Thursday, April 15, 2021

Historical injustices and homemade knives: an interview with David Whish-Wilson

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the latest instalment of our 9mm interview series, which is running weekly in 2021. This author interview series has now been running for over a decade, on and off, and today marks the 227th overall edition. 

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. 

My plan is to to publish 40-50 new author interviews in the 9mm series this year. You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. Some amazing writers.

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been featured, let me know in the comments or by sending me a message, and I'll look to make that happen for you. Even as things with this blog may evolve moving forward, I'll continue to interview crime writers and review crime novels.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome Western Australian author David Whish-Wilson to Crime Watch. I had the pleasure of meeting David when he passed through London a couple of years ago (oh for the days of travel and hanging out with people), and along with being a terrific storyteller he's also a good bloke. David's led a well-travelled life, though he's called Western Australia home for a long time. 

The author of the highly acclaimed Frank Swann series set in 1970s-1980s Western Australia, David was raised in Singapore, Victoria, and Western Australia. As a young man he headed abroad on his 'big OE' (as we call it Downunder), and lived and travelled throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, working as as a "barman, actor, streetseller, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug trial guinea pig". It was during those travels he began publishing short stories. 

David's novels and short stories have been shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award, Vogel/Australian Literary Award, and WA Premier's Book Awards. His crime novels have real depth of character, setting, and societal issues to go along with the thrilling plotlines. As I say of his crime debut LINE OF SIGHT (the first Frank Swann novel) in SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME

"Whish-Wilson creates a bleak yet compelling portrait of a time and place where crime and graft are rife, and even the honourable are tainted. Atmospheric and stylish noir more than police procedural, LINE OF SIGHT doesn’t provide pat solutions."


David, who lives in Fremantle, also began the first prison writing programme in Fiji and has taught writing in the prison system in both Fiji and Western Australia. His latest novel is SHORE LEAVE, the fourth Frank Swann tale, and he also teaches creative writing at Curtin University. 

But for now, David Whish-Wilson becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm. 


9MM INTERVIEW WITH DAVID WHISH-WILSON 

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
That's a deceptively tricky question, in that most of my favourite crime novels have been standalones by writers such as Megan Abbott, Peter Temple, James Ellroy et al. I guess my favourite crime protagonist is an anti-hero, namely Parker of the Richard Stark novels. While I've always had a soft spot for Dave Robicheaux as a detective character, and a few others, on fellow-Aussie crime writer Andrew Nette's recommendation I read the Parker novels quickly and then re-read them soon after. 

I like his character's hungry animal instincts and strong moral code, plus his absolute focus on the job at hand. I've always been a sucker for a heist movie, and despite the similar plotlines of the Parker novels there's always enough dramatic tension drawn out by emphasizing something that all good crime fiction does, I think, and that is looking at people in extreme situations - there isn't much more extreme than the high stakes game of pulling off a big score and then surviving the inevitable aftermath.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
When I was about six or seven my mother gave me a copy of the Illustrated History of Australian Bushrangers. It was gruesome and illuminating, and I thrilled to the tales of the wild men and women who lived outside the harsh colonial law, and who more often than not suffered the consequences for it. It was great, too, to read something set mostly in the kind of outback terrain that I then inhabited with my friends after school, on the outskirts of our remote Pilbara mining town. We didn't play 'cowboys and Indians' but more 'trapper and bushranger', alive to the injustices of the period and playing them out in hunt and chase narratives that took place in dried gullies and high gorges. 

It didn't surprise me at all to later learn that a high percentage of the first films made in Australia were bushranger films, although they were banned in some jurisdictions because of the mocking of authorities and behaviour of the crowds. As kids, we loved all of that stuff, especially the deification of the rebel character, which I guess justified our bad behaviour at school, although we were sadly blind, as per the period, of the 'true history' of the places we newly colonised, where real rather than imaginary crimes had taken place in clearing the area of its Aboriginal inhabitants.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I was lucky enough to be mentored by the writer Bruce Pascoe when I was just starting out. I was working as a labourer in Wellington, New Zealand, and then a bartender in Tokyo, posting my stories in by snail mail and almost disbelievingly finding them published in the journal Australian Short Stories. At that stage I wasn't taking writing seriously, and didn't know any other writers, and it was Bruce who metaphorically gave me a kick in the arse and suggested I do exactly that - take writing seriously. 

There followed a couple of shortlistings for the Vogel Australian Award for an unpublished young writer, and later (in 2006) the publication of my first novel, set in Berlin in 1933 - THE SUMMONS. My first crime novel, LINE OF SIGHT, followed a few years later and was started in Suva, Fiji, where I worked as a creative writing lecturer for a couple of years. 

4. Outside of writing and writing-related activities (book events, publicity), what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I am by nature a lazy person. I enjoy doing very little. I enjoy having a drink with friends, snorkelling with my family on the local reefs, cooking, or because despite being lazy I'm also a compulsive maker - I like making practical (ie chef's) knives in my backyard, campfire forge, which is a bit like writing a novel because its time-consuming and wearying in a pleasant way. Every now and then I get itchy feet and then I like a good long 6-8 hour country drive - that's the Western Australian in me coming out - heading out into the desert with my kids to camp where there are no other people.

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 would suggest, respectfully, that Perth and Fremantle are places that often conceal their most interesting aspects behind either a beguiling surface charm, or a layer of unpromising material. To that end, I'd greatly suggest either pre-loading by reading the local historians and crime writers before arrival, or heading directly to one of our terrific indie bookshops, to get the best recommendations. I'd also encourage people to find out where there are Noongar tours of country that will, from my experience, deepen your understanding of this place, and why it feels like it does.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
I worked as a casual actor and extra in Bollywood, and in Kenya. While there are few places more dull than a movie set (although Bollywood was pretty lively - on one move, Karma, they blew up a gigantic timber palisade with real gelignite without telling us what was going to happen, and the shock wave bowled us all over), over the years I have developed a deep admiration for the craft of acting. Because the thought of doing it terrifies me, I'd probably want to act as myself (my god that would be a boring movie.) Or, if you're asking my ego - Brian Brown circa the 1970s?
 
7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or a bit special to you for some particular reason, and why?
I think it would have to be LINE OF SIGHT, because there was so much at stake. Because the novel described the real-life murder by WA detectives of a friend of mine's mother (the 'brothel-Madam' Shirley Finn), and because there had always been an enforced silence around the murder, the research journey that involved interviewing dozens of citizens, ex-cops, and prostitutes from the period was extremely cagey. Around the time the book came out I started getting threats, which escalated for a while to the point that it was clear that some people key to the story were considering violent payback, or worse. At the time I was kind of in denial, my stubborn streak was aroused, but in retrospect, I took a serious gamble in writing that book. While for the crime reader it's probably just another novel, and despite the fact that I just need to think about it (as I'm doing now) to get the chills, I'm proud that we stuck with it and brought the story out into the light, where it deserves to be.

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 can still see the handwritten message from Bruce Pascoe telling me that he was going to publish my first story. I probably still have it somewhere. Even then, it didn't seem quite real, possibly because I was living in Tokyo and I received my published copy in the mail. I can't remember an actual celebration - in those days I celebrated every night, but I'm sure it was a good one.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
When my first novel was coming out, a caring writer friend of mine gave me a book called MORTIFICATION, detailing all of the bad and humiliating things that have happened to writers at festivals and readings over the years. It's a very funny and cathartic book, that I now press on young writers going out into public for the first time. My first Perth Writer's Festival appearance was a very humbling experience - I sat at the signing desk next to Gregory David Roberts, who'd just released SHANTARAM. He had a line going out the door and round the block, while I sold a single copy of my novel (to a friend). Despite this, I remember thinking, Ba, I've read MORTIFICATION, it's not as bad as when XXXX fell off the stage drunk at a reading into rows of empty seats, or when YYYY....


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

You can find out more about David and his writing here, and follow him on Twitter. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Review: THE LAST CHILD

THE LAST CHILD by John Hart (John Murray, 2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon has to face things no boy his age should face. In the year since his twin sister's abduction his world has fallen apart: his father has disappeared and his fragile mother is spiralling into ever deeper despair. Johnny keeps strong. Armed with a map, a bike and a flashlight, he stalks the bad men of Raven County. The police might have given up on Alyssa; he never will. Someone, somewhere, knows something they're not telling.

Only one person looks out for Johnny. Detective Clyde Hunt shares his obsession with the case. But when Johnny witnesses a hit-and-run and insists the victim was killed because he'd found Alyssa, even Hunt thinks he's lost it.

And then another young girl goes missing ..

So here we are - the 100th day of the year, and the 100th day of the #100Days100Books challenge I set myself to start 2021, a bounce-back from my posting on Crime Watch being very sporadic last year.

I hope you've enjoyed some of the books covered, and the 14 editions of 9mm interviews that were woven throughout the challenge as well. I really enjoyed talking to these fantastic crime writers. 

I've gone back and forth on what to include here as the 100th and final book/author in this wee mini-challenge to myself. I felt it should be something special. Perhaps the new Penguin Classics edition of a Chester Himes book, that I read this week? I was even tempted when I woke up this morning and saw my Nelsonian booklover and blogger Alyson Baker - who regularly contributes to Crime Watch as a reviewer - had posted a review of my own book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, to maybe use that... 

In the end, I've instead decided to revisit and highlight a really superb novel that was one of my very, very favourites from my first few years of being a magazine/newspaper reviewer and blogger. A book that I'd been thinking about a fair bit lately, even though it came out 12 years ago. 

As I mentioned last week, recently I've been thinking about the best books of not just a single year, but an entire decade - thanks in part to a series that highly regarded book blogger Grab This Book (aka Gordon) has started, getting reviewers and writers to share books they'd add to a library of great tales.

Attorney-turned-author John Hart's third novel, THE LAST CHILD, would be one of my top contenders for best novel of the 2000s decade. To be honest, his second novel DOWN RIVER may be in the mix as well. He had an extraordinary start to his career, being shortlisted for the Edgars for each of his first three books, winning the Edgar for Best Novel twice (a rarity), for consecutive books.

In THE LAST CHILD, Johnny Merrimon is a thirteen-year-old boy who looks ten but has seen and endured more than most sixty-year-olds. His twin sister disappeared a year ago, his father cracked under the pressure and left, and his mother has given up; turning to drugs and a relationship with a rich but abusive man. A burnt-out cop tries to help but has his own issues, and Johnny finds himself alone on a vigilante mission. Then another young girl goes missing, and a dying man’s last words fuel Johnny’s long-held hope. Could the disappearances be linked? 

Can he finally find answers and heal his broken family? 

Sometimes when I read a novel that has received a lot of praise, I can be left a bit underwhelmed, even if I enjoy the story overall. That's happened again and again over the past 13 years of writing reviews for magazines and more. It's almost as if the expectations are raised too high, and the author has to knock it far out of the park to even make par (okay, mixed sporting metaphor there). 

But put simply, THE LAST CHILD is an exceptional novel; a literary crime thriller that is as much about its rich cast of layered, authentic and damaged characters as its intelligent and engrossing storyline. Hart writes beautifully, evoking aspects of the human condition alongside echoes of the Southern Gothic tradition, building his tale towards a surprising yet most fitting conclusion.

Huckleberry Finn meets James Lee Burke, all in a strong and unique narrative voice.

When I first read THE LAST CHILD over a decade ago, I thought it was a masterpiece. Revisiting it having read more than a thousand books since, it remains a standout crime novel. In the years since, Hart has produced several other terrific novels, and even revisited the characters of Johnny Merrimon and Jack Cross as young men in THE HUSH, a rural thriller with a touch of magic realism. 

For my money, John Hart is one of the finest crime writers in the game. He's not a book every year kind of author, but each of his novels has been well worth the wait. Go back to the beginning and try KING OF LIES, DOWN RIVER, and then THE LAST CHILD. If you like lyrical crime writing with chasm-deep characters, drenched in a Southern Gothic setting, you just may become a very big fan. Like me. 


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of Australian, Scottish, and NZ crime writing awards, and is co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

Review: DEAD OF WINTER

DEAD OF WINTER by Stephen Mack Jones (Soho Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A shadowy Detroit real estate billionaire. A ruthless fixer. A successful Mexicantown family business in their crosshairs. Gentrification has never been bloodier.

Authentico Foods Inc. has been a part of Detroit’s Mexicantown for over thirty years, grown from the small home kitchen to a city-block-long facility where sixty people produce Mexican foodstuffs for restaurants and stores throughout the Midwest.

Detroit ex-cop and Mexicantown native August Snow has been invited for a business meeting at Authentico Foods. Its owner, Ronaldo Ortega, is dying, and is being blackmailed into selling the company to an anonymous entity. Ortega is worried about his employees and wants August to step in. 

August has no interest in running a tortilla empire, but he does want to know who’s threatening his neighbourhood. His investigation immediately takes a shocking turn. Now August and his loved ones are caught up in a heinous net of billionaire developers who place no value on human life, and August Snow must go to war for the soul of Mexicantown.

Stephen Mack Jones is an author I'd heard good things about, so I was excited to read his new novel DEAD OF WINTER, the third in his award-winning series starring Detroit ex-cop August Snow. 

I was quite intrigued by the fact Jones had won the Hammett Prize with his debut, a crime writing award I've long held in high regard as it celebrates 'literary excellence' in the field, and has a list of winners including some remarkable stylists such as Elmore Leonard, William Deverell, James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, James Sallis, and literary doyenne Margaret Atwood. Past nominees also include Cormac McCarthy, Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, and Normal Mailer. Greatness indeed. 


While it may not be as widely known as the CWA Daggers or Edgar Awards, the Hammett Prize is an award I looked to when establishing the Ngaio Marsh Awards over a decade ago. So for Stephen Mack Jones - who's been a playwright and poet before turning to crime - to have joined such an illustrious list of winners and nominees with his debut novel, AUGUST SNOW, was eye-catching to me. 

I'm very glad to say DEAD OF WINTER more than met my high expectations, to the point where after finishing it I immediately went online and bought both the prior books in the series, kicking myself for dallying in getting to Stephen Mack Jones' terrific, rich and multi-layered storytelling. 

While Detroit native August Snow has the skills of a detective, he carries neither badge nor license. Instead, the former marine sniper and Detroit cop has a reputation, hard-won and whispered among some of the businesspeople and residents of Mexicantown: "I was both Batman and Chupacabra. Superman and Satan. A half-breed angel with blood-soaked wings in search of cultural and holy redemption”. August Snow is an honourable man who tries to help people - particularly the downtrodden or overlooked - thoughtful and sometimes (necessarily) violent. 

One of the things that impressed me most about DEAD OF WINTER is that it is a thrilling tale that stalks along with a blend of power and poetry you might see in a middle-weight boxer. Flowing in a balletic way between, even during, the brutal moments. There's poetry and power, grace and grit. 

The first bell rings when August Snow is summoned by Ronald Ochoa, a dying businessman who’s being blackmailed into selling his company Authentico Foods, a stalwart of Detroit’s Mexicantown for decades. Can August, whose bank balance runs to ten figures thanks to a settlement from the city after he was wrongly jettisoned as a cop, save Authentico Foods’ workers and the neighbourhood? 

Ochoa wants August to buy his company rather than it falling into the wrong hands; August prefers to investigate the shadows. Just who is behind the not-so-friendly takeover, and what do they really want?

Stephen Mack Jones crafts a superb tale that bobs, weaves, and hits hard as August’s sleuthing puts himself and those he loves into grave danger. There’s action aplenty, but also rich characterisation, wonderful writing, and a strong sense of place. August’s investigation entwines with the whims and wishes of ruthless billionaire developers, and there’s plenty to chew on for readers when it comes to thought-provoking issues around gentrification, race relations, and inequality to go along with the moreish descriptions of culinary delights. Overall, DEAD OF WINTER is a superb crime novel from an author with a distinctive voice and something to say, in among the crime and carnage.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.


Thursday, April 8, 2021

Jars of moles and kidnapped sisters: an interview with Anna Mazzola (The Lost Files)

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the latest weekly instalment of our 9mm interview series for 2021. This author interview series has now been running for over a decade, and today marks the 226th overall edition. 

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. 

My plan is to to publish 40-50 new author interviews in the 9mm series this year. You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. Some amazing writers.

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been featured, let me know in the comments or by sending me a message, and I'll look to make that happen for you. Even as things with this blog may evolve moving forward, I'll continue to interview crime writers and review crime novels.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome the wonderful Anna Mazzola to Crime Watch. Belatedly. 

(A few years ago I published some 'lost files' 9mm interviews, which I'd originally recorded with some crime writers during my first attendance at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, only to misplace the audio recordings on my journey back to New Zealand, before stumbling upon them a long time later. Something akin to that happened with my 9mm interview with Anna, with her interview getting misfiled during a semi-botched laptop repair (exacerbated by in the 9mm hiatus last year).) 

Anna is an Edgar Award-winning crime writer who lives in London and also works as a human rights and criminal justice lawyer. Her novels blend literary, historical, and Gothic elements with crime and mystery. Her debut, THE UNSEEING, was inspired by a real-life crime where a young London bride-to-be was brutally murdered the night before her wedding in 1836, and another women was sentenced to death. That book went on to win the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original in 2018.

Anna's second novel, THE STORY KEEPER, is set in 1857 and follows a folklorist’s assistant as she searches out dark fairy tales and stolen girls on the Isle of Skye. Her third historical Gothic mystery, THE CLOCKWORK GIRL, is set in Paris in 1750 and based partly on the story of the vanishing children of Paris. It centres on a young maid with a scarred face and hidden past who goes to work for automaton-maker and his clever daughter. But Madeleine the maid is actually a police spy tasked with a secret investigation. THE CLOCKWORK GIRL will be published next January. 

But for now, Anna Mazzola becomes the latest crime writer to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


9MM INTERVIEW WITH ANNA MAZZOLA 

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Columbo. Obviously. But if you mean in fiction, then Ripley. More of an anti-hero than a hero, of course, but what a fascinating character. 

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Strange Riders at Black Pony Inn by Christine Pullein-Thomas. I desperately wanted a horse when I was child. Instead my mum got me mystery horse fiction. And so began my lifelong love of mysteries. (I still don’t have a horse).

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Not counting dull legal texts and articles, I began with short stories, and it was out of one of them – a story called "Crossing the Line" – that my debut novel, THE UNSEEING, emerged. I still write short stories occasionally, but god, they’re hard.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Like many writers, I’m still working, so I tend to write at times when other normal people might be watching telly or knitting or playing squash. Fortunately I don’t like knitting or playing squash. I go running, which I find helps me to write. I go to the theatre when I can, and to gigs, to museums and galleries. And of course I read a lot. That’s my real love.

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 a big street art fan and there is loads of awesome street art in London, especially around Shoreditch. There are also many fascinating cemeteries. And everyone should to go to the Grant Museum of Zoology. Where else can you find a jar of real moles?

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Oh god. No idea. Would anyone want the part? 

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or particularly special, and why?
My first venture into crime fiction: The Kidnapping of Lucy. I wrote it aged 8 and gave it to my mother for Mother’s Day. It’s about the abduction of a baby called Lucy. My sister’s middle name is Lucy and she was a baby at the time I wrote it. My mother kept it, presumably in case she needed it as evidence at any point.

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?
Mainly shock, and then elation. I found out my novel would be published while I was taking small kids around the Natural History Museum and had to try to act like a normal person, when I just wanted to shout and shake people. I think that day was the high point. I swiftly realised that unfortunately lots of other people were having their books published too.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Someone came up to me after a panel event and said he was writing a novel. What was my top tip When I and my fellow panellist told him to read as much as he could, he got very cross with us and told us he didn’t like reading and didn’t have time for it. That struck me as rather odd: why would you want to write a book if you didn’t actually, you know, like books?


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

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Review: DANCE PRONE

DANCE PRONE by David Coventry (VUP, 2020)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

1985. Neus Bauen, a post-hardcore band from Illinois, are touring America, on the brink of fame. When one member of the band is sexually assaulted and another is wounded by a gunshot, these two cataclysmic events alter the course of the band’s four members’ lives forever.

Decades later, amongst the sprawl and shout of Morocco, some of the band are reunited. There they attempt to piece together what happened to them during the lost years between their punk-infused days and nights on the road, and the world they find themselves in today.

Dance Prone is a novel of music, ritual and love. It is live, tense and corporeal. Full of closely observed details of indie-rock, of punk infused performance, the road and the players’ relationship to violence, hate and peace.

Set simultaneously during the post-punk period and the narrative present of 2019, Dance Prone was born out of a love of the underground and indie rock scenes of the 1980s, a fascination for their role in the cultural apparatus of memory, social decay and its reconstruction.

Con Welles was a punk rocker in the 1980s, touring the U.S. in a van and bludging food to stay alive. Most of his friends from that time, later became professionals: lecturers, lawyers, artists … But Con had been left in a hiatus, never knowing who had violated him, never knowing why his friend Tone Seburg shot himself the same night – his life defined by “what occurred there in Burstyn in ’85”.

DANCE PRONE ranges in time, from periods in the 1980’s through to 2019, and drifts geographically, from the US to Northern Africa, Croatia, Spain, New Zealand… 

It is written in a poetic, hypnotic cadence, like a never-ending song lyric. The young characters talk in that slightly wanky way of well-read youth, which slides into a form of short-hand communication as they age. Years pass between Con’s meeting with one or other of his friends, years between the sharing of shards of information. As you become immersed in the lives of the characters, you start to see images from the past coming into focus.

The novel is about the unreliability of memory, the fact that history and explanations are all invented narrative: “The oldest form of violence.” Con watches videos of events he has no recollection of attending. His on/off/on girlfriend, Sonya, lies about their past, but does it really matter? In one awful moment of revelation, Con realises he had unwittingly burdened another woman, Miriam, with his angst at a time she was dealing with her own horrific experiences.

Coventry’s wonderful debut novel, THE INVISIBLE MILE, had the same mesmeric technique of using one event, in that case the Tour de France, to explore the confused experiences of one man, and his attempts to make sense of his experiences. In THE INVISIBLE MILE, the stones of Carnac eerily and ambiguously emerge from the mist. In DANCE PRONE, Conrad comes upon a “strange array of columns …, seven lined across the centre of the field. Thirty feet high and waiting on something”. Coventry is a master at making the reader see significance, make their own narratives.

“I think how Angel’d said once how it takes up the same amount of memory recording nothing as it does an orchestra”, the vagaries of time, the pointlessness of art. 

There is a nihilistic thread through DANCE PRONE, “I thought every instant was a version of the end” – but then it is told from the point of view of post-traumatic confusion. Con and his friends consider the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the money spent on plans for restoration “as Afghans starved, as the poor suffered in drought and crop failure”. But the punk generation was about creation – Con is in the mountains near Marrakesh, witnessing the completion of an enormous artwork conceived by one of the many peripheral characters, Paloma: on the cliff face, enormous painted reconstructions of the blasted alcoves, “Blackened Buddhas caught in time”.

“‘The teenage versions of us used to be hardcore. Now we’re something else,’ Angel said”, punk rockers trying to make a difference: “I was just kicking my guitar around on the floor, watching it bang and clatter, how the strings were always hunting out harmony and how harmony happens to change its rules at the highest volumes. Feedback and flight: the great gifts of the twentieth century.” The reader can hear the feedback, smell the van, feel the cold of unheated travel, the fug of dingy accommodation, and fear those with “something compelling them to explore the output of violence and stupidity”. And amid the travelling, the band break-ups and the reunions, Con is always trying to find answers.

There are other tragedies besides Con’s in DANCE PRONE, major events and developments that the reader puts together. All the characters are keeping secrets, all carrying burdens for each other. All feeling, as Miriam does, that “There’s no such thing as random, and there’s no determined events, she’d told me, just a kind of nervousness for spectacles we can’t control or account for”. There are those who know what happened in Burstyn in ’85”, and who the actors were, and they are damaged by knowing. The novel is meticulous, all mysteries are solved, all things explained. But the reader is still left with the uncertainty of history and sadness of damaged lives: “I could no longer hear the interior monologues of others, just the ever-shifting shape of my own silence.”

DANCE PRONE is just superb – read it and see if you agree.


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

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Review: THE PERFECT LIE

THE PERFECT LIE by Jo Spain (Quercus Books, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

He jumped to his death in front of witnesses. Now his wife is charged with murder.

Five years ago, Erin Kennedy moved to New York following a family tragedy. She now lives happily with her detective husband in the scenic seaside town of Newport, Long Island. When Erin answers the door to Danny's police colleagues one morning, it's the start of an ordinary day. But behind her, Danny walks to the window of their fourth-floor apartment and jumps to his death.

Eighteen months later, Erin is in court, charged with her husband's murder. Over that year and a half, Erin has learned things about Danny she could never have imagined. She thought he was perfect. She thought their life was perfect.

But it was all built on the perfect lie.

How would you deal with things if the solid footing and nice life you'd scrabbled to find after past tragedy was suddenly torn away from you in an instant, and then to make things even worse you were forced to question everything you thought you knew? Irishwoman abroad Erin Kennedy faces just that dilemma in this compulsive new thriller from bestselling Irish novelist and screenwriter Jo Spain. 

Erin wakes up one Tuesday to sea air and sex with Danny, her police detective husband, in their Long Island apartment. The couple are juggling work stresses, but looking forward to a weekend away together soon. Erin has a day of publishing work ahead, but that all changes when Danny's work partner knocks on the door early that morning, flanked by uniformed officers. Something's wrong. 

Very wrong. Then it gets worse. 

Danny sizes up the situation, and makes an irreversible decision. A window and a drop to the concrete below; a sudden death rather than facing whatever was coming following the door knock. Erin's seemingly perfect life is smashed to pieces. Why would Danny commit suicide? What drove him to it? 

Eighteen months later, Erin is on trial for killing her husband.

Spain keeps readers nicely off-balance throughout an exciting read that flows well while twisting like a corkscrew rollercoaster. She adeptly sets the hook then reels us in through multiple timelines leading up to and through Erin's trial, including events at a college campus years before. 

Struggling after Danny's fatal leap from their balcony, Erin begins looking into what could possibly have led to him making such a seemingly incomprehensible decision, but that just brings more pain and confusion as she finds out lots of horrible things that had been hidden from view. 

Like Erin, our heads spin as we try to make sense of just what the hell is going on. Unsurprisingly cinematic, Spain’s latest is a one-sitting kind of read that is full of twists and red herrings, of fragmented incidents that later mesh in ways not always expected. 

THE PERFECT LIE is perfect weekend reading, whether you're beachside or not.


Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Review: TELL ME LIES

TELL ME LIES by JP Pomare (Hachette Australia, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Psychologist Margot Scott has a picture-perfect life: a nice house in the suburbs, a husband, two children, and a successful career. On a warm spring morning, Margot spots one of her clients on a busy train platform. He is looking down at his phone, with his duffel bag in hand as the train approaches. That’s when she slams into his back and he falls in front of the train. Suddenly, one tragedy leads to another leaving her, her family, and her patients in danger. As misfortune unfolds, listeners will soon question Margot’s true role in all of these unfortunate events.

Melbourne based, award-winning Māori storyteller JP Pomare (Ngāpuhi) is one of the most exciting thriller writing voices to emerge in the past couple of years, from Australasia or anywhere. 
 
Barely two years after his debut CALL ME EVIE was officially launched at a McLeod's Booksellers event to kickstart the first-ever Rotorua Noir festival, Pomare has firmly established himself as a massively talented author who consistently delivers great, and quite different, reads. 

His third book, TELL ME LIES, began life as an Audible Original and has now been made available in print form. Although slightly shorter than Pomare's excellent first two novels CALL ME EVIE and IN THE CLEARING, it once again demonstrates his mastery of the psychological thriller form. 

TELL ME LIES opens with psychologist Margot Scott attacking one of her clients on a train platform. What provoked, or could justify, this violent act from someone who is meant to help others? Pomare then guides us through a web of deceit as Margot’s seemingly perfect life is upended by her interactions with a suite of clients, including the seemingly charming man she spotted on the train platform. 

Pomare keeps the pace up as Margot's life unravels, and she's taken to some very dark places - suspecting a variety of her clients of being up to no good, and getting herself into all sorts of trouble, leading up to the violent act on the train platform (then through its aftermath). Pomare creates an intricate plot populated by some intriguing characters beyond our heroine - who may divide readers with her approach to various things. Margot is certainly fascinating, if not always 'likable'. 

In a sea of psychological thrillers, Pomare elevates himself with the quality of his writing and his characterisation. Pacy, full of twists, TELL ME LIES turns readers inside out, alternatively sure then unsure we know where it’s heading. Emotional switchbacks. Like Margot, readers will suspect we’re being manipulated too - while being able to enjoy the journey far more than she can.

Pomare set the bar extremely high with his first two novels, which topped bestseller lists in New Zealand and were shortlisted for numerous awards on both sides of the Tasman. While TELL ME LIES is a leaner tale that perhaps doesn't show Pomare at his fullest powers, overall it's another very, very good read (or listen) from a huge talent. I can't wait for the next book from JP Pomare. 


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of Australian, Scottish, and NZ crime writing awards, and is co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Review: DEADHEAD

DEADHEAD by Glenn Wood (One Tree House, 2020)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

The story starts with the death of Constable Garrett... and continues with his resurrection as a conscious cyborg initially controlled by Spencer Langley aged 13, inventor, entrepreneur and car thief. Things get even more complicated with the introduction of sinister criminals and Garrett’s ex partner. Includes graphic replays every third chapter for the entertainment of all

Spencer is a teenage genius - he makes a bit on the side to help his solo Mum pay the bills, by procuring things for school mates, or by providing them with answers to upcoming exams. But one job goes awfully wrong – a job for a student who has started up the Burdale Yakuza. Fearing retaliation, Spencer enlists the help of his friend, Regan, and they disinter a body so Regan can remotely control it to act as Spencer’s bodyguard.

The body happens to be that of Constable Garret Hunter, killed while on a lone stakeout aiming to catch the notorious Undertaker, an evil crime lord who uses a local bikie gang as muscle. When Spencer decides to use Garret to rob the Stamport Savings Bank, comparing himself to “Robin Hood, robbing from the rich – the bank – to give to the poor – his mum”, Garret has to make a hasty exit and he gets electrocuted, and things take a turn for the weirder!

Meanwhile Constable Cadence Green has been trying to work out what happened to her ex-partner, Garret Hunter – she doesn’t trust the official version of events regarding his death. And Carl, the head of the Burdale Yakuza discovers he hasn’t done due diligence to see if there were any other Yakuza chapters already in the area – there is. The heads of the two major crime organisations get into a turf war, both thinking an army of re-animated corpses would benefit their cause.

The ensuing mayhem, with kidnapping, torture, murder, and explosions, entail various parties forming alliances – with teenagers on both sides. Amid all of this, Regan and Cadence form a friendship and Regan starts to think she might have a future after all. Cadence and Garret re-establish as much of a friendship as is possible with one party rotting away. And Spencer must use all his considerable intelligence to hold things, and bodies, together.

DEADHEAD is text interspersed with comic strip illustrations, and the narrative is in the comic Kersplatt! style, with lots of people being hurt, dying, and being heroic. And there is lots of gruesome corpse goo. It is also very funny, and it has a theme of loyalty and responsibility. The characters are engaging: Spenser who is brilliant but also just a kid who misses his dad and worries about his mum; Regan with no use parents who has found a second home with Spenser and his mum; Cadence the cop who is staunch and brave, and who still has a soft spot for Garret, and Garret who is starting to get lots of soft spots and who goes through lots of personality changes during his post-death experiences.

DEADHEAD is a YA novel, but I think adults will really enjoy it too!


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