‘accidental’ deaths in the mix, this is no ordinary flu season.

Hand sanitizer anyone?  You will want some after reading the latest in Cat Connor’s Byte series, QUBYTE, which deals with biological terror threats.

Special Agent Ellie Iverson (nee Conway) from Delta A, an elite force within the FBI, gets involved in disparate cases – the links between which are a bit of a puzzle: Her FBI Director Cait O’Hare has been killed, as have heads of various intelligence agencies, and the Trump administration’s isolationism makes working with overseas colleagues a bit tricky. Then there’s the kidnapped monkey, and the hit and run of the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who had managed to sneak out a file hidden in a song that talked about the theft of a mysterious infectious agent, and the proof is in the contaminated bottled water that has been distributed to high-end hotels.

Delta A is a close-knit team, extremely professional, prone to cutesy nicknames, and with an ESP link that could be the result of long-term familiarity, or not … Ellie has a form of lexical synaesthesia, where she doesn’t taste words but sees them floating, crawling, slinking … and she is also in the habit of seeing yellow fluffy ducks and visualising metaphors. Oh, and her most useful brain-storming partner is an imaginary friend. We see the world through her brain.

The plot is driven, and all the Delta A team, including Argo the trauma dog, end up at O’Hare’s ranch house, surrounded by an armed biker gang, which is just par for the course for Ellie, except this time her husband and infant twin daughters are there. QUBYTE is about a big conspiracy and the dangers of “the ‘alternative facts’ brigade’s propaganda machine”, and there is a more personal kind of dread: “How well do we ever know someone?”, and the toll of ongoing harassment “living with constant harassment isn’t one thing. It’s bullying. It’s undermining. It is disbelief wrapped in pain.”

Connor quite optimistically misses New Zealand off the list of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance countries that are in line for the planned biological attacks, as it’s “not a strategic country for terrorists” due to its “isolation and small population”. There is an idealistic plea for people too: “Not just listen but hear what’s said. And then act on the knowledge instead of pretending it’s not our problem as humans inhabiting the earth with other humans.”

Ellie has a knack (with some spooky help) of solving riddles and codes, the biggest riddle is whether the death of her friend and boss, Cait, is connected to the other killings, and whether all of the killings are connected to the clear and present danger of the biological threat.  QUBYTE has a curious ending, where at least one mystery is solved with a very mundane solution but the others? … “Pollyanna has left the building” and we might need to wait for the next Byte to fully understand the mystery. An exciting and intriguing read.

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

Thursday, February 28, 2019


NOVEMBER ROAD by Lou Berney (William Morrow, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Frank Guidry’s luck has finally run out. A loyal street lieutenant to New Orleans’ mob boss Carlos Marcello, Guidry has learned that everybody is expendable. But now it’s his turn—he knows too much about the crime of the century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Within hours of JFK’s murder, everyone with ties to Marcello is turning up dead, and Guidry suspects he’s next: he was in Dallas on an errand for the boss less than two weeks before the president was shot. With few good options, Guidry hits the road to Las Vegas, to see an old associate—a dangerous man who hates Marcello enough to help Guidry vanish.

Guidry knows that the first rule of running is "don’t stop," but when he sees a beautiful housewife on the side of the road with a broken-down car, two little daughters and a dog in the back seat, he sees the perfect disguise to cover his tracks from the hit men on his tail. 

When I was growing up I often heard that people in my parents' generation could vividly remember where they were and how they felt when they heard President John F Kennedy had been shot on a sunny day in Dallas, Texas on Friday 22 November 1963.

Even though JFK wasn't the leader of our country, and it happened half a world away at a time when there wasn't the 24-hour news cycle and social media barraging us with oh-so-much oh-so-instantly, it was news that cut across the world quickly, shocking everyone and leaving a lingering impact. (I guess for my generation, perhaps the equivalent is the Twin Towers falling on September 11th, 2001).

JFK's assassination ended a presidency and stunned the world. In this exceptional novel from Edgar Award-winning author Lou Berney, it could also spell the end for a New Orleans mob lieutenant.

Frank Guidry is a street lieutenant for Kennedy-hating mob boss Carlos Marcello. A fortnight before JFK was shot he ran a seemingly innocuous errand in Dallas. Perhaps not so innocuous in hindsight. Now Marcello seems to be cleaning house, and Frank ends up on the run with some killers on his tail.

Scarpering towards Las Vegas in the hopes of a long-shot at his life, Frank meets stranded housewife  Charlotte, who is also on the run. With her kids in tow. This offers Frank a convenient cover as a family man on the road best, while also proving problematic in unexpected ways. It also allows Berney to intercut between Frank and Charlotte's perspective (as well as that of a trailing hitman) as the unlikely pair try to escape their pasts and grasp towards a rather shaky future.

Put simply, this is an exquisite tale that moves like a freight train while never short-changing character depth or rich historical texture. Berney draws us in beautifully to the lives of Frank, Charlotte, and other characters. NOVEMBER ROAD rolls along on sublime prose. The JFK assassination is a fascinating backdrop and the feelings of the times are wonderfully evoked, while never overwhelming the focus on the two main characters and their relationships. Berney beautifully balances the personal and the broad. NOVEMBER ROAD somehow manages to feel both intimate and a little bit epic, all at once. Overall it's a wonderful read, multi-faceted crime that pulses with humanity, authenticity, and perhaps redemption.

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.