Thursday, August 20, 2009


As I've been thinking about how to provide the best coverage I can of crime fiction (especially Kiwi crime fiction) on this blog, it was pointed out to me that in addition to book releases, author visits, and Kiwi author intros etc, I should also perhaps provide crime fiction reviews, in amongst the news and musings.

Serial Killers stalk the South Island
By Craig Sisterson

Crime pays. At least in a literary sense.

Ever since a Baker Street-dwelling drug-taking detective popularised the genre, solving the unsolvable with dispassionate deductions, readers worldwide have been enthralled by tales of murder, mystery, and mayhem.

Take a glance at international bestseller lists and it’s clear that over a century later, hundreds of millions remain captivated by a battle between criminal and sleuth contained within a few hundred (hopefully) well-written pages of prose.

But where are the Kiwi crime-writers? In a creative country that’s seen local talent put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) to win awards from the Booker Prize to Oscars, why aren’t our booksellers’ shelves filled with local stories in this most thrilling of genres?

Two South Island authors have answered the call. Paul Cleave and Vanda Symon shared the stage with international heavyweight Mark Billingham (creator of the brilliant London-set Tom Thorne novels) at the recent Christchurch Writers Festival, and both have released new books this year.

Cemetery Lake
by Paul Cleave (Random House, 2008)
Blue fingernails. Cleave begins his third novel with two simple, evocative words. Two words that bring Theo Tate to an exhumation; two words that send the world-weary private investigator on an unpredictable journey intersecting a present-day serial killer with well-kept suburbanite secrets, and Tate’s own troubled past.

Tate is only present at the exhumation because his former police colleagues are too busy trying to catch the Christchurch Carver, the grisly serial killer from Cleave’s debut novel, The Cleaner (Random House, 2006). Tate’s simple assignment becomes anything but when three bodies bubble up from the cemetery lake. When the coffin reveals the wrong body, two unpalatable possibilities emerge; the Carver has struck again, or there’s a second psychopath on the loose.

Though sidelined by the police, Tate finds himself sucked into the vortex, attempting to atone for sins of his past. As the case advances, and stolen evidence, the police, the media, priests, his own personal demons, murder and suicide all roadblock Tate, he finds himself compounding bad choices and devolving into a man he’d always despised.

Cemetery Lake is an impressive novel from a talented writer. Cleave creates compelling characters that ring true. Even when events become outlandish, Cleave doesn’t lose the reader, because he’s spun wholly-formed characters and lets us gaze a little into their worldview. He avoids the poor writers’ mistake of substituting quirks for characterisation; instead his characters do things for their own reasons, not just to serve the plot. We can understand the worst acts, because we see we might consider the same choice, in the same circumstance.

A feature of Cemetery Lake is the character-like shadow of Christchurch itself. Cleave weaves a strong sense of place, although his is a darker version: “Christchurch is broken”. Mirroring the real-life dichotomy of international renown for friendliness alongside ‘murder capital’ status, Cleave’s Christchurch is full of gardens and glue-sniffers; long-held secrets and closeted debauchery hidden behind suburban doors and old English architecture.

Cleave makes you want to turn the page, and when you get to the end, you want to go out and immediately find another of his books.

The Ringmaster
by Vanda Symon (Penguin, 2008)Dunedin writer Vanda Symon’s follow-up to her excellent debut Overkill (Penguin, 2007) finds heroine Sam Shepherd having moved to Dunedin from Mataura; bridges burnt. Undertaking detective training, Shepherd’s on the bottom rung of the ladder, battling her grudge-holding boss for any involvement.

The Ringmaster opens with a murder in the Botanic Gardens, before switching to stroppy Sam’s first-person narration. Marginalised, she struggles to participate in the investigation, working in her own time and feeding off the scraps her partner Smithy smuggles her way. She eventually uncovers a link between the visiting circus, and a series of deaths throughout the lower South Island.

Of the many admirable aspects of Symon’s storytelling, chief is her creation of Sam Shepherd, a protagonist you want to follow; headstrong, passionate, and flawed. A talented detective, but not infallible. Shepherd puts herself out there, cares, makes mistakes, and has real emotions; fear, jealousy, anger, sadness. She’s human, real, and well-rounded.

Symon shows a talent for creating rounded characters throughout, from Shepherd’s friend Maggie, the ‘voice of reason’, to nemesis characters such as DI Johns and circus owner Terry Bennett. Symon ensures that even the antagonists ring true; they have good points as well as bad, and have understandable motives for their objectionable behaviour.

Another impressive facet is her use of the Dunedin setting. From the opening murder beside the Leith, to Highlanders games, and student life, Symon brings alive this southern city. When interviewed, Symon has said, “a town will have a feel, a social background. I like using Dunedin. It has a vibrancy and an edge with the students and all that brings with it.”

The Ringmaster is a great read. Symon populates a good story with great characters, and unique touches in a distinctly Kiwi setting. It comes together a little quickly at the end, but leaves you wanting more of Sam Shepherd.

And, taking a leaf out from her international contemporaries, Symon provides just that; the first chapter of the next Sam Shepherd adventure, Containment, is included. I can’t wait.

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