Friday, October 7, 2016


COLD HARD MURDER by Trish McCormack (2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Two people struggle on a ledge high above Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks. One falls to their death, beginning a sequence of violence as Department of Conservation ranger Matt Grey announces plans for a commercial tourism venture bitterly opposed by the local community. More people die, and it seems their murders are motivated by something more personal than a threat to the integrity of the national park. Former glacier guide Philippa Barnes does some unofficial, unwelcome, sleuthing.

I enjoyed the first two books in McCormack's series starring glacier guide Philippa Barnes, who finds herself investigating troubling deaths that have struck close to her life. Both ASSIGNED TO MURDER and GLACIER MURDER are solid mysteries with some interesting characters and a particularly good touch for their settings among some of New Zealand's most beautiful national parks.

In COLD HARD MURDER, McCormack brings things together into her best tale yet. Barnes is on hiatus from life as a glacier guide, and takes a job working with the Department of Conservation in Paparoa National Park, a protected area of limestone karst landscapes - lush rainforest, cave systems, mountains, beaches, and spectacular rock formations. It is among this ruggedly magnificent beauty that death once again comes calling in Barnes' life.

McCormack's storytelling harkens back to the classic British style village murder mysteries: there's a fascinating cast of eccentric rural characters, suspects, clues, and red herrings. The small community on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island isn't as close-knit as it seems. Secrets swirl beneath the surface. As both the professional and amateur investigators try to find out what really happened, there's a sense of further threat to those left behind.

It's an interesting mix of townsfolk in the small community - locals and other more recent residents who've found their lives taking them to this remote place for one reason or another. Like many rural communities, there are issues of economic development versus maintaining what makes the area special and different from the places people have escaped from. Tourism is a lifeblood, for some.

I was thoroughly engaged throughout COLD HARD MURDER. McCormack showed her usual fine hand when it comes to evoking a great sense of place, but her plotting and characterisation seemed to have developed a notch or two from her previous, still enjoyable and very readable, efforts. I was swept up in this murder mystery happening in such a remote, gorgeous part of my home country. I haven't explored Paparoa National Park myself, but some of its features seemed familiar to me from having experienced other hiking trails, coastlines, and cave systems a little further north.

Through Barnes and her DOC colleagues, McCormack is able to touch on some interesting issues, tensions, and debates about how areas of natural beauty are used, exploited, and protected by humans. How do we encourage a love for nature, and get people to experience it, while protecting it from abuse? Everything costs nowadays, so what compromises should be made for the greater good? McCormack threads these issues and others through a very readable murder mystery that had me hooked from the early pages, engaged throughout, and looking forward to her next book at the end.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 160 crime writers, discussed crime writing at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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