Thursday, November 8, 2018



Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

New Zealand was supposed to be a model society at the end of the world, a utopia for "men and women of good character" who were willing to work hard for a better life. And, for most, so it proved. But this book is about the others—the misfits, the swindlers, the fallen women, the love rats, the escaped convicts, the hoaxers, the charlatans, the highwaymen, the mass murderers—from the earliest days of European settlement to the present day. 

Murder and Mischief gives the scandalous details of those who've made a name for themselves in New Zealand for all the wrong reasons. Take for example, Charlotte Badger, a pistol-wielding English thief who launched a mutiny on a Tasmanian convict ship in 1806 and sailed over to hide among the Maori of the Bay of Islands; and Amy Bock, a con woman who masqueraded as a wealthy man to marry the daughter of her landlady in 1909. Some of the people featured in this book are monsters, some are merely rascals, but all make fascinating reading. A lot of the people featured in it have somewhat disappeared into the mists of time and readers will be surprised at the shady characters in this country's past. 

Our colonial forbears made long journeys across vast oceans in search of a better life. By and large they found what has been called a ‘model society at the end of the world’, but like any society, the land of the long white cloud had its underbelly.

It’s some of the people that have made up that underbelly that award-winning journalist Brownyn Sell has focused on in her latest book. Law Breakers & Mischief Makers provides short vignettes of some of the misfits, swindlers, love rats, escaped convicts, murderers, charlatans, highwaymen, dodgy politicians, and other shady characters who have speckled New Zealand’s history.

And let’s be honest, whether it’s literature, drama, or history – it’s the ‘bad guys’ that can intrigue us the most – good stories often need great villains, whether it’s Shakespeare’s Iago, Richard III and MacBeth, or Darth Vader in Star Wars.

Sell has combed historic newspaper reports to compile an interesting collection of great Kiwi ‘villains’, and Top of the South readers will find a few recognisably ‘local’ characters, such as the Burgess gang of Maungatapu Murders infamy, and visionary if tainted settlement founder Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

Sell has done a good job mixing the famous (baby farmer Minnie Dean, Aramoana gunman David Gray) with the somewhat forgotten but equally fascinating (cross-dressing swindler Amy Bock, flamboyant Otago superintendent James Macandrew who declared his own house a prison to avoid going to the real gaol for unpaid debts). However the short chapters can leave readers wanting a little more.

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. 

Note: this review was originally written for a print magazine in New Zealand on the book's release. For reasons lost to the mists of time, I didn't upload this one to my then-very-new blog at the time, so have rectified that now. 

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