Saturday, April 21, 2018


PAPER GHOSTS by Julia Heaberlin (Penguin, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Carl Louis Feldman is an old man who was once a celebrated photographer. That was before he was tried for the murder of a young woman, and acquitted. Before his admission to a care home for dementia. Now his daughter has come to see him, to take him on a trip. Only she's not his daughter and, if she has her way, he's not coming back ...

Texas journalist-turned-novelist Julia Heaberlin just gets better and better. Years ago I read her debut, PLAYING DEAD, where a former rodeo rider who is contacted after her father's death by a woman claiming that she was kidnapped as a baby. I thought Heaberlin showed lots of promise, and a knack for evoking the Texas setting (geography and people), and twisted family secrets.

That was a good book. Her third, BLACK-EYED SUSANS, was brilliant. The tale of the sole survivor of a serial killer who starts to question what she's always believed about the case as the man's execution date looms. Creepy and disturbing, Hearberlin gave us a fresh look at the 'Texas death machine' (Texas executes far more people than any other US state), while keeping the pages whirring with clever plotting, interesting characters, and a rich setting.

So it was with some anticipation that I began PAPER GHOSTS yesterday. I was not disappointed. There are books you can just tell from the first few pages are going to be really good, not because of some shocking scene or big attention-grabbing hook, but because of the quality of the writing. The way the prose draws you in completely and has an x-factor to it, little touches that make it distinct without seeming too 'try-hard' or 'put on' by the author. This is one of those books.

Our unnamed narrator is a young woman on a mission. For a while now she's been visiting Carl Louis Feldman, an acclaimed photographer turned notorious outcast, at a halfway house. Feldman was tried and acquitted for the abduction and murder of a young woman, but some believe he not only got away with one murder, but several. After years out of sight, the narrator tracked him down at the halfway house, where he's apparently suffering from early-onset dementia and other ailments.

The narrator has told a confused Carl that she's his long-lost daughter, but that's not true. She's actually the sister of a girl who went missing many years before. A disappearance that sparked a crusade that eventually led her to Carl and his Swiss cheese memory. She's planned a road trip, taking Carl from his halfway house out across the Texas landscapes, revisiting places that could jog his memory. Under a bridge. A spot in the desert. An historic house. The lapping waters of Galveston. Places where the narrator has marked red crosses, where young woman went missing over the years.

It's a delicious set-up, where two untrustworthy characters are thrust together on a road trip. The narrator and Carl are in their own cocoon and largely isolated from the world around them, even as they interact with a random assortment of characters that cross their path. But just who is fooling who? Who is really in control? Heaberlin adroitly dances the tightrope, keeping the tension high and keeping readers wondering, even as plans go awry and detours are taken across Texas landscapes.

I really enjoyed this book, reading it in far less than a day. It has a good set-up, but doesn't rely on that in isolation. Heaberlin has grown into a master storyteller, taking readers on a journey with lyrical prose. Carl was a photographer, known for capturing ordinary things in a haunting, mesmerising way. Seeing things with a slightly different view compared to those who rush by.

In a way, Heaberlin does the same. It's not massive plot twists or frenetic action - the bold and obvious - which she utilises, but something subtler, more textured and nuanced to draw our attention and keep us riveted. Her descriptions of the Texas landscapes, the weather, the man-made additions, the history, and the people, are simply wonderful. She weaves all of this into a compulsive tale which is very hard to put down. Is the narrator being honest with us, or is something else going on? Has she bitten off far more than she can chew, driving out into the desert with a suspected serial killer?

An excellent read from a master storyteller. Bravo Julia Heaberlin.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, talked about the genre onstage at literary festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


THE BONE KEEPER by Luca Veste (Simon & Schuster, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

What if the figure that haunted your nightmares as child, the myth of the man in the woods, was real? "He'll slice your flesh, Your bones he'll keep."

Twenty years ago, four teenagers went exploring in the local woods, trying to find to the supposed home of The Bone Keeper. Only three returned. Now, a woman is found wandering the streets of Liverpool, horrifically injured, claiming to have fled the Bone Keeper. 

Investigating officer DC Louise Henderson must convince sceptical colleagues that this urban myth might be flesh and blood. But when a body is unearthed in the woodland the woman has fled from, the case takes on a much darker tone. The disappeared have been found. And their killer is watching every move the police make.

Liverpool crime writer Luca Veste takes a step away from his really good DI Murphy and DS Rossi series with this creepy standalone, which melds local mythology and 'boogieman' stories with a dark and twisted contemporary police procedural. Murphy and Rossi may be offstage in this one, but many of the things I love about that series are present here too: smooth writing, twisted plotlines, a page-turning pace and narrative drive, and the way Veste paddles in the darker end of the crime pool without ever floundering into gratuitousness or drowning in eye-roll moments (as lesser authors do).

I'd heard about this book a long time ago, because I'd won a charity auction a couple of years back to name a character in one of Veste's future tales. You may recognise my surname in one of the supporting characters, though it's not me but instead my crime novel-loving father who I chose to honour with the reference. So keep an eye out for DCI Peter Sisterson. Consequently, I had a high degree of anticipation for THE BONE KEEPER, with the accompanying anxiety that it might fall short of my high expectations. Fortunately, that wasn't the case. It's a really good read.

DC Louise Henderson and DS Paul Shipley of the Merseyside Police turn up on the scene after a woman collapses on the street, badly beaten and sliced up. They assume it's the terrible aftermath of just another domestic assault, horrid and common, but the woman is babbling about escaping from the clutches of the Bone Keeper, a local urban legend immortalised in a creepy children's rhyme.
He’ll slice your flesh,Your bones he’ll keep.The Bone Keeper’s coming,And he’ll make you weep.
Surely it's just the ravings of a badly abused woman. But what if it's not? Henderson and Slater have their doubts, but the urban legend snags at communal fears. As the police comb wooded areas of the city, they begin to wonder just what horrors they'll find. Man or myth? When a body is discovered and more murders occur, it's clear someone is using the Bone Keeper as a mask for their own purposes. Or has the urban legend been true all along?

Veste does a terrific job beckoning readers into the dank, tangled recesses of his city. He sets the scene brilliantly, with descriptions that goosebump your flesh and leave a sense of something menacing lurking just off-screen. At the same time there's a gritty authenticity to THE BONE KEEPER - it's crime that veers towards horror without ever feeling fantastical. Dark but realistic.

And that can be even scarier.

The characters in THE BONE KEEPER are fascinating. DC Louise Henderson keeps a lot of secrets, from her colleagues and readers, and this draws us in in some ways while also keeping her somewhat at arms length in others. She's a volatile loner with a troubled past, and not particularly likable. But she is interesting. Shipley is the straighter man to her unorthodox maverick, and there's an intriguing tension in their interplay and relationship, something that feels relatively fresh and atypical.

This is a clever, dark and twisted read that keeps you gripped from start to finish. If I was to use Hollywood tagline parlance, think Mark Billingham meets The Blair Witch Project.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, talked about the genre onstage at literary festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Friday, April 20, 2018



Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

P.D James was frequently commissioned by newspapers and magazines to write a short story for Christmas, and four of the best have been drawn from the archives and published here together for the first time. From the title story about a strained country-house Christmas party, to another about an illicit affair that ends in murder, plus two cases for detective Adam Dalgliesh, these are masterfully atmospheric stories by the acknowledged 'Queen of Crime'.

This is a charming, seasonally themed array of four short stories that PD James published elsewhere between 1969 and 1996, brought together into a neat little collection, with a nice foreword from Val McDermid. For longtime James fans, two of the stories feature a younger Adam Dalgliesh, complemented by two 'standalone' stories including the most substantial, titular tale.

In "The Mistletoe Murder", readers are treated to a classic-style country house murder mystery. It's Christmas and four people are staying in a stately manor. There's a murder, but the butler can't have done it, since he and his wife had been given the night off. So who did?

In "A Very Commonplace Murder", a man loiters at his workplace for his own purposes, and witnesses a lovers rendezvous in a nearby building. But when he hears that a woman was murdered, he has to weigh up whether to tell the cops what he knows, and risk his own secrets coming out.

The third story, "The Boxdale Inheritance", sees a young Adam Dalgliesh asked for help by his godfather, a canon (a type of priest). The man has inherited a large sum of money but worries that it might have been the result of a crime; he gets Dalgliesh to investigate past events.

The final story, "The Twelve Clues of Christmas", sees a young Dalgliesh on his way to visit an aunt, only to be intercepted by a man who says there's been a suicide. But when Dalgliesh returns the man to Harkerville Hall, he begins to wonder what really happened, and if it was a suicide after all.

This is a lovely little collection, the kind of read that puts a smile on your face as the pages turn. I enjoyed all the stories in different ways. James manages to pack a fair bit into quite short tales; the writing flows with a nice elegance and doesn't feel 'thin' or underdone despite the shorter length. A nice one to grab and dip into between crime novels. Tasty morsels from a master.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, appeared onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Paleontologists and pulled pork: an interview with Amy Lloyd

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the twelfth instalment of 9mm for 2018, and the 184th overall edition of our long-running author interview series!

Thanks for reading over the years. I've had a lot of fun talking to some amazing crime writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you. You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. What a line-up. Thanks everyone.

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been part of the 9mm series, please do let me know in the comments or by message, and I'll look to make that happen for you. We've got a few more interviews with cool writers 'already in the can' that will be published soon, so lots to look forward to over the coming weeks and months.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome Welsh author Amy Lloyd, who has made a bit of a splash with her debut novel THE INNOCENT WIFE, a psychological thriller inspired by the recent surge of true crime podcasts and miscarriage of justice campaigns. Her book was chosen from among 5,000 entries as the winner of the Daily Mail-Penguin Random House First Novel competition in 2016, and published in hardcover earlier this year. That competition was searching for new writing talent, and Lloyd entered her tale of a British woman who becomes enamored with a convicted killer in the US and campaigns for his release, only to begin wondering if he's a innocent as many believe.

You can see Lloyd talking about her book in this short video:

You can read the prologue and first chapter of THE INNOCENT WIFE here.

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


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
It’s got to be Dexter Morgan of the Dexter books/TV shows. I love an anti-hero.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
The very first would be Roald Dahl’s THE TWITS. It was dark and nasty and funny. I think Roald Dahl was so good at getting that balance right, he really understood children’s minds and what made them laugh. That love for darkness that he inspired in me at a young age has never left me! So blame him.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I wrote short stories and personal essays but never had anything published. I had never really tried to get anything published. I had submitted one or two things to online magazines but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I studied creative writing at university so amassed a lot of these short stories and personal essays but didn’t know what to do with them. None of them felt like they fit anywhere that I could submit to. Still, every one of them was essential in finding my writing style and my confidence.

4. Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
READING! That is number one and it’s the thing I find most difficult while I’m writing my first draft. I find it hard to concentrate and my mind keeps slipping to my own book. I like to cross stitch – rock and roll – and I love a good nap. I go to the cinema at least once a week. I’m a total riot, I know.

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?
They should look for evening events going on in Cardiff University or the museum. There are free lectures on a range of interesting topics and paid-for events that are different to anything you’ll find elsewhere. The best night my boyfriend and I had last year was an evening at the museum where a paleontologist took us for a tour of the dinosaur exhibit and talked about all the displays. Then there was a showing of Jurassic Park in the lecture theatre – our favourite film. Plus there were pulled pork buns – the perfect evening.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Gemma Whelan! She makes me laugh and I make me laugh and so I think she would send me up quite well.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite, and why?
THE INNOCENT WIFE will always hold a special place in my heart because it was my first book and until I had written it I never really believed I was capable of writing a book. That being said, I feel like the characters in my new book are so complex and fully-formed that there is something magical about seeing them tell their story. So, maybe, book number two is my new favourite!

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?
It’s funny because the book was accepted for publication before I had actually finished it, so although I was happy to know it would be published I knew I had a long way to go. I don’t remember how we celebrated though I know we must have. We were still VERY POOR when I won the Daily Mail competition so it would have been a modest celebration!!

We more than made up for that the day it was on the shelves. We went for a big meal and had champagne and went to every store we could to take photos of it on the shelf.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I’m such a small-fry, I really don’t have any cool stories yet! The very first author event I went to was surreal because I got to meet Lisa Jewell, Anthony Horowitz, Tony Parsons, all these huge authors. I felt like a gate crasher! It was amazing because Araminta Hall was there and there were proof copies of her book OUR KIND OF CRUELTY, which I had read about and was dying to read. I got to take one home and I started reading it on the train and I felt like such a big deal getting to read this highly-anticipated book months before it was released. And it is such a good book! Getting proof copies is the best perk about being an author!

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

Monday, April 16, 2018


TURN A BLIND EYE by Vicky Newham (HQ, 2018)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A twisted killer has a deadly riddle for DI Maya Rahman to solve in this pulse-racing thriller, the first in an addictive new series set in East London. A headmistress is found strangled in her East London school, her death the result of a brutal and ritualistic act of violence. Found at the scene is a single piece of card, written upon which is an ancient Buddhist precept: "I shall abstain from taking the ungiven".

At first, DI Maya Rahman can’t help but hope this is a tragic but isolated murder. Then, the second body is found. Faced with a community steeped in secrets and prejudice, and with a serial killer on her hands, Maya must untangle the cryptic messages left at the crime scenes to solve the deadly riddle behind the murders – before the killer takes another victim. 

Trying a new crime writer, especially a debutant, is always an adventure. I was excited about reading TURN A BLIND EYE after hearing a fair bit about Newham's first novel online in recent months. Would I find a promising author, an accomplished tale, or something that needed more seasoning?

Overall, I really enjoyed TURN A BLIND EYE. It has a very contemporary, current feel, delving into some challenging social issues with a good sense of its London setting and introducing an interesting main character who I could definitely see being the spine of an ongoing series.

DI Maya Rahman is a Bangladeshi-British cop who has recently from her ancestral homeland, having had to deal with a deep personal tragedy. As she settles back into East London life, a murder strikes close to home: the headmistress of Maya's old high school is found strangled, on the school grounds. It's a crime that shocks the community, causing lots of ripples and raising lots of questions. Maya has to deal with vulturous reporters, stunned teachers, and untrusting students and families. Suspicion swirls, as do rumours. The investigation pulls at many veneers, exposing secrets that may or may not have anything to do with the crime. At the same time Maya is having to deal with a new colleague that's been foisted upon her from overseas, and a boss who causes more problems than solutions.

There's an awful lot to like about Newham's debut. It flows really well - the kind of book where you think 'I'll read one more chapter' but are still reading 100 pages later. There's kind of an addictive, x-factor quality to the writing that you can't easily deconstruct or explain. Told in a straightforward manner that still has some elegance, it powers forward. Highly absorbing, more than rip-roaring.

Newham excels with her descriptions of her debut's culturally diverse London setting. TURN A BLIND EYE is deeply set among the children-of-immigrant communities of East London, where cultural clashes and misunderstandings loom, just out of sight, before flashing into life. It's a minefield for Maya and her colleagues to navigate, of different beliefs, values, and sensitivities. They're hampered by mixed relationships between the community and the police. There's a real sense of currency and authenticity to the way Newham textures her tale with its setting, bringing it to life.

The plotting was good, well-woven overall, and the character of DI Maya Rahman and her police colleagues fitted the tale perfectly, while showing plenty of promise for an ongoing series. We learn a fair bit about Maya, while still getting the sense that there's much more to learn. She's had and has a complicated family and personal life, without being a cliched alcoholic/divorced/troubled detective. There's a freshness to the character, some sense of difference without just being different for the sake of it. There's a good sense of 'realness' to the characters as much as the setting.

Overall a good read that's a very adroit debut. Vicky Newham is a writer to watch, and I look forward to seeing how she and DI Maya Rahman grow as the series continues.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, appeared onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


THE CALLER by Chris Carter (Simon & Schuster, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

After a tough week, Tanya Kaitlin is looking forward to a relaxing night in, but as she steps out of her shower, she hears her phone ring.  The video call request comes from her best friend, Karen Ward.  Tanya takes the call and the nightmare begins.

Karen is gagged and bound to a chair in her own living room.  If Tanya disconnects from the call, if she looks away from the camera, he will come after her next, the deep, raspy, demonic voice at the other end of the line promises her.

As Hunter and Garcia investigate the threats, they are thrown into a rollercoaster of evil, chasing a predator who scouts the streets and social media networks for victims, taunting them with secret messages and feeding on their fear. 

Chris Carter is one of those crime writers that has a big online following, and really ardent fans. Years ago I read his debut THE CRUCIFIX KILLER, and was left with mixed feelings, like he had all the puzzle pieces for a good crime story but stylistically his debut didn't quite gel, showing plenty of promise but also coming across a little cliched or derivative of many other writers.

In a way, it was like a band still trying to find its own unique sound, while playing covers of others. Or early-in-the-season American Idol contestant still looking for their own distinct voice or artistry.

At the same time, I understand I read a lot more crime fiction than most, as well as judging awards etc, so may have a different perspective to casual crime readers, eg things I think are cliched, clunky, or derivative and pull me out of the story flow may not bother or be noticed by others.

Recently, I decided to give Chris Carter another go, after many online recommendations from big fans of his, and read THE CALLER, his latest bestseller. I was hopeful. What I found was a good solid crime read that I really wanted to love, but just kinda thought was okay.

Carter has a cinematic storytelling style, packed with plenty of action and twisting plots. THE CALLER is vivid at times, and the page whir. He creates characters with plenty of traits or abilities that on the surface should be very interesting. But for whatever reason it all just feels a bit thin to me. Things had improved a little since his debut, but many of the flaws in that book were still present.

I'm trying to nail down exactly what it is about Carter's writing that just doesn't click for me (NB it clicks for many, many other readers), but in the end maybe it's just the sense that I've seen similar things done so much better by many other authors, and that the books feel very 'author hand' rather than particularly authentic or organic. I find myself rolling my eyes too often, or feeling like it's a quite-exciting film where you're still glancing at your watch in the cinema now and then. Not wholly absorbed, entranced, or so caught up that you lose track of time.

Carter is particularly good with pace, and tells fast, twisting stories - which I think mitigates or masks the various flaws for many readers. The story blazes by. But for me there's just a feeling that there's 'something missing', some heart or character depth or emotion or ... something.

Overall, I'm glad I tried Carter's Robert Hunter series again. It was a solid, fast crime read. For whatever reason (I've tried to elucidate above, perhaps poorly), it's just one of those 'not for me' series so far. But it is one that a lot of other readers like. Some reviewers I respect really love it, and he sells tonnes. So give it a go and make up your own mind. We all like different things.

I might even give the series another go myself, at some stage.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, appeared onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Saturday, April 14, 2018


FATAL VOYAGE by Kathy Reichs (William Heinemann, 2001)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Investigating a plane crash in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan discovers in a most disturbing way that the evidence doesn't add up. Tripping over a coyote-chewed leg at the crash scene, she performs a little mental arithmetic and realizes that this victim wasn't on the plane. Once again, Brennan's high-tech DMORT snaps into action faster than you can say "Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team." 

Long before the Bones television series became a long-running hit show, Kathy Reichs had been writing about her fascinating forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. I really enjoyed this fourth novel in a series that later this year has its twentieth instalment (one of the books being a short story collection).

For those who aren't as familiar with both the book world that Reichs created and the TV world inspired by her books, it's worth noting the two worlds are very different in many ways (for me, I prefer the book series while still enjoying the TV show, and the book 'Tempe' character is more interesting - but I can understand how different people will have different preferences, eg especially if they're big fans of the actors, or characters that are in the show that aren't in the books).

FATAL VOYAGE begins with a mess of bodies in the wilderness, the wreckage of a plane crash where forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan is on scene, using her skills to help with the horrifying task of trying to help identify some of the victims. It's a nightmare scene for all involved.

Reichs writing flows well, she draws us in to the situation and the life of her characters, which then become more complicated when remains are found that aren't from the plane crash. Brennan's own life is in danger, and she has to juggle the heartbreaking job of identifying the plane crash victims while dealing with various other personal and professional challenges. There's a lot going on in FATAL VOYAGE, multiple threads which might bother some crime readers who prefer things more straightforward or simple, but I enjoyed this aspect and felt Reichs wove things together well.

Brennan's job as a forensic anthropologist splitting her time between duties in North Carolina and Quebec (mirroring Reichs' own resume) offers opportunities to take readers into all sorts of situations and 'worlds' over the course of the series. In FATAL VOYAGE brings the reality of plane crashes and all the things that are involved with dealing with them to stark life. She doesn't pull any punches, giving readers insights beyond what's gleaned from headlines and news stories. It's macabre at times, but handled well and you feel you're learning some fascinating things while intrigued by the mystery.

As I mentioned above, the Temperance Brennan of the books is much different to the one portrayed by Emily Deschanel in the TV series. The characters share a name and occupation, but that's about it. Book Tempe is older, a divorced recovering alcoholic who has an adult daughter, is far less socially awkward, and lives and works in North Carolina. Family is important to her - her sister, niece, daughter, and ex-husband all feature regularly throughout the series. She has an on-off relationship with Detective Andrew Ryan, and has a tendency to act like a teenager sometimes, even if she's a middle-aged woman who's at the very top of her profession, nationally and beyond. She's incredibly smart in some ways, but a little naive or prideful at other times, causing herself some grief.

In other words, she's a very human and quite relatable character.

If you enjoy forensic thrillers, then I think you'd like FATAL VOYAGE. Reichs is a good writer who took the baton from Patricia Cornwell's groundbreaking Dr Kay Scarpetta series, and ran with it. Temperance Brennan (books world) is a fascinating, at times frustrating, character whose viewpoint we follow in first-person, taking us behind-the-scenes into intriguing, sometimes horrifying, worlds - all done with some sense of humour and humanity that helps keep the morbidity at bay.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for newspapers and magazines in several countries. In recent years he has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at books festivals on three continents, on national radio and popular podcasts, and has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


ON A BODGIE BIKE by David McGill (2018)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Matt Delaney and his mate Ante Vukovich steal a precious religious vessel and in the course of the burglary a man is killed, setting in motion personal and political mayhem. It is 1955 and they just want to be milk-bar cowboys  against the squares and their suffocating rules banning unmarried sex and excessive speed and anything worth doing. 

Matt's uncle Dan Delaney is out of the police and in a dead-end job when Matt's alcoholic mother begs Dan to sort out a charge of murder against her son. They live in what's called West Auckland's Dallie Valley, Ante is Dalmation and his Croatian relation has arrived to reclaim the religious icon that could utnite his homeland challenge to Yugoslav communist rule. Dan Delaney's only ally against corrupt and brutal police is an ex-Commissioner of Police assisting the National Government clean up the police and establish a separate security intelligence service. 

Dan Delaney is back, but he’s not the earnest young lad who longed to be a detective who we first met in 1935, nor the more mature Dan we next met in Wellington in the mid-1940s. It is now 1955, and Dan is living back with his Dad in Auckland and working in the “choking confines” of a wool store, having given up on a brief stint at teaching when the liberal use of the strap reminded him too much of the Nazi atrocities he witnessed in a POW camp during WW2. This Dan doesn’t want a bar of getting back into security work, and is turning into a cynical and prejudiced man of his times.

The New Zealand Dan now lives in is bleak: there is a generational divide with not much respect given either side, society is conservative and homophobic, most people are ugly, there is corruption in the Police Force, and politics are post-war weary, nervous of the ‘yellow peril’, and fraught with the baggage brought in by various immigrant groups.

Dan’s brother has scarpered to Australia, leaving his wife and two children behind. Dan grudgingly keeps in touch with Janet, with whom he had a pre-war one-night stand, and with her sons, Matt and Malcolm. He quite likes Matt but he has no time for poor Malcolm, the overweight younger son, who is suffering under a depressed, drinking and therefore neglectful mother.

Matt is a bit of a larrikin, and he gets into all kinds of trouble when he agrees to help an idiot friend steal a Catholic monstrance, hoping to make money. The monstrance, if genuine, is extremely valuable both monetarily and politically. It hails from Croatia, and if it finds its way back there it could strengthen the rallying cry for revolt against Tito’s Communist rule. Ante, the ‘brains’ behind the theft, is Dalmatian, as is his sister, Mira, who Matt has fallen crazily for after seeing her in a production of Romeo and Juliet, and after discovering teenage hormones and a vocabulary from the Bard to declare his love and feed his deliriums.

When the theft goes horribly wrong, and Mira and Ante’s uncle is killed and the monstrance goes missing, all parties – the Church, the Dalmatians, and Dan’s bĂȘte noire, Haas – who could be working for any number of foreign governments, the fall of Tito’s independent Communist regime being of benefit to both the left and right – all join the fray to capture Matt and find the treasure.  And Janet pleads with Dan to try and help her son.

ON A BODGIE BIKIE is told at breakneck speed from the point of view of Matt as well as Dan, and is a gripping read full of fascinating history – it is also quite a distasteful read given how far social sensibilities have moved since the 1950s, and there are some very violent scenes. The narrative is thick with 1950s slang and outlook, the only relief coming in the form of a couple who live out of the mainstream, and who help Matt and his mates when they are on the run. The contrast between the kids’ own lives and Robbie and Wai’s is extreme, and the fact that Robbie and Wai “were no friends of the authorities”, reinforces the feeling that society is unstable and untrustworthy.

I thought ON A BODGIE BIKIE was going to be a story of redemption – after all there is a lot of Catholicism and lost faith described. But at the end, although the mystery has been resolved, there are still many unanswered questions and unresolved issues for Dan Delaney, for example his relationship with his brother and his nephew Malcolm, his guilt over Janet, his unhappiness with his work. There is a glimmer of an improvement for Dan personally, albeit involving a Dalmatian Policewoman “just about young enough to be his daughter”, and some possibly transformative news about his own family situation.

ON A BODGIE BIKIE is a good gripping read about a depressing post-war New Zealand, but I did miss the feisty idealistic Dan of old – maybe his story of redemption is in a future outing?

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