Sunday, March 12, 2017


NO RED HERRINGS by Mary Scott & Joyce West (Angus & Robertson, 1964)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A trip to Honolulu was Beth Sutherland's prize for winning a quiz contest. Soon after she comes back to her home on a New Zealand sheep farm she disappears suddenly. Her disappearance follows the discovery of a murder in the village. Inspector Wright, who has solved other mysteries no less perplexing in the heart of the New Zealand countryside, is soon on the spot.

Back in the early 1960s Ngaio Marsh was still going strong as one of the Queens of Crime Fiction, but she wasn't the only Kiwi women penning popular mystery tales. In fact two well-established authors, Mary Scott and Joyce West, teamed up and wrote five rural thrillers set in the New Zealand countryside.

Scott, then in her seventies, had written bestselling novels about life and romance in rural New Zealand that were translated into foreign languages (and were particularly popular in Germany), while West, then in her fifties, also wrote about farming life as well as being a children's author.

Both were rural women who loved and understood country life - who had farming and a love of animals in their bones - and that clearly comes through in this murder mystery.

NO RED HERRINGS is the fourth of five thrillers the pair wrote together, and its evocation of 1960s rural New Zealand is one of several things that makes it worth digging out (the book is out of print but can be found online or in secondhand bookstores). It was the first of the duo's crime novels that I've read, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but overall I really enjoyed the read. It is somewhat dated and old-fashioned, as you'd expect for a novel written and set in the early 1960s - and in farmland New Zealand, which really was the outskirts of the former British empire. Supposedly a land of milk and honey, but also of a hardscrabble life where people may struggle to make ends meet, even if surrounded by the kind of landscapes city folk and the urban poor could only dream of.

Beth Sutherland is a young woman who loves horses and gets a chance at a trip of a lifetime when a quiz prize rests on equine knowledge. After she returns, things don't go so well, however, as she disappears while out on a horse ride. It's a double blow for the small community, as someone else has been murdered. Surely it must be outsiders who've committed these awful acts? Or worse, is it someone they know? Inspector Wright - who features in other Scott & West crime novels - arrives to conduct the police investigation, also calling in a private citizen he knows and trusts. An expert in horses, who has more than that to offer. But they're not the only two on the hunt for the criminals.

NO RED HERRINGS is a pleasant read that would be particularly enjoyed by fans of the old-fashioned 'cosy' crime novels. There are violent acts committed, but it's not a violent book. Scott & West excel in bringing the rural community to vivid life, from the day to day work to social occasions like country fairs and large group hunts. There's a variety of personalities, all of whom are given enough depth to not be caricatures of country folk. There's a little bit of humour, and things never get too dark, even as evil deeds occur. The mystery plotline itself isn't particularly twisty or outrageous, but the book unfolds at a lovely pace, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

I'll definitely be reading the others in the series. NO RED HERRINGS is a tale from another time, written in another time, and was very nice palate cleanser from the slicker, often more violent, modern crime novels that dominate my 'to be read' mountain. Worth reading.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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