Thursday, May 30, 2024

"A kinetic, fascinating tale" - THE PIT review

THE PIT by Peter Papathanasiou (MacLehose Press, 2023)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

With DS Manolis on leave in Greece, Senior Constable Sparrow receives a phone call from a man who wants to turn himself in. Bob is sixty-five years old, confined to a Perth nursing home. But thirty years ago, he killed a man in the remote northern Kimberley mining region. He offers to show Sparrow where the body is, but there's a Sparrow must travel north with him under the guise of being his carer.

They are accompanied on the drive by another nursing home Luke, thirty years old, paralysed in a motorbike accident. As they embark on their road trip through the guts of Western Australia, pursued by outback police and adrenaline-soaked miners, Sparrow beings to suspect that Bob's desire to head north may have sinister motivations. Is Luke being held against his will? And what lies in store for them when they reach their goal?

I was not alone in being mightily impressed by Canberra author Peter Papathanasiou’s hard-hitting 2021 debut The Stoning, where the brutal death of a rural schoolteacher incited a terrific Outback Noir that delivered a fascinating storyline while exploring Australia’s treatment of refugees alongside a clear-eyed look at hypocrisies old and new and the uglier side of modern life in ‘the Lucky Country’.

That book also introduced Detective Sergeant Georgias ‘George’ Manolis, a big city cop sent to his childhood hometown to help the locals investigate the death and douse escalating reprisals, and local Aboriginal constable ‘Sparrow’. In Papathanasiou’s third and latest novel, The Pit, Manolis is on leave in Greece, so it is Sparrow that receives a call from a killer that wants to turn himself in.

Bob wants to make a deal. In his mid-sixties, he’s relatively young compared to some of his fellow residents in a Perth nursing home. Though he’s not the youngest there. Maybe Bob’s paying for past sins. Decades ago he killed someone in the remote mining region of north Kimberley. He offers to show Sparrow where the body is, saying he’s unable to find it without going there himself.

Sparrow isn’t sure, while thinking the juice may be worth the squeeze. But there are a couple of hitches: Sparrow must pretend to be Bob’s carer as they travel north, and they’re joined on the road trip by another nursing home resident: Luke, a 30-year-old who was paralysed in a motorbike crash. What is Bob’s real motivation to take Sparrow deep into the dusty back-blocks of Western Australia, and why is the surly Luke along for the ride? What secrets may come to light, if they ever reach their destination and somehow manage to survive a series of misadventures and dangerous encounters?

Papathanasiou delivers a kinetic, fascinating tale that may divide readers when it comes to whether it surpasses or falls short of his excellent debut. Australian social history and harsh landscapes provide a stark backdrop to the mystery of Bob’s quest, his past, and his intentions. As well as the action sparked by clashes the trio face, and sometimes instigate, with an array of humanity that roams the lonely roadways of Western Australia, eking out a living in various ways.

A very good read that centres an indigenous character while exploring varying prejudices and their real-world impact in times present and past. I’m curious to see what Papathanasiou delivers next.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, awards judge, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Murakami sleuths and Parisian film watching: an interview with Tom Baragwanath

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the 233rd instalment of our long-running author interview series, 9mm - but the first in around a year, and only the second in the past two and a half years. After more than 230 author interviews between 2010-2021, the series largely went into hiatus, for a variety of personal reasons.

After averaging more than 200 posts per year the first 12 years of Crime Watch, it has languished somewhat during the pandemic, so I do appreciate all of you who still check in now and then, reading some of the many author interviews, reviews, and other pieces on here (2,500+ posts) and occasional new pieces. 

Looking ahead, I plan to be more regularly posting on Crime Watch once more, at least in terms of reviews and author interviews and awards news etc. The website needs a revamp and reorganisation, but regardless of 'look', it will continue to shine a light on cool crime and thriller authors and books from all over the world, including back home 'Down Under' in New Zealand and Australia. 

Thanks for reading and sharing the 9mm series, and Crime Watch in general (and my work elsewhere) over the years. I've had a lot of fun talking to some amazing crime writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you. You can check out the full list of of past 9mm interviewees here. What a line-up. 

With lots more fun to come. Thanks everyone. 

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been part of the 9mm series, please do let me know in the comments or by message, and now I'm back on deck more fully, I'll look to make that happen for you. We've got some more interviews with cool writers 'already in the can' that will be published soon, so lots to look forward to over the coming weeks and months. 

Tom Baragwanath at his UK launch at Waterstones Covent Garden
Today I'm very pleased to welcome a fantastic fresh new voice in Antipodean crime fiction, Tom Baragwanath, in a new 9mm interview that is being co-published on Murder is Everywhere. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom for the first time last year at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing festival in Harrogate - he was over to meet his British publishers etc. We caught up again earlier this year at a well-attended London launch of the UK hardback of PAPER CAGE, at Waterstones Covent Garden

Originally from Masterton, in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand's North Island, Tom currently lives in Paris. His debut PAPER CAGE won the 2021 Michael Gifkins prize for unpublished manuscripts, and was released in Australia and New Zealand by Text Publishing. It was a finalist for the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel, and longlisted for Best Novel. It was also shortlisted for the 2023 Ned Kelly Award for Best International Crime Fiction, and has now been published in hardcover in the UK and USA in 2024. Between pastries, Tom is working on his next novel.

But for now, Tom becomes the latest author (and first in a while) to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
It's not exactly classic crime fiction, but the unnamed narrator of Haruki Murakami's 'Trilogy of the Rat' series (Hear the Wind Sing, A Wild Sheep Chase, and Dance Dance Dance) is a personal favourite of mine. He's cool and detached in typical hard-boiled fashion, but slightly bungling and remote in that special Murakami kind of way – and just resourceful enough to get to the bottom of things (even the more existential or philosophical mysteries). 

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
The first book I remember truly loving was a book about space shuttles my grandmother used to read to me before I could read for myself. I loved that book so much it disintegrated. As for novels, a friend put a copy of Catch-22 in my hands when I was around thirteen, and I just couldn't believe what I was reading: the gallows humour, the bleak yet oddly uplifting tone, and the incredible inventiveness of the language. Just an incredible book for a teenager to discover.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I had a bunch of short stories published in my twenties and early thirties, mostly presenting thinly-veiled versions of myself in situations taken loosely from my own life. I still like some of them – but some of them I'm pretty happy to forget. 

Outside of writing and writing-related activities (book events, publicity), what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I live in Paris, so I'm morally obligated to see a lot of films – it's pretty much part of the application for residency there. This habit has been curtailed a bit by the presence of a toddler in my life, but it's still my favourite thing. Besides that, I try to run in Buttes-Chaumont as much as I can. 

Castlepoint Scenic reserve on the Wairarapa coastline

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?
Take a walk up Castle Rock at Castlepoint on the east coast past Masterton, and walk over to Christmas Bay for good measure. Bonus points if you manage to find the one day in a hundred when it isn't blowing a gale. 

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Mark Ruffalo. Looks nothing like me, but he's my guy. 

Of your writings, which is your favourite or a bit special to you for any particular reason, and why?
The final chapter in Paper Cage is probably my favourite. I won't say too much about why, but I was working on the version that ended up going to print when my wife and I were expecting our son, and I was reaching for a sense of care and protectiveness I couldn't quite describe at that moment – but I think I managed it. A big thanks to my publisher at Knopf, Caitlin Landuyt – she really pushed me to reflect on the kind of tone we wanted to end on in the final section of the book. 

What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut novel in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
I had a call with Michael Heyward and Mandy Brett of Text Publishing to let me know I'd won the Gifkins Prize at about 9am one summer morning in Paris. I was exploding with excitement, but I had to wait until I finished work to go out and celebrate.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
On the train from London to Harrogate for the crime festival in 2023, I was having a delightful chat with the writer SA Cosby about Don Delillo, Cormac McCarthy, and all the rest, when some chap's laptop bag fell off the rack and beaned me in the head. He was so apologetic he pre-ordered Paper Cage right then and there. A few more head injuries and I'll be a best-seller.

Thanks, Tom, we appreciate you having a chat with us. 

Tom Baragwanath will be appearing on Thursday as part of the 'Whose Crime Is It Anyway?' event at Capital Crime, where two teams of crime writers battle game-show style. His debut novel PAPER CAGE is out now in the UK, United States Australia, and New Zealand. 

Monday, May 27, 2024

"Nails all the steps with aplomb" - review of THE LAST DANCE

THE LAST DANCE by Mark Billingham (Atlantic, 2023)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Meet Detective Miller: unique, unconventional, and criminally underestimated...

A double murder in a seaside hotel sees grieving Detective Miller return to work to solve what appears to be a case of mistaken identity. Will this eccentric, offbeat sleuth find answers where more traditional police have found only a puzzle?

I still remember the day I first discovered (for me) the crime storytelling of British author Mark Billingham. It was a little over 20 years ago, and I was a young attorney browsing the crime and thriller section of a downtown bookshop in New Zealand’s biggest city on my lunch break. Unable to resist, I walked out of the store having bought a copy of Sleepyhead (along with Michael Connelly’s The Poet and James Lee Burke’s Purple Cane Road – a rather successful book buying day!).

While Connelly and Burke were already well established and highly regarded by then, Billingham fair burst onto the scene with his cracking debut Sleepyhead, a twisting and dark British police procedural that remains, for me, one of the very best series-starters of the modern era. So good in fact that its premise was later filched for a key episode of CSI: New York, along with kick-starting a terrific, long-running series starring country music loving, kinda-curmudgeon DI Tom Thorne.

But now, something new, and for Billingham something of a return – or at least nod to and greater inclusion of – his pre-Sleepyhead days when he was most well-known in Britain as a stand-up comedian and an actor who popped up in minor roles in police dramas, as the human face of political puppet show Spitting Image, or as bumbling henchman Gary, a castle guard for the Sheriff of Nottingham in late 1980s-early 1990s kids’ comedy TV show Maid Marian and her Merry Men.

In his first series-starter in two decades, Billingham returns to his comedic roots with the brilliant The Last Dance, a hilarious yet heartfelt crime novel that introduces one-of-a-kind sleuth DS Declan Miller. Back at work following the murder of his wife – a fellow detective and his ballroom dance partner – moped riding Miller is looking to re-find his feet alongside contrasting new partner, in the professional sense, DS Sara Xiu (an enthusiast of motorcycles, heavy metal music, and casual sex).

The duo are tabbed to investigate a bizarre double-killing at a seedy seaside hotel in Blackpool. A local crime family’s eldest son is dead in one room, and an IT consultant is equally sans heartbeat in the adjacent one. Is this a clumsily executed professional hit? As they try to run down leads without making too many missteps, Miller and Xiu quick-step into all sorts of misadventures, while the shadow of his wife’s unsolved murder hovers. Just as she does, appearing regularly in their home.

Where the Thorne series was salted with gallows humour, DS Miller’s investigations have a very different tone; lots of laughs among the dark deeds. The zingy dialogue and Miller’s perspective and quips will have readers smiling, chuckling, even laughing out loud. But this is no one-man show. Other characters, from Xiu to Miller’s eclectic group of ballroom dance buddies, bring much to this highly engaging, well-constructed crime novel. The Last Dance is a vibrant read that still explores some serious topics, from grief to gangsters to various prejudices in our communities.

Billingham is dancing a tricky line, but he nails all the steps with aplomb. If crime writing were Dancing with the Stars, this budding new series would sail through to the next round on a string of 9s and 10s from the judges. And we’d all be left full of anticipation for what’s to come next time the music hits. Thankfully, another DS Miller tale is on the way; The Wrong Hands drops this summer.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, awards judge, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

Sunday, May 26, 2024


MAMI SUZUKI: PRIVATE EYE by Simon Rowe (Penguin, 2023)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Beneath the sheen of its orderly streets and obedient populace, all is not well in the port city of Kobe. Business is as brisk as the Haru-ichiban spring breeze for Mami Suzuki, hotel clerk by day, private investigator by night.

Who’s stealing from Japan’s biggest pearl trader? Where’s the master sushi chef and why are his knives missing? How did the tea ceremony teacher’s brother really die? And what does an island of cats have to do with a pregnant Shinto shrine maiden?

From the Kobe wharfs to the rugged Japan Sea coast, the subtropics of Okinawa, and a remote island community in the Seto Inland Sea, each new adventure ends with a universal truth – that there are two sides to every story of misfortune.

Mami Suzuki is moonlighting as a private eye in Kobe, Japan. She is doing so unbeknownst to the management of the Orient Hotel where she works – she needs the money to support herself, her mother, and her daughter. Four stories, each linked by the word of mouth of a client, present Mami Suzuki as shrewd, empathetic, and sensible – although possibly with a bit of a drinking problem.

Suzuki’s four cases take us to wonderfully described destinations; you can smell hear and taste the locations. One story is set in Kobe, with the president of a major pearl business concerned about theft in the organisation. The second takes us to the small port town of Mihonoseki near Matsue, with Suzuki trying to locate a sushi master who has left his family. Suzuki then takes her mum and daughter to Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture, to determine the truth behind the death of a retired executive. Finally, we start a mystery at the Ikuta Shrine in Kobe and end up on the island of Manabeshima, populated by 83 people and 166 cats.

A common thread in each story is the charming and handsome fisherman, Teizo, whose backstory equips him with knowledge of the sea, and connections in various places, which help Suzuki with her cases. The stories are in a minor key – Suzuki gently piecing together the stories of desperation, heartbreak, superstition, longing, and human frailty. They are compelling stories, and Suzuki is quite funny, gets angry, has a strong sense of justice that doesn’t always agree with the law, and finds the “greatest unsolved mystery” to be how she is managing to hold down a day job while working as a private investigator.

Mami Suzuki: Private Eye, written by an outsider who has spent a lot of time in Japan, gives a tantalising look at another way of thinking about things, while always keeping the distance of an onlooker; the result is atmospheric and beguiling. I really look forward to reading more of Mami Suzuki’s adventures..

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

Thursday, May 23, 2024

"Powered by sharp prose and insights" - review of SING HER DOWN

SING HER DOWN by Ivy Pochoda (MCD, 2023)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Florence “Florida” Baum is not the hapless innocent she claims to be when she arrives at the Arizona women’s prison—or so her ex-cellmate Diosmary Sandoval keeps insinuating.

Dios knows the truth about Florida’s crimes, understands what Florence hides even from herself: that she was never a victim of circumstance, an unlucky bystander misled by a bad man. Dios knows that darkness lives in women too, despite the world’s refusal to see it. And she is determined to open Florida’s eyes and unleash her true self.

When an unexpected reprieve gives both women their freedom, Dios’s fixation on Florida turns into a dangerous obsession, and a deadly cat-and-mouse chase ensues from Arizona to the desolate streets of Los Angeles.

While Ivy Pochoda was born and bred in New York City, the award-winning novelist’s recent works have earned her a deserved place among the leading lights of modern ‘California Noir’. A few years ago, I was pointed towards Pochoda’s Wonder Valley by none other than Los Angeles crime king Michael Connelly during an interview we were doing. That book, which was full of characters who tore at your heart and soul, such as a young man searching for his mother on Skid Row and a former college sports start searching for a new life on a desert commune, fully delivered.

Like Connelly, Pochoda takes readers into the grit and tough realities that lie beneath the glamorous So-Cal veneer that's packaged and presented to global audiences. Edgar nominee These Women followed, a remarkable mystery about the lives and deaths of LA sex workers that deep-dived into the people often overlooked and unseen, ignored or dismissed by wider society. Now, Sing Her Down, another ferocious read about violence and women. Women who’ve suffered violence, and women who commit violence. 

Florence ‘Florida’ Baum is an inmate at Arizona women’s prison, but she’s not the innocent victim of circumstance that she claims to be, a party girl led astray by a bad man – at least according to her former cellmate Diosmary ‘Dios’ Sandoval. Dios ruthlessly embraces the darkness that can also live within women, and is set on getting Florida to admit her true self. Even if her own background isn’t as badass as she portrays. A fellow prisoner’s death further connects Florida and Dios, and when they go on the lam from COVID quarantine after an early release, a deadly cat-and-mouse game takes them to a showdown on eerily quiet streets of pandemic era Los Angeles. Meanwhile a female LAPD officer, Lobos, is on their trail while dealing with her own questions about male violence and control, and female rage and violence. 

Pochoda crafts a real frontier noir feel in Sing Her Down, a tale of women on the margins, victims and victimisers, and the rage and violence that can exist within. This is a compelling tale that traverses a stark landscape of prison, desert, global pandemic, and homeless encampments. Modern life veering towards Mad Max. Powered by sharp prose and insights, this thrilling tale of two indelible women on a collision course is hard to put down and even harder to forget.  

An excellent read, highly recommended.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

Monday, May 20, 2024

"A great instalment in an excellent series" - review of AFTER THAT NIGHT

AFTER THAT NIGHT by Karin Slaughter (HarperCollins, 2023) 

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Fifteen years ago, Sara Linton's life changed forever when a celebratory night out ended in a violent attack that tore her world apart. Since then, Sara has remade her life. A successful doctor, engaged to a man she loves, she has finally managed to leave the past behind her.

Until one evening, on call in the ER, everything changes. Sara battles to save a broken young woman who's been brutally attacked. But as the investigation progresses, led by GBI Special Agent Will Trent, it becomes clear that Dani Cooper's assault is uncannily linked to Sara's.

And it seems the past isn't going to stay buried forever …

Georgia author Karin Slaughter is two decades and more into thrilling readers with the exploits of paediatrician and medical examiner Sara Linton, and has delivered for almost as long a stretch with tales of GBI Agent Will Trent (who’s now thrilling millions of viewers too, as portrayed by Ramón Rodríguez in crime drama Will Trent). 

In After That Night, recently longlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger in the UK – a prestigious prize Slaughter previously scooped in 2015 for her outstanding standalone Cop Town – Linton and Trent dig deep into the connections between a horrifying rape case and the sexual assault Sara herself survived fifteen years before. Three years after teenager Dani Cooper crashes into an ambulance and whispers to Linton at Grady Memorial Hospital that she thinks she’s been raped, before dying, Linton is preparing to be cross-examined by a notorious attorney at a trial against Thomas Michael McAllister IV, son of two of her old med school peers. Two people who know about Sara’s own rape trauma, which she fears will be used in the trial to discredit her or show she’s biased in her recollections of what Dani Cooper said. 

While Linton escapes the viciously personal cross-examination she was expecting, she’s shocked in a different way; confronted in the courtroom bathroom by Britt McAllister, who smugly mentions that what happened to Dani and what happened to Sara was all connected. But how? Sara’s own rapist, hospital janitor Jack Allen Wright, was caught and imprisoned. Sara and Will team up with Will’s somewhat-benched GBI partner Faith for an off-the-books investigation into the links across generations of unspeakable horrors visited on young women associated with the university and medical school. It’s an at-times harrowing descent into misogyny and sexual assault, a devastating read that could be read as a standalone or first-time visit to Sara and Will’s world, but will have even greater impact for readers who have followed their travails and story over many novels and years.

Slaughter is such a skilful storyteller that things never become too grim, despite the darkness and horrors into which she dives. There are strong threads of compassion and caring, and lighter moments between characters that offset the trauma. A great instalment in an excellent series.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Guest review: RETURN TO BLOOD

RETURN TO BLOOD by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster, 2024)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Two murders. Two decades apart. One chance to get justice.

Hana Westerman has left Auckland and her career as a detective behind her. Settled in a quiet coastal town, all she wants is a fresh start. The discovery of a skeleton in the dunes near her house changes everything. The remains are those of a young Māori woman who went missing four years before, and Hana has a connection to the case. Twenty years ago, a schoolfriend of hers was found buried in the exact same spot. Her killer died in prison, but did the police get the wrong man? And if he was innocent, then why did he plead guilty?

No longer part of the Criminal Investigation Branch, Hana turns to her ex-husband Jaye, a high-flying Detective Inspector, for help. But when he cuts her out of the investigation, she realises that she will have to find the answers she needs on her own..

Hana Westerman is back staking out houses, interviewing suspects, filming crimes in progress, and piecing together scraps of information. The only problem is, she’s no longer a detective: “Hana had walked away from the cops because she couldn’t live with the darkness anymore. But the darkness had followed her. And it had followed her family.”

Hana has returned to where she grew up; Tātā Beach on the west coast of the North Island. Her rapper daughter Addison and Addison’s best friend PLUS1, are living in Hana’s house in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, about two hours away. Hana is renting just down from her dad Eru’s place. She runs every morning, and she and Eru are helping the local kids get their driving licences.

Hana is welcomed back to her community by some, but held at a distance by others. There are those who think she has come back feeling superior, looking down on them. Eyes is one of the latter, and Hana is struggling with Eyes’ son Tīmoti, whose attitude is getting in the way of his licence lessons. Hana fears he might be being drawn into the ambit of local thug Erwin Rendall.

All is manageable for Hana until Addison, visiting her mum, finds human remains in the sand dunes. The remains are those of a young woman, and the location is exactly where another young woman, Paige Meadows, was discovered 20 years previously. The man found guilty of Paige’s murder, Tama Hall, has since died in prison – but Eru is adamant Tama was innocent: “Tama didn’t kill that girl. He didn’t do it.” And then a woman approaches Hana to provide information regarding who Paige’s real killer might be.

Hana finds herself investigating both murders. The skeleton Addison finds is that of Kiri Thomas. Hana had only met Kiri once, at a Youth at Risk programme – she had told Hana “You look like photos of my real mum”. The detectives on the search for Kiri’s murderer are Jaye Hamilton, Hana’s ex-husband and Addison’s dad, and Lorraine Delaney, a colleague of Hana’s who has taken on Hana’s role of Detective Senior Sergeant in the department, and who had been piloting the Youth at Risk programme Kiri, and her friend Dax attended.

Treading a fine line with what she has the powers to do, and ensuring she passes all information on the police, Hana makes progress. Her ex-junior colleague Stan Riordan is still on the force, sitting on a desk job, eager to get back into action – well-placed to help Hana. And another ex-cop, Sebastian Kang, has started up a PI business – he gives Hana the odd bits of work, and he has her back in her investigations.

Return to Blood follow a standard crime novel pattern of finding clues, considering possibilities, falling for mis-directions – all culminating in a tense and scary denouement. But what makes it a superb novel are the characterisations and the juxtaposition of opposing ideas of what constitutes justice. Bennett describes the traditional Māori concept of muru, natural law, as opposed to the British common law system; “institutionalized, laid out in leather-bound tomes, enforced and adjudicated upon by police and lawyers and judges, people with absolutely no knowledge of or relationship to those who were actually affected.”

Is it justice when one man accepts another’s sacrifice and the responsibility of turning his life around? Is it justice when someone sets another up for their accidental crime, when the victim would be paying the price anyway? Is it justice when a crime is ignored because, if discovered, it wouldn’t be the real culprit who is punished? And making these questions vivid are the rich characters in Return to Blood.

Hana is still her staunch self, and so brave when approaching difficult situations – like humbling herself to Jaye’s new wife after a mis-judgement, or battling on with Eyes regarding fighting for Tīmoti’s future. Addison and PLUS1 are complex and fragile, especially when Addison decides to do a bit of investigating herself: “There’s what you say. There’s what you sing. And there’s what you actually feel.” Each character is conflicted and nuanced. And then there’s Eru.

“I was just a Māori boy from a small town who liked to go fishing.” Eru is accepting, kind, non-judgemental and loyal. He sees no difference between a soldier’s stress from battlefield orders, and a person’s stress from gang orders. He is knowingly naïve: “‘We’re pescatarian, Grandpa’, ‘That’s different to non-binary?’” The reader longs for Eru and his wisdom to be OK.

And poignantly, Kiri’s voice weaves through the book, and she is present in Addison’s dreams. She was 17. She fell in love with the genderless visceral Māori gods. She loved the weightlessness of the dip in a loop-de-loop. She lost her parents young, and she pushed her adoptive parents away by testing boundaries; “I wasn’t their blood”. She lost her way due to a misunderstanding. And the novel never lets us forget, regardless of the worries, mistakes, and triumphs of those left behind, Kiri has had everything taken from her – her chance to love or harm, her chance to make amends, her chance to live.

Return to Blood is a great book, a great piece of #YeahNoir, a great second book in the Hana Westerman series, and I eagerly await number three.

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

Friday, May 17, 2024


END OF STORY by AJ Finn (Atlantic, 2024)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

"I'll be dead in three months. Come tell my story." This is the chilling invitation from Sebastian Trapp, renowned mystery novelist, to his long-time correspondent Nicky Hunter, an expert in detective fiction. Welcomed into his lavish San Francisco mansion, Nicky begins to unravel Trapp's life story under the watchful eyes of his enigmatic wife and plainspoken daughter.

But Sebastian Trapp is a mystery himself. And maybe - probably - a murderer. Two decades ago, his first wife and son vanished - the case never solved. Is the master of mystery playing a deadly game - and if so, who will be the loser? And when a body surfaces in the family's koi pond, they all realize the past isn't buried - it's waiting.

Six years ago, pseudonymous New York author and former book editor AJ Finn caught publishing lightning in a bottle with his heavily marketed-debut crime novel The Woman in the Window, a contemporary take on Hitchcockian tropes as an agoraphobic woman spies on her neighbours. 

Instant #1 New York Times bestseller; sold into 40+ countries, big-money film deal. 

A year later, the bottle shattered as a New Yorker profile exposed a litany of lies; was the acclaimed thriller author even more unreliable than his narrator? Finn went to ground, the star-studded film of his book fizzled, and plenty of readers and industry insiders said they’d never touch his work again.   

The question lingered, though: would the now-infamous author ever return? 

Finn answers that query with the very thrilling End of Story, which perhaps fittingly features a crime writer whose life is rife with rumour and internet gossip. Of a far more serious kind. Nicky Hunter is invited to renowned mystery novelist Sebastian Trapp’s San Francisco mansion where he lives with his second wife and adult daughter, to tell his life story and perhaps unravel a mystery or two.

Trapp is dying, his first wife and son vanished many years before, and he was a prime suspect.

Everyone has their secrets, but who is playing who? Especially when a body is found after a mansion party. Finn once again gives plenty of nods to giants of the genre, while creating a page-whirring narrative drive and setting readers up well for a fascinating denouement. And in a twist worthy of his forebears, Finn’s far-less-marketed second novel may read better than his massively (over?)hyped debut.

Worth a look. I enjoyed the read, and tore through it in a day. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.