Monday, October 17, 2011

Happy Birthday Ben Sanders

Today, wunderkind Auckland crime writer Ben Sanders turns the ripe old age of 22, so Happy Birthday Ben! With two quality crime novels already under his belt, and a third on the way in his Sean Devereaux and John Hale series, Sanders (pictured right, with Michael Connelly in Auckland earlier this year)looks to have a very promising crime writing career ahead of him.

To mark Sanders' birthday, I thought I would republish my reviews of each of his first two novels, #1 bestseller THE FALLEN, and sequel BY ANY MEANS. I enjoyed both these books, although of course they're not without flaws, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how Sanders develops as a crime writer over the coming years; he could be part of a new wave of Kiwi crime writers that may put New Zealand squarely on the international map again. You can also read my recent interview with Sanders for the New Zealand Herald here, and his 9mm interview with Crime Watch here. But for now, here are my reviews:

The Fallen by Ben Sanders (HarperCollins, 2010)
A man dazedly regains consciousness, only to find himself handcuffed, feeling like "he's been bathed in something corrosive", and with his head adhered to the carpet by his own clotted blood.

So starts this debut crime thriller from North Shore engineering student and nascent author, Ben Sanders, an adroit barely-20-something being touted as "a major new talent" with a "sophisticated and edgy" writing style.

The Fallen then quickly switches to the first-person narration of street-savvy Auckland police detective Sean Devereaux, a hero who quickly displays some classic crime fiction traits. Devereaux has a tendency to trust his own morals, instincts and judgment more than "the rules" of his superiors; his narration is peppered with pithy comments and observations about the case and the wider world that are tinged with both smart-aleck humour and the occasionally jaded eye of someone who's already seen plenty - "criminal investigation is inherently recession-proof"; but at the core he's someone who cares, even if at times he may not want to.

Devereaux returns early from leave to investigate the brutal slaying of a 16-year-old "Epsom princess", whose bashed body is discovered on the edge of a flowerbed in Albert Park. "I wondered what she could have done to deserve such a fate," reflects Devereaux, "but as always when I asked myself that question, my subconscious churned up the same answer: nothing".

Off the clock Devereaux is busying himself playing white knight for his attractive neighbour - finding out why she's being watched by a mysterious man. As he juggles his official and unofficial duties, the latter with the help of "strong but silent" security specialist John Hale (formerly an investigator with both the army and the New Zealand Police), Devereaux opens the proverbial Pandora's Box. His after-hours activities peel the scab from a scam run by senior colleagues and he and Hale are dropped right into an escalating cycle of kidnapping, murder, and violence.

Sanders writes in a punchy, crisp style, employing short sentences and terse but telling descriptions - rather than languid or overwrought prose - to evoke a strong sense of the various Auckland settings, and his characters' thoughts, actions, and motivations. There is a sleekness to his storytelling that would be impressive for any crime writer, let alone one so young.

He sprinkles musical references throughout; Devereaux, like the author, has a passion for rock, from REM to Neil Young. Sanders has reportedly been enamoured with crime fiction since he was an adolescent, and fellow fans of the genre will be able to spot the influence of varying big-name international bestsellers in aspects of The Fallen. Hale has echoes of Robert Crais' Joe Pike, while Sanders' ability to evoke an essence of Auckland as Devereaux travels the city's streets is almost Connelly-esque.

But just like a new band that has echoes of those that have gone before, the real question isn't whether a newcomer is completely unlike anything else, but whether he or she provides something enjoyable and a little different. More importantly, whether they're any good. With The Fallen, Sanders comes up trumps on that front: Devereaux's first outing is an absorbing debut that also entices with future promise.

The young man from the North Shore has added to the mounting evidence that New Zealand can produce native, compelling crime fiction to match the international offerings readers buy and enjoy in droves.

This review was first published in the 31 July 2010 issue of the New Zealand Herald.

By Any Means by Ben Sanders (HarperCollins, 2011)

Young Aucklander Ben Sanders, who juggles novel writing with his university civil engineering studies, burst onto the local books scene last year with The Fallen, a gritty crime thriller that introduced Detective Sean Devereaux and ex-cop John Hale, and was packed with murder, kidnapping, and police corruption. All set amongst the seamy streets and suburbs of our largest city. Now, 21-year-old Sanders returns, as do Devereaux and Hale, with By Any Means, the follow up to his #1 bestselling debut.

In the first sentence, a bus driver is killed, shot by an unknown gunman on Auckland’s bustling Albert Street during Friday rush hour. Detective Sean Devereaux picks up the case, only to discover wildly conflicting witness accounts then a sense the victim wasn’t the true target. But then, who was? At the same time Devereaux is dealing with a double killing in the affluent suburbs: the wife and daughter of a prominent finance company director. Murder-suicide or double homicide? The police turn their attention to the husband, but Devereaux has doubts. Meanwhile, John Hale is largely unavailable to assist, as he’s witnessed a kidnapping, and finds himself the target of a dogged senior police officer as he tries to do his own private investigations.

Sanders writes in a crisp and punchy style, powering a storyline that can hook you early and keep the pages whirring. He often has a very nice way with words when it comes to pithy descriptions of people and places, using some vivid imagery, although at times some of the travel around Auckland, and the use of musical references, can get a touch too ‘listy’, which could bother some readers. Overall, By Any Means is a solid sophomore effort, and shows that Sanders is no one-hit wonder. I’m certainly looking forward to the next Sean Devereaux and John Hale tale.

This review was first published in the Friday, 26 August 2011 issue of NZLawyer magazine.

Happy Birthday Mr Sanders! I hope to be reviewing many more of your crime novels in the coming years.

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