Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: THE BISHOP'S SWORD

THE BISHOP'S SWORD by Norman Berrow (1948)

Reviewed by Kate Jackson

When Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith finds a puzzling case he seems to find three of them at a time. This time, all three are real puzzlers. (1) How did someone steal the priceless Bishop’s Sword from the hermetically sealed glass case? (2) How did a man who was in jail visit a police official at night at his home? And (3) how did seven men enter the one-exited cave and only six come out?

This is another book choice inspired by JJ at The Invisible Event and definitely gives value for money for the number of locked room/impossible crimes/scenarios it includes. The book takes place in and around a country town called Winchingham and the story’s setup has a range of familiar and unfamiliar characters. There is the new young companion-secretary, Toni Meridew who has come to work for the elderly Mrs Miriam Pendlebury. The latter was definitely a character I enjoyed as she is not the typical tyrannical parent and is actually quite humorous.

Within this household there is also Miriam’s son Eric and sister, Emmeline Forbes, the last being interested in mysticism. Eric immediately seems very taken by Toni and this attraction becomes a source of comedy for the reader, as Miriam rebukes him mildly for it: ‘Don’t stare at Miss Meridew like that!’ Nearby there is also a mystery man, a mystic called Matthew Strange and his six Chinese followers, who are busy working on preparing a cave for their leader. Although Matthew is described as sometimes wearing flowing robes, it is interesting to note that he is also said to have ‘looked like a cross between a retired banker and an absent minded professor.’ Miriam’s home houses two valuable items, an expensive pearl necklace and a family sword which was:

‘sheathed in a red velvet scabbard decorated with gold filigree and thickly encrusted with either real or imitation jewels. The wide, curving hand guard was also apparently of gold and studded with more jewels, and about the hand-grip was more red velvet worn and stained by the clutch of dead and gone fingers…’

It’s not surprising that Toni finds this ‘an incongruous object… [for a] household of women.’ The sword also has an interesting backstory, having been gained by an ancestor who was a priest turned pirate. The sword is supposed to be impossible to steal due to the difficulty of selling it on and also due to practical reasons surrounding the cabinet it is in.

Yet life does not remain tranquil at Mrs Pendlebury’s with there apparently being an intruder in the garden and house at night, the latter of which seems to have disappeared out of a sealed room. But due to the house proud Forbes and the conscientious gardener any potential prints are removed. It is only a few nights later that there is anything to investigate, which is not surprising considering Miriam’s pearls are stolen and the gardener is found murdered with a blunt instrument.

An early suspect for the police is Strange, which is to be expected when there is so much circumstantial evidence against, including the fact the pearls were found in his pocket. In itself this seems a fairly open and shut case for DI Smith, but when Strange claims in court that through projecting his psyche he will visit the magistrate events turn towards the bizarre, especially when it seems that he has done just that, while the police swear that he was locked in a police cell. What is more disturbing is that he is able to repeat this action and bring disturbing news each time, including another theft at the Pendlebury’s…

Is Strange the genuine thing or a phoney? Have the police got the wrong man after all? Will DI Smith and his cohorts reach the solution in time? The solving of this case takes a lot of brain power from DI Smith, breaking down the multiple layers of illusion and assumptions which have been built up around the case. Moreover, there is another perhaps even more fantastical act which I haven’t mentioned but cranked up mine and DI Smith’s befuddlement immensely.

With such confusing events coming up with a credible solution was always going to be no easy task and overall I think Berrow handled this area well, devising an interesting solution which did not make the explanation of the crime dry and overly detailed. However, I do think there is one element of the solution which feels a little bit like a cheat or perhaps a fairer way of putting it would be that the element was convenient. Although on the other hand I do realise that this element needed to be incorporated to explain away the most peculiar aspects of the case.

The narrative style for a locked room/ impossible crime novel where the mechanics of the crimes are given higher priority, was good and didn’t become too technical. However I think one area which could have been developed concerns the characters, as the ending of the novel did terminate rather abruptly and could have benefited from a rounding off or up of the characters. Moreover, I think although Berrow sets up a number of characters at the start of the story, he tends to ignore, overlook or possibly even forget some of them as the story progresses, focusing on a much smaller group. Consequently I think the relationships between the characters could have been developed/ included more. DI Smith though is a likeable and engaging detective character and it is enjoyable watching him work his way through the investigation, tackling events which are fairly mind boggling.


Kate Jackson is a teacher and mystery lover from the north of England who blogs at Cross Examining Crime. This review was originally published on her blog, and is reprinted here with her kind permission.  You can follow Kate on Twitter @armchairsleuth 

Note: the cover image used above is for the 2009 reprint of this book from Ramble House (which was the edition Kate read, and the one now available).

Friday, July 21, 2017

Review: THE ICE SHROUD

THE ICE SHROUD by Gordon Ell (Bush Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

When a woman's body is discovered frozen in the ice of a river near the alpine resort of Queenstown, Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan faces both a mystery and a moral dilemma. The identity of the nude woman is critical to the motives and manner of her murder, and Buchan is personally involved. So are a number of locals, from ski bums to multi-millionaire businessman.

Newly appointed to head CIB in the Southern Lakes district, Buchan hunts the killer through the entanglements of corruption and abuse that lie barely below the surface of the tourist towns. The assistance of a woman traffic sergeant is critical to the hunt but she brings her own dilemmas. The community is practised at keeping its secrets, and finding the truth comes at a price.

THE ICE SHROUD is a very promising debut fictional novel from New Zealand wildlife photographer and non-fiction writer Gordon Ell. Structured as a combination village mystery and closed room scenario, the locations in this novel are beautifully described, the plot is good, the dialogue crisp and believable, and the main police character pairing well imagined.

Any writer who can evoke the amazing scenery and sensibility of some of the wilds of New Zealand is obviously off to a very good start, and a woman's body, frozen to the iced cliff edges of a river, discovered by a touring jet boat party because the location inaccessible by any other means, is a pretty good opening salvo. It provides a number of questions for the subsequent investigation, not the least of which being how the body got there. From the point at which recovery of the remains becomes an exercise in physical dexterity, to the need to combine cleverness in investigation with doggedness in traversing a wild and tricky landscape, there is much to keep the reader engaged.


The central pairing of the local traffic sergeant and the incomer - Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan - is nicely pitched as well, avoiding a lot of the clichés that hamper the believability of those sorts of working relationships all too often. About the only clangers here are a rather glaring personal relationship that isn't declared and just screams WRONG, and some well-worn characterisations in the supporting cast (surely every big man about town doesn't have a heavy-drinking, pathetic, put-upon wife?), but they are very minor quibbles in a novel where everything else works particularly well.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and the Ned Kelly Awards. She kindly shares and republishes her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Brookmyre nabs a Theakston barrel to go with his McIlvanney Prize

Scottish crime writer Chris Brookmyre was the big winner on the opening night of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, as he nabbed the Crime Novel of the Year prize for BLACK WIDOW.

In a rare double, last September Brookmyre had also won the McIlvanney Prize for the same novel. Following the win, congratulations have flowed in from around the crime writing world for a novel that has been described as "brilliant" and "a belter of a book".

BLACK WIDOW is a story about cyber-abuse, where "even the twists have twists", said the judges. It features Brookmyre's longstanding main character, reporter Jack Parlabane.

Talking afterwards, Brookmyre said that he was glad the winner was announced as 'Black Widow', rather than 'Chris Brookmyre', as it is all about the book, not him. It's the first time Brookmyre has won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, though he is a previous finalist.

"I'm really quite taken aback," he said. "I've been shortlisted three times before... always the bridesmaid, today I get to walk up the aisle. A book is not just the work of the author behind it. I'd like to thank my editor, Ed Wood, for his calibre and daring that made a good book greater. I'm mainly just very proud."

BLACK WIDOW (Little, Brown) won out over a very strong shortlist for this year's prize, which also included:

  • Eva Dolan's AFTER YOU DIE (Harvill Secker)
  • Sabine Durrant's LIE WITH ME (Mulholland Books)
  • Mick Herron's REAL TIGERS (Soho Crime)
  • Val McDermid's OUT OF BOUNDS (Little, Brown)
  • Susie Steiner's MISSING, PRESUMED (The Borough Press).

Brookmyre received a £3,000 cash prize and handmade, engraved oak beer cask made by Theakston Old Peculier (photo above of Brookmyre receiving the award from title sponsor Simon Theakston).

On the opening night of the festival, a special presentation was made to Lee Child, the winner of the eighth Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award. Child joins Val McDermid, Sara Paretsky, Lynda La Plante, Ruth Rendell, PD James, Colin Dexter and Reginald Hill as recipients of the Award.

Agent Jane Gregory was also honoured with a a Special Contribution to Crime Fiction Award, given by author and co-founder of the Festival, Val McDermid.

The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is being held in Harrogate this weekend.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

New #yeahnoir: THE SOUND OF HER VOICE

A former New Zealand detective who investigated drug manufacture, child abuse, corruption, serious violence, rape and murder during his ten-year career has brought all his real-life experience with New Zealand's criminal underworld to bear in his debut crime novel, released on 8 August. 

Touted as a novel that will 'shock', and take readers into 'the real world of murky, disturbing, and downright terrifying policing', Nathan Blackwell's The Sound of Her Voice draws on real cases, with each chapter revealing a seemingly standalone crime. However, as the story unfolds, readers see that bit by bit prior horrors are 'inextricably woven into what happens next'.

The novel’s protagonist, Detective Matt Buchanan, unravels as he pieces together the crimes he’s trying to solve. Ultimately, it gets too personal, he goes too far, and, as the subtitle suggests, Buchanan descends into darkness.

The blurb: 
For Buchanan, the world is a pretty sick place. He has probably been in the job too long, for one thing. And then there’s 14-year-old Samantha Coates, and the other unsolved murder cases. Those innocent girls he just can’t get out of his head. When Buchanan pursues some fresh leads, it soon becomes clear he’s on the trail of something big. As he pieces the horrific crimes together, Buchanan finds the very foundations of everything he once believed in start to crumble. He’s forced across that grey line that separates right and wrong – into places so dark, even he might not make it back.

The author: 
Nathan Blackwell was raised on Auckland’s North Shore and attended Westlake Boys’ High School before commencing a ten-year career in the New Zealand Police. Seven of those years were spent as a Detective in the Criminal Investigation Branch, where he was exposed to human nature at its strongest and bravest, but also at its most depraved and horrific. He investigated a wide range of cases including drug manufacture, child abuse, corruption, serious violence, rape and murder. Because some of his work was conducted covertly, Nathan chooses to hide his true identity.

In his former capacity as a detective, Blackwell says he found sexual offending the hardest to deal with. “The victims are re-living it, over and over, attempting to deal with surviving the most horrific traumas. As a cop, your job is to be the sounding board, the voice of hope, the link between them and the wheels of the legal system. It's a very tough, long process. I think I've tried to bring that out in the book. I definitely worked harder on those cases than anything else, because you get to know those people. You see them take the stand to give evidence, holding it together, giving it everything. And then the lawyers break them down. It's horrible.”

The publishers say "this astonishing novel will grip you and will stay in your head long after you’ve finished reading it". It will be published in New Zealand on 8 August. Keep an eye out for it.

I have a copy on my bedside table, and am very excited about diving in.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: UNFAITHFUL UNTO DEATH

UNFAITHFUL UNTO DEATH by Jennifer Barraclough (2016)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

This black comedy with serious undertones is set in an English rural general practice during the 1980s. Dr Cyril Peabody, whose application for promotion in hospital medicine has been rejected on the grounds of "personality problems", takes a post as a country doctor. Too arrogant to admit that he is out of his depth with the job, he develops a cynical attitude towards his patients, and finds himself in continual conflict with the senior partner and with his new wife Rosamund. Problems escalate even further when Rosamund attempts to run a drug trial and gets romantically involved with the pharmaceutical rep. Then the local community is affected by a series of unexplained illnesses, both human and canine, and suspicious deaths.

The unaware, vaguely idiotic central character provides a deep mine of material for any type of slightly tongue in cheek story-telling, and UNFAITHFUL UNTO DEATH uses the premises in setting up Dr Cyril Peabody from the outset of the novel.

Cyril is perpetually disappointed in life. He has been stymied in his career path, forced to take a (in his opinion) menial job as a country GP, married a woman who is only just satisfactory, and generally living a life that he feels has been affected constantly by the wilfulness of others. Obviously he's completely incapable of seeing that he's the problem. He's boorish, prissy and prone to conflation of his own worth. He's basically a tiresome individual.

Writing about these sorts of characters is a tricky undertaking, as balance between time spent with somebody who is absolutely slappable and actual advancement of plot, hopefully to where Dr Cyril gets his comeuppance, has to remain engaging for the reader.

Alas UNFAITHFUL UNTO DEATH dwells a lot on the man, which whilst you can see there is humour there, the joke becomes thin quickly. There's even something oddly off-putting about wife Rosamund, who if anybody had a right to some happiness, alas has her own overly annoying quirks without enough of the humour to humanise her.

It has to be noted that humour of this type is a difficult undertaking as a reader's experience is greatly affected by their relationship with the Rosamund and Dr Cyril. Overall, a little more acuity and balance between the ego of Cyril, the passivity of Rosamund and plot advancement would have helped this reader a lot.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and the Ned Kelly Awards. She kindly shares and republishes her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review: LIFTING

LIFTING by Damien Wilkins (VUP, 2017)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Amy is a store detective at Cutty’s, the oldest and grandest department store in the country. She’s good at her job. She can read people and catch them. But Cutty’s is closing down. Amy has a young baby, an ailing mother, and a large mortgage. She also has a past as an activist.

This compelling novel opens in a police interview room, with Amy narrating the weeks leading up to the chaotic close of Cutty’s, a time when the store moves from permanent feature to ruin and when people under stress do strange things. An intense exploration of the moment when the solid ground of a life is taken away, this swiftly told novel shows again how unerringly and vividly Damien Wilkins traces the stress fractures of contemporary living.

Amy is a new mum, still coming to terms with having a ‘family’, her husband has moved from a job where he smelt of coffee all the time to one where he stinks of petrol, they have problems with the neighbours, her mother is ailing and her elder sisters judgemental – but all in all things are OK.

Amy is also surrounded by crime, she is a store detective at Cutty’s, a large Wellington department store, she was an animal rights activist in her youth, and from experience knows that most people have infringed at some point in their lives.  And Amy is being interviewed by the Police, and the interview has something to do with an incident during the disturbing last few weeks, the weeks since the announcement of the closure of Cutty’s.

Lifting drifts through these few weeks, and through Amy’s memories as she becomes quite disengaged from her life, observing her child, her husband, herself much as she observes the shoppers in the store. She wonders about moving away from ‘security’ work, thinking that it puts her in constant proximity to low-level criminals, but then again maybe that’s exactly where she wants to be? Amy uses her power of ‘discretion’ with the ‘persons of interest’ she spots as she pretends to be a fellow shopper, thinking she has a moral compass, but isn’t she just random with her grace and with her decisions to act?

The closure of the store becomes a metaphor for the disintegration of an era – with its sexist doormen, the sensual face-to-face rather than face-to-screen shopping experience, the tea and cream buns after the first bra fitting, and the various methods of shoplifting; brazen to furtive, but all on an individual, human level – not the horrific violent gang raids on dairies and service stations we see on TV, not the impersonal mass cyber robberies we read about.

"It was tempting to believe that venturing outside the crumbling world of Cutty’s would bring you even closer to the apocalypse and that gangs of wild children carrying improvised weapons wandered the streets …".

And there is Gerty Cutty, the last surviving member of the founding family, an embodiment of the store’s long and shady past.Amy is intrigued by her and wonders if her sad farewells to the store aren’t also a good riddance, she watches her driven away: “A small hand waved at the window as the car pulled away”.

As the staff of Cutty’s work through the final weeks, some getting jobs, some still hoping for a final reprieve, no one really has a handle on the situation – large items go missing, is it theft or part of the wind-down of the store?  And the staff start eyeing up items themselves, to buy or …  And interspersed in the narrative is the Police interview – which crime great or small is being investigated?  Is Amy a suspect or helping with the investigation?

As the store at once winds down and also starts preparing for a final sale – they are flying people down on a special flight from Auckland for it – there is a sense that something has gone very, very wrong. Lifting is inconclusive and ambiguous, even the title can refer to petty crime or to triumphant moments, it harkens to a time of clarity and certainty that probably never existed on an individual level, not even in youth, and definitely not in any previous era.  It is a lovely read about the passing of time and how every now and again that passage leaves you unmoored for a while.

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: STRAIGHT AND LEVEL

STRAIGHT AND LEVEL by Penelope Haines (2017)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

The sequel to Death on D'Urville sees Claire Hardcastle involved in another adventure. The night Claire meets newly arrived property developer Jim Mason is also the night she has a chance conversation with investigative journalist Andrew Camborne, who's been researching reports of crime and corruption on the Kapiti Coast. 

Later, Claire witnesses an altercation between the two, and the next morning, Andrew's body is found. Is it an accident, or homicide? When Claire and Jim's daughter are abducted, Claire is forced to fly her kidnappers to a remote hideout. Thrust into a world of eco-terrorism, drug-smuggling, and violence, the two women have to use all their initiative to survive.

Claire Hardcastle is a twenty-something pilot working for a small aviation  outfit on the Kapiti Coast.  Her new, still finding out about each other, partner is a cop – and currently off in the Solomon Islands on secondment – leaving their relationship at the Skype level. She loves flying and is studying for more qualifications, she is swearing off alcohol for a good cause, and enjoying the mix of work, friends and living alone with her cat, Nelson.

But not far into the novel Claire starts meeting a range of intriguing characters, getting odd flying assignments, and being in the vicinity where bodies are being found. Claire doesn’t end up unravelling the mystery so much as getting swept along into it – her piloting skills being of great interest to both the good guys and the bad guys.

She is a great character, a mix of pizazz and composure – and very human, she gets a rumbling tum at a very tense moment, and fleetingly thinks she didn’t really need to have changed the sheets during a torrid sex scene. It is great to have the males the ones who are agonising over relationships, and eliciting “Magnificence in a man can be so transitory” comments about their physiques.

The plot involves drugs, gangs, rich people, Maori sovereignty and a very whacky attempt at bio-terrorism, but somehow it all hangs together. And there are a few red herrings along the way.

The settings are great – the beautiful Kapiti Coast, the Marlborough Sounds and the misty Uruweras, are all described to great effect, often from the air. The technical information about flying is absorbing – on more than one occasion I thought of taking lessons!

This is the second Claire Hardcastle outing and a third is on the way. Well worth a read.

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: THE LATE SHOW




















THE LATE SHOW by Michael Connelly (July 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Renée Ballard works the night shift in Hollywood, beginning many investigations but finishing none as each morning she turns her cases over to day shift detectives. A once up-and-coming detective, she's been given this beat as punishment after filing a sexual harassment complaint against a supervisor.

But one night she catches two cases she doesn't want to part with: the brutal beating of a prostitute left for dead in a parking lot and the killing of a young woman in a nightclub shooting. Ballard is determined not to give up at dawn. Against orders and her own partner's wishes, she works both cases by day while maintaining her shift by night. As the cases entwine they pull her closer to her own demons and the reason she won't give up her job no matter what the department throws at her. 

Michael Connelly's thirtieth novel is a bit of a curveball for long-time readers, but he absolutely smashes it out of the park. For the first time in many years, there's no Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller. Instead, a new hero, young detective Renee Ballard, a beach-loving Hawaiian who's been relegated to the midnight shift in Hollywood after speaking up against her former supervisor's sexual harassment.

Ballard was a star on the rise, but now she's persona non grata with many former colleagues in the prestigious Robbery Homicide division. Instead, she spends the early hours of the morning being called out to all manner of incidents, beginning investigations before passing them on to the daytime detectives. She's a shepherd of crime, more than a crime solver. But Ballard won't allow her current situation to push her out of the police force. She's determined to make a difference, to help victims.

Although she has a partner, the pair of detectives on 'the late show' (the nickname for the midnight shift) have to cover the entire week between them, so end up working some nights solo. Ballard's partner Jenkins is a solid detective, but is often now just punching the clock, eager to get home to spend time with his ailing wife. He doesn't share Ballard's burning drive to go the extra mile.

When on one night there's a credit card theft, a trans prostitute is brutally beaten and put in a coma and a bar worker is caught up in a nightclub multiple murder, Ballard finds it hard to let either of the latter two cases go. Despite the fact that her old nemesis, Lieutenant Olivas, takes over the nightclub investigation with his crack RHD team, and makes it very clear he needs no help from her.

Ballard is on the outside looking in, but won't let that stop her trying to find the truth.

Even if it puts her career, and her own life, on the line.

Connelly absolutely nails the tricky balance between familiarity and freshness with The Late Show. For long-time fans, Ballard has some Bosch-like characteristics (trouble with her superiors, extremely driven, solves crimes in LA) while being a fascinating, fully-formed character all of her own too.

It's easy to see why The Late Show is already being touted as the start of a new series, rather than a standalone. Renee Ballard is a wonderfully intriguing character, who gets more and more interesting as the book goes on, and we learn a little more about her. She is fierce, has a different way of looking at the world, and faces issues as a female detective that haven’t been addressed in other Connelly tales. I was curious as to how Connelly might handle writing from the perspective of a female detective, but he does it with aplomb and authenticity (I understand the character was inspired in part by a real-life LAPD female detective who Connelly has known for many years).

The Late Show starts well and gets even better as the pages turn, as we learn more about Ballard and her LA world, and are handcuffed by a sublimely wrought crime tale.

A brilliant start to a new series from a true master of the craft.

Note: The Late Show will be released by Orion Books on July 11 in the UK and Ireland, by Allen & Unwin on July 12 in Australia and New Zealand, and by Little, Brown & Company on July 18 in the USA and Canada.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, and on national radio and top podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson