Friday, October 19, 2018

Review: THE SUFFERING OF STRANGERS

THE SUFFERING OF STRANGERS by Caro Ramsay (Severn House, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When a six-week-old baby is stolen from outside a village shop, Detective Inspector Costello quickly surmises there's more to this case than meets the eye. As she questions those involved, she uncovers evidence that this was no impulsive act as the police initially assumed, but something cold, logical, meticulously planned. Who has taken Baby Sholto - and why?

Colin Anderson meanwhile is on the Cold Case Unit, reviewing the unsolved rape of a young mother back in 1996. Convinced this wasn't the first - or last - time the attacker struck, Anderson looks for a pattern. But when he does find a connection, it reaches back into his own past ...

Scottish author Ramsay doesn't go easy on her readers in her series starring her detective duo Costello and Anderson. She's unafraid to address and explore some really tough, gritty issues. In this ninth instalment, the pair have been split up and are operating in different units, and each is plunged into a tricky, testing case. It's an apt title.

DI Costello is still smarting from her sidelining, and is now focused on domestic abuse and looking for a missing six-week-old baby, snatched in her mother's car outside some village shops. Bizarrely, when the car is found another baby - one with Down's Syndrome - was left behind instead.

Anderson is on the cold case unit, reviewing the rape of a young mother back in the mid 1990s. When the victim dies, Anderson's superiors want him to convince Sally Logan, another victim of an historic unsolved rape to do a television appeal for people to speak out about violent and sexual crime.

Sally Logan was Anderson's old college girlfriend, putting him in a very tricky position.

As the cases unfold some unexpected connections begin to appear. With the help of a force-of-nature social worker, Costello realises something far deeper and more organised is going on than just one randomly snatched baby. Meanwhile Anderson has tried to reacquaint himself with Sally and her doctor husband, but at what cost? Will the college reunion be a help or a hindrance, or worse?

Ramsay writes in a straightforward manner with little frills, delivering via character and plot, and some mind-pricking themes. She takes readers into places most British police procedurals avoid. Lots happens, there's some nice action and a multi-layered storyline with memorable supporting characters and situation that really test our two protagonists. They, and readers, may be put through the emotional wringer. A good solid crime read unafraid to address some really tough issues.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features 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. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: PHNOM PENH EXPRESS

PHNOM PENH EXPRESS by Johan Smits (Mekong Media, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A young Cambodian returns home. 
A diamond shipment goes missing.
A foreign assassin arrives in Phnom Penh.

And then there's the chocolate - lots of it. 

Phirun is determined to make it as Cambodia's first chocolate chef. But things don't go quite as plannned when he gets unwittingly caught up in a deadly turf war between rivalling diamond mafia and those who are after him. Falling in love with a mysterious Khmer-Australian doesn't help him. 

Throw in an overzealous post-9/11 American intelligence officer and a corrupt Belgian ex-Colonel, from Tel Aviv through Belgium and Bangkok right up to Phnom Penh - in this fast read of crime and intrigue, chocolates have never tasted so good!

I love travelling, and I love mystery writing, so whenever I'm abroad I like to dip into the local genre where I can, even collecting books from the places I've travelled. Ahead of three weeks in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam a few years ago I'd looked up some possibilities ahead of time, so I knew what to look for in the bookshops. Landing in Bangkok, I grabbed some John Burdett thrillers (his Sonchai Jitpleecheep series is excellent) and this then-new Cambodian-set crime novel. 

Written by a Belgian expat who'd spent years in Cambodia, PHNOM PENH EXPRESS is not your typical southeast Asian crime novel (not that they're all homogenous of course - far from it - but this one has some particularly unique flourishes). An international thriller with a chocolatier at its heart. 

Phirun has a dream. Half Cambodian and half Belgian, he wants to combine his heritages by making it as Cambodia's first chocolate chef. But his plans go awry when a shipment of chocolates containing diamonds is mistakenly delivered to his chocolate shop in Phnom Penh. That's just the first misstep in what becomes a dangerous and slightly madcap dive into the world of international diamond smuggling. Rival 'diamond mafia' in the middle of a turf war zero in. Rather than dealing with customers who he makes happy with his chocolate creations, Phirun is faced with a far nastier and less forgiving world full of diamond smugglers, arms traders, and professional assassins. 

As the same time, he gets romantically entangled with an intriguing Khmer-Australian. 

Danger and humor mix throughout PHNOM PENH EXPRESS. Smits, a Belgian who has spent years in Cambodia, gives his hero that same ‘insider-outsider’ perspective and takes readers on a journey through modern Phnom Penh in all its fragrant glory and grime. 

This is a solid read; a rather straightforward story and writing style that’s boosted by the vivid setting, unusual characters and events, and a vein of sardonic humour. When I read the book it suffered a little from comparison with Burdett's Bangkok thrillers (which provide a similarly vivid insight into a southeast Asian city while having stronger characters, deeper issues, and crackling prose), but PHNOM PENH EXPRESS still has something to offer too and is worth a look. 

Smits gives readers a sensory experience of Phnom Penh, from the pervasive aroma of fermented fish to the karaoke soundtrack beloved by citizens. The situation is a little surreal, and there's some lovely wry humour in what can at times seem a bit of a madcap story, careening around the globe. All centred on a local guy who just wants to make chocolates. A good beach read. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features 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. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A long road from CWA Dagger to publication: an interview with Amer Anwar

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the 34th instalment of 9mm for 2018, and the 206th overall edition of our long-running author interview series.

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

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

Today I'm very pleased to welcome Amer Anwar, a London author whose debut novel centred on an ex-con working a dead-end job who gets caught up looking for a missing girl impressed many people in publishing but had a long journey to its eventual release last month.

Amer, who won the CWA Debut Dagger several years ago for the beginnings of what would become BROTHERS IN BLOOD, has spoken in interviews about facing cultural bias and the difficulties in breaking through with a tale that don't neatly match a narrow view of what readers may enjoy (based on what has succeeded and sold in the past): "There was all this stuff about diversity in publishing at the time …and it was just sort of given lip service really. I was thinking, there is a diverse book, it’s won an award and you all think it’s well written and yet it’s still not getting published... It was always first and foremost a crime thriller. It just happens to have Asian characters and it’s set in an Asian area of London and there’s a lot of Asian influences, but the main thing is it’s a crime thriller."

I remember reading about Amer winning the Debut Dagger years ago, when I was just starting out with this blog, and thinking 'Western Fringes' (as it was entitled then) sounded like a fascinating story. I'm glad that after years of work and staying true to himself, including a dip into self-publishing, that a broad audience are now getting a chance to read Amer's full novel. You can read a bit more about Amer's decade-long journey from Dagger to Dialogue Books (an imprint of Little, Brown), in this piece he wrote for the Crime Writers Association website.

Amer is a west London native, who's had a writer's resume of eclectic jobs, ranging from warehouse assistant to a driver for emergency doctors to chalet rep in the French Alps. He worked for a decade producing creative artwork and graphic design for the entertainment industry, and earned an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London.

But for now, Amer Anwar becomes the latest criminal mind to stare down the barrel of 9mm.

9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH AMER ANWAR

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Well, not really a hero per se, or a detective, more of an anti-hero, my favourite recurring character in crime fiction would have to be the professional armed robber, Parker, from the series of novels by Richard Stark. The books are brilliantly written, lean and mean, just like Parker. Violence is a means to an end for him and he doesn't hold back when he needs to use it. There were 15 books in the original run and then Stark stopped – only to bring the character back after a break of 23 years. The later novels were just as good and Parker just as effective in the 1990s as he'd been in the 1970s.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
The very first book I remember reading and really loving was an abridged children's version of The Count of Monte Cristo. It was told in a really simple style but with all the best bits. Why wouldn't I have loved that? Dastardly villains, a hero wrongly imprisoned, a fantastic prison escape, fabulous treasure and sweet revenge. I never knew a book could be so exciting. It'd been cut down to about 100 pages and I think I read the whole thing in one night. That must be the book that got me into crime and thrillers. Next day, I went straight back to the school library and took out another book, I think it was The Colditz Story.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Before my debut crime novel, Brothers in Blood, I'd only ever written a few short stories as part of various writing courses I'd done. I actually wrote the first chapter as part of a writing course. It was my first ever attempt at a novel and I was pretty happy with the first chapter, so I entered it into the CWA Debut Dagger competition, (under its original title, Western Fringes) really just expecting to receive my very first rejection on the road to publication. I only ended up winning the bloody thing! That led to me signing with a literary agent. I then had to finish the book, which took about 8 years, mainly because I'd never written a novel before and so had to learn as I went along. Once the book was finally finished it went out on submission – only to be rejected by about 30 publishers. They all said it was really good, they just didn't feel they could publish it. I eventually self-published it and started getting great reviews. Then I had a chance meeting with a publisher, sent her the book and within a few days had signed a two book deal.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
A: Reading, obviously. I buy way more books than I can read. Last time I worked it out, it'd take me over 10 years to read all the books I have TBR – and I've bought even more since then. But then, there's no such thing as too many books, just not enough time. Aside from reading, I love watching movies and good TV shows, listening to a wide range of music, going out with my friends and spending time with my daughter, who's 7.

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?
A: I live in London, which is about as touristy as anywhere in the world. You could head west to Southall, which is the setting for Brothers in Blood and find really good, authentic Indian food, or come and watch the celebrations during Diwali. Otherwise, I'd suggest coming to London in September and taking part in the Open House weekend. It's when lots of building that are normally closed to the public open their doors and allow you to look around. I've been a couple of times and it's fantastic – I went inside the Treasury building, the Foreign Office, the Houses of Parliament and into Portcullis House, where the MPs have their offices. I also went inside Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner – which houses what was once London's smallest police station inside – and climbed to the top and out where the statues are. Loads of building all over the city take part. It's brilliant and I'd really recommend it.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
That's a hard one … I guess maybe Riz Ahmed.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or particularly special, and why?
I'd have to say Brothers in Blood, as it's my first, and so far only, novel and my first to be published, so very special. Either that, or the one I'm currently working on, which is a follow up to Brothers in Blood.

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 initial reaction when I found out I finally had a publishing deal would be best described as one of contained excitement, mainly because I didn't have anyone to tell straight away. A few days later though, one of my best friends was visiting from Dubai, where he works and we went out for a drink. When we got to the pub I suggested we start with a bottle of Champagne. He asked if I was mad, so we settled for beers instead and I didn't tell him straight away. Then, towards the end of the evening, I went to the bar to get the next round in and got a bottle of Champagne. "What the hell's with the Champagne?" he asked me. That's when I told him. He was over the moon and we toasted and drank the bubbly. Then he went to get the next round in – and came back with another bottle! It was almost closing time by this point, and we made very short work of it. Let's just say it was a very merry celebration!

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Being a debut author, I haven't done all that many signings and events but on thing that has kind of stuck in my mind took place just after the New Crimes panel I was part of at Blood Scotland. The panel had just finished and the audience were starting to leave, when a white Scottish lady came up to me and said how much she'd enjoyed my reading a section of the book. She said she particularly liked the fact the there was some Punjabi in it, as she'd never heard it in a book before. I was very impressed that she even knew it was Punjabi – at which point she began speaking to me in perfect Punjabi! It was a lovely, surprise. I just wish I'd had a chance to ask her how she'd learned to speak it so well.


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

You can read more about Amer and his writing at his website, and follow him on Twitter

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Review: THE GOOD SON


THE GOOD SON by You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim (Little, Brown, 2018)


Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Yu-jin is a good son, a model student and a successful athlete. But one day he wakes up covered in blood. There's no sign of a break-in and there's a body downstairs. It's the body of someone who Yu-jin knows all too well. 

Yu-jin struggles to piece together the fragments of what he can remember from the night before. He suffers from regular seizures and blackouts. He knows he will be accused if he reports the body, but what to do instead? Faced with an unthinkable choice, Yu-jin makes an unthinkable decision. 

Through investigating the murder, reading diaries, and looking at his own past and childhood, Yu-jin discovers what has happened. The police descend on the suburban South Korean district in which he lives. The body of a young woman is discovered. Yu-jin has to go back, right back, to remember what happened, back to the night he lost his father and brother, and even further than that.

There seems to have been a great rise in appreciation and appetite or translated crime writing in the past decade or so, spurred no doubt by the 'Scandi Crime Wave' phenomena, but going more broadly than that too. We've seen French author Fred Vargas win multiple awards in the UK for the English translations of her work, Romanian bestseller EO Chirovici launched in English in a big way, and plenty of other great tales brought to English readers, particularly from continental Europe. 

International publishers have been a little slower to plunder the treasures that have been delighting non-English speakers in Asian countries and languages, sometimes for decades. So it's great to see the recent mini-wave of Japanese crime fiction getting translated (Keigo Higashino, Natsuo Kirino, Miyuki Miyabe, Fuminori Nakamura, Masako Togawa, Seicho Matsumoto, Hideo Yokoyama, etc). 

Anglophile readers now get a chance to experience the provocative storytelling of million-selling and award-winning South Korean crime writer You-Jeong Jeong. THE GOOD SON is her first novel to be translated into English (she’d already been translated into several other languages).

A young man who has suffered from seizures and a mysterious ailment throughout his life wakes in a bloodied haze, only to discover his mother’s razor-slashed body at the bottom of the stairs of the house they share near the Incheon waterfront outside of Seoul. He has snatched memories of his mother calling his name the night before: but did she want his help, or his mercy? 

Realizing a call to the police would mean instant arrest, he spends the following days cleaning up, fending off his family’s calls, and trying to work out just what happened. He was once the good son, but is he now a killer? Who can he trust? 

Yeong (and Kim’s translation) takes readers on a confronting ride into mental illness, twisted family relationships, and the unclear realm of memory vs reality. This is not a comfortable read, or a traditional crime novel with a cop or outside sleuth at its heart. 

Guided by the first-person narration of an unreliable, tormented young man, readers are plunged into a harrowing tale that builds in an elegant and disturbing way. We slowly uncover the truth, via Yu-Jin’s skewed perspective, with plenty of secrets and horrors being revealed. 

Something different, THE GOOD SON is an atmospheric, creepy thriller from a master storyteller.



Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features 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. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Review: THE LOST MAN

THE LOST MAN by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Two brothers meet at the border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of outback Queensland. They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old, no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he lose hope and walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

How do you follow up one of the most successful and acclaimed debuts of recent memory? A tricky challenge that's seen several authors stumble, but Melbourne author Jane Harper showed she was no one-hit wonder when she switched from drought-stricken farmland in the CWA Gold Dagger-winning THE DRY to rain-swept, wintry bushland in FORCE OF NATURE, her second Aaron Falk thriller. Third time round, Harper lures readers back to the arid landscapes of the Outback, but federal cop Falk is absent.

THE LOST MAN begins at a remote and barren border of massive cattle ranches that sprawl over heat-struck landscapes of western Queensland. This isn't the touristy meccas of the Gold Coast or Cairns, instead a parched climate that everyone who lives there knows can quickly kill. So why would Cam Bright, the golden middle child of the Bright farming family, leave the safety of his truck to wander to his death at an old stockman's grave? The marks in the dusty earth tell the story: he was scrambling for shade in the hours before he succumbed. An isolated death that didn't come easy.

As older brother Nathan and little bro Bub meet at the stockman's grave, the questions swirl: why would Cam, the brother who seemed to have it all, take such a final walk? Had financial pressures shoved him over the edge? What about the woman from his past who recently tried to get in touch? Or is something even more sinister behind it all? Nathan, whose own prior actions have seen him largely living in exile in recent years, is pulled into a family situation packed with grief and secrets.

As events unfold, relationships fray and long-hidden truths come to light. Nathan is forced to confront several incidents from his own past, missteps and misperceptions, and the different ways various people view the same events, forming their own 'reality' that endures. Until it's shaken.

THE LOST MAN is a stunning standalone. A taut and elegant rural mystery centred on family drama more than a police investigation, it's a page-turner with real substance. There's a taut elegance and quiet intensity to Harper's prose as she surveys the pressures of Outback farming and examines the darkness that can fester within families and isolated communities.

A superb tale that shimmers with subtext and subtlety. For a couple of years now we've talked about Harper's special debut; it's time we just talked about her as a special author.



Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features 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. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Review: DYING TO LIVE

DYING TO LIVE by Michael Stanley (Orenda Books, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When the body of a Bushman is discovered near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the death is written off as an accident. But all is not as it seems. An autopsy reveals that, although he's clearly very old, his internal organs are puzzlingly young. What's more, an old bullet is lodged in one of his muscles... but where is the entry wound? 

When the body is stolen from the morgue and a local witch doctor is reported missing, Detective 'Kubu' Bengu gets involved. But did the witch doctor take the body to use as part of a ritual? Or was it the American anthropologist who'd befriended the old Bushman? As Kubu and his brilliant young colleague, Detective Samantha Khama, follow the twisting trail through a confusion of rhino-horn smugglers, foreign gangsters and drugs manufacturers, the wider and more dangerous the case seems to grow. 

There's a wonderful dichotomy in this fascinating Botswana-set series: Detective 'Kubu' Bengu is a portly hero, a good detective who can veer towards comical moments at times. There's plenty of humour salted in, but the events and underlying issues in the books delve into some very dark places.

Co-writers 'Michael' Sears and 'Stanley' Trollip, a pair of retired university professors, strike a great balance between light and dark. They do a fine job sprinkling in some laughs while addressing serious and often nasty issues - some specific to the African setting, and others more universal. They also tread the line really well in terms of exposing readers to a variety of themes and issues without hopping on a soapbox or becoming polemic. Coupled with a great narrative drive that makes DYING TO LIVE a really good read with layers of setting and theme adding to the mystery storyline, giving it more depth and texture rather than slowing or overwhelming it as can happen elsewhere.

In this sixth instalment, Kubu ("Hippo" - an appropriate nickname given his manner and build - seemingly slow and serene but deadly when roused) is distracted from his police work because his little adopted daughter Nono is very ill. As the Bengu family search for answers, tensions rise and beliefs are put to the test. Kubu has to rely even more on his team as they investigate the strange death of the old-yet-young Bushman, the subsequent theft of the body, and the disappearance of a local witch doctor. Kubu puts Detective Khama on the latter case, testing whether she can overcome her ingrained hatred of witch doctors to find justice for anyone. As Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch would say, "Everybody counts or nobody counts".

Like Connelly's masterful series, Michael Stanley's books are well-balanced and very good across the board - intriguing mystery storylines, engaging and interesting characters, and a vividly evoked setting that transports readers to the scene - all entwined with thought-provoking real-life issues.

The authors give readers a wonderful taste of Botswana - the good and the bad. The integration of cuisine, language, history, and cultural issues unique to the locale adds great flavour. In each book I learn more about the country, and in DYING TO LIVE challenging topics like AIDS and biopiracy are addressed, along with muti (traditional medicine, delivered by witch doctors) and poaching.

There's plenty here for both long-time Kubu fans and new readers. (You don't need to have read the previous books to thoroughly enjoy this one). A great instalment in a highly engaging series.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features 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. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Review: THE KATHARINA CODE

THE KATHARINA CODE by Jørn Lier Horst, tr Anne Bruce (Penguin, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Twenty-four years ago Katharina Haugen went missing. All she left behind was her husband Martin and a mysterious string of numbers scribbled on a piece of paper.

Every year on 9 October  Chief Inspector William Wisting takes out the files to the case he was never able to solve. Stares at the code he was never able to crack. And visits the husband he was never able to help. But now Martin Haugen is missing too.

As Wisting prepares to investigate another missing person's case he's visited by a detective from Oslo. Adrian Stiller is convinced Martin's involved in another disappearance of a young woman and asks Wisting to close the net around Martin. But is Wisting playing cat and mouse with a dangerous killer or a grief-stricken husband who cannot lay the past to rest? 

The hard-drinking, pensive, lone wolf Nordic detective tiptoes the line between trope and cliche, but Norwegian policeman turned award-winning crime writer Jørn Lier Horst steers clear with his family man William Wisting, who refreshingly has a rather more content and positive outlook on life despite the dark deeds he investigates. A widower who is now a grandfather, Wisting has for many years been hauling out old files every October. A case unclosed, unsolved: the bizarre disappearance of Katharina Haugen, who vanished many years ago, leaving behind only a cryptic note.

Predictably, Katharina's husband Martin was a suspect, but he had been working far away, and over the years the bereaved husband had become friendly acquaintances with Wisting. When Martin disappears on the anniversary, and an ambitious younger colleague is parachuted into Wisting's patch with new evidence about another long-missing woman, the Wisting is plunged into a testing case.

And a tricky personal position, where he has to keep secrets from those closest to him.

The twelfth in Horst's award-winning series (the seventh to be translated into English) adroitly blends personal and police procedural, with a really strong sense of authenticity flowing through its pages.

Horst takes us inside the kind of case that can niggle at a long-time detective, the burr under the saddle of their career that they can't let go even as the years pass. For Wisting, that case is the Katharina Haugen disappearance. Why can't he work out what the series of numbers and letters mean on the note left behind. Why can't he make sense of Katharina's actions leading up to her disappearance? What is he missing, what remains hidden or overlooked that could solve the case?

There's a wintry chill rising from the pages in what is an absorbing, fascinating tale from a talented storyteller. THE KATHARINA CODE would be a very good read for long-time fans as well as those new to the world of Chief Inspector William Wisting.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features 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. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Review: THE SECRET SEVEN - MYSTERY OF THE SKULL

THE SECRET SEVEN: MYSTERY OF THE SKULL by Pamela Butchart (Hodder Children's Books, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Solve the mystery with the Secret Seven - everyone's favourite detective club! A brand-new, action-packed Secret Seven adventure by prizewinning author Pamela Butchart.

When Peter discovers an old skull hidden in his bedroom, it's time for an urgent meeting of the Secret Seven. Setting off to investigate, the friends see a gigantic hole in the grounds of a local hotel. Could there be any connection between the two strange events? The Secret Seven are determined to solve the mystery.

It's time to look behind the green door of the Secret Seven's shed again. Enid Blyton's much-loved detective club are back in a superbly entertaining new adventure.

With recent revivals of Agatha Christie's Poirot by Sophie Hannah and Dame Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn by Stella Duffy, among many other 'continuation' tales, I perhaps shouldn't have been surprised to stumble across this new instalment in one of my favourite childhood series. It's perhaps more remarkable, given Enid Blyton's massive popularity (half a billion sales, apparently, across her many series like Famous Five, Secret Seven, The Faraway Tree, Noddy etc), that it's taken half a century since her death for someone to bring her Secret Seven characters back to the page.

The Famous Five are perhaps more, well, famous, but for whatever reason I actually read more of the Secret Seven growing up. Along with the Hardy Boys, they probably kickstarted my love of mystery stories. So it was with a smile on my face and a lovely sense of nostalgia that I began THE MYSTERY OF THE SKULL, which adds a sixteenth tale to Blyton's original 15 tales written between 1949 and 1963. Award-winning kids author Pamela Butchart has been handed the reins.

It's been thirty-plus years since I've read a Secret Seven book, so I won't be able to accurately weigh up just how close or far from the original series this new instalment is in tone and atmosphere etc. But the 'old gang' are all back - Peter, Janet, Jack, Barbara, George, Pam and Colin. As well as dog Scamper and youngsters Susie and Binkie, who live to annoy the older sleuths.

For me, THE MYSTERY OF THE SKULL read relatively timeless (eg no massive reliance on or reference to technology etc), while feeling somewhat modern rather than old-fashioned in tone.

It's a nice little mystery with some spookiness running through it that could delight younger readers. The kids are at the forefront, the heroes who drive the story with their actions. There's plenty of action and intrigue, and some funny moments. Tony Ross's quirky illustrations add further flavour.

Overall I think younger readers would enjoy this mystery, and be prompted to give Blyton's original books a go. There's enough crossover for it to feel like part of the same whole, while not feeling out-of-date. I tore through this quickly, and had a smile on my face throughout. Blyton created an interesting dynamic between her adolescent sleuths, and Butchart has picked up the baton well.

A fun, easy read recommended for younger mystery lovers, while still being a light and enjoyable palate cleanser for adult readers in among all the darker and more serious crime tales.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features 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. You can heckle him on Twitter.