Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: SPARE ME THE TRUTH

SPARE ME THE TRUTH by CJ Carver (Zaffre, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Dan Forrester, piecing his life back together after the tragic death of his son, is approached in a supermarket by a woman who tells him everything he remembers about his life - and his son - is a lie.

Grace Reavey, stricken by grief, is accosted at her mother's funeral. The threat is simple: pay the staggering sum her mother allegedly owed, or lose everything. Lucy Davies has been forced from the Met by her own maverick behaviour. Desperate to prove herself in her new rural post, she's on the hunt for a killer - but this is no small town criminal.

Plunged into a conspiracy that will test each of them to their limits, these three strangers are brought together in their hunt for the truth, whatever it costs. And as their respective investigations become further and further entwined, it becomes clear that at the centre of this tangled web is a threat more explosive than any of them could have imagined.

CJ Carver describes herself as “half-English, half-Kiwi” and SPARE ME THE TRUTH is the first of her novels I have read, despite it being the eighth she has written. And I will be reading more!

SPARE ME THE TRUTH is a complex thriller with brilliant plotting that keeps the reader guessing how all the various threads of the story are ever going to weave together.  There are three main storylines, one involving Grace Reavey, a GP who starts finding out about the secret life of her mother, after being threatened at her mother’s funeral. The second features Dan Forrester, a man suffering from amnesia, the nature of which is called into question after he is contacted by Grace’s mother prior to her death. And the third is the story of Lucy Davies, a young cop who has been sent to the boonies from the Met after she has exhibited some forthright behaviour at work.

There are fragments of cases uncovered in each of the storylines – and there is a teaser Prologue as well, where we meet Stella, Grace’s mother, and that has to be fitted into the puzzle. The fragments involve grisly deaths, third world dumping, Big Pharma and sonic weapons – and yes they do all tie together in the end. And as well as the technicalities of the story we are drawn into the personal lives of the three main characters.

Dan’s amnesia has resulted from extreme trauma – and his belief in his apparently stable and supportive family becomes very shaky as his accepted history is called into question.  Grace is thrown by her discoveries about her mother, and also by the uncertainty resulting from her partner wanting to move to remote Scotland.

And my favourite character, Lucy (“… didn’t want to get caught without a corkscrew or a sugar hit when the going got tough”) is constantly fighting her tendency to ‘liveliness’, knowing that this ‘problem’ is why she has been banished from the Met – to which she is desperate to return. But things get more complicated for Lucy when she realises her confusing condition might actually be part of the case she is working on – but that if she admits to her problem it might stymie her career plans for good. And to make matters more complicated still, the object of a haunting one night stand turns up to head her investigation.

All so engrossing – the only slightly jarring note for me was the phone calls from Chennai, they were a great part of the puzzle solving but do young Indian men really constantly talk in the present progressive: “I cannot be telling you this, … I must to be taking him a message, … How can I be helping you?”  SPARE ME THE TRUTH is a great read – and from CJ Carver’s website it would appear there are more Dan Forrester novels to come.  Excellent!

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review: PSYCHOBYTE

PSYCHOBYTE by Cat Connor (Rebel ePublishers, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Another day, another death, might not be unusual in FBI Agent Ellie Conway’s world but a baffling series of naked, bloodless, blondes in pristine showers makes her wonder if she is dealing with a genuine vampire. 

Investigating the deaths of these women, Ellie is surprised when clairsentience is added to her remarkable armory of psycho-prophetic talents. Secrets emerge as she races to find a killer with a particular and gruesome agenda. Mounting bodies, escalating pressure, a sinister connection between the art world, the Darknet and the FBI, an impending wedding, peculiar liaisons, and a personal shock challenge Ellie and the Delta A team.

Readers of mysteries, thrillers, chick lit, paranormal fiction, police procedurals and the macabre will all find something to like about PSYCHOBYTE! It is the eighth in the …byte series, featuring FBI Agent Ellie Conway.

I found much to really like and a few things to not like about it: it totally aces the Bechdel test, being full of named female characters who operate as fully functioning adults (really liked); two of Conway’s staff call her ‘Chicky Babe’ and ‘Chicky’ (really really didn’t like, especially as tolerated by Conway who says things like: “I don’t like cute names for killers.  It trivializes their actions”). I really liked the writing style: the reader is totally inside Conway’s head throughout with Connor’s use of Conway’s interior/exterior dialogue.

And Conway’s head is a pretty weird place to  be: Faced with a series of bizarre murders, Conway talks to the deceased to find out more about the crimes, mentally communicates with some of the other characters, and communes with an imaginary but handy being who provides vital clues – or maybe he just jolts them into the forefront of her brain.  The supernatural stuff worked OK for me – especially when matched with Conway’s visceral descriptions of her internal and external environments, which give her perceptions real texture – “The thoughts sloshed from side to side and spilled over the edges of my brain”, “A low drone rippled down the wall and undulated across the floor when I stepped into the busy room” (really liked).

The plotting is complex and rips along – (liked); there were many coincidental connections between the characters, which was a little disorienting – (didn’t really like).  The victims (unfortunately very un-Bechdel) are all young women and all bloodless blondes who have been stabbed in very clean bathrooms, and there are enough clues through the book for you to work out the motive for the crimes – but the solution is so bizarre kudos to you if you do!

The chicklit elements come from Conway’s upcoming nuptials and the personal challenges she faces as she works to solve the crime before more young women are killed. The whole package is quite zany – and I can imagine you could get into following the … byte series.



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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hearsay and Red Herring

When does crime pay? Where do facts end and fiction begin? How can you stop the truth getting in the way of a good story? 

Auckland novelist Jonothan Cullinane will give his take on these and other questions at Hearsay and Red Herring, a free public event at Grey Lynn Library from 6pm on Thursday 23 March.

Cullinane’s debut novel RED HERRING, published in the lead-up to last Christmas, is a New Zealand bestseller. The Auckland Libraries waiting list has only recently dipped below 100 requesters for nearly 50 copies.

Set during Auckland's infamous waterfront dispute of 1951, RED HERRING stars Johnny Molloy, a private detective whose fraud investigation takes him on a car chase through Grey Lynn streets and earns him a pummelling out the back of the Returned Services Club.

Other characters include major players of the time, such as Federation of Labour ‘hard man’ Patrick Fintan Walsh, union leader Jock Barnes and PM Sid Holland. The author worked to make their voices in the novel as true to life as possible, even if some of the events are fictional.

The book is getting good reviews. “What a cracker!” writes Crime Watch blog contributor Alyson Baker of this “noir novel set in tea-drenched 1950s New Zealand”. The Spinoff calls Red Herring “a damned good read”, rating it one of the best fiction books of 2016.

Those attending Hearsay and Red Herring at Grey Lynn Library, 474 Great North Rd, can hear some rollicking good stories, enjoy a glass of wine, ask searching questions, and pick up a signed copy of the book at a cash stall staffed by indie bookseller Dear Reader.

Hearsay and Red Herring (with Jonothan Cullinane)
6pm, Thursday 23 March, 
Grey Lynn Library
474 Great North Road, Auckland

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: THE DIRECTION OF OUR FEAR

THE DIRECTION OF OUR FEAR by David Briggs (BMS Books, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

On a morning commuter train in New Zealand's capital city, Wellington, the lives of three people briefly intersect. Sally is a 17-year-old, tentatively stepping into womanhood. Brendan is a middle-aged widower, living in the shadow of his wife's death. Tamas is a Hungarian immigrant, missing his wife and child as he struggles to begin a new life far from home. Meanwhile, in a nondescript building near Dunedin's Otago University, Farida translates messages for the security services and catches glimpses of a plot that could threaten them all. 

What a great book! THE DIRECTION OF OUR FEAR looks at the many many small decisions we make every day that result in benefit or harm, to ourselves or to others. Sometimes small harms and slights, sometimes catastrophic. It deals with the networks we are a part of; those we know of and those we don’t – and the many alternative universes that shimmer before they collapse down to the one that we experience.

It is a tense and absorbing story of four people. Three – Brendan an Irish widower, Sally a young school girl, and Tamás a Hungarian immigrant – are all connected by travelling on the morning commuter train to Wellington each day. The fourth protagonist is Farida, a young Muslim woman working as a translator for the security services in Dunedin.

We follow all of them and learn of their dreams, their regrets, and their opportunities. They are all dealing with possible changes to their lives – Brendan thinking of starting a new relationship, Sally crossing into adulthood, Tamás trying to make a place in New Zealand for himself and his Hungary-based family, and Farida trying to make sense of her own world and that which she glimpses via her security work, and struggling with what to do when she thinks the two might be overlapping.  And we read of all of this within the frame of terrorist threats.

A sense of pending tragedy looms as you read of Brendan, Sally, Tamás and Farida – ordinary people whose lives may or may not soon be engulfed in disaster.  Highly recommended.



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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: DRIVEN

DRIVEN by James Sallis (Poisoned Pen Press, 2012)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

DRIVEN is the sequel to DRIVE, now also an award-winning film. As we exit the initial novel, Driver has killed Bernie Rose, “the only one he ever mourned,” ending his campaign against those who double-crossed him. DRIVEN tells how that young man, done with killing, later will become the one who goes down “at 3 am on a clear, cool morning in a Tijuana bar.” 

Seven years have passed. Driver has left the old life, become Paul West, and founded a successful business back in Phoenix. Walking down the street one day, he and his fiancee are attacked by two men and, while Driver dispatches both, his fiancee is killed. Sinking back into anonymity, aided by his friend Felix, an ex-gangbanger and Desert Storm vet, Driver retreats, but finds that his past stalks him and will not stop. He has to turn and face it.

I haven't yet read DRIVE, or watched the award-winning Hollywood film of the same name that was adapted from James Sallis's acclaimed noir novel, so I approached this sequel without any preconceptions about whether or not the story of 'Driver' should be continued. But reading DRIVEN definitely cemented my appreciation and admiration of Sallis's talent, which I first experienced last year with SALT RIVER. This is a similarly short book, packed with powerful prose and a keen eye for the nooks and crannies of human nature. Sallis is a poet as well as a novelist, and that comes through in his noir tales, with plenty of layers and meaning distilled into his terse storytelling.

Paul West, as 'Driver' is now known, has left behind his old life of Hollywood B-Grade movie stunts and robbery getaway driving. He's found some form of happiness - a fiancee, honest work, hopes for the future - but that is all suddenly torn away when thugs come for him, killing his fiancee.

What does he do now? Just because he's dispatched the thugs and his sweetheart is dead, doesn't mean the threat is over. Someone seems very determined to hurt him. Or more than one someone.

This is a riveting book. A page-turner that draws you in and straps you to your seat with its exquisite and evocative prose, even if the plotting style can be rather loose at times. This is neo-noir with capital Ns. It won't be for everyone: it's stylistic, characters drift in and out, many things are left unresolved. But I was transfixed from page one. Sallis brings Driver's world vividly to life, as he regresses back to old ways, if with greater experience and a different perspective now, as he tries to avoid getting killed, and work out just who is trying to punch his ticket, so many years later.

Sallis's storytelling is gritty and violent. Mercy is sparse. DRIVEN is a short but powerful tale, one that I tore through like, well, a getaway driver fleeing the scene of a crime. Excellent.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review: SKIN OF TATTOOS

SKIN OF TATTOOS by Christina Hoag (2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Los Angeles homeboy Magdaleno is paroled from prison after serving time on a gun possession frameup by a rival, Rico, who takes over as gang shotcaller in Mags’s absence. Mags promises himself and his Salvadoran immigrant family a fresh start, but he can’t find either the decent job or the respect he craves from his parents and his firefighter brother, who look at him as a disappointment. 

Moreover, Rico, under pressure to earn money to free the Cyco Lokos’ jailed top leader and eager to exert his authority over his rival-turned-underling, isn’t about to let Mags get out of his reach. Ultimately, Mags’ desire for revenge and respect pushes him to make a decision that ensnares him in a world seeded with deceit and betrayal, where the only escape from rules that carry a heavy price for transgression is sacrifice.

When I first started reading this book, I was thinking there are only so many stories you can tell – and that this was the one about the guy that gets out of prison, wants to go straight, can’t due to societal stigma and intolerance, so he gets back into the criminal life big time and things do not go well.

The story was being told by ‘the guy’, in this case Mags (Magdeleno) a Salvadoran LA gangbanger. I was enjoying his narrative style – salted with patois that was exotic, but also familiar from all the movies and TV programmes I have seen about LA gangs.

But then, as well as just cruising through the book, I started to become totally engrossed in Mags’ world; the characters Mags engages with are flawed and have agendas, which make them untrustworthy and far from predictable, and Mags himself is a complex character who makes some very bad decisions about what and what not to do.

Mags’ gang is the Cyco Lokos, and while he has been locked up, the ‘shotcaller’ of the gang, Chivas, has also been imprisoned. Mags was Chivas’ lieutenant, but that place has been taken by Rico – the guy who set Mags up to take his rap for illegal firearm possession – and with Chivas locked up, Rico is calling the shots.  Although angry at this, Mags has decided to go straight, not wanting to go back inside and also wanting to grow his relationship with Paloma, his best friend’s sister. But he gets pushed back into gang action – and into confrontation with Rico. And there is a comfort in this: “Revenge is the regaining of control. There’s nothing so empowering, so elating.”

But truly terrible things occur as Mags tries to set things straight and get his homies back on track, and he starts to realise that the gang code gets more flexible the higher you go up ranks. If everyone is out for themselves, who can you ever totally trust to be on your side?  Even within his family, his alcoholic father, his hotshot firefighter brother, his Catholic turned Pentecostal Mother, and his sisters - one of whom has got involved with a banger from a rival gang – who will see him for who he is and not just see the gang tattoos that scream out what he is.

The tattoos are a great metaphor “They were a part of me, but not the whole of me”, they are a comfort as they give Mags identity, but they are a burden as they don’t allow others to want to see who he is and to what he might aspire.  Along Mags’ journey, as well as the fear and violence, there are some lovely moments: the family dinner where Mags felt “No matter what had happened in the past, I belonged at that table”, and when Mags’ clica crew sat around telling stories about a dead homeboy “til the wind blew through our clothes and the sea turned nimbus grey”.

SKIN OF TATTOOS is full of the inevitability of lost lives; of those who can’t escape the deeply worn tracks of their predecessors, even those “moving up the food chain who thought they were leaving the ghetto behind when they arrived in the San Fernando suburbs, but they just bought the ghetto with them”. The sympathy Hoag has for her unsympathetic characters is effective – whenever someone does something awful you find yourself thinking not that they are bad to the bone, but that something awful must have happened to them for this to be their reality. Mags even manages to conjure up sympathy for the despicable Rico: “For an instant I felt sorry for Rico. Just an instant.”

And it’s those instants that have you rooting for Mags and worrying about him – so, have a read and get to know him. This is a great debut novel from Hoag, who is an LA-based Kiwi writer.

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: A BRIEFCASE, TWO PIES, AND A PENTHOUSE

A BRIEFCASE, TWO PIES, AND A PENTHOUSE by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Rachel McManus has just started at the New Zealand Alarm and Response Ministry. One of the few females working there, she is forced to traverse the peculiarities of Wellington bureaucracy, lascivious colleagues, and decades of sedimented hierarchy. She has the chance to prove herself by investigating a suspected terrorist, who they fear is radicalising impressionable youth and may carry out an attack himself on the nation's capital. 

The title of this novel refers to a true incident in 1981 when one of New Zealand's top SIS spooks lost his briefcase; when it was discovered by a journalist it had been left in the Aro Valley and found to contain his business cards, a diary of scurrilous gossip, three mince pies, two fruit pies, the NZ Listener, and a Penthouse magazine. The novel isn’t about this embarrassing incident, it is however about the inanity of government agencies, especially those tasked with impossible jobs – like for example keeping all New Zealanders safe from an ill-defined threat.

If you have ever worked in a government department, especially a risk-averse one, you will sympathise with Rachel McManus. Rachel has just started working for the New Zealand Alarm and Response Ministry. She has previously been a civil servant so isn’t totally unprepared for the experience – but this is a time of global panic in the face of the unfortunately termed ‘Islamic Threat’. Rachel faces the usual misogyny and racism – but writ large due to the ridiculously heightened stress levels. She suffers the lecherous co-workers, the embarrassing after-work drinks, the insane meetings where no one wants to admit they don’t know or don’t understand, the slavish subservience to hierarchy – but all dialled up to 11.5.

Rachel is tasked – sort of – with tracking a terror suspect. Having the most invasive technologies at her fingertips she plunges in. The suspect is suspected of inculcating youth with radical ideas picked up overseas, and there is a consequential concern that he might be planning an attack somewhere in Wellington.

The novel becomes farcical when the evidence and the suspicions grow further and further apart; and there is a crazy sequence where Rachel decides to do some old fashioned on-foot surveillance to try and clarify matters. She has no surveillance skills whatsoever.  In fact, she has no skills full stop given her parlous training – but possibly because of this rather than despite it, she is the only one in the Ministry who has any common sense. But due to her being young and a woman, she might as well be yelling into a Wellington gale when attempting to inform her colleagues and bosses of her views.

Given the novel’s inexorable style it has no real shape – but makes its point very compellingly regarding racial profiling and bureaucracy gone mad.  And there are enough real world incidents thrown in (not out of place at all amongst the absurdity) to keep the novel worryingly grounded.

So, given there are still questions to be answered around how a country should position itself in a world at threat from terror attacks, A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse is at once funny, tragic and disturbing.

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

150 #Yeahnoir Reviews


Back when I started this blog in 2009, one of the many things I wanted to do (other than sharing excess information from author interviews that didn't make it into the features and reviews I was writing for various magazines and newspapers, and sharing news, local events and general thoughts on crime writing) was to provide a space for sharing more information about New Zealand crime writers - many of whom didn't have websites at the time. Overall I think several of my original goals have been ticked off, even if Crime Watch has become a tad unwieldy with so many historic posts.

Today, I've realised that we've hit a bit of a milestone, publishing our 150th review of a book by a New Zealand crime writer. That's a lot of crime novels, good and great, by Kiwi authors. And honestly, there are still many #yeahnoir books we have yet to review. I say we because several other booklovers have contributed reviews to Crime Watch over the years. I'm very grateful.

I created the graphic above to illustrate the 150 #yeahnoir books reviewed thusfar. You can see an alphabetical list, with links to each of the reviews, here - or by clicking on the tab above.

So far we've covered 88 different authors, and a wide variety of books, from murder mysteries published in the 1930s right up until 2017. Lots of different types of crime fiction and settings too.

Thanks to all of the reviewers, and to all of the authors for the good and great reads.

Onwards!