Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Review: RUN YOU DOWN

RUN YOU DOWN by Julia Dahl (Faber & Faber, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Aviva Kagan was just a teenager when she left her Hasidic Jewish life in Brooklyn for a fling with a smiling college boy from Florida. A few months later she was pregnant, engaged to be married and trapped in a life she never imagined. So, shortly after the birth of her daughter she disappeared.

Twenty-three years later, the child she walked away from, NYC tabloid reporter Rebekah Roberts, wants nothing to do with her. But when a man from the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Roseville, NY contacts Rebekah about his young wife's mysterious death, she is drawn into Aviva's old world, and a hidden culture full of dangerous secrets and frustrations.

Julia Dahl adroitly melds mystery and family drama in this second instalment in her very fine series starring part-Jewish New York tabloid reporter Rebekah Roberts. The sequel to Dahl's award-bedecked debut INVISIBLE CITY (which won Macavity, Barry, and Shamus Awards, and was nominated for an Edgar Award) and precursor to the excellent CONVICTION (a book which made Dahl one of my favourite new-to-me authors of 2018), RUN YOU DOWN takes us much deeper into Rebekah's complicated family history, particularly as it pertains to the mother-she-never-knew, Hasidic Jewish runaway Aviva.

While Rebekah is the central character in the series and in RUN YOU DOWN, this tale switches perspectives and timeframes to also offer readers Aviva's perspective, giving us greater insights into why Rebekah's mother made the choices she did all those years ago, and the struggles she faced too.

Dahl is one of those authors who offers not only clever and compelling crime plotlines, but something more too. Her writing is layered and nuanced, whether weaving in small family details or big and broader issues like anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and gender politics. One of many things I really like about Dahl's storytelling is that it never feels soap-boxy or lecturing, even if by the end of her very exciting tales you'll find you've actually learned quite a bit about a variety of real-life issues.

In RUN YOU DOWN, we get a greater insight into the varying ways people brought up in the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community may respond to the strictures of their community. Dahl deftly breaks down stereotypes by showing us a spectrum of people and demonstrating how even those who might be easily pigeon-holed from the outside due to their appearance or beliefs can vary greatly too.

Rebekah finds herself again entwined in her absent mother's culture when she's approached by someone who thinks there's more to a death of a young mother in a bathtub than has been decided by the authorities and community. With no autopsy to challenge the 'accidental death', Rebekah is urged to dig deeper by the woman's husband, opening a Pandora's Box of issues as Rebekah comes face-to-face with a distrustful Jewish community, stonewalling local cops who want to sweep it all under the carpet, and even her own unexpected family connection to a local white supremacist leader.

There's plenty going on in RUN YOU DOWN, but to me it never feels overcooked.

Dahl shows plenty of skill to keep the pages whirring while delivering a multi-layered tale that pricks at the heart as well as the mind, and may leave you pondering about family, humanity, and our wider world. There's an intensity to Dahl's storytelling, a richness that goes beyond big set-pieces or exciting twists, that is more about the characters and the lives they lead.

At times confronting, always compelling, RUN YOU DOWN is a terrific read from a terrific author.



Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed around 200 crime writers, talked about the genre onstage at literary festivals on three continents, and on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review: IN A HOUSE OF LIES

IN A HOUSE OF LIES by Ian Rankin (Headline, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Everyone has something to hide. A missing private investigator is found, locked in a car hidden deep in the woods. Worse still - both for his family and the police - is that his body was in an area that had already been searched.

Everyone has secrets. Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is part of a new inquiry, combing through the mistakes of the original case. There were always suspicions over how the investigation was handled and now - after a decade without answers - it's time for the truth.

Nobody is innocent. Every officer involved must be questioned, and it seems everyone on the case has something to hide, and everything to lose. But there is one man who knows where the trail may lead - and that it could be the end of him: John Rebus.

Time flies: curmudgeonly Scottish copper John Rebus has now been policing Edinburgh, on the page and on the screen, for more than thirty years. He's been the most popular character in British fiction at times (topping annual bestseller charts), and still regularly hits the #1 spot on release. Through murders and misteps, retirements and career resurrections, Rebus has continued to fascinate. Now shelved by Police Scotland (again), emphysema has finally curbed his smoking and drinking.

But not his instincts for elbowing his way into and through a troubling case.

IN A HOUSE OF LIES, the twenty-second Rebus tale, opens with the discovery of remains in the trunk of a car deep in a forest outside of Edinburgh. While the family finally get some closure, the ID of the victim is bad for everyone else: Stuart Bloom was a gay private eye who vanished a decade ago while investigating powerful figures. His family always thought the Scottish cops had badly botched the investigation, focusing more on his lifestyle than his work, and now Bloom’s body has been found somewhere already searched. With handcuffs around its ankles. Possibly police issue.

Alarm bells are ringing throughout Police Scotland as various players look to shift blame and avoid the shit-storm about to come down on them. Was it carelessness, cover-up, or something even worse?

While this is a Rebus tale, in many ways it centres most on his long-time foil DI Siobhan Clarke, who is tasked with a new inquiry entwined with past mistakes, and her old pal Rebus, who was part of the original team. Clarke has a cloudy reputation after being targeted by professional standards and is being harassed by an unknown caller. Rebus injects himself into the fray on both fronts, and locks horns once again with the likes of local gangster Big Ger Cafferty as well as some dodgy cops.

Overall Rankin keeps the revs high in this story as a web of past and present acts threaten to overwhelm beloved characters. There's nuance, there's layers, and IN THE HOUSE OF LIES is another very fine tale in a very, very fine series. While Rebus might be in decline, physically, this latest instalment shows that the Rebus series is certainly not. Recommended.


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 20, 2018

Review: HEAVEN SENT

HEAVEN SENT by Alan Carter (Fremantle Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Detective Sergeant Philip ‘Cato’ Kwong is light on sleep but high on happiness with his new wife Sharon Wang and their baby girl. But contentment is not compatible with life in the Job, and soon a series of murders of Fremantle’s homeless people gets in the way of Cato’s newfound bliss. As New Wave journalist Norman Lip flirts online with the killer, it becomes apparent that these murders are personal — every death is bringing the killer one step closer to Cato. 

Sometimes you start reading a series book about a favourite character, and really start to wonder if the author is annoyed with them, subconsciously punishing them for being too popular, or just enjoying applying the thumb screws for a change. Whatever is going on, Alan Carter isn't making it easy for the popular, easy-going, and seemingly content Philip 'Cato' Kwong in HEAVEN SENT.

Settled in his personal life with a new wife, new daughter and a tricky but improving relationship with his teenage son, Kwong's professional life is relatively stable as well - at least he's not serving his time in the remote reaches of WA on the "stock squad". He's back in Fremantle, and seconded to major crime when a series of murders of homeless people escalates. Whilst Kwong is dealing with the more traditional elements of a serial killer investigation, journalist Norman Lip is taking a more dangerous path - flirting online with the killer. Especially as it starts to look like this killer has thought this through much more carefully than Lip and has a very personal grudge against Cato Kwong.

For readers new to this series, you'll find plenty here to give you hints and tips about Cato Kwong's background - including the acquiring of his nickname. You'll find out enough about his policing past to fill in the gaps, and more than enough about his personal life to explain his satisfaction with his current circumstances, and his almost wilful blindness to some of the struggles his wife Sharon is experiencing with new motherhood. If it's any consolation his domestic blindspot also includes his teenage son who is struggling with two parents who have moved onto other partners, other kids, and other lives. There's plenty there to make the reader really want to give Kwong a good shouting at in places. Which is the great part of this series - Kwong feels like a real person, he's a good cop, who is capable of making good, inspired and profoundly daft decisions. He's a good bloke who loves his family and totally and utterly doesn't get what's happening around him all at the same time. He's caring, concerned, blithely ignorant and utterly interconnected. In other words he's real, and annoying and endearing all at the same time.

The plot here is also something that readers who are new to the series will be able to go with also, as will welded on fans (HEAVEN SENT is book number 4). As always there's a social issue at the core - in this case homelessness in a society that's seemingly well off and privileged. The sense of community is strong, with homeless support services, police and local government all too aware of the people who live rough in the place. The fact that the killer is also able to tap into that local knowledge creates a claustrophobic overlay, reminding you that few people are ever really truly under the radar.

Dotted throughout, as always, are perfect little observations, Sharon Wang in her struggles with new motherhood and isolation, is still able to summons a bit of fierce when required. Kwong's old love interest and colleague Tess, reminds us of the never-ending problem of toxic male violence that many women live with. Naomi Lip, journalist Norman's sister, wheelchair bound and physically restricted reminds us that mental acuity, wit and ability are often less visible, but much stronger.

HEAVEN SENT has been much anticipated, as it's been a bit of a gap since the last outing with Cato Kwong. Let's hope there's plenty more to come.

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 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