Wednesday, August 15, 2018

"I Can See Clearly Now" - Paul Cleave feature interview

Paul Cleave winning one of his three Ngaio Marsh Awards (credit WORD Christchurch)

I can see clearly now... 

inspired by a lunchtime conversation, award-winning author Paul Cleave’s latest thriller blends magic realism with the darker edge of crime fiction

By Craig Sisterson

Joshua has his father’s eyes.

Not in the figurative “Oh, you look so much like your father” sense that well-meaning relatives and family friends might utter while ruffling your hair at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other extended get-togethers.

Not in an ancestry sense either, where similar curves, hues, and any future need for reading glasses has been passed like a genetic baton from generation to generation.

But in a very literal sense.

When the bandages come off at Christchurch Hospital and shapes and light start filtering into Joshua’s consciousness after years of darkness, it is because of a gift from the man Joshua calls his father. Light streams into the teenager’s world because Detective Inspector Mitchell Logan donated his eyes to his blind child.

Detective Logan doesn’t need them anymore. He was killed in the line of duty, trying to corral a sadistic killer at a building site. Shot with a nail gun and tossed from the fourth floor.

It’s the second time Joshua has had a father die being a hero. The new light in his life is tainted by loss. As he tries to adjust, while grieving, everything is changed, so fresh, so vivid. Even when he closes his eyes; stark images come. Violent acts of crime and crime fighting.

Has Joshua received more than just his father’s eyes?

Paul Cleave’s tenth thriller, A Killer Harvest, takes the multi-award-winning New Zealand author into a slightly new realm, with its teenage protagonist and touch of the supernatural. It’s also a nod to his horror-writing roots as an unpublished author, before he broke through in 2006 with The Cleaner, a powerful serial killer tale that topped bestseller charts in Europe and sold a quarter of a million copies in Germany alone within its first few months.

“I pretty much only read horror when I was young, and for some time there I’d only read Stephen King,” says Cleave, looking back on his days growing up in Christchurch, a coastal city roughly the size of Minneapolis, backdropped by scenery from The Lord of the Rings.

“My guess is Stephen King inspired half the authors alive today to write,” continues Cleave. “I really, really wanted to be a horror author, but it didn’t work for me. It wasn’t until one day I realized that horror is scary on the page, but crime is scary in real life. I mean, you don’t go to a zombie movie and come home and lock your doors in case your neighbour is going to bite you. But you go to a scary crime movie, like The Silence of the Lambs, then you do come home and lock your doors in case your neighbour is going to try to bite you.”

Cleave likes to scare readers, and says he writes horror as crime. It’s been an evolution over the twenty plus years he’s been writing novels; it took him over a decade to teach himself the ropes, hone his craft, pivot, and first get published with The Cleaner. “Crime is scary, the things people do to each other is scary. I figured that stuff all out around the six-year mark after I first started writing, when I read books by John Douglas, the FBI profiler. So I switched from writing horror to writing what I think of as real-life horror, which is crime.”

There is a delicious malevolence to Cleave’s thrillers, tempered by dark humour and prose that crackles with energy and verve. He’s the kind of author that aficionados and fellow authors rave about, even if he isn’t yet a household name to casual mystery fans.

Cleave’s sense of humour, wry and twisted, comes through in person as well as on the page. He often writes, and talks, like he has a mischievous glint in his eye. “I’ve always liked to entertain,” he admits. “I was afraid to go up on stage and act, or talk publicly, but among my friends I’m always trying to make them laugh. Writing became an extension of that.”

During our interview, Cleave reminisces about getting scolded by his high school teacher for writing stories about Santa having a drug addiction. “My teacher held me back after school to ask how I knew about shooting heroin. I said my Mum showed me how.” When I ask him how writing from a teenager’s perspective changed the way he envisaged, researched and wrote A Killer Harvest, he starts with “I’d wait outside schools and watch teenagers”.

The truth is less creepy.

“I can still remember a little what being a teenager was like,” says Cleave. “The sense of awkwardness while finding your way in the world, all while having assholes at school give you a hard time. With Joshua, I wanted to have a character who was isolated - he used to be blind, but now he’s not. His friends from the blind school part of his life struggle with the knowledge that he can now see, and they can’t, so they’re jealous and shun him. And the new kids in his life think he’s a freak. He’s caught between these two worlds. I figure that’s a common way to feel, aside from the whole eye transplant thing.”

That ‘whole eye transplant thing’, and the associated idea of cellular memory – where transplanted organs carry memories from the donors – gives A Killer Harvest a touch of the supernatural, but it’s still firmly grounded in the mystery world. If Cleave was a literary author from Latin America, we’d call the book magical realism: an exciting tale with a primarily realistic view of our world, incorporating a single magical or fantastical element.

As his career has progressed, Cleave hasn’t been afraid to experiment and stretch his storytelling wings. His previous novel was the exceptional psychological thriller, Trust No One, centred on a crime writer suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s who starts confessing that he’s a killer and the crimes in his books are real. His carers don’t believe him, but people have been disappearing. Told from multiple perspectives from the same character (including a rare chunk of second-person narrative), Trust No One garnered high acclaim from critics across the globe, was feted as a ‘literary hall of mirrors’ with the ‘ultimate unreliable narrator’, and won Cleave a record third Ngaio Marsh Award in his home country.

Cleave ended up taking a year off after that book, travelling and learning to play the guitar, before the idea for A Killer Harvest, which had been planted while having lunch with his German editor during the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in England in 2012, sparked back into life. “The idea for Joshua and his story came out of nowhere at that lunch,” says Cleave. “Tim, my editor, said ‘would you ever consider writing a young adult novel?’ I said no, and he listed off some names of adult crime writers who were doing so, and out of absolutely nowhere, I said ‘well, if I were to write one, it would be about this boy who is blind...’, and right there I pitched the idea for what would become A Killer Harvest. Two minutes later I had the characters, the plot, and I even knew how the book was going to end. I’ve never had anything happen like that before. Boy was it cool.”

Because of other books, the idea was shelved for a few years, until Cleave returned to it after his post-Trust No One break. “Bang, six weeks later, I had a first draft.”

The book was no longer a young adult novel; instead an adult thriller with a teenage hero.

Still, Cleave says it’s a very different book from his previous nine, which have been bestsellers in several countries, translated into more than a dozen languages, and won the Saint-Maur Crime Novel of the Year in France to go with his three Ngaio Marsh Awards and nominations for the Edgar and Barry Awards in the United States. “In a way, A Killer Harvest got me closer to being the kind of writer I used to want to be when I was younger.”

One of the tricky things with this book was how to incorporate that idea of cellular memory, of organ recipients feeling like they might have someone else’s memories or emotions.

“This is one of the main reasons the novel was written originally as a young adult novel,” says Cleave. “You’re taking something very anecdotal, and stating it as fact. My other books are set in a firm reality, and this is not. So the first thing you need to do is have most of the other characters disbelieve it too – until there’s so much evidence they can’t dismiss it.”

The key is to take ‘this thing’ and make it subtle, says Cleave. “It may not be real, but you have to make it real. And books and movies do that all the time. Harry Potter is about a teenage wizard battling a serial killer wizard, and Star Trek is about breaking the laws of physics and flying around the universe in pants that are six inches too short. Nobody believes those things, but in those pages, on those screens, those things are real life.”

Although, since he’s writing thrillers that dance along the darker edge of crime, rather than fantasy or science fiction, the expectations and goal posts are a little different, Cleave admits. “You’re taking one small thing that isn’t real and putting it in a normal, modern-day world, and asking people to believe in it. You’re not creating a world in which to make these things fit. So with A Killer Harvest, it was important not to make cellular memory, and the eye surgery that made it possible, the biggest things in the book.”

For Cleave, while the idea of the eye transplant and cellular memory were the original acorns for A Killer Harvest, and a fascinating hook, they’re not what his tenth book is about.

“They set things in motion, and yes they’re an important part of the plot, but the book is about a teenager who feels isolated, it’s about a boy who misses his Dad who has died. It’s about a boy who learns what kind of man his Dad really was, the bad things in his family, about being bullied at school – all while being stalked by a killer wanting revenge.”

Vicious killers pepper the ten books that Cleave has published, but they’re not what elevate his writing above most serial killer thrillers out there. Along with his darkly hypnotic prose and powerful characterization, it’s that sense of underlying, universal themes that give added depth to his tense page-turners. In Blood Men, which won Cleave his first Ngaio Marsh Award back in 2011, a young man has to turn to his father, an imprisoned killer, for help when his world falls apart. How thin is the line between good people and bad acts?

Cleave’s eighth novel, the award-winning Five Minutes Alone (the fourth in his series starring troubled Christchurch investigator Theo Tate), features a criminal offering victims and families the oft-asked ‘five minutes alone’ with perpetrators. Where does justice lie?

Cleave, now 42, says he’s learned plenty since he first started out as a nineteen-year-old. He’s particularly grateful to the ‘brilliant’ editors he’s had over the years. “Like anything, except golf, writing is one of those things that improve with experience,” he says. “Back then I was basically just throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what stuck. Of course none of it stuck, but it was an important time for me because I got to figure out what I wanted to be as a writer. It would be six years before I ended up writing what would be my first book, and another five years of rewrites until that thing came out. Boy, what a learning curve!”

Nowadays, Cleave knows that fears of being unable to write another book are well-shared in the writing community. And that even if he struggles for months, a fresh idea that will have him excitedly tearing through another first draft can be just around the corner.

He’s already working on book eleven. “Next year’s book is different again from what I’ve written in the past, another standalone, but it’s too early to chat about now...”

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He’s interviewed more than 180 crime writers, including onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. 

This feature was first published in the Fall 2017 issue of Mystery Scene magazine, and is published here online for the first time as part of the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour. A KILLER HARVEST is a finalist for Best Novel. 

Farmers markets and flash fiction: an interview with Nikki Crutchley

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the 28th instalment of 9mm for 2018, and the 200th overall edition of our long-running author interview series.

Wow, big milestone there!

Thanks for reading over the years. I've had a lot of fun talking to some amazing crime 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 New Zealand author Nikki Crutchley to Crime Watch. Nikki was named as a finalist in the Best First Novel category of this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards for her debut NOTHING BAD HAPPENS HERE, a murder mystery set in a seaside small town in New Zealand. Nikki is also a proofreader who previously working overseas at Oxford University Press and as a librarian in the UK and Ireland. She began her fiction writing career with ultra-short 'flash fiction' stories. She was regional winner for New Zealand Flash Fiction Day in 2016 and 2017.

A couple of years ago Nikki was in the audience for the 'Murder in the Library' series event held in association with the Ngaio Marsh Awards at Cambridge Library. This year she was part of that event as a published author! Her second crime novel, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU, will be released later this year. On 1 September Nikki will be part of the free 'Murder in the Chamber' event at the WORD Christchurch Festival, where festival-goers have the chance to meet and hear from this year's Ngaios finalists. But for now, Nikki becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Probably Lisbeth Salander. I remember reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and the subsequent books in the trilogy) and thinking how different Lisbeth was from the other heroes/detectives I’d read. Damaged and flawed but also tough and highly intelligent.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Anne of Green Gables. It was given to me by my grandparents when I was eight or nine and every Christmas or birthday I got the next in the series. I still have all eight of them on my book shelf now. I think it was the first book that ever properly transported me and let me escape from my world.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I had written quite a bit of flash fiction – short, short stories of 300 words (sometimes less). I was short listed for a few competitions and published in a couple of anthologies and online journals. The experience I got from flash fiction writing gave me the confidence to write my first novel.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love spending time with my family. In summer we love going to the beach, but Cambridge (in New Zealand) isn’t particularly close to the coast so we often have to make do with the town pools. I enjoy cooking and now the girls are older I get to experiment a bit more. I also love to travel – whether it’s in my own country or overseas. I love to read, and Netflix and I have a very good relationship! At the moment I’m watching a lot of Scandinavian and French crime miniseries.

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?
The Saturday Farmers Market in Victoria Square beneath the giant oak trees. Fresh veggies, homemade pickles, cheese, fresh baked bread and donuts … can’t get any better.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Rosamund Pike – she was disturbingly good in Gone Girl. Or maybe Emily Blunt – equally funny and dramatic.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or particularly special, and why?
At this stage I’d have to say Nothing Bad Happens Here – my first novel (and so far, my only, although my second is out later this year). I really only wrote Nothing Bad Happens Here to see if I could actually write a book. After it was rejected by a couple of publishers (and after much debating and self-doubt) I decided to self-publish and I’m so glad I did. Finding out a I was a finalist for the Ngaio Marsh Award for best first novel was a massive confidence boost for me.

People also really warmed to the main character, Miller Hatcher, and wanted to find out more about her and what was next for her, so because of Nothing Bad Happens Here I have a series of books planned featuring Miller.

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’m self-published, but I think the best part of that journey was not so much seeing my book on the shelf of a book shop (but that was seriously fabulous), but when I went around visiting book shops to see if they’d stock my book. I was very uncertain about the process and how if they’d even take my book – especially with it being self-published. But the first two book shops I walked into each took on the book. I remember being really shocked and also over the moon that they were so enthusiastic about it.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I was at an event celebrating Mother’s Day. I was with two other authors who wrote books on relationships, romance, travel etc, so my crime/thriller was a little bit left field. I was the last one to speak and afterwards the audience was allowed to ask questions. One woman asked me if I’d done much research for the book. I told her Google was great for looking up things like decomposition rates of bodies left outside and things like that. There was a collective gasp and some nervous laughter. Lesson: know your audience!

Thank you Nikki, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch.

You can find out more about Nikki and her writing at her website, and follow her on Twitter

Saturday, August 11, 2018


SCRUBLANDS by Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In an isolated country town brought to its knees by endless drought, a charismatic and dedicated young priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners before being shot dead himself. 

A year later, troubled journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals about the priest and incidents leading up to the shooting don't fit with the accepted version of events his own newspaper reported in an award-winning investigation. Martin can't ignore his doubts, nor the urgings of some locals to unearth the real reason behind the priest's deadly rampage.

Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking new development rocks the town, which becomes the biggest story in Australia. The media descends on Riversend and Martin is now the one in the spotlight. His reasons for investigating the shooting have suddenly become very personal.

If you're an Australian author who sets a crime novel in the rural backblocks, particularly during one of the all-too-regular droughts, it's now inevitable that your book will be compared to Jane Harper's terrific, award-hoarding debut THE DRY - widely considered 'the crime novel' of last year.

So former television foreign correspondent Chris Hammer is facing something of a double-edged sword with the release of his first novel, SCRUBLANDS. Harper's success has the crime world casting its eyes downunder, opening doors for other writers just as Ian Rankin and Val McDermid provided a beachhead for Tartan Noir, and Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson did for Scandi-crime. But then other 'Terror Australis' (Australian crime) tales will get kneejerk comparisons to THE DRY, especially if like in Hammer's case, the setting is the tinder-dry landscapes of the Australian bush.

Let's just front-foot things: SCRUBLANDS may share a similar setting to Harper's debut, but Hammer's first novel is completely it's own beast. This is no copycat or coat-tailing effort. SCRUBLANDS meshes sociological insights, literary stylings, and a multi-layered crime tale into an epic novel that’s simply superb. I read it a few weeks ago, and now it's been released I'm seeing all sorts of 'crime novel of the year' type hype building. For me, it's certainly in the conversation.

Martin Scarsden is sent to drought-stricken Riversend by his Sydney editor, ostensibly to write a human-interest tale about the town’s recovery a year after a church shooting, but also to gauge his own recovery after a near-death experience in the Middle East. Some locals tell Martin there’s more to the story than the ‘paedophile priest’ narrative that followed the shooting. When the bodies of two backpackers are found the national media descends, messily picking at the dying town’s carcass. Can Martin find the truth among all the lies and manipulations, from townsfolk and various authorities?

There is a lot going on in this book, which is more absorbing than page-whirring. Hammer draws readers in with an unusual tale that has a lot of layers and interwoven stories. The inciting incident of the one-year anniversary of a hard-to-explain shooting is just a small part of what the book becomes.

For me, Hammer brought rural Australia, its towns and people and  issues faced, to vivid life with a sweat-inducing authenticity. While this is Hammer's first novel, the experienced correspondent has actually written non-fiction books , including one, THE RIVER, where he takes readers "on a journey through Australia's heartland, following the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin, recounting his experiences, his impressions, and, above all, stories of the people he meets along the way".

It's clear that Hammer has used his time spent researching THE RIVER and experiencing first-hand the lives of those living in such areas while building the world of SCRUBLANDS. There's an eclectic selection of small-town characters, each who are pleasingly layered. Even if some are a little larger-than-life or introduced in highly unusual ways, they don't feel cartoonish. There's a reality here.

So while comparisons to THE DRY are unavoidable, for me Hammer’s debut reaches even further, taking the baton from the great Peter Temple. SCRUBLANDS is crime writing at its finest.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned feature writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards.


BROKEN SILENCE by Helen Vivienne Fletcher (HVF Publishing, 2017)

Reviewed by Sharon Bairden

A stranger just put Kelsey’s boyfriend in a coma. The worst part? She asked him to do it.  Seventeen-year-old Kelsey is dealing with a lot – an abusive boyfriend, a gravely ill mother, an absent father, and a confusing new love interest. After her boyfriend attacks her in public, a stranger on the end of the phone line offers to help. Kelsey pays little attention to his words, but the caller is deadly serious. Suddenly the people Kelsey loves are in danger, and only Kelsey knows it. Will Kelsey discover the identity of the caller before it’s too late? 

Broken Silence opens with a heart-rending chapter and lays bare the emotional turmoil that is Kelsey’s life. Living in her brother Pete’s flat with his two friends the misery of her situation is told via the peeling wallpaper, damp patches and the rejection by her father and most tellingly the bruises she is trying to hide.

With her mum now in a care home and her father long disappeared seventeen-year-old Kelsey has had to move into her brother’s flat along with his flatmates Ben and Aiden. She feels unwanted and unloved and is increasingly confused by her boyfriend, Mike’s behaviour. The author does a fantastic job of showing and not telling as we quickly pick up clues that he’s not the most caring of partners and when we meet him this view is soon justified. She has created a wonderfully authentic character in Kelsey. The vulnerability, confusion and teenage angst all shine out of her. The relationship between her and her brother is fraught with tension as each of them resent the position they have found themselves in. At times I wanted to shake Kelsey and make her tell someone but then I remember she is only 17 and has been through so much trauma in her life. It was impossible not to feel for her.

When the prank calls in the flat start nobody pays much attention but when it is clear that Kelsey is being targeted by the caller and that they are ready to seek revenge on those who hurt her things start to take a more sinister turn. An undercurrent of malevolence runs throughout the novel with the tension ramping up each time the phone rings.

Broken Silence is a hard-hitting and dark read with an exploration of domestic abuse running throughout. At times it was a difficult read but it was a well written and authentic portrayal of a young girl caught up in the midst of it all. The issue of peer bullying and sexual intimidation and harassment were also covered, never ever gratuitously but authentically in the portrayal of how someone Kelsey’s age would deal with it. The finger of suspicion points to a number of characters in the novel leaving a trail of hints and red herrings leading the reader astray.

I could easily see this transfer onto the big screen; it has all the right elements to make a fabulous psychological thriller movie to keep audiences glued to their seats. It certainly kept me glued to the pages, I read it in one sitting with a short sleep break!

Sharon Bairden is a Scottish book blogger and manager in the charity sector who lives just outside of Glasgow. She blogs at Chapter in My Life. This review was originally published on her website as part of the 2018 Ngaios blog tour, celebrating this year's finalists, and is reprinted here with her kind permission. You can follow Sharon on Twitter.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Review: AUKATI

AUKATI by Michalia Arathimos (Makaro Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

“There was Polly’s tokotoko on the ground. Carved and polished, with its eel head, the snout inlaid with pāua. Alexia picked it up and cracked it across the cop’s shoulders. She raised it again and hit and hit. She would stop this.” Alexia is a law student escaping the Greek family that stifles her, and Isaiah is a young Māori returning home to find the family he’s lost. Cut loose from their own cultures, they have volunteered to help Isaiah’s Taranaki iwi get rid of the fracking that’s devastating their land and water.

The deeper Alexia and Isaiah go into the fight, the closer they get to understanding the different worlds they inhabit. But when a protest march becomes violent a boundary is crossed, and they need to decide where they stand and fast. It’s clear the police have been tipped off, and the activists gathered at the marae suspect they’re being watched or, worse, there is an informant in the group. Can Alexia and Isaiah be trusted? And more – can they trust themselves?

Author Michalia Arathimos has Greek-New Zealand heritage which is strongly reflected in her novel AUKATI. Set in New Zealand, this is a crime novel based around the scourge that is fracking.

Featuring two main characters, Alexia, a law student with a controlling Greek family, and Isaiah, a young Maori man trying to reconnect with his own family. Cut loose from their backgrounds, and their cultures, they are drawn into the fight to protect Isaiah's Taranaki iwi from the devastation that the fracking is causing. As a protest march turns violent, and the group start to suspect an informant, everyone becomes tense, suspicious and wary.

A refreshingly new approach for a crime novel - the threat here is multi-faceted and the sense of dislocation strong. Descriptively written, it is steeped in sense of place and both cultures - using a liberal amount of Greek and Maori terminology to tell the tale. Perhaps a little too much, as readers from outside those communities are going to have to work hard to maintain understanding at points, as the insider speak is so dense concluding meaning will sometimes require effort.

Effort worth devoting if you're of a mind to persist as AUKATI explores consequences and disruption on all sorts of different levels - individually for each of the main characters and their families, within failing romantic and friend relationships, amongst the activist community as trust breaks down, and between activists and law enforcement, and pro-fracking proponents. It's a complicated mix that ebbs and flows naturally, that sparks friendship, resentment, and inter-generational tension, all contained within that insider speaker.

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.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Farthing Wood and neolithic tombs: an interview with Olivia Kiernan

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the 27th instalment of 9mm for 2018, and the 199th overall edition of our long-running author interview series.

Wow, big milestone approaching there!

Thanks for reading over the years. I've had a lot of fun talking to some amazing crime 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 Irish author Olivia Kiernan, whose Dublin-based debut thriller Too Close to Breathe has been getting some rave reviews, and has already been sold into France, Germany, Russia, Japan, and the Czech Republic. I met Olivia recently at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, where she was one of the authors taking part in the Murder Mystery Dinner. It's one of those stories that seems like a meteoric rise for a debut author, but like many Olivia has been writing for many years, alongside being a chiropractor. She has been shortlisted and longlisted for several short story prizes, as well as the BBC's scriptwriting competition.

Too Close to Breathe centres on the apparent suicide of respected scientist Dr Eleanor Costello, found hanged in her immaculate home. Brusque DCS Frankie Sheehan, a trained profiler, is handed the case. The Irish Times described the book as "a hard-boiled take on Tana French" - high praise indeed, and Olivia as "a talent to watch". Olivia is currently working on her second novel, out in 2019.

But for now, Olivia Kiernan becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I’m not sure I can stick to just one but that’s the beauty of crime fiction, right? There are many to choose from. I must mention Lisbeth Salander in Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. We are thoroughly engaged with her skill, ingenuity, and loyalty. A proper hero. And I’m going to sneak in Thomas Harris’ Clarice Starling. Clever, dogged and courageous. You did say two favourite heroes, right?

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
The first book that made me feel like a proper reader was The Animals of Farthing Wood by British author, Colin Dann. The book was over 250 pages long which felt like a tome to me as a kid but I remember being swept up in the adventure and feeling completely engrossed in the story. It was like I was shown how books worked and why people loved them. The novel dealt with themes of survival and bravery, themes that appear in my work all the time.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I think every writer has a stash of stories that shouldn’t ever see the light of day. I wrote bad poetry in my teens, twenties and even now. I have had a few short stories long-listed for competitions. Every now and then I like to add to my short story attempts. The craft is so tight. You don’t have room to play around with the story’s intention. It has to be clear. It’s a great format to practise. I’ve also written scripts, sitcoms, other novels and I’ve just about managed to keep a blog going, with the odd update, for the last four years.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Obviously I read a lot but to be honest writing still feels like the activity I want to do most. There is nothing more enjoyable to me than a few hours of writing, particularly if I manage to complete a tricky scene. It’s very satisfying. But otherwise, I love to get outdoors and although I’m not as fit as I once was, I run about four times a week. I grew up a member of an athletics club and ran up to national level in Ireland but stopped competing when I got to my late teens. However, the urge to put my trainers on and get out for a jog has never left.

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?
I’m from Ireland originally but live in Oxford in the UK, so again I’m going to cheat here. I will say if you ever visit Co. Meath, where I grew up, do visit the Boyne Valley and the neolithic tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. They are over 5,000 years old and are incredible. You can go inside the chambers and stand where the people who built them would have stood. It will make the hairs rise on your arms.

For Oxford city, most people gravitate towards tours of the universities, which are stunning but as a crime writer I have to point you to the Oxford Castle and Prison Tour. It’s so interesting and will give you a really great sense of the layered history of the city.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
I’m going to say Toni Collette. Amazing actress with such a fantastic range. She’d probably need her full acting palette were she to read my script.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or particularly special, and why?
I have to say Too Close to Breathe. It’s the book that gave me a publishing deal. But, of course, as a writer you’re a very fickle mother and affections are easily won by a new project.

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?
My reaction was the same as I feel now every time I sit down to the computer. One of disbelief that I get to do this every day and that I have a publisher. I’ve worked hard to get here but many writers do and don’t get this chance. I celebrate that every day by turning up at the desk and writing. Seeing Too Close to Breathe on the shelf for the first time was fantastic. I remember not wanting to sign the book for fear of defacing it.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I’ve probably not been ‘out’ long enough for anything unusual to have happened but I do look forward to gathering a few anecdotes down the line as long as I come out unscathed at the end of them. I will say that one of my favourite things at author events and signings is when readers ask when the next Frankie Sheehan book is coming out. I don’t think that will get old.

Thank you Olivia. We appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

You can find out more about Olivia and her books at her website, and follow her on Twitter

Monday, August 6, 2018


REPORT FOR MURDER by Val McDermid (1987)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Freelance journalist Lindsay Gordon is strapped for cash. Why else would she agree to cover a fund-raising gala at a girls' public school? But when the star attraction is found garrotted with her own cello string minutes before she is due on stage, Lindsay finds herself investigating a vicious murder.

Who would have wanted Lorna Smith-Cooper dead? Who had the key to the locked room in which her body was found? And who could have slipped out of the hall at just the right time to commit this calculated and cold-blooded crime? 

Last year at the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin led a torchlit parade from Stirling Castle (where the festival was officially opened) down through the historic town centre. Fittingly, the King and Queen of 'Tartan Noir' (and legends far beyond those borders) were each celebrating 30 years of their crime writing careers.

While McDermid is well-known for delving deep into the darkness in her hugely popular series starring detective Carol Jordan and profiler Tony Hill (books and characters which were adapted into the television series Wire in the Blood), and her fascinating bestsellers starring cold case detective Karen Pirie, thirty years ago it all began with two journalists: Val, and Lindsay Gordon.

What may surprise some crime-lovers who've become McDermid fans in the last twenty years, is that her very first book was more of a classic Christie-style murder mystery, in a way. Not cosy, but definitely veering much more towards that end of the crime-mystery spectrum than her later books.

Of course, McDermid still brought something fresh to her debut story - especially for the late 1980s - Lindsay Gordon was a protagonist who was working class, politically inclined, and and out lesbian. Quite different from the often intellectual, rather sexless sleuths of the classic mystery form.

Gordon is sent from Glasgow to Derbyshire to cover a fundraiser at a hoity-toity girls school (in the UK it's called a public school, but elsewhere we'd call these 'private schools' - high schools largely for  children of the well-off, somewhat removed from the everyday national education system). The environment immediately irks Gordon, a 1980s lefty battling Thatcherite times and struggling financially. Gordon self-identifies as a "cynical socialist feminist lesbian", so McDermid doesn't leave the reader in any doubt. And that's one of the things that distinguishes REPORT FOR MURDER from McDermid's later work - she lays quite a lot out for the reader, with more exposition and set-up.

It's a good read, that flows well and has plenty of interest for readers. I thoroughly enjoyed 'going back to the beginning' to see McDermid in more of her raw early form. While the storytelling isn't as tight or gritty as her later work, there's still a lot to enjoy in REPORT FOR MURDER.

McDermid brings the country public school setting to vivid life; its physical environment and the characters who inhabit it. There's some interesting character interplay, including a hot-cold budding relationship for Lindsay Gordon. It's hard to know looking back from where we are now, but I imagine it was quite groundbreaking at the time: a lesbian relationship portrayed quite matter-of-factly as if it was just any old romance, rather than highlighting it as something unusual or 'edgy'.

All in all, REPORT FOR MURDER delivers a more Christie or Sayers-type mystery than later fans of McDermid may have expected, a murder mystery in a somewhat closed environment, with an amateur sleuth interviewing the suspects and witnesses in order to try and unmask the killer.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, appeared onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, 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. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


THE SOUND OF HER VOICE by Nathan Blackwell (Mary Egan Publishing, 2017)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

For Detective Matt Buchanan, the world is a pretty sick place. He has probably been in the job too long, for one thing. And then there’s 14-year-old Samantha Coates, and the other unsolved murder cases. Those innocent girls he just can’t get out of his head. When Buchanan pursues some fresh leads, it soon becomes clear he’s on the trail of something big. 

As he pieces the horrific crimes together, Buchanan finds the very foundations of everything he once believed in start to crumble. He’s forced across that grey line that separates right and wrong – into places so dark, even he might not make it back.

Cop-turned novelist, Nathan Blackwell (true identity hidden due to covert police operations) has written a debut novel, THE SOUND OF HER VOICE, which is intense, unsparing, realistic, brutal and will stay with the reader for a long time.

Every year the Ngaio Marsh awards for New Zealand crime fiction throw up an unexpected perspective, something brave and unusual that will set you back on your heels and make you think. For this reviewer, this year, that book was THE SOUND OF HER VOICE. In what's a combination of police procedural, and tragic police perspective, Detective Matt Buchanan has been in the job too long, and he's had a gut full of the nastiness of human nature. Unsolved murder cases haunt him, people being bastards haunt him, everything haunts him. He's bitter and he's well on the way to being twisted, and the murder of 14 year old Samantha Coates puts him on the trail of something big, and even nastier than he had even thought possible.

If you're a fan of crime fiction that glosses over reality, pulls punches, draws veils then THE SOUND OF HER VOICE isn't the book for you. This book is real to the point of "drag you down a back alley, whisper abuse in your ear and belt you over the head" real. It's also a book in which the central hero is flawed and tricky, a man surrounded by bad, with right on his side, and decisions to make. Every step of the way in Buchanan's head is an uncomfortable place. It's impossible to not empathise with a man dealing with all this crap on an hourly basis, it's even possible to understand some of the wrong moves he openly chooses to make. If it's possible to empathise with the end justifies the means, then this is a novel that gives the reader a lot of opportunity to go down that path, hotly pursuing Buchanan's own conclusions.

Obviously this is dark, unrelenting reading, and it's a debut. It's not a 100% pitch perfect, slick as, totally perfectly crafted piece of crime fiction, but then again I'm not sure any of that would have served this author's aims. What we have here is raw, full of realistic emotion, reactions and voices. It's as about as authentic a police perspective as you'd get, somehow managing to maintain it's essential Kiwiness, whilst exploring a descent that's probably all too real for law enforcement the world over.

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.