Sunday, January 31, 2010

How do you choose what crime fiction books and authors to read?

Along with the large selection of upcoming and recently-released crime and thriller books I am regularly sent to review for various print and online publications, my rapidly-growing collection of out-of-print and hard-to-find Kiwi crime/thriller titles I am amassing courtesy of various second-hand outlets, and picking up and reading books (where time permits - now much less than before) from longtime 'favourite' crime writers of mine, there is a fourth stream of 'to read' books that I find myself occasionally dipping into.

That stream, so to speak, is an informal list of crime writers I have in my head, that I really want to get around to reading. Authors who have had some impact on the genre, or have been read by many fans over the past decades, that I should really sample for myself, in terms of not only perhaps finding further 'read-everything-they've written' favourites, but also improving my crime fiction 'education', for want of a better phrase. Authors I have on this list include the likes of Robert B. Parker, Sarah Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Joseph Wambaugh, Ed McBain, Ross Macdonald, and Tony Hillerman.

I have read many classic, and otherwise 'important' authors, from Conan Doyle and Poe through to Marsh and Christie, to Chandler and Hammett. I have read Sjowall and Wahloo, as well as several of their Schwedenkrimi descendants. I have even managed to get my hands on some books not easily available in New Zealand, and gone out of my way to try new authors where time and accessibility permit (e.g. Mark Zuehlke and William Deverell when I was in Canada in 2008). Overall I feel I have read far more, and more widely, than many crime fiction fans (who tend to be quite 'tribal' in their reading, finding authors they like and sticking with them), but still, there are so many, many, many authors and books I haven't read. Many of them that I would probably love.

Hence, my fourth stream of 'to be read' books and authors. An attempt, however small, to avoid complacency and sticking to what is known, and try not only new authors, but also older authors that are new to me. This has led me to the book I am reading (and enjoying thusfar) right now: A THIEF OF TIME by Tony Hillerman. Hillerman is an author I have been meaning to read ever since I first found out a bit more about him a couple of years ago. I even got out his debut, THE BLESSING WAY, from the library last year, but it was returned (overdue) unread, because I had far too many new books to read and review. So when I was in a second-hand store while visiting my old hometown of Richmond, Nelson last week, searching for lesser-known Kiwi crime, I also ended up buying a copy of A THIEF OF TIME.

I am also going to use this book as my "US" book for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge - as Hillerman is a new US author for me, and the book also has a unique US setting (Navajo reservations and surrounds) which fits in nicely with trying different geographies, crime fiction-wise.

Hillerman's eighth novel, A THIEF OF TIME (1988) begins at a moonlit Indian ruin—where "thieves of time" ravage sacred ground in the name of profit. A noted anthropologist vanishes while on the verge of making a startling, history-altering discovery. Then at an ancient burial site, amid stolen goods and desecrated bones, two corpses are discovered, shot by bullets fitting the gun of the missing scientist. There are modern mysteries buried in despoiled ancient places. And as blood flows all too freely, Navajo Tribal Policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee must plunge into the past to unearth an astonishing truth and a cold-hearted killer.

I am about a third of the way through, and really enjoying Hillerman's writing, and the story, thusfar. If the book continues in the current vein, I think I'll be adding Hillerman to my list of favourite authors, and trying to read many more of his books. If only I can find the time...

Do you have a list of authors you'd really like to read but haven't got around to yet? Do you like reading 'older' authors as well as new, contemporary titles? How do you decide what crime fiction to read - do you keep to favourite authors? Try a new one only when you've run out of their books? Go off friend recommendations? Listen to reviewers, bestseller lists, awards and other 'media' about books and authors? Thoughts and comments welcome.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review: A DEADLY TRADE by Michael Stanley

A DEADLY TRADE by Michael Stanley

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Michael Stanley is the pen name of the crime-writing tag-team of retired South African-born professors Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, and A DEADLY TRADE is their second novel. Set in Botswana, and bringing back their food-loving Detective "Kubu" Bengu, this book is sold as THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU in North America.

A mutilated body found at a tourist camp near the Namibian border becomes even more of a mystery when Kubu and his fellow policeman discover the victim, Goodluck Tinubu, was killed during the Rhodesian war thirty years before. Trying to solve this modern-day murder entwined with the past becomes even more complex for Kubu and his colleagues when hints of international drug-running, horrific war crimes, and political pressure, all arise. Then the criminals turn their attentions to Kubu’s own family, and the rotund detective realises that the stakes are much higher than just closing the case.

I really enjoyed this book. Sears and Trollip entice the reader with a well-drawn setting in the heart of southern Africa, and a fascinating protagonist. Kubu (nicknamed because his manner and build resembles a hippopotamus - seemingly slow and serene but deadly when roused) is a delightful main character. The mystery elements of the story are nicely-structured, and unfold at an enjoyable pace, while the authors also raise some interesting questions and provide some insight into the conflict-packed history and ongoing tensions of an exotic region. I'm looking forward to going back and reading their debut, A CARRION DEATH, when I find the time.

This book was read and reviewed for Dorte Jakobsen's excellent 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

Neil Cross to appear at NZIAF

Well, I've been meaning to write a note about this for a little while, but have been holding off until a little closer to the actual event. One of my personal gripes is the way New Zealand undervalues its genre writers, and how even the ones that have had very good reviews and some sales success are still often overlooked in terms of appearing at our various writing festivals etc.

For example, there were no crime writers (local or international) speaking at last year's Auckland Writers Festival - which was a real shame. I think something could really be added by having at least some crime and thriller writers at such festivals, even if they still largely keep their literary-fiction bent overall.

Anyway, that's why I was so pleased to see that Wellington-based crime writer and TV scriptwriter Neil Cross will be appearing at the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week, which is part of the 2010 New Zealand International Arts Festival, which runs from 26 February to 21 March 2010. The New Zealand International Arts Festival is a biennial multi-arts festival held in our capital city, Wellington. It is reportedly "New Zealand's premier and largest cultural event" and organisers say it "celebrates the best arts entertainment from around the world and within New Zealand." According to the organisers, "In 2010 a total of 930 artists from 30 countries will bring the latest in international theatre, music, dance and visual arts to New Zealand."

Although the festival is predominantly about visual and performing arts, the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week part of the festival is also a key attraction. The full programme is now available, and you can access it HERE. Tickets for the Gala Opening, Town Hall Talks, Afternoon Tea with Jenny Pattrick, and the Concession Pass are on sale now. General bookings for all Writers Upfront sessions open on 9 February.

Neil Cross, who is noted for his dark novels (Booker longlisted ALWAYS THE SUN, BURIAL, CAPTURED etc) and his acclaimed TV screenwriting (Spooks, the upcoming Luther), will be making three appearances during the Writers and Readers Week:
  • Monday 8 March 2010: Once Upon a Deadline - look out for six playwrights and one scriptwriter (Cross) racing around Wellington in search of a story. Each will be armed with a laptop, wireless internet, and a minder to make sure they stick to the rules and keep to the clock. At the start of the day, each writer is given a route to follow and will spend one hour at each location, including a turn in the writer's cage. When time's up, every writer meets with an editor to help them polish up their 1,200 word story, and then it's off to the Wellington Town Hall for the Read-Off at 6:30pm to decide the winner.
  • Tuesday 9 March 2010: Wgtn Festival Gala Opening - 7:30pm: Join five of contemporary literature's most intriguing voices, hosted by Kiwi writer #1 bestselling Kiwi writer Kate De Goldi, as they talk about craft, character, and style. Writing across a number of genres, these novelists exemplify the many possibilities in 21st century fiction. From Gil Adamson's ‘literary western' Outlander to Chloe Hooper's A Child's Book of True Crime, from Neil Cross's psychological thriller Burial to Kamila Shamsie's political saga Burnt Shadows, and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, these are writers who always push the boundaries of literary fiction.
  • Sunday 14 March 2010: Writers Upfront - 2:00pm - Join Cross in a conversation with Noel Murphy, about Cross's work.
I was fortunate enough to interview Neil Cross last year for an article in Good Reading magazine. He is a fascinating and very interesting guy, and I recommend anyone in Wellington over the period of the festival, to head along and listen to him speak.
Hopefully more local and international crime writers will get opportunities to appear at New Zealand writing festivals in future.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Two promising Kiwi crime releases next month!

Only a few days away now, February is shaping to be a good month for New Zealand crime and thriller writing, with new novels from established authors Paddy Richardson and Paul Cleave.

On 1 February HUNTING BLIND, Dunedin-based novelist Paddy Richardson's second crime/thriller novel (after 2008's A YEAR TO LEARN A WOMAN), will be released in New Zealand and Australia.

HUNTING BLIND centres on Stephanie, a psychiatrist whose sister went missing as a little girl at a school picnic beside a lake 17 years ago. Now a new patient's revelations force Stephanie to re-examine her sister's disappearance, which left her family devastated and their community asking plenty of questions, and embark on a journey to uncover the truth.

Richardson, now a full-time writer and part-time creative writing teacher living in Broad Bay, a beach settlement on the Otago Peninsula, says in a Q&A with her publisher Penguin NZ that she started writing seriously after going to an Otago University Summer School in Creative Writing.

Since that time she has published a debut 'slow-moving saga' novel, two collections of short stories (several of which have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand), her first thriller (A YEAR TO LEARN A WOMAN) and is now on the cusp of her third novel, and second psychological thriller, being released. You can read a good December 2008 interview with Richardson about her thriller writing, written by Edith Schofield for the Otago Daily Times, here.

I will of course keep you all informed about any interesting media coverage or reviews in relation to Richardson and HUNTING BLIND, as they arise.

Then on 19 February Paul Cleave's fourth Christchurch-set thriller, BLOOD MEN, will be released in New Zealand (it may actually be available in Australia earlier in the month). I have been fortunate enough to read an advance version of this book, and in my opinion it is Cleave's best book yet - and I really, really enjoyed both CEMETERY LAKE and THE CLEANER.

Giant US publisher Simon & Schuster have also been impressed, signing Cleave up based on this book, which will become his first book released in the USA, later this year (I understand they intend to release the previous three books in future also). So things look to be really moving ahead for the most successful Kiwi crime writer, internationally, since Dame Ngaio Marsh.

Though, like Marsh herself, Cleave is still relatively overlooked in his home country. But with over 750,000 books already sold (mainly in non-English speaking Europe), and his launch in the US market in 2010, perhaps Cleave will finally start getting the recognition he deserves down this way. In some ways I feel (or at least hope) that Cleave could potentially be New Zealand's version of Ian Rankin or Henning Mankell - in terms of being the writer that finally gets a wider audience looking at crime fiction from their country, and then eventually realising there are other good writers there also...

Once again, BLOOD MEN is a standalone novel written from the first-person perspective of a deeply troubled protagonist. There are minor character links with some of Cleave's earlier novels, which although separate, all occur in the same 'world' he's created. In BLOOD MEN, Edward Hunter is a happily-married family man with a great life but a dark past; he’s the son of a notorious serial killer who has been in prison for 20 years and will never be coming out. The son of a man of blood. When tragedy strikes, Edward suddenly needs the help of the man he’s spent all his life trying to distance himself from, and prove he’s not like – but as things spiral out of control Edward begins to hear his own dark inner voice, and begins to wonder whether he’s destined to become a man of blood, just like his father, too

The cover of BLOOD MEN includes an extract from a quote from British crime writing superstar Mark Billingham about Cleave's writing. In the full quote Billingham says: "Most people come back from New Zealand talking about the breathtaking scenery and the amazing experiences. I came back raving about Paul Cleave. These are stories that you won't forget in a while: relentlessly gripping, deliciously twisted and shot through with a vein of humour that's as dark as hell. Anyone who likes their crime fiction on the black and bloody side should move Paul Cleave straight to the top of their must-read list."


I am looking forward to my copy of HUNTING BLIND arriving very soon. I have already read an advance version of BLOOD MEN, but am highly tempted to read it again. I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes their crime a little dark, with some sly humour, gripping plot, and interesting characters.

Do either of these books sound interesting to you? Would you consider reading either HUNTING BLIND, BLOOD MEN, or both? Have you read the authors previous work? What do you think? Thoughts and comments welcome.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A long-forgotten Kiwi crime writer?

Who penned the bestselling detective story of the 1800s? Go on, guess... Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Wilkie Collins? Edgar Allan Poe?

Like you, I would have surmised that one of the above trio, who played such a big part in the development of mystery writing prior to the 'Golden Age of Detective Fiction' helmed by the four Queens of Crime (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham), would surely have taken that honour.

Instead it was a somewhat forgotten 'colonial' from the antipodes, Fergus Hume, whose debut novel THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB sold more copies that any other mystery book in the 19th century. An overnight sensation when Hume originally self-published it in Melbourne (where the murder mystery is set) in 1886, more than 375,000 copies were quickly sold when it was published in London the following year. A huge international success, it was translated into 11 languages, and sold more than 750,000 copies - a truly startling amount back then. Such was its success that Conan Doyle is reported to have remarked (somewhat bitterly) on its sales - even questioning its quality before then clearly 'borrowing' from it in a number of ways for his own Sherlock Holmes-introducing A STUDY IN SCARLET, released soon after.

I stumbled upon THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB during my semi-regular browsings of websites and online second-hand booksellers (part of an ongoing informal project to build up my collection of out-of-print and hard-to-find Kiwi crime fiction, as well as my knowledge of the history of New Zealand crime and thriller writing). I can't recall ever hearing of Hume (who ended up writing more than 100 stories), or his groundbreaking debut novel.

Hume was born in England in 1859, but spent almost all of his first 25 years in New Zealand. His family moved to Dunedin (current home of several Kiwi crime writers, such as Vanda Symon, Paddy Richardson, Carol Dawber, and recent immigrant Liam McIlvanney) when he was an infant, and he did all his schooling in Otago - including attending Otago Boys High School and studying law at the University of Otago. Hume was even admitted to the bar in New Zealand, before he travelled to Melbourne (Australia) - where he would live for three years before heading to the United Kingdom.

It was while he was living in Melbourne, working as a barrister's clerk and trying unsuccessfully to break into playwrighting, that Hume penned THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB. As he is recorded as saying: "I enquired of a leading Melbourne bookseller what style of book he sold most of. He replied that the detective stories of Gaboriau had a large sale; and as, at this time, I had never even heard of this author, I bought all his works — eleven or thereabouts — and read them carefully. The style of these stories attracted me, and I determined to write a book of the same class; containing a mystery, a murder, and a description of low life in Melbourne."

And so it was that within a year after leaving New Zealand, Hume wrote then self-published his debut novel. As he is recorded as saying, Having completed the book, I tried to get it published, but everyone to whom I offered it refused to even look at the manuscript on the ground that no colonial could write anything worth reading".

Even if publishers wouldn't look at it, the readers certainly did. Hume sold 5,000 copies of his self-published book within three weeks in October 1886, and more than 20,000 copies by the end of the year. Even bigger success followed once the book was published in England, and other overseas locations (although Hume wasn't really financially rewarded for this, as he'd sold the US and UK rights for a mere 50 pounds, never believing the book would become such a massive success). Howver he did make some further money following printings of a later revised edition, and by retaining the dramatic rights, which he soon profited from by the long Australian and London theatre runs of the story.

Hume's story captures Melbourne in its gold rush glory days. When a passenger is murdered in a hansom cab, the murderer, the victim, and the motive are all unknown. The cast includes wealthy squatters with murky pasts, a noble love-struck couple, and a slum princess with a secret identity. Modern-day Australian books commentators have called it a "classic formative text, the next chapter in a young country's sense of itself, and it's also a fabulous swipe at respectability."

The book begins with the following paragraph:

'Truth is said to be stranger than fiction, and certainly the extraordinary murder which took place in Melbourne on Thursday night, or rather Friday morning, goes a long way towards verifying this saying. A crime has been committed by an unknown assassin, within a short distance of the principal streets of this great city, and is surrounded by an impenetrable mystery. Indeed, from the nature of the crime itself, the place where it was committed, and the fact that the assassin has escaped without leaving a trace behind him, it would seem as though the case itself had been taken bodily out of one of Gaboriau's novels, and that his famous detective Lecoq only would be able to unravel it.

The facts of the case are simply these:-
'On the twenty-seventh of July, at the hour of twenty minutes to two o'clock in the morning, a hansom cab drove up to the police station, in Grey Street, St Kilda, and the driver made the startling statement that his cab contained the body of a man whom he had the reason to believe had been murdered.'

As it is no longer under copyright, you can actually access full online copies of THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB, as well as some of Hume's other mystery stories, courtesy of Project Gutenberg and other such websites. I like having my own hard copy, but those wanting to have a read online can do so here. You can also download an e-book of one of Hume's other tales, THE GREEN MUMMY, here.

Although he was born, and died, in England, and wrote his first novel while he was briefly in Australia, Hume did spend all of his formative years in New Zealand. So in a way, I guess we all share him (his debut is considered a key part of Australian literary history, for instance). In the man's own words, penned when he was launching a revised edition of THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB several years after he had returned to live in England (particularly Essex), "I may state in conclusion, that I belong to New Zealand, and not to Australia, that I am a barrister, and not a retired policeman." So I guess I should feel comfortable including him amongst the stable of "Kiwi" crime and thriller writers. Perhaps, as the very first.

Have you heard of Fergus Hume? Have you read THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB, or any of his other tales? What do you think? Do you like delving into the past and finding long-forgotten crime writers, or do you prefer to stick solely with current writers? Thoughts and comments most welcome?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bookstore Review: Whitcoulls Richmond Mall (Nelson)

In the tenth of an irregular series on this blog, I take a look at how well (or not) the Whitcoulls bookstore in the Richmond Mall in Nelson (the largest mall in the top of the South Island of New Zealand) displays, publicises and otherwise supports New Zealand crime and thriller writing instore.

As I said in the first bookstore review on 25 August, there are many many things, other than the quality of a book, that can play a big part in how successful it, or its author, may be in terms of sales, readership, mainstream media coverage, and potentially interested readers even becoming aware of it/them. There are so many books out there, and so many good and great authors and titles amongst them, that many haven't received the success or attention they deserve.
While many things can't be controlled, some can - so with this series, I will be 'mystery shopper-ing' some New Zealand bookstores, examining how well (if at all) they highlight, display, or otherwise offer NZ crime fiction to their customers. After all, if our own bookstores don't support local crime writing, how can we expect overseas ones to? Although, as was noted from my brief trip to Germany, some overseas bookstores (e.g. the Koln airport store) may, embarrassingly for bookstores here, be better at supporting top quality Kiwi crime writing than some of their New Zealand counterparts.

So far in my series, the Whitcoulls chain has largely been pretty disappointing, ranging from basically no support (Whitcoulls Wellington airport) to okay-ish but needs big improvement (Whitcoulls Queen Street), with an occasional semi-bright spot (Whitcoulls Courtenay Place in Wellington). So it was with some trepidation and not particularly high hopes that I walked into Whitcoulls Richmond Mall on a cloudy Saturday afternoon last weekend. Here are some of my findings:
  • This Whitcoulls store didn’t have a dedicated crime section (although a very large percentage of the fiction A-Z wall, and also the ‘bargain tables, were crime/thriller titles), and is rather small-ish in size overall, restricting the number of titles they can carry.
  • Surprisingly there were no copies of one of the latest New Zealand crime titles, Alix Bosco's CUT & RUN, which has received good reviews and had actually been one of the few books reasonably well-stocked in many of the other bookstores previously reviewed (POOR);
    There were a couple of copies of Dorothy Fowler's WHAT REMAINS BEHIND in the A-Z section, spine-facing (GOOD);
  • There did not seem to be any copies of Lindy Kelly's BOLD BLOOD, even though it was a #1 bestseller last year, stayed in the top 5 for several weeks, and Kelly is a local (Nelson region) author (POOR).
  • Andrea Jutson’s SENSELESS (1 copy) and Liam McIlvanney’s ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN (2 copies) were available in the A-Z section (GOOD);
  • There was a Neil Cross book in stock, but perhaps surprisingly it wasn’t his latest (last year’s BURIAL), but his older Booker long-listed title ALWAYS THE SUN (GOOD);
  • There was also a copy of Michael Green's BLOOD BOND in the A to Z section (GOOD);
  • There were no copies of any Joan Druett, Vanda Symon, or Paul Cleave, title, although the staff I spoke to did say Vanda Symon’s CONTAINMENT had been in stock but they’d just sold out (and would presumably be getting more), and that they’d also had THE RINGMASTER in stock, but that had been purchased recently too. From memory, I have seen copies of Symon's THE RINGMASTER in the A to Z section of that same store earlier last year (POOR/OKAY);
So overall, Whitcoulls Richmond Mall was one of the better Whitcoulls stores thusfar, stocking books from five different Kiwi crime/thriller writers, and also usually stocking at least one other. Could they improve? Yes - there was no stock of some recent crime thrillers, including from a #1 bestselling local writer. There were also some glaring omissions (Joan Druett, Vanda Symon – if temporarily, Alix Bosco) which have been well-stocked in some Whitcoulls stores elsewhere. I also had to look pretty hard to find the Kiwi crime titles, which were all spine-facing and not highlighted in any way. There was also no mention of Vanda Symon’s CONTAINMENT in any ‘Top 5’ Kiwi books etc, even though the book had been in the Top 5 bestseller list very, very recently.
But given the small size of the store (about 1/3 the size of the Courteney Place Whitcoulls, and only about 10-15% the size of Whitcoulls Queen Street) they are doing pretty well. The staff also seemed quite aware, and enthusiastic, about some of the Kiwi authors. Whitcoulls Richmond Mall, especially given their small size, is already doing well in a relative sense, but by doing a few more little things, they could really make a difference and help out the reading public in terms of exposing them to great crime writing, that just happens to be written by locals.
So overall for Whitcoulls Richmond Mall, I give them 3.5 out of 5. Good work, but has the potential to do even better. Thoughts?

O is for OR SHE DIES by Gregg Hurwitz

Continuing the fun series started by fellow Anzac book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, this week is the turn of "O".

After a couple of Kiwi crime fiction related "Alphabet" posts, I thought I'd head back overseas, and revisit one of the better books I reviewed last year (and one of my now-favourite 'new authors' for me in 2009); OR SHE DIES by California-based thriller writer (and acclaimed graphic novelist, and Shakespearean scholar, and TV and film screenwriter) Gregg Hurwitz.

OR SHE DIES, Hurwitz’s tenth thriller (third released in Australia and New Zealand thusfar), starts with a bang (literally), before taking us on an increasingly chilling and pulse-pounding journey as an ordinary man fights unseen forces. Patrick is having a horrible run; his breakthrough screenplay was slated for big success until the obnoxious lead actor falsely accused him of assault, he’s being sued by the studio, and his neglected wife Ariana had an affair with their neighbour. Washed up before he even really began, sleeping on the couch, and drifting through existence both at home and at his low-rent film teaching job, he feels he's hit bottom. Then things get even worse – DVDs showing hidden-camera footage of Patrick and Ariana's disconnected domestic life start appearing. Someone is spying on them, and Patrick has no idea who or why. All he knows is that someone very powerful is out to get him, and he must follow their instructions or someone will die.

In an interview with the New Zealand Herald in September last year, 36-year old Hurwitz said that he often gets his best ideas in the wee small hours of the morning. "I'm constantly dreaming up scenarios,” he said in an article you can read here. “With OR SHE DIES I couldn't sleep and started thinking what if someone was recording me inside my house ... the whole story started to unspool inside my head. It's how I amuse myself."

As his writing career has progressed, Hurwitz admits there have been changes in the plots and themes of his thrillers. While his latest works, including OR SHE DIES, remain high-octane and pulse-pounding, the heroes have changed. In our interview on Auckland’s North Shore when he was touring New Zealand last year, he said "As I have got older, I have found my writing has changed, as my life has changed... I am now married with a couple of kids... I have moved from adventure and super-cops to more about family and domestic suspense."
When it comes to centring his later books, such as OR SHE DIES, on ‘everyman’ heroes facing extraordinary circumstances, rather than spies or cartoon-like supercops, Hurwitz told me: "I love those everyman stories; an ordinary person stuck in extraordinary circumstances... I always thought those everyman characters stand in for all of us in the way that if we're tired/stressed/down... we can all feel we're a fraud, that we're really not up to our job... and then magnifying that by like 1000%... we've all experienced that paranoia, at least in a small way..."

In one of my reviews of OR SHE DIES (a book I really enjoyed), I said: “Hurwitz is a master at hooking readers early, reeling them in, and then slowly ratcheting up the tension more and more to explosive levels. Engrossing and intelligent – his books pull you along as well as making you think, both about what is happening (and may happen) in the plot, but also about some wider issues…

… It may sound like a reviewer's cliché, but I did actually find this book very, very hard to put down – I was picking it up at breaks and lunchtime as I couldn't wait until the end of the work day to find out what happened. Somewhat surprisingly, I even felt my own heart-rate rising at times as I read OR SHE DIES; I actually felt nervous for the characters, in a physical way rather than just as a fascinated if detached observer…

… Hurwitz keeps a good handle on the tension and pace right throughout, and even though the reader's mind is racing, envisaging all sorts of potential reveals, he still manages to deliver several well-written surprises right up until the end. You almost feel like you need a rest after this book. Or a lie down. OR SHE DIES was my first taste of Gregg Hurwitz. It certainly won't be the last.”

Have you read OR SHE DIES? Any novels by Gregg Hurwitz? What did you think? Do you enjoy ‘suburban suspense’ such as that written by people like Hurwitz and Linwood Barclay? Thoughts and comments welcome.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Currently Watching: Inspector Alleyn Mysteries (BBC TV series)

I was browsing through a department store the other day, when I came across an interesting DVD in the TV series section; the 'Complete First Series' of the BBC's Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, the 1990s TV series starring Patrick Malahide as the upper-class British detective penned by New Zealand's own Dame Ngaio Marsh.

Although I walked away a few times, I couldn't resist (in the end), going back and purchasing the DVD set. So along with crime fiction I am currently reading (BANGKOK HAUNTS by John Burdett), I now have crime fiction I am currently watching, too.

The Complete First Series includes five episodes from the series (based on Ngaio Marsh books such as A MAN LAY DEAD, FINAL CURTAIN, and DEATH IN A WHITE TIE), as well as the 1990 pilot based on Marsh's book ARTISTS IN CRIME.

I am greatly looking forward to watching the TV versions of the six Ngaio Marsh tales, and will probably post reviews of the episodes (or the entire series) on this blog in future.

Have you watched the BBC series? If so, what did you think of it? What is Malahide like as Alleyn? What other classic crime fiction and classic detectives would you like to see brought to the small (or big) screen?

Friday, January 22, 2010


Today my review of Kiwi lawyer David Bates’ debut novel, BENEATH THE CHERRY TREE, was published in the print edition of NZLawyer magazine (issue 128, 22 January 2010). The novel centres on a lawyer blackmailing a judge in order to get a dangerous client out of jail.

There have been few, if any, reviews of this book so far, so I am reprinting my review here for your information (since unless you are a Kiwi lawyer, judge or politician, you're unlikely to have access to the print version of NZLawyer magazine - and the reviews aren't placed online).

The author, Bates, is a practising barrister in Tauranga, and a former police officer – so I was interested to see how (and how well) he weaves his personal experience of crime and the law into his tale. The 62-year old Bates enlisted as a Seaman boy in the Royal New Zealand Navy in the early 1960s, before joining the New Zealand Police as a 19-year old. Over his 17-year police career he rose through the ranks to Inspector, before completing a law degree and becoming a barrister in 1982. He specialises in criminal defence work. You can see his legal website here.

Unlike the other Kiwi crime titles released in 2009, BENEATH THE CHERRY TREE is published by a small publisher, Polygraphia – so it’s also good to see a variety of publishers of varying sizes supporting local crime-related fiction writing. You can read a little more about the book and publisher here.

Beneath the Cherry Tree
By David Bates (Polygraphia NZ, 2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Lawyers, judges, blackmail, betrayal, hidden romance; Tauranga lawyer David Bates’ debut novel has plenty of dramatic elements. Having practiced as a criminal barrister for more than 20 years, it’s unsurprising he chooses to set a large part of BENEATH THE CHERRY TREE amongst the client interviews and courtrooms of the legal world. But this is no Grisham-esque legal thriller; instead a book that explores family and friendship, forbidden love and falls from grace.

Julian Paul is a Wellington barrister who likes the horses far more than his bank account does. Keeping mounting debts secret from his wife and children, Julian’s stress levels are skyrocketing, compounded by the death of his father Robert, a beloved member of the judiciary. When recidivist client Anthony Samuels is caught dead to rights on a major drugs charge, but still wants Julian to get him bail at any cost, Julian begins to see a way to navigate out of his financial dire straits. After all, if Samuels is that desperate, perhaps Julian can apply just the right amount of pressure to just the right judge? For an exorbitant fee, of course. Long-held secrets contained within his father’s private papers provide Julian with the means for the pressure; as well as the right judge – distinguished High Court jurist Freddy Dalton; his father’s wartime chum and lifelong friend. But will Julian really risk everything he has to help free Samuels? Will Dalton pervert the course of justice to protect himself, and his old friend’s memory?

Bates provides an intriguing set-up and spine to his story; sufficient to get readers wondering what will happen, caring about some of the characters, and curious enough to perhaps read to the end to find out. Unfortunately the ride along the way contains several missteps common to rookie novelists – missteps that pull the reader from the story, muffle the drama and tension, and prevent such mild curiosity being stoked to a burning desire to turn the pages. Passages of description unnecessarily repeat what should be clear from dialogue; point of view clumsily jumps around between characters within scenes; adverbs and adjectives are piled on to the extent they take away from what they’re describing; and everything seems ‘proclaimed’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘countered’, and ‘happily and modestly boasted’, rather than just said. The tension could also have been heightened if Bates made it clearer, before the final pages, that the ‘modern’ times of the novel are pre-Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986; considerably raising the stakes for those involved.

Bates also has a tendency to choose verbosity over vividness; he makes the budding writer’s mistake of thinking a long string of lesser-used words will create more style or impact than a well-chosen image evoked via simpler words. When you’re reading, you want to be transported into the world of the book – anything that makes you focus more on the words than the story behind them diminishes that experience.

Bates does weave interesting issues into his story, and does a good job slowly revealing the past to the reader. He also handles the central romance rather tastefully, when other writers may have strayed towards the lurid. Writing a novel is a difficult, difficult task; particularly when done as a side project to a job as taxing on time and mental resources as being a criminal barrister. Bates is to be commended for not only completing BENEATH THE CHERRY TREE, but getting his book published. I look forward to seeing the strides his writing may make if or when he chooses to write another.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mega-star Lee Child to tour New Zealand!

I've heard some great news from the publicists at Random House New Zealand; bestselling international crime writer Lee Child will be touring New Zealand for several days in April, with public appearances in five New Zealand cities - giving crime and thriller fiction fans throughout the country a brilliant opportunity to meet him.

Lee Child is of course absolutely massive - worldwide one of his Jack Reacher novels is reputedly sold every second, and total sales have topped 16 million, and have been translated into 29 different languages. He was born in the United Kingdom, but moved to the United States after being made redundant from his television job. It was there that he began writing American thrillers, starring maverick hero Jack Reacher.

Child's newest novel, 61 HOURS, is released in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK on 18 or 19 March 2010 (so Kiwis keen to meet him will have a good chance to read it before his visit the following month). The publisher's blurb for 61 HOURS states:

"Winter in South Dakota. Blowing snow, icy roads, a tired driver. A bus skids and crashes and is stranded in a gathering storm. There's a small town twenty miles away, where a vulnerable witness is guarded around the clock. There's a strange stone building five miles further on, all alone on the prairie. There's a ruthless man who controls everything from the warmth of Mexico. Jack Reacher hitched a ride in the back of the bus. A life without baggage has many advantages. And crucial disadvantages too, when it means facing the arctic cold without a coat. But he's equipped for the rest of his task. He doesn't want to put the world to rights. He just doesn't like people who put it to wrongs."

Specific venues and times for the Lee Child author tour in New Zealand haven't been announced yet, but the following is a basic itinerary of which cities he will be visiting, and on which days:
  • Auckland on 11-13 April;
  • Wellington on 13-14 April;
  • Nelson on 14 April;
  • Christchurch on 15 April; and
  • Dunedin on 16 April.
It's great to see him hitting four of the main centres (along with my hometown of Nelson), rather than just doing an Auckland stopover, or Auckland/Wellington like some visiting authors. Random House should be commended for putting this tour together, and I look forward to finding out more specific details, and sharing them with all of you, as they come to hand.
What do you think of Lee Child's books? Are you a Jack Reacher fan? If you're a Kiwi resident, will you be heading along to meet him in April? Thoughts and comments welcome.

Edgar nominees: Who do you think should win?

I apologise in the delay of my Edgar Awards post - I made a decision yesterday not to delay posting this, to leave the Robert B. Parker blog post up at the top of the blog all day; an online 'moment of silence' for the mystery great, so to speak.

So I'm a little behind on the Edgar Awards nominees discussion - but let's get into it. The Mystery Writers of America was proud to announce on the 201st anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, its Nominees for the 2010 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2009.

The Edgar Awards will be presented to the winners at the MWA's 64th Gala Banquet, April 29, 2010 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City. And the nominees for the 2010 awards are:

THE MISSING by Tim Gautreaux (Random House - Alfred A. Knopf)
THE ODDS by Kathleen George (Minotaur Books)
THE LAST CHILD by John Hart (Minotaur Books)
MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH by Charlie Huston (Random House - Ballantine Books)
NEMESIS by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett (HarperCollins)
A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE by Malla Nunn (Simon & Schuster – Atria Books)

Of the above novels, I have only read one last year; THE LAST CHILD by John Hart (which also won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger). Quite simply, I thought it was superb - one of (if not) the best crime novels I read in 2009 - so I am very glad to see it make the Edgars shortlist.

BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHORThe Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano (Grand Central Publishing)
Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley (Simon & Schuster - Touchstone)
The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf (MIRA Books)
A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield (Minotaur Books – Thomas Dunne Books)
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (HarperCollins)
In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff (Minotaur Books)

I haven't read any of the above, although I do have BLACKWATER RISING by Attica Locke in front of me know on one of my TBR shelves. Perhaps I should bump it up the pecking order...

Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster)
Havana Lunar by Robert Arellano (Akashic Books)
The Lord God Bird by Russell Hill (Pleasure Boat Studio – Caravel Books)
Body Blows by Marc Strange (Dundurn Press – Castle Street Mysteries)
The Herring-Seller's Apprentice by L.C. Tyler (Felony & Mayhem Press)

I haven't read any of these titles, although I have heard good things about THE HERRING-SELLER'S APPRENTICE, courtesty of fellow book bloggers Karen, Maxine and Dorte.

Columbine by Dave Cullen (Hachette Book Group - Twelve)
Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde
by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster)
The Fence: A Police Cover-Up Along Boston's Racial Divide
by Dick Lehr (HarperCollins)
Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art
by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo (The Penguin Press)
Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti
(Random House - Alfred A. Knopf)

Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James (Random House - Alfred A. Knopf)
The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives edited by Otto Penzler (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown and Company)
Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King
by Lisa Rogak (Thomas Dunne Books)
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
by Joan Schenkar (St. Martin's Press)
The Stephen King Illustrated Companion
by Bev Vincent (Fall River Press)

I haven't finished reading any of the above, although I am partway through the PD James book, and enjoying it greatly thusfar (Kiwi crime queen Dame Ngaio Marsh even features heavily in one chapter)...

"Last Fair Deal Gone Down" – Crossroad Blues by Ace Atkins (Busted Flush Press)
"Femme Sole" – Boston Noir by Dana Cameron (Akashic Books)
"Digby, Attorney at Law" – Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine by Jim Fusilli (Dell Magazines)
"Animal Rescue" – Boston Noir by Dennis Lehane (Akashic Books
"Amapola" – Phoenix Noir by Luis Alberto Urrea (Akashic Books)

BEST JUVENILEThe Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett
(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour by Michael D. Beil
(Random House Children's Books – Alfred A. Knopf)
Closed for the Season by Mary Downing Hahn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Books)
Creepy Crawly Crime by Aaron Reynolds (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers)
The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline by Nancy Springer
(Penguin Young Readers Group – Philomel Books)

BEST YOUNG ADULTReality Check by Peter Abrahams (HarperCollins Children's Books – HarperTeen)
If the Witness Lied by Caroline B. Cooney (Random House Children's Books – Delacorte Press)
The Morgue and Me by John C. Ford (Penguin Young Readers Group – Viking Children's Books)
Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone by Dene Low (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Books)
Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell (Random House Children's Books – Delacorte Press)

"Place of Execution," Teleplay by Patrick Harbinson (PBS/WGBH Boston)
"Strike Three" – The Closer, Teleplay by Steven Kane (Warner Bros TV for TNT)
"Look What He Dug Up This Time" – Damages, Teleplay by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler & Daniel Zelman (FX Networks)
"Grilled" – Breaking Bad, Teleplay by George Mastras (AMC/Sony)
"Living the Dream" – Dexter, Teleplay by Clyde Phillips (Showtime)

"A Dreadful Day" – Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine by Dan Warthman (Dell Magazines)

GRAND MASTERDorothy Gilman

RAVEN AWARDSMystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont, Pennsylvania
Zev Buffman, International Mystery Writers' Festival

ELLERY QUEEN AWARDPoisoned Pen Press (Barbara Peters & Robert Rosenwald)

(Presented at MWA's Agents & Editors Party on Wednesday, April 28, 2010)
Awakening by S.J. Bolton (Minotaur Books)
Cat Sitter on a Hot Tin Roof by Blaize Clement (Minotaur Books)
Never Tell a Lie by Hallie Ephron (HarperCollins – William Morrow)
Lethal Vintage by Nadia Gordon (Chronicle Books)
Dial H for Hitchcock by Susan Kandel (HarperCollins)
So what do you readers think of the list? What are your favourite/best reads from last year, that made the list? Do you think there are any massive oversights? Thoughts and comments welcome.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A sad day: RIP Robert B. Parker

I got into work a little while ago, looking forward to another great day, ticking a few jobs off the list and moving things forward. Unfortunately on opening my first email, my good mood disappeared, as I learned mystery writing great Robert B. Parker passed away overnight (NZT).

The man who was born, lived, and passed away in his beloved home state of Massachussetts, penned more than 60 novels, including 38 featuring his most famous creation, Boston private eye Spenser (no first name ever revealed) - a hardboiled detective of the classic Chandler/Hammett style.

Parker passed away at the age of 77 in his Cambridge, Massachusetts home. The cause of death has not yet been released, although early reports suggest there was no foul play, and his UK publishers have reportedly said that he died at his writing desk.

He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1932, but perhaps surprisingly given his prolific output, he didn’t actually become a published author until his early 40s. He earned a BA from Colby College in Maine before serving with the US Army in Korea. In 1957 he earned a Master’s in English Literature from Boston University, and then worked in advertising until 1962. He completed a PhD in English Literature from Boston University in 1971, with a dissertation focused on fictional hardboiled private eyes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald (his PhD paper was entitled “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality”.

Parker began writing his own detective novel, featuring his own Boston-based hardboiled private eye (Spenser), while at Northeastern University (where Parker became a full professor in 1976, before retiring to take up fulltime writing in 1979, when he had the first five Spenser novels, and his first Edgar Award for Best Novel, under his belt). The Spenser series was made into a popular TV series in the 1980s; Spenser for Hire - and with last year’s latest release, THE PROFESSIONAL, Parker had racked up an impressive 38 novels featuring the now-legendary Boston detective.

Parker also created two other series; the Jesse stone novels (which were made into a series of popular and award-winning TV movies starring Tom Selleck – with two more scheduled to be released in 2010) featuring an alcoholic ex-ballplayer turned small-town sheriff; and the Sunny Randall novels (which were reputedly created as the basis for a TV or film series starring actress Helen Hunt, who asked Parker to create a character for her to play – the adaptations fell through but the books became popular) featuring fashion-conscious, unlucky-in-love, gun-toting female private eye. Parker also wrote some Westerns, children's books, and non-fiction.

Los Angeles Times online crime fiction columnist Sarah Weinman has a good summary of many great links to obituaries, tributes, and other RBP-related websites and articles on her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind – see here.

Like many, I am still coming to terms with the news. Robert B. Parker was someone I’d actually mentioned to my NZ-based publicist contacts late last year as an author I’d love to interview in 2010. I was looking forward to setting that phone interview up.

I’ve been meaning to read more of his work for quite a while (I got SCHOOL DAYS out from the library twice last year, and it lay unread as newer titles demanded immediate reading for review) – he is one of those older authors like Tony Hillerman, Joseph Wambaugh and Ed McBain that I really felt I needed to read more of, in terms of increasing my own knowledge of crime fiction history etc. I did get Stone Cold (starring Tom Selleck) out from the DVD store last year, and enjoyed that – I was looking forward to more of the DVDs being available in New Zealand.

Anyway, I’d better get on with the day. A sad way to start however. Please share your thoughts on Parker and his writing below.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Downey Jr wins Golden Globe for Sherlock portrayal

Yesterday (NZT) at the Golden Globe Awards, American actor Robert Downey Jr took home the trophy for Best Actor - Musical or Comedy for his 'new take' on one of the most famous characters in English literature - the drug-taking, violin-playing, Baker Street-dwelling detective that popularised crime fiction more than a century ago.

You can see some snippets of Downey Jr's performance as Sherlock Holmes in the trailer, available to view HERE.

I haven't yet got to see the whole movie (I'm intending to go next week), but have heard some mixed reviews from friends and acquaintances; though most were reasonably impressed with Downey Jr's acting performance. I am looking forward to it however.

What do you think of Downey Jr winning the Golden Globe? What did you think of Guy Ritchie's take on the classic detective? Are you a fan of Conan Doyle's tales? Thoughts and comments welcome.

Monday, January 18, 2010

N is for Neil Cross

Continuing the fun series started by fellow Anzac book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, this week is the turn of “N”.

Given that in my "A" post I said I would regularly sprinkle my contributions with a New Zealand-related post or two, this week I am including a post on Wellington-based novelist and TV screenwriter Neil Cross, who has previously been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and whose latest novel, CAPTURED was recently released in the United Kingdom (and will come out downunder on 1 May). Born in Bristol (United Kingdom), Cross has lived in Wellington, New Zealand for the past several years. He has been the lead writer on the hit BBC TV series Spooks, and written his latest books, while living in New Zealand.

NB - this Crime Fiction Alphabet post is a much-updated version of a profile post I did on Neil Cross last year

Cross split his childhood between his birthplace of Bristol, and Edinburgh slums where he was raised by a caring South African stepfather he now calls “the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other”. Derek Cross introduced Neil to his lifelong loves of reading and writing, but also cast both light and shadow on his childhood, and still evokes conflicted appreciation in the now middle-aged author.

In an interview with Cross early last year for a feature article in Good Reading magazine to time with the release of his novel BURIAL, he told me: “In many ways I couldn’t ask for a better parent, which is kind of why I took his name. He is the single most formative influence on my life. But he was also a white supremacist, a thief, an adulterer, possibly a bigamist, and essentially a religious crank.”

The duality of his father helped Cross get an early understanding of the complexities of human nature, which later strongly came through in the protagonists and other characters of his novels. Throughout his eight books, including the Booker long-listed ALWAYS THE SUN, and his latest releases BURIAL (2009) and CAPTURED (2010), bleak yet menacing settings are populated with characters neither starkly good nor evil, but smudged shades of grey.

Cross says he always wanted to be a writer. For most of his life he spent much of his spare time writing – from his days being bullied and bloodied in the Scottish schoolyard, through delinquent teenage years back in Bristol, then a half-decade and more happily languishing on unemployment, to completing Bachelors and Masters degrees at Leeds University, and then working at a publishing company.

In an interview with BBC Writers Room, Cross says, “I've just always been a writer; I was born that way. I started when I was seven or eight years old by drawing comic books. I moved on to scripting the comics before I drew them, and then I just left the pictures to the imagination. That's pretty much what I've been doing ever since.”

Cross wrote his first published novel while he was working for several years in the sales and marketing department of a large London publishing house. As he says in an article he wrote for The Listener (one of New Zealand’s premier magazines) in 2004, after completing his university degrees he, “moved to London, and onto a career in publishing. It was a good job, and for a while I loved it. I loved my colleagues. I loved the books, the arcana, the lore. I loved helping to nurture a fragile manuscript, sometimes to robust publication and sometimes to a slow, choking death. It’s a conservative industry in a quickening world, staffed largely by people who got there by accident. It was a laugh. And all the time, after travelling in the cramped Tubes and the late-night cabs, I was writing.”

In 1998, he broke through with MR IN-BETWEEN, a disturbing tale of a violent hired gun whose life is turned upside down by a chance encounter with old friends. He followed this up the next year with CHRISTENDOM, before there was a bit of a break until 2003's HOLLOWAY FALLS.

As Cross explained in his The Listener article, “Mr In-Between was a moderate success. It was followed by Christendom, which was not. I was surprised by how similar the two conditions felt. I started another novel, wrote a couple of chapters. Put it away. Stopped writing.”

He rediscovered his writing muse after meeting, dating and marrying his colleague Nadya, and the couple having their first child – leading to strong feelings of having something to lose in life (his wife and son). He began to write again. In 2002 the Cross family moved to New Zealand.

Cross’s novels consistently have bleak yet menacing settings, flawed characters forced into emotional and psychological maelstroms, and occasional literary flourishes. He was long-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize for ALWAYS THE SUN, a frightening tale of the steps a gentle man takes after learning his child is being bullied, inspired by Cross’s own “Travis Bickle sort of “ paranoia for his newborn son.

However, despite the literary acclaim, Cross said in our interview that he has always considered himself “a crime and suspense writer”, rather than embracing the literary label. He’s no longer interested in attempting to foist ‘meaning’ onto his work, instead preferring to “tell an interesting and engrossing story”. Online subscribers can read more from my interview with Neil Cross in the May issue of Good Reading magazine, here.

Cross has said that if he had to pick a single novel that was his favourite – then the novel that most profoundly affected his life was CATCH 22 by Joseph Heller. "It was a big deal for me". He is also a big fan of THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY by Patricia Highsmith – "she was basically the Beethoven of psycho-pathology".

His favourite writers include Highsmith, Raymond Carver, Heller, Paul Theroux, Graham Greene, Angela Carter, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, and Anne Tyler.

In 2002 he moved to Wellington, New Zealand with his wife Nadya and their family. He visits Britain regularly as part of his TV work, but is otherwise working and based in New Zealand. Following the success and acclaim for ALWAYS THE SUN, he penned a bestselling memoir about his troubled childhood and path to being a writer, entitled HEARTLAND, before returning to suspense tales with NATURAL HISTORY (2007), BURIAL (2009), and now his latest release CAPTURED.

In BURIAL, the 'hero' Nathan is a drunken, coked-up witness to the sudden death of 19-yr old Elise, who expires while entangled in the back-seat with Nathan’s strange friend Bob. Panicked, the pair hastily bury Elise in the woods, and for years don’t speak. Then one day Bob arrives on Nathan’s doorstep, convinced Elise is speaking to him from beyond the grave, and threatening to upturn Nathan’s carefully constructed new life.

You can read one of my reviews of BURIAL here. You can also read fellow book blogger and crime fiction fan Maxine Clarke’s review of the same book on the EuroCrime website here.

Cross’s latest novel, CAPTURED, is not available downunder until 1 May 2010, but it has already been released in the United Kingdom. Once again Cross delves into grey areas of the human psyche. As the publisher’s blurb states: “Even though he is still young, Kenny has just weeks to live. Before he dies, he wants to find his childhood best friend Callie Barton and thank her for the kindness she showed him when they were at school together. But when Kenny begins his search, he discovers that Callie Barton has gone missing. Although cleared of any involvement, her husband Jonathan seems to be hiding something. Kenny has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. And knowing that time is running out on him, he's prepared to do whatever it takes ...”

You can read Maxine Clarke’s review here, and one from James Urquhart in The Independent here.

Along with his successful novels, Cross has also managed to indulge his writing passion on the screen; as lead writer for two seasons of award-winning BBC TV series Spooks. You can read a great interview-based feature article by Anthony Hubbard in the Sunday Star Times (one of New Zealand’s biggest newspapers) about Cross and his experiences writing Spooks from New Zealand, here.

Cross is currently working on a new British crime TV series (apparently to be called Luther), along with his next novel, from his Wellington home. The six-part drama Luther is described in The Guardian as "a new BBC1 crime drama about a detective who is 'simmering with anger and rage'." You can read a little more in this Guardian article

One of the stars of acclaimed Baltimore-set TV drama The Wire (often mentioned as one of the best TV shows in history), Idris Elba (who played drug dealer Stringer Bell), is to play the lead role of John Luther in the new TV series.

Have you read Neil Cross? What do you think of his novels? Do you watch Spooks? Please share your thoughts and comments.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

German bookstores more supportive of Kiwi crime than Kiwi ones?

On Boxing Day I was killing time in the Cologne (Köln) airport, waiting for Helen and my flight to Egypt for our much-awaited trip. So I thought I'd check out the airport bookstore, on the off chance they might have had some German crime writers in English translation (I already had a copy of Bernard Schlink's SELF'S MURDER in my backpack, though I'd got that in NZ).

Unfortunately the Köln airport was lacking in English-language crime fiction - but I did notice (not atypical for Germany I would imagine) that it had a large selection of German-language translations of US and UK crime fiction. Perusing the piles to see who was popular over there, I noticed a pleasing sight - quite a few copies of Paul Cleave's latest thriller, DIE TOTEN SCHWEIGEN NICHT (CEMETERY LAKE in English-language countries) were displayed in a prominent position, in amongst some Stephen King and Dean Koontz etc (see photo).

So, given the relatively poor showing by New Zealand airport bookstores (which only have a copy or two of one or two Kiwi crime fiction titles each) thusfar in my ongoing series of bookstore reviews, it seems that at the moment German airport bookstores actually support Kiwi crime fiction better than Kiwi ones!

Thoughts and comments welcome.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Vanda Symon makes local bestseller list!

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you've probably seen me lament the relative lack of appreciation in New Zealand for our own crime writing, regardless of the quality of the writing. People like Paul Cleave, who is an excellent local author and has had brilliant international success with the most popular crime/thriller title on Amazon Germany in 2007, and was at #2 overall for much of that year (behind the then-latest Harry Potter book), still struggles to get much recognition or support from New Zealand media, booksellers (see my Bookstore reviews on the sidebar), and readers.

Meanwhile some other New Zealanders (in literary writing and other non-books fields, eg sports, fashion etc) get far more attention and acclaim, even when achieving far less on the international stage. Our general disgregard for our own crime and thriller writing (I'm making a sweeping generalisation here of course - there are people in New Zealand who do really support and appreciate our 'genre' writers, and buy their books - just not yet in the numbers they deserve) is a real shame - and something that will hopefully change in future.

That's why it's so great to see a Kiwi crime or thriller writer hit the New Zealand Adult Fiction bestseller list; it is an all-too-rare occasion over the past few years (especially as the weekly list is only a Top 5, rather than going any deeper), but one that will hopefully increase in frequency in future, as Kiwi crime and thriller writing continues to grow in strength.

So congratulations to Dunedin-based Vanda Symon, whose third book in her 'Sam Shephard' series, CONTAINMENT, made the most recent New Zealand Adult Fiction Bestseller list - debuting on the charts at #4.

Given Kiwis relative lack of appreciation for locally-set crime in both historic and recent times (eg Alix Bosco's CUT & RUN got great reviews from a number of major media outlets last year, but still didn't hit the bestseller list, while lesser titles from other 'genres' did), this is a great achievement - and Vanda can now deservedly call herself a 'Bestselling Author'. Hopefully her audience, both in New Zealand and abroad (her earlier novels are available in Australia and Germany as well) will continue to grow over the coming weeks, months and years. I enjoyed CONTAINMENT, as well as the earlier books OVERKILL and THE RINGMASTER - and am very much looking forward to the fourth title, BOUND, later this year.

Hopefully the Kiwi public will continue to buy CONTAINMENT (the reviews thusfar have been pretty positive), and it can stay in the charts for a while. Also, with crime and thriller titles from the likes of Paddy Richardson, Paul Cleave (whose earlier books have also made the Kiwi bestseller list) and Neil Cross also due for release in the next couple of months, we can only hope this is the tip of the iceberg for growing recognition of Kiwi crime and thriller writing.

Have you read CONTAINMENT? If so, what do you think of it? If not, does it sound interesting to you - the type of book you would buy? Do you buy much crime fiction, or instead get it out from the library or 2nd hand stores? What Kiwi crime titles are you looking forward to in 2010? Thoughts and comments welcome.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Poirot bow tie to be auctioned for Kiwi charity

Next month a piece of British crime fiction history will be auctioned off to help raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) of New Zealand’s annual appeal. During the week of 20-28 February the Association will be running its 2010 Bow Tie Campaign; a highlight of which will be an auction for a ‘Poirot’ bow tie donated to the New Zealand MDA by acclaimed TV and film actor David Suchet.

The relevance of the bow tie symbol to fundraising for Muscular Dystrophy, says the Association on its website, is that “If you have ever tried to tie a bow, you’ll know that it takes a lot of skill, dexterity and perseverance. What appears to be simple is in fact, quite difficult.” The MDA believes it is an activity that readily demonstrates to people the difficulties and frustration that neuromuscular conditions can have. “We believe the bowtie symbol helps to signify this. It helps that it also looks good and is fun to wear.”

The Poirot bow tie was donated because MDA NZ Northern branch committee member Leigh Gleeson, whose son has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, wrote to the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust, of which David Suchet (who plays Agatha Christie’s Inspector Poirot in the television series of the same name) is vice-president. She asked for one of his ‘Poirot’ bow ties to help raise the profile of the MDA NZ campaign this year, telling the North Shore Times last year that the British actor seemed the perfect person to ask, as “Poirot must be the most famous fictitious bow tie wearer in history. He has a matching bow tie for every suit and dressing gown.”

Suchet willingly agreed to part with one of Poirot’s bow ties. The bow tie was presented to the Northern Branch’s Denise Ganley, in the presence of MDA patron and legendary Kiwi news presenter Judy Bailey and Police 10/7 host detective Inspector Graham Bell, at a special ceremony at the North Shore Policing Centre in September. “A Poirot bow tie has a lot of symbolism with it,” said Gleeson.

The iconic Poirot bow tie will be auctioned during Bow Tie Week next month; if you are interested in bidding please contact Reena at the Muscular Dystrophy Association of New Zealand.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nice article on Vanda Symon in BOP Times

As I noted late last year, Dunedin-based modern-day Kiwi crime queen Vanda Symon has released CONTAINMENT, her third Sam Shephard novel, to some very positive reviews. It's great to see a Kiwi series built around such an interesting recurring heroine - I'm looking forward to Symon's fourth novel, BOUND, which should be coming out later in 2010 (I believe she is currently working on the fifth Sam Shephard novel).

As you may be aware, I wrote a feature article on Symon for the November issue of Australian-based Good Reading magazine. Those in Australia or New Zealand can read my feature "The Stroppy Crime Fighter", in the print issue of Good Reading magazine. Symon spoke with me about a number of things, including creating a memorable heroine, juggling motherhood and storytelling, and life imitating art. Online subscribers worldwide can also read that feature via the Good Reading website.

There has also been some other interviews with and articles on Symon over the past few weeks, which is great to see. She was interviewed on Radio New Zealand's Arts on Sunday show by host Lynn Freeman. The interesting ten-minute interview, in which Symon discusses the new book, and what goes into her intriguing protagonist, amongst many other things, also includes a short reading from CONTAINMENT. You can listen to an audio file of the interview here.

Last week there was also a good article on Symon by Ellen Irvine in the Bay of Plenty Times, one of New Zealand's leading regional newspapers. You can read that article here. I understand New Zealand's biggest newspaper, the Weekend Herald, may also be including an article on Symon in the next month or so - I'll keep you all informed about that as and when it occurs.

It's great to see New Zealand crime and thriller fiction writers seeming to get a little more media coverage than in days gone by. Hopefully this continues to build, and grow, in future. We certainly should be paying more attention to good Kiwi writing, regardless of genre.

Have you read CONTAINMENT? Any of the earlier Sam Shephard books? What do you think of Vanda Symon's writing? Do you like recurring heroes, or standalones? Thoughts and comments welcome...

Kiwi writers encouraged to apply for Iowa Writers' Residency

As of yesterday (13 January 2010), the Iowa Writers' Residency is open for applications. Creative New Zealand is calling for applications for the International Writing Program, University of Iowa Writers’ Residency 2010. This writer’s residency brings established writers from around the world to the University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP) where they become part of the lively literary community on campus.

This unique opportunity, the result of a partnership between Creative New Zealand and the University of Iowa, is open for a nationally recognised New Zealand writer who has previously published at least one volume of work. Applicants from all literary genres at an early stage of their career, as well as more established writers, are eligible to apply.

The residency’s main aim is for the recipient to work on an approved project that, once complete, will be able to demonstrate other tangible benefits to New Zealand literature. Participants are given periods of unstructured time to work on their own writing projects, but some afternoons will feature literary activities (including the opportunity to participate in panel discussions and readings), excursions and field trips.

Last year's recipient, Kathy White, found it an incredible experience. "There were writing opportunities I could never have anticipated, and friends to meet who will be friends forever. Perhaps the greatest experience of all was learning how much writing means to me, and discovering that I'm actually good at it, and that I want to do it for the rest of my life. I can never thank Creative New Zealand enough for that."

The programme, founded in 1967, was the first international writers’ residency at a university, and remains unique in world literature. More than 1000 writers from more than 100 countries have completed residencies there.

Previous New Zealand recipients of the residency include: Gordon McLauchlan, Vivienne Plumb, James Norcliffe, Penelope Todd, Brian Falkner and Kathy White.

The residency runs from August 28 to November 12, 2010 and provides return travel to Iowa, insurance, mid-residency travel and accommodation, assistance with living expenses, a stipend and accommodation on the campus of the University of Iowa. The closing date for applications is 5pm on Friday 26 February 2010. For further application details and criteria please go to the Special Opportunities page here where you can also read 2009 recipient, Kathy White's blog about her experiences.

For further information on the residency, please contact:Felicity Birch, Programme Advisor: 044980735 or
With New Zealand crime and thriller writing seeming to kick up a notch in recent years, with the growing international success of writers like Paul Cleave, Lindy Kelly hitting #1 on the bestseller list, and other authors like Vanda Symon being mentioned on The Listener's Top 100 books of the year list (international and NZ books), perhaps its time for Kiwi crime and thriller writers to put their hat in the ring, and receive such recognition, support and 'awards' from agencies like Creative New Zealand.

Review: CUT & RUN by Alix Bosco

by Alix Bosco (Penguin, 2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

The thriller-writing debut from a “successful writer in other media” writing under a pseudonym, Cut & Run introduces Auckland based-heroine and legal researcher Anna Markunas, who will apparently spearhead a planned series.

Middle-aged Markunas has been easing herself back into work, and equilibrium, after recovering from a breakdown suffered after years of will-sapping social work in South Auckland, the suicide of her husband, and the problems of her P-addicted son. Now a legal researcher for a defense lawyer friend, she finds herself looking into the circumstances of a celebrity murder.

When rugby star Alex Solona, who began life on the tough streets of South Auckland, is murdered in the arms of beautiful socialite Mikky St Claire, it seems an open-and-shut case of a drug deal gone wrong. A view bolstered by Solona’s former friend and rugby teammate Kamal Fifita confessing to the crime. But as Markunas begins to research Fifita and Solona’s backgrounds, she begins to suspect something far more sinister.

Overall, Cut & Run is a very enjoyable thriller that sucks you in and keeps you turning the pages. Bosco sets the scene by name-dropping a lot of real-life central Auckland locations and historic urban footnotes in the early going, before also taking the story to South Auckland and the Coromandel. There’s also a sense that some of the high-profile characters, including celebrities and QCs, may be amalgams of real-life New Zealanders, which can create a fun game of ‘I wonder who that is based on?’

But the bigger question is, ‘does it work as a thriller?’ And the answer to that is a resounding yes; Bosco creates an enjoyable page-turner not only through the ‘did Fifita really do it?’ plotline hook, kicked up a notch when subsequent discoveries put Markunas in danger, but through her creation of characters with some nice depth and complexity.

The more we learn about Markunas, the more we want to follow her (in this book and the ongoing series). The supporting cast could read like a caricature list: lawyers (honorable and not), cynical restaurant reviewers, violent gang members, jaded policeman, troubled youngsters, airhead socialites, but Bosco imbues them all with something more. She does a great job setting us up and then upturning our assumptions about not only the plot, but some of the characters. I look forward to the second in the series.

This review was first published in the print edition of NZLawyer magazine (issue 122, 2 October 2009).

My review of THE MURDER OF CHOW YAT in Latitude

The current (Summer) issue of Latitude magazine has included my short review of writing teacher Joan Rosier-Jones' THE MURDER OF CHOW YAT on its book pages.

Latitude is the lifestyle magazine of the Canterbury region of New Zealand; a 120-page glossy quarterly packed with great large features on interesting people, places, and issues - as well as travel articles, book reviews, and several other interesting columns. I started writing for the magazine (I have a six-page feature on criminologist and former inmate Professor Greg Newbold in the Summer issue) late last year (the Spring issue), and this is my first contribution to their book review pages. It's a very cool magazine, and I'm glad to be able to write for them.

Joanne Taylor (the editor of Latitude and the main book reviewer) has kindly allowed me to reprint my short THE MURDER OF CHOW YAT review on the Crime Watch blog, as Latitude is not available online.

The Murder of Chow YatJoan Rosier-Jones Stead & Daughters, $29.99
Chow Yat was an elderly Chinese market gardener in post-war Wanganui whose unsolved 1922 murder sparked generations of local ghost stories. Author Joan Rosier-Jones plays cold-case detective - sifting through detailed police files held in the National Archives, newspaper microfiche, accounts of the historic setting of the murder, and talking to locals in order to compile this fascinating account.

She creates a vivid picture with detailed and insightful chapters addressing 1920s Wanganui, Chow Yat’s early life, incidents on the day, evening of, and day after the murder, the police investigation, suspects, aftermath, and ongoing uncertainty. Her sparse writing style allows space to absorb, ponder and speculate – not only in terms of the whodunnit aspect, but also wider issues such as historic xenophobia, faulty eye-witness descriptions, family secrets, and the police tendency to focus on building a case against one suspect to the detriment of other options.

All-in-all The Murder of Chow Yat is an enjoyable read that will still have you thinking long after the final page.


What do you think of the review (I was very constrained for space)? Does historic true crime interest you? Have you read Rosier-Jones' book? If not, does it sound interesting? Thoughts and comments welcome.