Monday, February 18, 2019

Review: RIVER OF SALT

RIVER OF SALT by Dave Warner (Fremantle Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

1961, Philadelphia. After having to give up his brother to save his own life, hitman Blake Saunders flees the Mob and seeks refuge on the other side of the world. Two years later he has been reborn in a tiny coastal Australian town. The ghosts of the past still haunt him, but otherwise Coral Shoals is paradise. Blake surfs, and plays guitar in his own bar, the Surf Shack. 

But then the body of a young woman is found at a local motel, and evidence links her to the Surf Shack. When Blake’s friend is arrested, and the local sergeant doesn’t want to know, it becomes clear to Blake – who knows a thing or two about murder – that the only way to protect his paradise is to find the killer.

"Mile after mile of bush. Gum trees standing straight and silent along the side of the road like ghosts sitting in judgement on the living: on him. It was amazing you could drive so far and see so few people. With each passing minute, the sun sunk lower, as if embarrassed by the outcome of the day. Light that had been pale, almost white when he set out, turned the colour of urine. My life is like this, Blake thought. I keep driving on in my car, removed. I don't get out and touch what's around me. Little by little, things get darker and you don't really know where you are any more, you just follow white posts and try not to crash."

Blake Saunders has had a lot of unusual white posts to follow in his life, from life in Philadelphia as a hitman for the Mafia, to bar owner and guitar player in a NSW coastal town. Both lives have involved a lot of forethought and planning and a cautiousness that's inbred, instinctual and habitual. He's also able to accept that which cannot be changed - regular payments to the local cop to ensure the lack of business competition, or the need for personal intervention when that cop refuses to extend their arrangement to more active protection. He's loyal to his friends and employees though, so it's not just a killer he's after, he's also keen to track down the standover men who took their bid for protection money way too far.

RIVER OF SALT is an interesting undertaking from Dave Warner. The idea came to him at an Atlantics' gig, so the musical components of this novel are strong, the love that Saunders has for the surf-styled guitar band he plays with obvious. The rest of the novel though is different from more recent outings by Warner, it's more slowly paced, Saunders is restrained (I think that's the best word to describe him), and there are side-threads involving other characters that create a sort of Hydra of a story with the central neck obscured by heads until they are all accounted for.

The slower pace, and the controlled, cautious Saunders may take a little adjusting to for anybody who has only read the recent books. There are some echoes of Andrew (Lizard) Zirk in Saunders though (see Warner's earlier works MURDER IN THE FRAME / MURDER IN THE GROOVE / MURDER IN THE OFF-SEASON), and there's hints of the sort of controlled mayhem that showed up in EXXXPRESSO). Mostly there's a feel of a potential new series character, and a slight change in direction from the more police procedural / Western Australia based works of recent years.

The strength of RIVER OF SALT is definitely in the idea of a stranger in a strange land, back in the days when communications weren't instant, and people could reinvent themselves to some extent. It's exploring just how far you can go with that idea, and how much of the old you will never go away.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Ngaio Marsh AwardsShe kindly shares some of her reviews of crime and thriller novels from Australian and New Zealand authors on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction. where this review was first published.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Review: RAIN FALL

RAIN FALL by Ella West (Allen & Unwin, 2018)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

I'm not running late like I usually am. Maybe that's why I look in the river, maybe that's why I stop when I see it. A dark-coloured raincoat, the arms spread wide, floating, hood-first down the river. And then it starts to rain.

Fifteen-year-old Annie needs to get to her basketball match, but the police have cordoned off her road. Is her neighbour, who she grew up with, still alive? What has he done to have the police after him? 

A murder investigation brings new people to Annie's wild West Coast town, including a dark-haired boy riding the most amazing horse she has ever seen. But Annie is wary of strangers, especially as her world is beginning to crumble around her. In setting out to discover the truth Annie uncovers secrets that could rip the small community apart.

RAIN FALL is set in rain-soaked Westport, amidst mine closures and the decline in dairy prices. The town in depressed; the residents trying to make the best of things. But when 15-year-old Annie misses an important basketball game when her mate’s house across the street blows up while surrounded by the Armed Offenders Squad, and it looks like her Dad’s job might be the latest victim of the Stockton Mine staff reductions, and when she meets a rodeo star, things are never the same again.

RAIN FALL is a YA novel, told from Annie’s point of view. She is a realistic young woman, describing what it is like to be one of her peers: “You are all just the same. You are all just nobodies.” And of living on the Coast “This is the West Coast, … Anything can happen tomorrow. We take what we can get today.” Her descriptions of Westport are great, when asked when the wet season is: “It starts about the first of August and goes through until about the end of July”, and if the Buller River floods “Nothing survives if caught in its waters”.

So, a great environment to set a mystery, the young lad who blew up his house is generally thought to not be capable of hurting anyone: “Doesn’t sound like the Pete we know.” And the townsfolk keep information close, they are a besieged lot, they are pro-mining, pro-hunting, and not just anti ecological activists but pro Rimu-logging. Annie has picked up the secrecy bug and fails to tell her parents several things, including her knowledge of vital clues, and about her relationship with Jack, the rodeo star she meets on the beach while riding Blue, her horse – and yes, we are in pro-rodeo territory as well.

Once Annie and Jack meet, we are in a real YA romance novel; first kisses, mistaken beliefs, not knowing whether to trust or divulge secrets. Jack’s father is the detective sent up from Christchurch to find the missing Pete (no human remains being found in what’s left of his house), as well as blowing up his house Pete is known to have shot up the local Police station. And Jack’s dad is also there to solve a suspected murder that is somehow connected with the explosion. The Police think maybe a drug deal gone wrong, but they are struggling finding out what has happened.  And all we know is via the conversations Annie overhears, or the things she works out, or that she sees on TV between reports of conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

The Coast is a real character in the story, and its history is hauntingly evoked: People struggling on farms their families have been on for over a hundred years, the moving roll call of mining disasters, and the five layers of wall paper coming down in Annie’s house, in preparation should they have to move.  Annie has been in Westport forever, but her parents only moved there when she was a baby, so they are much more comfortable about moving should her father lose his job, while Annie is in a state of trauma about a possible move. She is a young woman amidst a whole lot of change, and she makes some quite rash decisions that get her, and Jack, into danger.

RAIN FALL is a love story, a murder mystery, a thriller, a book for horse-lovers, but what I most liked about it was its portrait of a town struggling with massive social change, and the character of Annie, she can ride, she can shoot (guns and basketball goals) and yet she has a lovely teenage fragility. It is a YA novel but is a good read for older people too!

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson, New Zealand. This review was first published on her blog, which you can check out here

Review: HOMEGROWN HERO

HOMEGROWN HERO by Khurrum Rahman (HQ, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

JAY QASIM is back home in West London and in pursuit of normality. He’s swapped dop-dealing for admin, and spends his free time at the local Muslim Community Centre or cruising around Hounslow in his beloved BMW. No-one would guess that he was the MI5 spy who foiled the most devastating terrorist attack in recent history.

But Jay’s part in sabotaging Ghurfat-Al-Mudarris’ hit on London didn’t pass unnoticed.

IMRAN SIDDIQUI was trained to kill in Afghanistan by tthe terrorist cell who saved his life after his home was destroyed by war. The time has finally come for him to repay them – throwing him headlong into the path of Jay Qasim.

Now, they must each decide whose side they’re really on.

Pakistan-born, West London-raised crime writer Khurrum Rahman takes us deep into his characters’ family lives and leavens violence with humour in HOMEGROWN HERO, an action-packed tale about spies and terrorists that merges global concerns with household and everyday issues.

There's a real fizz to Rahman's storytelling that makes it a little different to much of what else is out there, and definitely well worth a read. In a way, it reminds me of films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Layer Cake, where there is plenty of action and violence, but lots of humour too, Things are compelling and breakneck while not feeling too 'thin'; Rahman layers in some issues.

A sequel to Rahman's well-regarded debut, HOMEGROWN HERO sees the return of Jay Qasim, who is now looking for a quiet life after his hidden-from-the-headlines heroics foiling a potentially devastating terrorist plot. Jay is far from your typical crime fiction 'hero' - he's a former drug dealer turned double agent and terrorist trainee, who is now working in IT while living off a golden handshake from his MI5 paymasters. But while he’s done with that life, it’s not done with him.

A sheik issues a fatwa on Jay, activating Imy, another west London boy who’s been most concerned lately with trying to make things work with his white girlfriend and her son, while fending off his older sister’s attempts to find him a wife within the local Muslim community.

Rahman delivers a fresh and unique ‘spy thriller’ that touches on big issues like radicalisation, white nationalism, and the grooming of youngsters for violent causes, while never feeling ‘too heavy’. A propulsive page-turner that also gives readers plenty to think about.


Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed around 200 crime writers, talked about the genre onstage at literary festivals on three continents, and on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Review: MAKE A HARD FIST

MAKE A HARD FIST by Tina Shaw (One Tree House, 2018)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Lizzie Quinn thinks she's tough. But when Lizzie is attacked in her local park, she realises just how vulnerable she is. She knows she has to get her confidence back. The thing is, she's scared of her own shadow these days. Lizzie Q, why so blue?

Then she receives a letter in the mail, unsigned. Her stupid friends...or maybe her short-lived boyfriend? But they all deny it. More letters arrive and Lizzie begins to think someone is watching her. She has a stalker.

MAKE A HARD FIST is an extremely powerful YA novel about the physical abuse of young women.  It is edgy, scary and yet empowering.

Lizzie Quinn is doing well, well apart from a hiccough in her relationship with a boy she just wanted to be friends with, and he wanted more. She is doing well at running, loves pizza, has some great mates, and is saving to buy a Volkswagen Beetle off her uncle.  But then she starts to receive weird one-line messages in the mail. She thinks it might be one of the spurned boy’s silly mates – but she isn’t sure.

Lizzie is confident, funny and feisty, but one day she is attacked while taking a short-cut home through a reserve. The Police are supportive; Detective Sergeant Rose Wallis is patient trying to get a description of the man, but Lizzie struggles to remember. Then she finds out there has been another attack, and the other girl hasn’t been as ‘lucky’ as Lizzie. After the attack Lizzie is a changed person, she is not so quick to joke, her life is monochrome. She talks to a counsellor, but she still feels under threat – and the notes keep arriving.

Eventually Lizzie gets back into her running and decides to do something to help herself and others get some self-defence skills. A teacher arranges for a young man, Junior, to come and do some training with Lizzie and some of her fellow students. Not only does the training go well but Lizzie finds herself attracted to Junior. She is working part-time in the local library to get the money to buy her car and sees Junior there, and they strike up a relationship. But her stalker has not finished with her …

MAKE A HARD FIST is powerfully written; the attacks described will be hard reading for anyone who has been in that situation – as so many of us have. At least the Police are trying to find her attacker; when it happened to me in the 1970s the first question the Police asked my parents was ‘what was she wearing?’ There are also funny moments in the book, lovely family and friend relationships, and one unexpected show of support for Lizzie that had me in tears.

MAKE A HARD FIST is a psychological thriller, even when Lizzie is feeling a bit more normal the reader gets a sense that worse is to come and danger is lurking everywhere. As Lizzie confesses to Rose Wallace: “It just feels like it’s never going to end.” The change in Lizzie after the attack is well portrayed, as is the effect it has on her family and friends. She finds strength and vulnerability in unlikely people. The novel is also a YA love story, sort of. Lizzie is trying to sort out her feelings and her priorities, both enormous tasks for a teenage girl without the threat of violence or unwanted attention.

Another good aspect of the novel is its recognition of the unfortunate normalisation of violence in our society; Lizzie’s father just wants to ‘beat the living daylights out of’ her attacker, she sees an uncontrollable violent streak in Junior, Junior got his fighting skills out of necessity with the violence in his family, Lizzie realises one of her school mates is interested in the self-defence session because of ongoing abuse at home, you get the feeling Rose Wallace has been attacked at some time in her past, etc. etc.

MAKE A HARD FIST is a challenging but important novel.

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson, New Zealand. This review was first published on her blog, which you can check out here


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Foraging for chanterelles & separating hemispheres: an interview with Sam Eastland

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the first instalment of 9mm for 2019, and the 208th overall edition of our long-running author interview series.

Thanks for reading over the years. I've had tonnes of fun chatting to some amazing writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you.

You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. If you've got a favourite writer who hasn't yet been featured yet, let me know in the comments or by message, and I'll look to make that happen for you.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome American author Sam Eastland to Crime Watch. He is the author of the Inspector Pekkala mystery series which takes readers deep into Stalinist Russia. Pekkala is a fascinating character - the top detective under the Tsar's regime, he's sent the gulags following the Communist revolution, only to then be shoulder-tapped by Stalin's regime to use his skills once more. Walking a tightrope and trying to remain an honourable man within a corrupt regime, Pekkala takes readers on quite the journey throughout the series, blending mystery and history and plenty of thrills.

You can read my review of SIBERIAN RED, the third in the series, here. After seven tales in that series, Eastland has now released a standalone spy novel set against the aftermath of the Second World War, THE ELEGANT LIE. In the new novel Nathan Carter, a disgraced American Army officer, is recruited by the CIA to infiltrate and destroy a black market operation in post-war Cologne that the CIA fears could become compromised by the growing threat of Stalin's KGB. But Carter discovers something even more dangerous, and becomes caught in the middle while facing the danger that his cover could be blown as he tries to prevent something that could ignite another war.

Sam Eastland is the pseudonym of history teacher and novelist Paul Watkins, who was born in the United Kingdom but went to Yale University and has spent three decades living in the United States. He lives with his family in New Jersey, and wrote eleven books under his own name (nine fiction, two non-fiction) before switching to crime and thrillers with his first Inspector Pekkala book, EYE OF THE RED TSAR in 2010. For his earlier work he was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1992 and 1996, and won the Winifred Holtby Prize for Regional Novel of the Year in 1996.

But for now, 'Sam Eastland' becomes the latest crime writer to stare down the barrel of 9mm.

9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH SAM EASTLAND

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I don’t read a lot of detective fiction, or any fiction for that matter. I spend hours at my desk every day writing the stuff and I find that the last thing I can do at the end of the day is curl up with a novel. Writing fiction gives you a kind of unwanted x-ray vision, in which you can glimpse the inner workings of a plot more clearly than you would want in order to achieve that all-important suspension of disbelief. When watching detective shows on television, which doesn’t have the same effect on me as reading about them, my children have forbidden me to say how the story will turn out, which I have an annoying habit of doing.

My first recurring detective hero was actually on a television show back in the 1970’s. It was called ‘Kolchak, The Night Stalker’, and the lead character was played by Darren McGavin. Kolchak was an investigator of paranormal activity, laying the groundwork for the X-Files, which was a direct descendant of Kolchak. I found it utterly terrifying and irresistible. Many years later, I showed a few episodes to my kids and they were not impressed. Some stories do not travel well through time, and I think Kolchak is one of them, but I still remember fondly how it felt to cower in my chair, eyes glued to the screen, when it was broadcast every week.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I had to do so much reading for school that I seldom turned to books during the holidays. The first time I made an exception, at least the first time it had a lasting effect on me, was when I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN. It remains for me the most ruthlessly told, the most beautifully evocative and the most finely crafted story of its kind that I have ever read.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I came to crime writing after many years of literary fiction and travel writing, which I did under my real name, Paul Watkins. I have published a dozen books under the Paul Watkins name, including STAND BEFORE YOUR GOD, THE FORGER and IN THE BLUE LIGHT OF AFRICAN DREAMS, most of which have been done by Faber & Faber in the UK and by Random House, Houghton Mifflin, or Picador in the US.

Using the Eastland pseudonym has allowed me to keep separate those two hemispheres of my career which, although they both belong to the same discipline, are nevertheless very different in the demands they place upon you, and in the head space you inhabit when you are writing.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
During the academic year, I teach history at a small boarding school Peddie, which is in New Jersey. I have been teaching for 30 years now, a fact which astonishes me when I think about it, but I never grow tired of the work. It has a way of endlessly renewing the sense of purpose I feel when I am lecturing. It also makes for a very good balance of the world outside and the world inside my head. If I didn’t have the teaching, I would spend altogether too much time with people I had invented, and not enough with people who are real. That is not always a bad thing, I hasten to add, but it is not sustainable in the long run. For the rest of the year, I live in a small village in northern Maine, where I spent my days hiking in the woods and canoeing out across the lakes.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
If I think of the village in Maine as my home, where tourists come to stay at old and beautiful lodges in the summertime, to hunt for bear and moose during the autumn, and to ice fish and snowmobile during the winter, the thing that only the locals do is to forage in the woods for raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and asparagus, as well as chanterelle and morel mushrooms. Tourists don’t know where to look, or even that some of these things can be found, and the locals aren’t about to tell them. People are very protective of the places where they go to forage, but the extraordinary abundance of these delicacies ensures that most people, if they put some effort into it, can lay claim to their own little patch of the forest.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
I think it would have to be some kind of Frankenstein melding of Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or particularly special, and why?
In the crime writing department, I find that the stories are so interlinked by the main characters that they exist in my mind as a continuum, rather than the individual stories into which they are broken for publication. Under my own name, I wrote a book about being sent away to school, which is titled STAND BEFORE YOUR GOD, of which I am sentimentally fond. There is also a book called CALM AT SUNSET, CALM AT DAWN, which is a fictional account of the years I spent working on deep sea fishing boats off the coast of New England when I was at university. I flip through that sometimes and I still like what I see.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
I had my first book published at the age of 24. It is called NIGHT OVER DAY OVER NIGHT and was put out by Knopf in the US and by Hutchinson in the UK. My initial reaction was to think – whatever else happens to me in my life, no one can take this accomplishment away from me. It was a feeling that, for the first time, I had done something permanent. It was also a feeling that that I had, at last, something to stack against the self-doubt which is a part of every writer’s pantheon of demons. By then, I had been writing for a number of years. I had papered the wall of my study with rejection slips from small fiction magazines. I wrote each day with a kind of stubborn helplessness. People tell you to quit. People tell you to get a real job. People smirk at you behind your back for your presumption at thinking you might actually survive as a writer. Those are the same people who, when you finally get published, tell you that they knew all along you could do it. You have to care what people think, but you cannot care too much.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I was in a shop in New York City that specializes in crime fiction. I was there before the shop opened, signing copies of a new Inspector Pekkala book. It is a strange feeling to sign a book with a name that is not your own, but I signed the name Sam Eastland so many times that I can do a better job of it than with my real name. Towards the end of the signing, the book shop owner asked if he could contact me directly if they needed me to come in a sign more stock. My publicist, who had come with me, nodded yes. I reached into my wallet for one of my cards and had it in my hand before I realized it had the wrong name, Paul Watkins instead of Sam Eastland. At that time, I was still forbidden to disclose who I really was, so I quickly put away the card and muttered something about it being the wrong one. It was an awkward moment and, when I left the shop, my publicist asked me for one of my cards. When I asked her why, she said – Because that can never happen again. One week later, I received a stack of business cards with the same font, but with the name Sam Eastland instead of Paul Watkins. They were even in a different colour, to avoid any future mistakes. I still carry both cards with me when I travel.

Thank you 'Sam'. We appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch.

The Elegant Lie by Sam Eastland is published by Faber & Faber in February (£8.99 paperback)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: HOT TO KILL

HOT TO KILL by Linda Coles (Blue Banana, 2017)

Reviewed by Jeannie McLean

She’s literally getting away with murder… 

Madeline Simpson is hot, sticky, and stressed to the max. She’s had it up to here with people treating her like dirt, and the hot flashes certainly aren’t helping. When her temper causes her to accidentally murder her landscaper, she expects to live out the rest of her menopause in prison. But the police have their hands full with a series of sexual assaults… 

Feeling above the law, Madeline aims to teach her biggest offenders a lesson. While her pranks take a dark and dangerous turn, Madeline begins to suspect the true identity of the serial sex offender. 

To catch the culprit, Madeline will have to go it alone… or risk unburying her deadly secrets. 

It’s recognised that a small number of women suffer psychosis aggravated or triggered by hormonal changes they experience in middle-age; not just the common hot flushes, irritability and impatience but instant, full-blown, ferocious rages. Cue Madeline Simpson who outwardly has led a blameless life until the summer heat wave occurs at the same time she is peri-menopausal. Then, she becomes very dangerous to cross.

The novel opens with Madeline losing patience with other drivers and slow-moving shoppers. She relieves the stress by reacting in a mean-spirited manner - temperature tantrums, Madeline calls them. Already in a bad mood, there soon follows a disagreement with her landscaper. But rather than this lethal turn of events teaching her to control her rages, she continues on exacting revenge on those who dare to annoy her. The plot flows from one unfortunate event to another (one -too-many scenes involving cars) that trigger Madeline’s rage; her reactions anywhere on the continuum from snide and spiteful to malicious and murderous.

I found Madeline hard to like or even empathise with. She comes across as an unpleasant person to begin with and the hormonal changes only exacerbate her mean-streak. Madeline admits she could have gladly killed Ruth, the teenager who turns up at fifteen, the product of her husband’s one-night stand. But she admits, that after the initial trauma of coping with a bolshie teenager, she and Ruth are developing a closer, if not close, relationship. Madeline meets her best friend Rebecca each week, to live vicariously through the stories of Rebecca’s casual and sexually active lifestyle. Madeline isn’t sure whether to despair or be jealous. And Madeline’s relationship with her husband seems to be one of mutual indifference.

However, Coles does allow Madeline to redeem herself in some way. A subplot running through the narrative is the police investigation into a spate of sexual attacks in the area. More by accident, as a consequence of yet another of Madeline’s over reactions, she realises she knows the identity of the person responsible for the attacks and foolishly but bravely, she decides to follow her hunch.

I had far more time for the secondary characters of Ruth and Detective Amanda Lacey (HOT TO KILL is the second in the Detective Lacey series, so I will be back tracking and read the first). Lacey is one of the officers involved in searching for the sexual attacker while also investigating what has happened to the missing landscaper.

The ending, at which point, Madeline’s earlier words, “Retribution should be swift and hard and far outweigh the original crime,” become truly significant, is a very neat bringing together of the several plot strands and inter-connections among characters in a surprisingly satisfying ending.

The humour is black with some very recognisable chuckle moments for readers who have or are suffering from similar menopausal symptoms. And in spite of my dislike of Madeline (which may well be the author’s point), I found it refreshing to read a crime novel with a middle-aged female protagonist, one that deals with menopause, not common as a major theme, and it was somewhat gratifying that a number of not-very-nice men get their comeuppance.

Jeannie McLean is a writer and an avid reader of crime fiction. She had the pleasure of meeting the author at Rotorua Noir in January.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review: THE HUNTING PARTY

THE HUNTING PARTY by Lucy Foley (HarperCollins, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

During the languid days of the Christmas break, a group of thirtysomething friends from Oxford meet to welcome in the New Year together, a tradition they began as students ten years ago. For this vacation, they’ve chosen an idyllic and isolated estate in the Scottish Highlands—the perfect place to get away and unwind by themselves.

They arrive on December 30th, just before a historic blizzard seals the lodge off from the outside world. Two days later, on New Year’s Day, one of them is dead.

The trip began innocently enough: admiring the stunning if foreboding scenery, champagne in front of a crackling fire, and reminiscences about the past. But after a decade, the weight of secret resentments has grown too heavy for the group’s tenuous nostalgia to bear. Amid the boisterous revelry of New Year’s Eve, the cord holding them together snaps.

Now one of them is dead . . . and another of them did it.

Nine thirty-something friends who’ve known each other for years gather as guests at a remote lodge in the Scottish Highlands to celebrate New Year’s Eve. While their lives have all changed since their university days, their relationships and group dynamics are still handcuffed by their shared history.

An unexpected death, suspicious staff members, troubling secrets, and a killer on the loose; Lucy Foley’s fourth novel is quite a swerve from her earlier oeuvre of historical and contemporary love stories. An atmospheric, wintry tale that would likely translate well to screen, the tagline could happily read ‘Agatha Christie meets The Big Chill’.

THE HUNTING PARTY blends elements of classic ‘cut off from the outside murder mysteries with a tale of friends whose relationships and ideas of themselves are fracturing. And it does it very well.

There’s plenty to like in Foley’s first mystery. The set-up quickly draws readers in, the isolated lodge setting is incredibly evocative and atmospheric, and there’s a really good narrative drive as the viewpoint switches between characters and back and forth in time. It's a quick, compelling read.

Beyond the pacing and structure, several interesting issues are touched upon, from the idea of otherwise good people acting badly at times, to stalking, to secrets being held within groups of friends, and how we see ourselves and those we are closest to as we age and the years pass us by.

This is a page-turner with a capital P, although there are occasional moments where the ‘author hand’ is a little too obvious or the characters feel more like they’re movable pieces in a game rather than as full-fleshed as they may otherwise be. Having said that, there are lots of interesting characters and the dynamics between the group is particularly fascinating and pretty well drawn by Foley.

Minor quibbles aside, THE HUNTING PARTY shows that Foley is well-suited to the crime and thriller genre, and hopefully this intriguing and enjoyable read is just the beginning for her.


Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed around 200 crime writers, talked about the genre onstage at literary festivals on three continents, and on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


Friday, February 8, 2019

Review: THE RINGMASTER

THE RINGMASTER by Vanda Symon (Orenda Books, 2019)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Death is stalking the southern South Island. And what role does the visiting Darling Brothers Circus have to play?

Sam Shephard is on the bottom rung of detective training in Dunedin, and her boss makes sure she knows it. She gets involved in her first homicide investigation there when a university student is murdered in the Botanic Gardens. Sam soon discovers this is not an isolated incident. There is the chilling prospect of a predator loose in Dunedin. Is the murderer in the circus or closer to home?

Sam must find out who's running the show.

The death of a brilliant young woman, a circus in town, high stakes university research, the ringmaster a monster of a boss, a critical Mum, and a persistent suitor – just some of the happenings in Sam Shephard’s second outing, this time as a trainee detective in Dunedin.

I had jumped into the Sam Shephard novels from the third novel, Containment, and am so glad the series is being re-released for the European market, prompting me to go back to the beginning.  I loved the first: Overkill, and the second: The Ringmaster is equally good.  Sam Shephard is a wonderful mix of smarts and goofiness, but is someone you would definitely want in your corner if you got in a fix.

Throughout the wide-ranging plot of The Ringmaster is the image of a young woman, Rose-Marie Bateman, face-down dead in the Water of the Leith in Dunedin Botanic Garden. This is the image constantly reappearing in Sam’s mind as she fights bullying in the force, sexism in the city, and a mounting sense of danger to her own safety. Added to that is great guilt for her actions in one of the most riveting incidents in the book, one that had me, and Sam, in tears.

Alongside all the threats and idiots Sam has to deal with, are some really great supports; her mate Maggie, her partner Smithy, and her Dad, laid low in hospital.  And there is Detective Paul Frost, up from Gore for a court appearance, a “sexier version of Ben Affleck”, and popping up all over the place.

Sam is marginalised from the heart of the investigation into Rose-Marie’s murder and told to manage the various problems with the circus that has come to town; but that doesn’t stop her discovering links between the Dunedin murder and others in the region, having suspicions about various players, and arriving at a vital clue in cracking the murder case with a flash of feminine intuition about how it could have been carried out.

The Ringmaster is funny, sad and there is some interesting psychology at play as well: How can you logically profile illogical crimes?  How can you predict human behaviour when it is so random, and the acts so often disproportionate to their causes?  The Ringmaster is a great thriller, and I am a bit sad I have now caught up with the Sam Shephard series!

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson, New Zealand. This review was first published on her blog, which you can check out here