Saturday, August 22, 2009


Kiwi crime on the rise
By Craig Sisterson

Seventy five years ago, Christchurch born-and-raised Ngaio Marsh published A Man Lay Dead – a classic British-style mystery novel about a murder committed during a weekend party at a country house. She would go on to publish 32 detective novels (several were later adapted for both British and Kiwi television) featuring gentleman police detective Roderick Alleyn, and become one of the four original ‘Queens of Crime’ who were at the writing forefront during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. One of our own amongst the world’s best - prestigious critics such as New York magazine even said “It’s time to start comparing [Agatha] Christie to Marsh instead of the other way around”.

And yet in her native New Zealand, Marsh was more well-known for her tireless support for the arts, particularly helping establish a viable theatre industry – work that led to her elevation to damehood in 1966. It seems that even when we had one of the world’s best crime writers, we undervalued local contributions to a thrilling genre beloved internationally.

Perhaps it’s no surprise the Kiwi literature scene continues to suffer from a relative lack of crime writing - that until recently there have been few contemporary authors taking up Marsh’s mystery-fiction baton. More’s the pity, considering we’ve produced award-winning scribes in other genres, from literary fiction to the big screen. Perhaps if we similarly supported and appreciated local crime writers, such as Paul Cleave and Vanda Symon (“Serial killers stalk the South Island”, NZLawyer, 14 November 2008), we might overcome our cultural cringe, and realise there’s a welcome place for Kiwi-penned tales of murder, mystery, and mayhem.

As an example, I looked at two recent releases, both suspense tales written by middle-aged female authors who’ve become prolific writers later in life. Bold Blood, the first adult suspense novel written by Nelson author Lindy Kelly, topped the New Zealand Adult Fiction bestseller charts in March. In contrast Fat Tuesday is a #1 New York Times bestseller from Texas author Sandra Brown. So, how does our local version compare with an international heavyweight?

Bold Bloodby Lindy Kelly (HarperCollins, 2009)
Horse-loving journalist, poet and children’s author Lindy Kelly adopts the old adage, ‘write what you know’, with her crime debut Bold Blood, parlaying her youthful experience as an international eventing rider into a suspense tale set amongst the stables, saddles and sorrels of the New Zealand equestrian world.

Dr Caitlin Summerfield is happily living a hectic Wellington lifestyle, accessorised with overseas travel and a rich boyfriend. Her rural Nelson childhood has been left far behind, along with her emotionally abusive mother.

A fall and a phone call destroy Caitlin’s reverie, and she takes the bunny-hop flight across Cook Strait to return ‘home’. Playing caretaker at her comatose mother’s horse farm, helped by rugged neighbour Dom and multi-pierced teenage groom Kasey, Caitlin scratches beneath the surface of high-tech horse trailers and well-fed thoroughbreds to discover looming financial ruin, and a shot at a million-dollar breeding contract. A contract someone is willing to do anything for. Even kill.

Having published more than 100 short stories, sixteen children’s books, 36 poems, and had her writing feature on National Radio and performed on stage, Kelly told me she had one goal for her first adult thriller. “I wanted to write the sort of book that I like to curl up with for sheer pleasure… something with excitement and adventure, likable strong characters… a few mysteries, a bit of romance, humour, and passion.”

Overall she succeeds, spinning an engaging tale that carries the reader along. She strikes a nice balance - peppering local references, without over-seasoning in any contrived attempt to foist ‘Kiwi-ness’ onto a universal story. Populating a plot of assaults, arsons, horse theft and murder with a diverse cast, Kelly impresses most with her rich portrait of life in the eventing world, along with the way the horses aren’t mere props; but full-blown characters with personalities in their own right.

Although there is the occasional plot misstep, Bold Blood is a good debut – a must read for horse-lovers, and an enjoyable read for anyone.

Fat Tuesday
by Sandra Brown (Hodder & Stoughton, 2009)More than a decade after it was first released in the United States, former model and TV weather presenter turned prolific bestselling author Sandra Brown’s tale of a New Orleans narcotics cop’s vengeful battle with a corrupt defence attorney, has been published in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom for the first time.

Brown, a native Texan, began her award-winning writing career in 1981, and has since penned seventy novels, including fifty-six New York Times bestsellers and several #1 bestsellers, including Fat Tuesday. Over the years her writing has shifted from romance fiction under a variety of pseudonyms to suspense thrillers.

Fat Tuesday opens with the acquittal of the man NOPD detective Burke Basile blames for the shooting death of his partner, before following Basile’s increasingly wild attempts to seek revenge on powerful defence attorney Pinkie Duvall. Basile targets Duvall not only because of the acquittal, but because he suspects Duvall of being an underground drug kingpin and well-connected, protected crime lord.

Feeling betrayed by friends, co-workers and an adulterous wife, Basile eventually kidnaps Duvall’s beautiful wife Remy in the lead-up to Mardi Gras, hiding her at an isolated fishing camp. Brown takes the reader on an often violent rollercoaster ride from sumptuous garden parties to crack-infested backstreets, bordellos to alligator-filled Louisiana swamps, as Basile tries to dodge corruption both outside and inside the NOPD as he aims for Duvall’s jugular. His plan becomes further complicated by his increasing attraction to Remy, an attraction that seems reciprocated.

Fat Tuesday is an enjoyable read. Although it has moments veering towards Brown’s pulp romance past, an exciting story and interesting characters carry the reader along on a fun journey filled with fake priests, shot-gun toting hillbillies, corrupt cops, and betrayal at every turn. It’s the type of book many readers could curl up with for sheer pleasure.

1 comment:

  1. I like all the book reviews Craig, especially as they are exposing me to many writers I'd never hear of before. And of course I appreciate the fact you review all of the New Zealand crime fiction books and get them out there in the blogosphere, so please, keep it up!