Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: ONLY THE DEAD by Ben Sanders

ONLY THE DEAD by Ben Sanders (HarperCollins, 2013)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

When a failed witness protection operation ends in multiple homicides, evidence suggests the crime is linked to a series of violent robberies in Auckland City. For Detective Sergeant Sean Devereaux, solving the case is proving next to impossible. His own superiors in the police department are refusing to cooperate with his investigation. After Devereaux shoots a suspect in a botched surveillance job, he is forced to start providing the answers rather than demanding them.

ONLY THE DEAD is the third Sean Devereaux novel from New Zealand author Ben Sanders, but only the second I've read. Back in 2012, reading the second book, BY ANY MEANS, it was obvious then that Sanders is an author who likes to work with pace, and complexity. The plots in both these books are built on swirling / shifting sands, making sure that the reader is never exactly sure of anything. Add to that a strong reliance on a noir style, taking a central protagonist, putting them through all sorts of physical challenges, and keeping them dancing that line between good and bad, right and wrong.

Building on many of the basic elements from the earlier books, Devereaux plays a lone hand for most of the action, although he does have a good relationship with ex-cop John Hale, working PI in Auckland and good backstop. Particularly as Devereaux spends much of this book on the outer - sidelined, under suspicion, suspended. In this book he also has a rather shaky romantic relationship lurking around in the background, but that's more about a how to guide on screwing up your personal life.

In the earlier book the music, the popular culture references, and a tendency to lose the basic stylings detracted markedly from the plot, getting things bogged down often. That's been sorted out in ONLY THE DEAD, with the asides and around abouts less distracting and built into the action more naturally and seamlessly. That noir, pared down, choppy style is much more consistent, albeit heavy-handed, but combined with the types of characters, and the action it works. Well enough to make it perfectly acceptable that a place like Auckland would have a dark side, that there's violence and dodgy cops barely under the surface, and that a working PI would be meaningfully occupied.

If you've not read any of the earlier books, ONLY THE DEAD would still work. It is definitely the book where this series starts to make it's mark. Although you do have to feel a bit sorry for tourist authorities in these sorts of locations. There's enough realism here to make you wonder what they're not telling you about "the City of Sails".


Karen Chisholm is one of the most respected crime fiction reviewers in Australia. An absolute stalwart of antipodean crime fiction, Karen created and has been running her Aust Crime Fiction website since 2006, highlighting a plethora of authors and titles from this part of the world, to the wider world online. It is a terrific resource - please check it out. 

Karen also reviews for other outlets, such as the Newtown Review of Books, and since 2014 has been a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel - the New Zealand crime writing award. Her reviews of New Zealand crime novels will now be shared here on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction


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