Thursday, May 23, 2024

Review: SING HER DOWN

SING HER DOWN by Ivy Pochoda (MCD, 2023)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Florence “Florida” Baum is not the hapless innocent she claims to be when she arrives at the Arizona women’s prison—or so her ex-cellmate Diosmary Sandoval keeps insinuating.

Dios knows the truth about Florida’s crimes, understands what Florence hides even from herself: that she was never a victim of circumstance, an unlucky bystander misled by a bad man. Dios knows that darkness lives in women too, despite the world’s refusal to see it. And she is determined to open Florida’s eyes and unleash her true self.

When an unexpected reprieve gives both women their freedom, Dios’s fixation on Florida turns into a dangerous obsession, and a deadly cat-and-mouse chase ensues from Arizona to the desolate streets of Los Angeles.

While Ivy Pochoda was born and bred in New York City, the award-winning novelist’s recent works have earned her a deserved place among the leading lights of modern ‘California Noir’. A few years ago, I was pointed towards Pochoda’s Wonder Valley by none other than Los Angeles crime king Michael Connelly during an interview we were doing. That book, which was full of characters who tore at your heart and soul, such as a young man searching for his mother on Skid Row and a former college sports start searching for a new life on a desert commune, fully delivered.

Like Connelly, Pochoda takes readers into the grit and tough realities that lie beneath the glamorous So-Cal veneer that's packaged and presented to global audiences. Edgar nominee These Women followed, a remarkable mystery about the lives and deaths of LA sex workers that deep-dived into the people often overlooked and unseen, ignored or dismissed by wider society. Now, Sing Her Down, another ferocious read about violence and women. Women who’ve suffered violence, and women who commit violence. 

Florence ‘Florida’ Baum is an inmate at Arizona women’s prison, but she’s not the innocent victim of circumstance that she claims to be, a party girl led astray by a bad man – at least according to her former cellmate Diosmary ‘Dios’ Sandoval. Dios ruthlessly embraces the darkness that can also live within women, and is set on getting Florida to admit her true self. Even if her own background isn’t as badass as she portrays. A fellow prisoner’s death further connects Florida and Dios, and when they go on the lam from COVID quarantine after an early release, a deadly cat-and-mouse game takes them to a showdown on eerily quiet streets of pandemic era Los Angeles. Meanwhile a female LAPD officer, Lobos, is on their trail while dealing with her own questions about male violence and control, and female rage and violence. 

Pochoda crafts a real frontier noir feel in Sing Her Down, a tale of women on the margins, victims and victimisers, and the rage and violence that can exist within. This is a compelling tale that traverses a stark landscape of prison, desert, global pandemic, and homeless encampments. Modern life veering towards Mad Max. Powered by sharp prose and insights, this thrilling tale of two indelible women on a collision course is hard to put down and even harder to forget.  

An excellent read, highly recommended.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Review: AFTER THAT NIGHT

AFTER THAT NIGHT by Karin Slaughter (HarperCollins, 2023) 

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Fifteen years ago, Sara Linton's life changed forever when a celebratory night out ended in a violent attack that tore her world apart. Since then, Sara has remade her life. A successful doctor, engaged to a man she loves, she has finally managed to leave the past behind her.

Until one evening, on call in the ER, everything changes. Sara battles to save a broken young woman who's been brutally attacked. But as the investigation progresses, led by GBI Special Agent Will Trent, it becomes clear that Dani Cooper's assault is uncannily linked to Sara's.

And it seems the past isn't going to stay buried forever …

Georgia author Karin Slaughter is two decades and more into thrilling readers with the exploits of paediatrician and medical examiner Sara Linton, and has delivered for almost as long a stretch with tales of GBI Agent Will Trent (who’s now thrilling millions of viewers too, as portrayed by Ramón Rodríguez in crime drama Will Trent). 

In After That Night, recently longlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger in the UK – a prestigious prize Slaughter previously scooped in 2015 for her outstanding standalone Cop Town – Linton and Trent dig deep into the connections between a horrifying rape case and the sexual assault Sara herself survived fifteen years before. Three years after teenager Dani Cooper crashes into an ambulance and whispers to Linton at Grady Memorial Hospital that she thinks she’s been raped, before dying, Linton is preparing to be cross-examined by a notorious attorney at a trial against Thomas Michael McAllister IV, son of two of her old med school peers. Two people who know about Sara’s own rape trauma, which she fears will be used in the trial to discredit her or show she’s biased in her recollections of what Dani Cooper said. 

While Linton escapes the viciously personal cross-examination she was expecting, she’s shocked in a different way; confronted in the courtroom bathroom by Britt McAllister, who smugly mentions that what happened to Dani and what happened to Sara was all connected. But how? Sara’s own rapist, hospital janitor Jack Allen Wright, was caught and imprisoned. Sara and Will team up with Will’s somewhat-benched GBI partner Faith for an off-the-books investigation into the links across generations of unspeakable horrors visited on young women associated with the university and medical school. It’s an at-times harrowing descent into misogyny and sexual assault, a devastating read that could be read as a standalone or first-time visit to Sara and Will’s world, but will have even greater impact for readers who have followed their travails and story over many novels and years.

Slaughter is such a skilful storyteller that things never become too grim, despite the darkness and horrors into which she dives. There are strong threads of compassion and caring, and lighter moments between characters that offset the trauma. A great instalment in an excellent series.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.


Sunday, May 19, 2024

Guest review: RETURN TO BLOOD

RETURN TO BLOOD by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster, 2024)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Two murders. Two decades apart. One chance to get justice.

Hana Westerman has left Auckland and her career as a detective behind her. Settled in a quiet coastal town, all she wants is a fresh start. The discovery of a skeleton in the dunes near her house changes everything. The remains are those of a young Māori woman who went missing four years before, and Hana has a connection to the case. Twenty years ago, a schoolfriend of hers was found buried in the exact same spot. Her killer died in prison, but did the police get the wrong man? And if he was innocent, then why did he plead guilty?

No longer part of the Criminal Investigation Branch, Hana turns to her ex-husband Jaye, a high-flying Detective Inspector, for help. But when he cuts her out of the investigation, she realises that she will have to find the answers she needs on her own..

Hana Westerman is back staking out houses, interviewing suspects, filming crimes in progress, and piecing together scraps of information. The only problem is, she’s no longer a detective: “Hana had walked away from the cops because she couldn’t live with the darkness anymore. But the darkness had followed her. And it had followed her family.”

Hana has returned to where she grew up; Tātā Beach on the west coast of the North Island. Her rapper daughter Addison and Addison’s best friend PLUS1, are living in Hana’s house in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, about two hours away. Hana is renting just down from her dad Eru’s place. She runs every morning, and she and Eru are helping the local kids get their driving licences.

Hana is welcomed back to her community by some, but held at a distance by others. There are those who think she has come back feeling superior, looking down on them. Eyes is one of the latter, and Hana is struggling with Eyes’ son Tīmoti, whose attitude is getting in the way of his licence lessons. Hana fears he might be being drawn into the ambit of local thug Erwin Rendall.

All is manageable for Hana until Addison, visiting her mum, finds human remains in the sand dunes. The remains are those of a young woman, and the location is exactly where another young woman, Paige Meadows, was discovered 20 years previously. The man found guilty of Paige’s murder, Tama Hall, has since died in prison – but Eru is adamant Tama was innocent: “Tama didn’t kill that girl. He didn’t do it.” And then a woman approaches Hana to provide information regarding who Paige’s real killer might be.

Hana finds herself investigating both murders. The skeleton Addison finds is that of Kiri Thomas. Hana had only met Kiri once, at a Youth at Risk programme – she had told Hana “You look like photos of my real mum”. The detectives on the search for Kiri’s murderer are Jaye Hamilton, Hana’s ex-husband and Addison’s dad, and Lorraine Delaney, a colleague of Hana’s who has taken on Hana’s role of Detective Senior Sergeant in the department, and who had been piloting the Youth at Risk programme Kiri, and her friend Dax attended.

Treading a fine line with what she has the powers to do, and ensuring she passes all information on the police, Hana makes progress. Her ex-junior colleague Stan Riordan is still on the force, sitting on a desk job, eager to get back into action – well-placed to help Hana. And another ex-cop, Sebastian Kang, has started up a PI business – he gives Hana the odd bits of work, and he has her back in her investigations.

Return to Blood follow a standard crime novel pattern of finding clues, considering possibilities, falling for mis-directions – all culminating in a tense and scary denouement. But what makes it a superb novel are the characterisations and the juxtaposition of opposing ideas of what constitutes justice. Bennett describes the traditional Māori concept of muru, natural law, as opposed to the British common law system; “institutionalized, laid out in leather-bound tomes, enforced and adjudicated upon by police and lawyers and judges, people with absolutely no knowledge of or relationship to those who were actually affected.”

Is it justice when one man accepts another’s sacrifice and the responsibility of turning his life around? Is it justice when someone sets another up for their accidental crime, when the victim would be paying the price anyway? Is it justice when a crime is ignored because, if discovered, it wouldn’t be the real culprit who is punished? And making these questions vivid are the rich characters in Return to Blood.

Hana is still her staunch self, and so brave when approaching difficult situations – like humbling herself to Jaye’s new wife after a mis-judgement, or battling on with Eyes regarding fighting for Tīmoti’s future. Addison and PLUS1 are complex and fragile, especially when Addison decides to do a bit of investigating herself: “There’s what you say. There’s what you sing. And there’s what you actually feel.” Each character is conflicted and nuanced. And then there’s Eru.

“I was just a Māori boy from a small town who liked to go fishing.” Eru is accepting, kind, non-judgemental and loyal. He sees no difference between a soldier’s stress from battlefield orders, and a person’s stress from gang orders. He is knowingly naïve: “‘We’re pescatarian, Grandpa’, ‘That’s different to non-binary?’” The reader longs for Eru and his wisdom to be OK.

And poignantly, Kiri’s voice weaves through the book, and she is present in Addison’s dreams. She was 17. She fell in love with the genderless visceral Māori gods. She loved the weightlessness of the dip in a loop-de-loop. She lost her parents young, and she pushed her adoptive parents away by testing boundaries; “I wasn’t their blood”. She lost her way due to a misunderstanding. And the novel never lets us forget, regardless of the worries, mistakes, and triumphs of those left behind, Kiri has had everything taken from her – her chance to love or harm, her chance to make amends, her chance to live.

Return to Blood is a great book, a great piece of #YeahNoir, a great second book in the Hana Westerman series, and I eagerly await number three.

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

Friday, May 17, 2024

Review: END OF STORY

END OF STORY by AJ Finn (Atlantic, 2024)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

"I'll be dead in three months. Come tell my story." This is the chilling invitation from Sebastian Trapp, renowned mystery novelist, to his long-time correspondent Nicky Hunter, an expert in detective fiction. Welcomed into his lavish San Francisco mansion, Nicky begins to unravel Trapp's life story under the watchful eyes of his enigmatic wife and plainspoken daughter.

But Sebastian Trapp is a mystery himself. And maybe - probably - a murderer. Two decades ago, his first wife and son vanished - the case never solved. Is the master of mystery playing a deadly game - and if so, who will be the loser? And when a body surfaces in the family's koi pond, they all realize the past isn't buried - it's waiting.

Six years ago, pseudonymous New York author and former book editor AJ Finn caught publishing lightning in a bottle with his heavily marketed-debut crime novel The Woman in the Window, a contemporary take on Hitchcockian tropes as an agoraphobic woman spies on her neighbours. 

Instant #1 New York Times bestseller; sold into 40+ countries, big-money film deal. 

A year later, the bottle shattered as a New Yorker profile exposed a litany of lies; was the acclaimed thriller author even more unreliable than his narrator? Finn went to ground, the star-studded film of his book fizzled, and plenty of readers and industry insiders said they’d never touch his work again.   

The question lingered, though: would the now-infamous author ever return? 

Finn answers that query with the very thrilling End of Story, which perhaps fittingly features a crime writer whose life is rife with rumour and internet gossip. Of a far more serious kind. Nicky Hunter is invited to renowned mystery novelist Sebastian Trapp’s San Francisco mansion where he lives with his second wife and adult daughter, to tell his life story and perhaps unravel a mystery or two.

Trapp is dying, his first wife and son vanished many years before, and he was a prime suspect.

Everyone has their secrets, but who is playing who? Especially when a body is found after a mansion party. Finn once again gives plenty of nods to giants of the genre, while creating a page-whirring narrative drive and setting readers up well for a fascinating denouement. And in a twist worthy of his forebears, Finn’s far-less-marketed second novel may read better than his massively (over?)hyped debut.

Worth a look. I enjoyed the read, and tore through it in a day. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.


Thursday, May 16, 2024

Review: HARBOR LIGHTS

HARBOR LIGHTS by James Lee Burke (Atlantic, 2024)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Harbor Lights is a story collection from one of the most popular and widely acclaimed icons of American fiction, featuring a never-before-published novella. These eight stories move from the marshlands on the Gulf of Mexico to the sweeping plains of Colorado to prisons, saloons, and trailer parks across the South, weaving together love, friendship, violence, survival, and revenge

For fifty years James Lee Burke has been leading the way among American novelists in general, not just crime writers. His lyrical, multi-layered explorations of the darkness, addiction, and evil that can exist within humanity, alongside white-hot light, have raised the bar and inspired countless authors.

Years ago, at the Sydney Writers Festival, I watched superb Irish crime writer John Connolly (author of the Charlie Parker series) stand onstage and say, “James Lee Burke is our greatest living crime writer… you can disagree with me, but you’d be wrong”. Like Connolly and so many others, I hold Burke in extremely high regard, so I was thrilled to dive into his recent short story collection, Harbor Lights

This collection brings some of the same, and something different, for long-time Burke fans: there’s no Dave Robicheaux and it’s a collection of eight thematically and genealogically entwined short stories, including a previously unpublished Holland family novella, rather than a single tale, but there’s plenty of what we’ve come to expect. In each story he soaks us in time and place, abuts richly evoked settings with stark violence, and makes us witness to cruelty and humanity through the eyes of downtrodden characters, while crafting a semi-permeable membrane between eras.

Readers are swept across a variety of landscapes and eras in American history, visiting with hardscrabble lives touched by some of the big issues of the times, and as the blurb says, ‘from the marshlands on the Gulf of Mexico to the sweeping plains of Colorado to prisons, saloons, and trailer parks across the South, weaving together love, friendship, violence, survival, and revenge.’ Amen. 

Two prison inmates are set up to fight each other in “Big Midnight Special”; a history professor takes matters into his own hands after his daughter is beaten up at a bar in “The Assault”; a farmer and his grandson try to protect Mexican immigrants in “Deportees”; federal agents intimidate a war veteran who reported a burning oil tanker in the titular tale. 

Overall, Harbor Lights is an impressive collection from a modern master of storytelling (not just crime fiction), who oh-so-deservedly was recently named a recipient of the prestigious CWA Diamond Dagger, which honours authors “whose crime-writing careers have been marked by sustained excellence, and who have made a significant contribution to the genre”. Indeed. 

Burke should have been one of the easiest ‘yay’ votes for the Diamond Dagger committee in years.

Years ago, I heard another author say, while debating ‘literary fiction vs popular fiction’, that if ever confronted by snobbish critics who turn up their nose at crime and mystery writing, or refuse to acknowledge the wordsmithery and literary quality now contained within the genre, you could just throw a copy of a Peter Temple book at them. Indeed. Or perhaps, we could now push an entire shelf of James Lee Burke atop such sinners. As for us crime and thriller readers, Harbor Lights whets the appetite for backlist revisiting as well as whatever comes next from a living legend

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology series, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.


Friday, February 9, 2024

Review: EVERYONE ON THIS TRAIN IS A SUSPECT

EVERYONE ON THIS TRAIN IS A SUSPECT by Benjamin Stevenson (Michael Joseph, Feb 2024)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When the Australian Mystery Writers' Society invited me to their crime-writing festival aboard the Ghan, the famous train between Darwin and Adelaide, I was hoping for some inspiration for my second book. Fiction, this time: I needed a break from real people killing each other. Obviously, that didn't pan out.

The program is a who's who of crime writing royalty: the debut writer (me!), the forensic science writer, the blockbuster writer, the legal thriller writer, the literary writer, the psychological suspense writer. But when one of us is murdered, six authors quickly turn into five detectives. Together, we should know how to solve a crime. Or commit one ... But how do you catch a killer, when all your suspects know how to get away with murder?

After a couple of solid mysteries to begin his oeuvre, Australian author and stand-up comedian Benjamin Stevenson hit an absolute grand slam with his startlingly clever and absolutely delightful third at-bat, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone. Stevenson gave himself a high degree of difficulty too, setting up his homage to classic mysteries with the narrator Ernie Cunningham, a ‘how-to’ writer turned recorder of events, outlining the fair play rules and Golden Age ‘Ten Commandments’ at the off, while even telling us on what pages deaths will occur. Like Houdini, Stevenson tied himself up, then proceeded to dazzle us with his sleight of hand and storytelling.

How do you follow-up a book like that, which delighted in longstanding tropes and genre ‘rules’, danced with meta while being brilliantly structured and told, and was both timeless and fresh?

Somehow, Stevenson has done it again with Everyone on This Train is a Suspect, a superb mystery that manages to surprise and delight even when we think we know how the game is played now. This time around Ernie has been invited to a unique crime writing festival, which will take place aboard the famous Ghan train from Darwin to Adelaide, slicing through the iconic Red Centre of Australia. A trip to celebrate 50 years of the Australian Mystery Writers’ Society. Rubbing shoulders with mystery writers, agents, editors, and keen readers, Ernie hope he may be inspired in some way for his stalled second book. It’s not so easy, he finds, to come up with fictional murders rather than just retelling the true stories from behind the scenes of his own family’s headline-grabbing violence.

He really doesn’t want to have to return his advance for an unwritten novel.

Ernie, the debut writer, is joined on the programme by authors of forensic science mysteries, legal thrillers, blockbuster bestsellers, psychological suspense, and even a noted literary author. A combustible mix. But when one of the writers is killed (obviously not Ernie, or how would he tell the tale? Fair play, after all), the other five turn into detectives trying to solve the crime.

Then again, with a whole group of people gathered who know lots of ways to commit and hide crimes, and how to get away with murder (at least fictionally), where does the danger truly lie?

Put simply, Everyone on This Train is a Suspect is sublime. It’s ridonkuously clever and brilliantly structured, with Stevenson demonstrating a Penn and Teller level of storytelling magic – giving away some of the secrets, showing you how a trick is done, yet still managing to surprise and amaze. There are lots of twists and turns, both in the mystery storyline and the relationships between characters, including Ernie and his amour Juliette, the former owner of the resort where the Cunningham family killings occurred. Juliette also wrote a book on those events, but chose to accompany Ernie on the Ghan trip even though she’s not on the festival programme herself.

There’s an unabashed playfulness, almost tongue in cheek, to Stevenson’s storyline and storytelling, where he’s both honouring and parodying classic Golden Age mysteries. Ernie offers clues along the way, such as the number of times he’ll mention the killer or killers’ name, updating the count at times for our benefit, and things once again get a little meta, while also being dosed with some high-octane action reminiscent of Western movies as the Ghan chugs through the Australian desert.

Along the way Stevenson seems to show us and his protagonist that death is not just a clever puzzle to solve - it has far greater impact than that. He does this via an extraordinarily clever puzzle, of course. It’s early on in the year, but Everyone on This Train is a Suspect may very well end up one of the best mystery reads of the year; a smile-inducing, brain-whirring magic trick, with heart.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, series editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Review: THE LAST WORD

THE LAST WORD by Elly Griffiths (Quercus, Jan 2024)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Natalka and Edwin are running a detective agency in Shoreham, Sussex. Despite a steady stream of minor cases, Natalka is frustrated, longing for a big juicy investigation to come the agency’s way. Then a murder case turns up. Local writer, Melody Chambers, is found dead and her family are convinced it is murder. Edwin, a big fan of the obit pages, thinks there’s a link to the writer of Melody’s obituary who pre-deceased his subject.

The trail leads them to a slightly sinister writers’ retreat. When another writer is found dead, Edwin thinks that the clue lies in the words. Seeking professional help, the amateur investigators turn to their friend, detective Harbinder Kaur, to find that they have stumbled on a plot that is stranger than fiction.

While prolific British author Elly Griffiths has been delighting readers all over the world with her bestselling Ruth Galloway mysteries over the past fifteen years, she hasn’t been afraid to stray from the coastal Norwich setting or her beloved forensic archaeologist heroine. It was a then-standalone tale, The Stranger Diaries, which scooped the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2020.

That book introduced DS Harbinder Kaur as a supporting character. Then in between further Ruth Galloway Mysteries, and some of Griffiths other series of Brighton Mysteries, Kaur returned in The Postscript Murders, a novel that was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger and saw the introduction of an unusual investigative trio: octogenarian Edwin, former monk Benedict, and carer Natalka, who is originally from the Ukraine. The amateurs help and hinder Kaur as she tries to uncover the truth behind the death of Natalka’s neighbour, and a potential spate of dying writers.

Now, The Last Word sees a welcome encore for the crew. After the events of the previous book, Benedict, now Natalka’s live-in beau, runs his coffee shop on the southern coast of England, while Natalka and elderly Edwin have opened an agency and dabble in minor investigations day-to-day. But with Natalka’s mother Valentyna having moved into their tiny flat from war-torn Ukraine, while her brother fights the Russians, tensions are high. What they need is a good murder to solve!

When local writer Melody Chambers is found dead and her family suspect foul play, the game is afoot. Especially after Edwin notices strange connections in the obituary pages. When Edwin and Benedict go undercover at a rural writers’ retreat, the body count rises. Are the clues on the page as well as off? Griffiths expertly reels us in, delivering a fabulous tale full of wit, intrigue, and wonderful characters. 

A thoroughly enjoyable read in a growing series, from a masterful storyteller.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, series editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Review: EVERYBODY KNOWS

EVERYBODY KNOWS by Jordan Harper (Faber, 2023)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

In Hollywood, nobody talks. But everybody whispers... Welcome to Mae Pruett’s LA. A ‘black-bag’ publicist at one of Hollywood’s most powerful crisis PR firms, Mae’s job isn’t to get good news out, it’s to keep the bad news in and contain the scandals. But just as she starts to question her job and life choices, her boss is gunned down in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel, and everything changes.

Investigating with the help of an ex-boyfriend, Mae dives headlong into a neon joyride through the jungle of contemporary Hollywood. Pitted against the twisted system she’s worked so hard to perpetuate, she’s desperately fighting for redemption, and her life.

It’s appropriate that Hollywood screenwriter Jordan Harper (The Mentalist, Gotham) begins his exquisite noir Everybody Knows at the infamous Chateau Marmont. Overlooking Sunset Boulevard and loosely modelled on a French royal getaway, the hotel and celebrity residence has seen it all over its 90-plus years, cycling through renovation and disrepair, generations of Hollywood glitterati on the rise and fall.

Harper masterfully takes readers on a skin-crawling journey through an amoral landscape that resides beneath the glamour and mythology of Hollywood, with ‘black bag’ publicist Mae Pruett as our guide. Most publicists try to get their clients into the public eye, cutting through the noise to garner maximum attention. Mae’s job is to strangle stories pre-birth, to divert attention like a magician; look here, not here. When Mae arrives at the Chateau Marmont, her client, a fading 20-something starlet, has a black eye from a sugar Daddy date gone wrong and could lose her film gig. Mae puts that fire out, another flares. Then Mae’s boss is gunned down, taking secrets with him, and Mae finds herself teaming with ex-lover and ex-Sheriff’s Deputy Chris, who works similar dark arts as private security.

Can Mae and Chris survive when the very Beast they’ve served turns on them? Harper’s stylish prose enlivens a sordid journey behind the curtain of modern-day Hollywood, where money, power, and excess feast from the boulevard of broken dreams.

Everybody Knows is not just a best of the year contender, but a best of many years.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, series editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.