Monday, January 25, 2021

Review: EXIT

EXIT by Belinda Bauer (Bantam Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Pensioner Felix Pink is about to find out that it’s never too late . . . for life to go horribly wrong.

When Felix lets himself in to Number 3 Black Lane, he’s there to perform an act of charity: to keep a dying man company as he takes his final breath ... But just fifteen minutes later Felix is on the run from the police – after making the biggest mistake of his life.

Now his world is turned upside down as he must find out if he's really to blame, or if something much more sinister is at play. All while staying one shaky step ahead of the law.

Many years ago I read a stunning debut from a British author who lived in Wales and wrote about a troubled young boy who spent his days digging holes on Exmoor and writing letters to an imprisoned serial killer. Desperate for answers in order to try to piece his broken family back together, in some form at least. That novel, BLACKLANDS, heralded the arrival of a strong new voice in British crime writing - Belinda Bauer. And it went on to win Bauer the prestigious CWA Gold Dagger, a rare feat for a debut (recently matched by Australian author Jane Harper, another exceptional, top-shelf crime writer like Bauer).

From her earliest pages Bauer has shown a terrific knack for penning memorable main characters - the kind that stick with you not just because they're a little different to the crime fiction norm, but because Bauer infuses them with heart, depth, and nuance. Whether it's an adolescent boy hoping to mend his broken family, or a medical student with Asperger's looking to solve a murder (RUBBERNECKER), Bauer brings heart and soul to her crime writing. And her most recent books in particular, a really adroit balance of hilarity and heartache, of touching on some dark deeds and tough issues via offbeat tales. 

Most recently Bauer achieved the rare feat of a crime writer having a novel longlisted for the Booker Prize, one of the English-speaking world’s top literary awards – and one that usually eschews genre or ‘popular’ fiction. Such is the quality of her prose. Few authors mesh darkness and (de)light as well as Bauer, and her latest novel EXIT underlines that deft touch for offbeat characters and original writing.

Living in his village near the Devon coastline, Felix Pink is a pensioner with a purpose: he’s a veteran Exiteer, a volunteer who sits with the terminally ill as they leave this world a little early. Felix doesn’t help them on the way, just comforts and supports them at the time they choose their final moments. 

They make the choice, they take the actions, Felix helps them with his presence, and tidying things up afterwards to make it easier for the surviving family to cope with the loss. 

But when he’s paired with rookie Amanda and things go horribly wrong on a new case, Felix ends up on the run from the police. He's a compassionate man that gets caught between the desire to turn himself in and face up to what he's done, and to stay free so that he can protect others. Especially those who could suffer if he ends up behind bars. Meanwhile young cop Calvin Bridge is first on the scene and gets caught up in the investigation while battling issues with self-confidence, gambling, and trying to keep the secret from his colleagues his family history contains plenty of unlawfulness.

Put simply, EXIT is an absolute delight of a read. It flows along wonderfully with Bauer's characters and prose. There's a zing to the story and plenty of emotional pull and punches. Zany isn't a word you'd often use in a crime fiction review, but it could be appropriate at times here, with some of the laugh-inducing situations Felix and other characters get themselves into, or out of. Yet it never feels 'thin' or one-note - there's depth and heart and big issues here too, woven in among the chuckles. 

Many years ago a famous US college basketball coach named Jim Valvano gave a speech at a national awards show. He was dying of cancer, and spoke about how to live well with the days you had:

"When people say to me how do you get through life or each day, it’s the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special." - Jim Valvano, ESPY Awards, 4 March 1993:

For whatever reason, I couldn't help but think of Jimmy V's words as I was reading EXIT. Perhaps it was because some of the character in it are dying of terminal illnesses, as he was, that my mind wandered to that speech I first heard a long time ago; one that has become iconic in the sports world. 

But also I think it was because in EXIT, Bauer has crafted another extraordinary crime novel that in one story delivers all three of those things Jimmy V says can make a heck of a day: it can make you laugh, it can make you think, and it can move you to tears. It is a marvellous novel, original and zesty and so much more, from a writer at the top of her very considerable game. Highly 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 and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 


Sunday, January 24, 2021

Review: DEATH LEAVES THE STATION

DEATH LEAVES THE STATION by Alexander Thorpe (Fremantle Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

A nameless friar turns up at Halfwell Station at the same time that Ana, the adopted daughter of the station owners, discovers a body in the desert during her midnight walk. But when Ana returns to look for it, the body is gone.

Death Leaves the Station brings the cosy country-house intrigue of crime fiction's golden age to the Australian wheatbelt, and was written for fans of classic mystery and crime fiction. 

There's a really nice interpretation of classic golden age mystery styling at the heart of this lovely little novel set in the early white settlement period of rural, remote Western Australia.

Cleverly balanced between the personal story of Ana, the adopted daughter of the owners of Halfwell Station, and the search for a murder victim whose body she came across in the bush, late at night when reportedly star gazing, there's a lot of intrigue going on here. It's not just the nameless friar who appears at the Station at the time that Ana reports (to the friar initially and not her parents) discovering a man's body very near the homestead. Nor is it the obvious story behind a victim who was there (and left blood and some signs of a struggle at the location), but whose body has now disappeared. Nor is it just about the people charging around the bush on the same night, or the odd disappearance of Ana's birth parents, the strange circumstances of Ana's own life and her relationship with her adopted parents. You need to add to all of that Parkes, a very unusual investigating detective, a most unexpected police artist, and Cooper, the taciturn, and very able, Aboriginal tracker.

Of course, astute readers may be forgiven for wondering why a policeman investigating this odd occurrence would so willingly drag a young girl and a friar (identikit sketch of the man not withstanding) here and there on the investigative trail, but you'd be forgiven for really not caring about the little details that much, it just kind of works.

Mostly because the character development that occurs in such a short novel is strong, presenting the reader almost instantaneously with a great little band of intrepid investigators, travelling great distances by horse, foot, and train to try to identify the alleged victim, and then establish if he was a victim after all.

There's also plenty of opportunity, following the classic "golden age" type mystery tradition, for the reader to get on board with the mystery solving team, with lots of clues, some expected and not so predictable red herrings, and twists and turns, and a rollicking bit of storytelling along the way.

The historical setting for this novel feels just right, there's really strong character development and an excellent amount of intrigue and action, fitted nicely into a novel that's less than 200 pages in length. All of which was quite astounding given that this is also novelist Alexander Thorpe's debut novel. Here's hoping it's the start of many more.

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 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best NovelShe kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Review: LIKE LIONS

LIKE LIONS by Brian Panowich (Minotaur Books, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Clayton Burroughs is a small-town Georgia sheriff, a new father, and, improbably, the heir apparent of Bull Mountain’s most notorious criminal family.

As he tries to juggle fatherhood, his job and his recovery from being shot in the confrontation that killed his two criminally-inclined brothers last year, he’s doing all he can just to survive. Yet after years of carefully toeing the line between his life in law enforcement and his family, he finally has to make a choice.

When a rival organization makes a first foray into Burroughs territory, leaving a trail of bodies and a whiff of fear in its wake, Clayton is pulled back into the life he so desperately wants to leave behind. Revenge is a powerful force, and the vacuum left by his brothers’ deaths has left them all vulnerable. With his wife and child in danger, and the way of life in Bull Mountain under siege for everyone, Clayton will need to find a way to bury the bloody legacy of his past once and for all. 

I've long been a fan of the 'grit lit' tales and rural noir of the American South - particularly enjoying the likes of John Hart, James Lee Burke, Wiley Cash, and James Sallis, among others - so I'd been curious for a while about Brian Panowich's crime writing set in the wild mountains of Georgia. I'd heard some very good things about his debut BULL MOUNTAIN (2015), but ended up reading this sequel first.

Put simply, it's terrific.

There's a mix of lyricism and stark violence in Panowich's storytelling, which gives this tale a sort of mesmerising grittiness and hooked me on several levels from the earliest pages. Clayton Burroughs is an intriguing character - a lawman who comes from a family more comfortable on the other side of the law. He's burdened by many things that have happened in the past (both in BULL MOUNTAIN and before), as well as an assortment of troubles in the present. 

Thanks to Panowich's fine prose and storytelling Clayton's descent into pills and booze as he struggles to deal with things feels human and heart-aching rather than a crime novel cliché. 

Panowich lured me in with both his style and his story. LIKE LIONS is a crime tale that bubbles away like a backwater still, creating and concentrating into something that packs quite the hefty punch.

But the real heart and deep richness of this novel is in the characters who live on this wild mountain in Georgia - their struggles and choices and the consequences that follow from what they do and don't. 


LIKE LIONS is excellent rural crime fiction: an emotionally charged novel that's full of drama and caries a deep understanding of people and place. A hard-hitting combination of family drama and crime, wonderfully written by a strong voice. How much did I like it? As soon as I finished I immediately went and got myself a copy of BULL MOUNTAIN.

Among my favourite reads of recent years. 

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 and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 


Friday, January 22, 2021

Review: THE RED HAND

THE RED HAND by Peter Temple (Text Publishing, 2019/Quercus, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Peter Temple didn’t start publishing novels until he was fifty, but then he got cracking, writing nine of them in thirteen years. When he died, in March 2018, there was an unfinished Jack Irish novel in his drawer. This substantial fragment, entitled High Art, reveals a writer at the peak of his powers.

The Red Hand also includes the screenplay of the ABC telemovie Valentine’s Day, an improbably delightful tale about an ailing country football club, as well as stories, essays, autobiographical reflections, and a selection of Temple’s brilliant book reviews.

It’s been over a decade since the great Peter Temple told the Miles Franklin Award judges that they’d have to “cop it sweet” for giving Australia’s most prestigious literary prize to a crime writer for the first time (he received the accolade for TRUTH). “You’ve done the crime, you do the time,” he said to laughs from the gathered literati. 

TRUTH was a special book, a companion to equally exquisite THE BROKEN SHORE and a deep character study of a Melbourne detective whose life is teetering as he investigates a murder and bush fires rage across his state. The Miles Franklin judges called TRUTH "a stunning novel about contemporary Australian life, written with all the ambiguity and moral sophistication of the most memorable literature". 

It's fair to say that more more than anyone, Peter Temple broke down the cultural cringe long associated Downunder with local crime writing. I've since heard it said by a few people, 'if anyone says crime fiction can't match literary fiction, throw a Peter Temple book at them'. Sadly, TRUTH was to be Temple’s final novel; a planned coda to his loose trilogy never eventuated before his death in 2018. 

Fortunately, THE RED HAND offers readers another taste of Temple’s brilliance. 

A posthumous collection, it includes part of an unfinished fifth Jack Irish novel, the screenplay for a TV movie about an ailing country football club, and essays, reviews, and reflections from an author known for his poetic, searing storytelling. 

Recently I listened to an audiobook version of TRUTH, and it underlined the poetic nature of Temple's writing. He had that knack for description and delving into issues in a concise, powerful way that was fresh, just a little bit of a different view to the norm even when he's addressing things that may have been widely written about before. Fantastic imagery, plenty of subtext. 

THE RED HAND is definitely a volume to grab for crime fiction aficionados, or anyone who appreciates the finest writing. It opens with Michael Heyward of Text Publishing's introduction, which sets the scene well and gives an insight into the personality and legacy of their wonderful author. 

The title of the introduction, "A Charismatic Curmudgeon", is fitting. 

While THE RED HAND isn't the new Peter Temple novel that many may have been hoping for, it is a wonderful collection that showcases his sharp mind and pen, and what he meant to the storytelling community in Australia and beyond. His was a career that had an impact far outweighing the number of novels he wrote, and this collection provides a final goodbye that is a good addition to your bookshelf. 

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 and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 


Thursday, January 21, 2021

Writing for lazy people: an interview with Tim Gutteridge

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the third instalment of our 9mm interview series for 2021 - we're back on a regular track now after almost a year's hiatus. 

This author interview series has now been running for over a decade (though perhaps we shouldn't really count the last year), and today marks the 215th overall edition. Thanks for reading over the years. I've had tonnes of fun chatting to some amazing writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you. 

My plan is to to publish 40-50 new author interviews in the 9mm series this year. You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. Some amazing writers.

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been featured, let me know in the comments or by sending me a message, and I'll look to make that happen for you. Even as things with this blog may evolve moving forward, I'll continue to interview crime writers and review crime novels.

Today is a bit of a special day as we're doing something for the very first time on Crime Watch. While I've interviewed several crime writers for 9mm over the years who write in other languages and are translated into English, and have interviewed translators themselves about the art of crime fiction translation for a large feature in a US magazine, I have never until now included a translator in the 9mm series.

Thanks to the hard work of a diverse array of literary translators, English-speaking mystery fans are increasingly able to enjoy compelling tales from all parts of our globe, that originated in a wide array of languages. Personally, I love this. Not just the Nordic Noir wave of the past decade-plus, but Japanese mysteries, Afrikaans crime, Latin American noir translated from Spanish and Portuguese, and more.

Recently I read my first-ever Uruguayan crime novel, CROCODILE TEARS by Mercedes Rosende. It's a new 2021 release from Bitter Lemon Press, a terrific small publisher that has done so much to bring a huge variety of excellent authors from all over the world to a broader readership. Here's the blurb: 
The setting: Montevideo’s Old Town, with its dark alleys, crumbling facades and watchful residents. The gig: an armoured truck robbery. The cast: Diego, a failed kidnapper with weak nerves, Ursula Lopez, an amateur criminal with an insatiable appetite, the Hobo, a notorious hoodlum with excessive self-confidence. Dr Antinucci, a shady lawyer with big plans. And finally, Leonilda Lima, a washed-out police inspector with a glimmer of faith in justice.

Mercedes Rosende is a Uruguayan lawyer, journalist, and author whose novels and short stories have won several awards in Latin America and Germany. CROCODILE TEARS is her first novel to be translated into English, but while we are experiencing Rosende's story, it is the words of Tim Gutteridge we're reading. 

Originally from Scotland and now living in Spain, Tim is a literary translator specialising in Spanish-to-English translation. He has been an Assistant Professor at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, and has also worked as a bilingual lexicographer and English language teacher. Tim has translated fiction, non-fiction, and theatre. CROCODILE TEARS is his first crime novel translation. 

But for now, he becomes the 215th person (and first translator) to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


9MM INTERVIEW WITH TIM GUTTERIDGE

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
My reading habits are a bit unusual as I spend a lot of time keeping tabs on what’s new in Spanish, particularly by authors whose work hasn’t been translated. One Spanish crime series that I like a lot is by Berna González Harbour, and the protagonist is a female police officer, Superintendent Ruiz. The latest in the series is called El sueño de la razón (The Sleep of Reason) and it gives a very good portrayal of the sense of lost optimism that a lot of people in Spain have felt for the last decade or so. It’s a correction to the perception of sun and siestas that many outsiders have.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I think the first paperback I read was Down with skool! by Geoffrey Willans and Roger Searle. It’s one of those books that works at lots of levels, so I could read and enjoy it as a 7-year-old but looking back I realize it’s also a rather surreal and very scathing take on the whole English boarding school thing: Malory Towers meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Anyone interested in why the English ruling classes are generally such a bunch of ghastly sociopaths might want to start here.

3. Before the first novel you'd translated, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Well, translation is really writing for lazy people. Someone else does all the hard work – plot, character, style etc – and I just come along and copy it but in a different language. I blog as well, and also write the odd piece for professional journals. Perhaps inevitably, I also have a half-written play in my bottom drawer, about the Scottish colony of Darien (on the Panama isthmus) a crazy scheme that was meant to make Scotland rich by allowing it to control the Atlantic-Pacific trade route in the early modern period but instead bankrupted the country and precipitated us into union with England. On the journey out to Darien (which is tropical) the holds of the Scottish ships were full of horsehair wigs and woollen socks to trade with the natives. The mind boggles.

4. When you’re not translating, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I think the past year has really made me appreciate the little things: spending time with my kids, walking the dogs, baking, hanging out with friends on the beach.

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?
When people think of Edinburgh they tend to think of the Castle and the Royal Mile. I actually think Edinburgh Castle is one of the worst castles in Scotland. It’s great from the outside but inside it’s just a boring shell, trashed by the military for a couple of centuries. Edinburgh’s best-kept secret (until now) is Portobello beach. I love the fact that, pretty much regardless of the weather, it’s busy. People play beach volleyball on windy grey October days, they swim without wetsuits in November. There’s something very Scottish about the refusal to make concessions to reality. It’s life-affirming – but also a bit mad.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
I’m struggling to imagine what that movie would be like – or who would pay to see it! But I’m going to plump for Javier Bardem – directed by Pedro Almodóvar.


7. Of your translations, which is your favourite or particularly special, and why?
Because I work as both a literary and a non-literary translator, the reality is that a lot of my translation work isn’t in general circulation. Seeing reviews of my published work actually makes me think fondly of all the unpublished stuff – I guess it’s a bit like a parent remembering the other kids when one of them wins prizes. Apart from that, I’d like to mention my first book translation, The Mountain That Eats Men, by Ander Izagirre. It’s a piece of narrative non-fiction about 20th century Bolivia, which describes the situation of children working in the country’s exhausted tin and silver mines. The book fell into a bit of a marketing black hole so didn’t get much attention but the source text was great and really wide-ranging – from Quechua-inflected dialogue to wonderful descriptions from 17th century colonial chronicles – and I’m still proud of how I handled it.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first asked to translate a crime novel? Or when you first saw your first translation in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
Crocodile Tears is actually the first crime novel I’ve translated, although I hope there will be more to come. The business of getting commissioned to do a given translation varies from book to book, and you have to remember that acquiring the rights and commissioning the translator are separate processes, so that even if you’ve been involved with the project by doing a sample or helping the agent to pitch it, there’s always the possibility that another translator will get the gig. I try to deal with that by not being too invested in any given project until I’ve actually signed the contract – and making sure I always have other projects on the go or in the pipeline. I’m wondering now, though, if I missed an opportunity and should have taken a bath in champagne.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you've had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Cue the sound of tiny violins as I tell you that I have only ever signed one book and never done an author event or attended a literary festival. Perhaps that will change in 2021.


Thank you Tim. We appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch

You can read more about Tim and his translation work at his website, and follow him on Twitter





Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Review: LAW OF INNOCENCE

THE LAW OF INNOCENCE by Michael Connelly (Allen & Unwin, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Defense attorney Mickey Haller is pulled over by police, who find the body of a client in the trunk of his Lincoln. Haller is charged with murder and can't make the exorbitant $5 million bail slapped on him by a vindictive judge.

Mickey elects to defend himself and must strategize and build his defense from his jail cell in the Twin Towers Correctional Center in downtown Los Angeles, all the while looking over his shoulder--as an officer of the court he is an instant target.

Mickey knows he's been framed. Now, with the help of his trusted team, he has to figure out who has plotted to destroy his life and why. Then he has to go before a judge and jury and prove his innocence

Recent novels from Michael Connelly, the modern maestro of LA crime writing, have largely focused on the investigations of long-running hero Harry Bosch and/or Detective Renee Ballard, a fierce new protagonist seeking justice in Bosch’s old stomping grounds in LAPD Hollywood Division. 

Bosch’s half-brother, sly defense attorney Mickey Haller, has made guest appearances in several of those novels, but in THE LAW OF INNOCENCE ‘the Lincoln Lawyer’ has solo top billing for the first time since 2013’s THE GODS OF GUILT in this terrific, latest tale in a superb series. 

(Note: in recent news, the screen adaptation of the Mickey Haller books will now go ahead on Netflix, with Manuel Garcia-Rulfo stepping into the shoes of Matthew McConaughey from the film)

The ‘Lincoln lawyer’ has argued plenty of high-stakes cases in the past, but none hit as close to home as this. Haller’s own life and liberty are on the line when he’s charged with first-degree murder after the body of a former client is discovered in the trunk of his Lincoln town car following a traffic stop. Could he really have killed conman Sam Scales over a big debt? The DA’s office and hard-charging prosecutor ‘Death Row’ Dana Berg, the star legal eagle of the Major Crimes Unit, certainly believe so. And they seem to have plenty of forensic evidence to back their case.

Preparing for the trial of his life from behind bars, thanks to unaffordable bail set by a judge Haller embarrassed in the past, Haller has to rely more than ever on the team around him as well as his own wits to survive in and out of the courtroom. The Lincoln Lawyer has made plenty of enemies in the past, from criminals to cops and lawyers – has one of them set him up? And will others be lining up to take advantage and take him down, for good?

Connelly delivers a rip-snorting legal thriller that builds to plenty of courtroom parry and thrust, while also giving readers fascinating insights into trial preparation and strategy as Haller, along with his legal partner Jennifer Aronson, investigators Cisco Wojciechowski and Haller’s half-brother Harry Bosch, and case manager Lorna Taylor, try to uncover all the machinations going on and formulate a plan to save his skin. It’s a case they cannot afford to lose.

There’s a very contemporary feel as Connelly textures in news of current politics and COVID-19. There’s also action aplenty even before the jury hears opening statements, as well as Connelly’s keen insights into the realities of a flawed criminal justice system.

But it is the character relationships and the evolution of Haller from his first appearance as a gaming-the-system criminal attorney in 2005’s THE LINCOLN LAWYER that provide extra layers of enjoyment to an outstanding legal thriller series. 

Overall, THE LAW OF INNOCENCE is a strong reminder that in the world of courtroom thrillers, Connelly and Haller may be the best legal partnership around.

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 and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Review: GATHERING DARK

GATHERING DARK by Candice Fox (Bantam, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Blair Harbour, once a wealthy, respected surgeon in Los Angeles, is now an ex-con down on her luck. She’s determined to keep her nose clean to win back custody of her son.

But when her former cellmate, Sneak Lawlor, begs for help to find her missing daughter, Blair is compelled to put her new-found freedom on the line. Joined by LA’s most feared underworld figure, Ada Maverick, the crew of criminals bring outlaw tactics to the search for Dayly.

Detective Jessica Sanchez has always had a difficult relationship with the LAPD. And her inheritance of a $7 million mansion as a reward for catching a killer has just made her police enemy number one. It’s been ten years since Jessica arrested Blair for the cold-blooded murder of her neighbour. So when Jessica opens the door to the disgraced doctor and her friends she expects abuse, maybe even violence.

Sydney author Candice Fox certainly hit the ground running after first getting published back in 2014: her gripping debut HADES won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, and then later its sequel EDEN went on to win the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction. An historic accolade for back-to-back books. Quite the introduction to the Australian crime writing world for a fresh voice that had no problem playing in the darker waters of the genre and putting rather unlikable 'heroes' to the fore

Fox is a prolific storyteller with a great touch for offbeat, memorable crime fiction characters. 

In a few short years her resume already includes her original Sydney-set ‘Archer and Bennett’ trilogy that began with HADES, the superb ‘Crimson Lake’ trilogy set among the crocodile-infested landscapes of north Queensland - which again showed her knack for very troubled protagonists and unusual investigative partnerships - and several collaborations with mega-selling thriller writer James Patterson that have earned Fox #1 New York Times bestseller status.

(Note: like Patterson's collaboration with already-established Swedish star Liza Marklund, those latter books blunt some of the greater character depth, nuance, and strong settings Candice Fox has in her solo writings; instead focusing more purely on simpler rip-snorting, twisty plot-based thrill rides.)

Fox's latest novel, GATHERING DARK (released in Australia and New Zealand in 2020, out in hardcover in the United States from Forge Books in March), sees Fox bring her knack for clever, dark crime tales swirling around unusual team-ups across the Pacific to the City of Angels. 

Ex-surgeon Blair Harbour is now an ex-con working night shifts at a dodgy gas station as she tries to stay on the straight and narrow and cling to a sliver of hope she can regain some of what she lost. Her son, in particular. But when the daughter of her former cellmate ‘Sneak’ Lawlor disappears, Blair finds herself risking everything to try to help. 

Together the pair turn to two other unlikely allies: powerful crime boss Ava Maverick and LAPD Detective Jessica Sanchez - the cop who put Blair in prison years before. Sanchez has her own problems, being ostracised and worse by her colleagues after she’s gifted a house in a will.

Four women, all facing challenges, questions, and dangers in their lives. 

Fox delivers a storyline that lures the reader in early, and excites throughout with some helter-skelter action and great set-pieces at times (it would make for a terrific film, I think), but my lasting impression of GATHERING DARK was the strong sense of humanity that bubbled throughout. An alluring read, with the interplay between a convicted killer and a cop adding extra layers to a fascinating read. 

Whether this remains a standalone or becomes the start of a series with a character or two returning, this is a very good read from a talented storyteller that is well worth seeking out. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Review: BURIED ALIVE

BURIED ALIVE by JA Kerley (Harper, 2010) 

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Soon after witnessing the escape of violent psychopath Bobby Crayline from prison, Alabaman detective Carson Ryder takes a rare break in the mountains. But his vacation is interrupted when an anonymous phone call summons him to the scene of a grisly murder. 

With more savage killings, and the heavy-handed FBI only inflaming the situation, Ryder and local detective Donna Cherry sift through the increasingly bizarre clues. Is there more than one killer on the loose? And how does Carson-s clinically insane brother, Jeremy, now on the run, fit into the picture? It is down to Ryder to unearth horrors from the past that others believe should remain buried.

I've been a big fan of Jack Kerley's Carson Ryder series since I first stumbled across his debut THE HUNDREDTH MAN as an impulse buy at a bookshop in downtown Auckland many years ago. I liked it so much I bought several other titles that same month - Kerley nicely balances dark serial killer tales with strong characterisation and evocation of the Alabama setting. Top tier stuff; I put him alongside the likes of Stuart MacBride and Paul Cleave in this realm.

The seventh in Kerley's excellent Carson Ryder series sees the young Alabama detective taking a long-overdue vacation, only to stumble onto a series of sadistic killings in rural Kentucky. 

Working both in conjunction and conflict with the local cops, Sheriff, and FBI, Carson tries to stay alive and uncover the truth while also dealing with the (welcome, for readers) reappearance of his brother Jeremy, an escaped killer himself. Are Jeremy's games helping or hindering Carson's investigation?

Kerley has a nice way with words, writing with pace and personality as he mixes interesting characters, storylines, and settings. He writes what I call 'well-balanced' crime fiction, akin to the likes of Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham and the like where there are strong series characters (protagonists and supporting cast), strong plots, and a good sense of place - rather than one element overwhelming the others (eg the oh-so-many crime novels which have pacy and twisty plotlines with thin characters, poor dialogue and no specific sense of place). 

Ryder is a fascinating protagonist - strong and interesting enough to carry a long series, he starts off relatively young in the early books but evolves and is impacted by what occurs throughout the series. The interplay between he and his brother Jeremy adds some extra zing to a very good series. 

If I'm being picky, BURIED ALIVE isn't my favourite instalment in the series - but that's speaking from the perspective of Kerley's earlier books all being five-star, top-shelf, excellent reads. Even when he throttles down a little he still produces very good, above average crime fiction. An enjoyable read. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter.