Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: MYSTERY ON THE WHANGANUI

MYSTERY ON THE WHANGANUI by Murray Crawford (Rangitawa Publishing, 2016)

Reviewed by Nitha Vashti

Why is the deck hand behaving so suspiciously? And what is in the letter he keeps studying? On the Whanganui River Mary Paul's grandfather runs a small fleet of boats servicing the settlements along its banks, and his arch-rival, Alexander Hatrick, owns a larger fleet that goes further up the river. When Hatrick's nephew Tom arrives from England, he immediately puts Mary's back up with his arrogant manner, adding to the ill-feeling between the two families. 

But Tom persuades Mary to take a trip with him on his uncle's boat to the grand Pipiriki House Hotel, and convinces her and her brother and sister there's something suspicious about one of the deck hands. Then suddenly Mary finds herself in a very dangerous situation. The children become caught up in a mystery that involves hidden jewellery, a well, a Rookery - and a thrilling chase up the rapids of the Whanganui River.

Mystery On The Whanganui follows Mary Paul, a spirited young girl, keen for adventures and fascinated by the Whanganui River on which her grandfather, Ganga, runs a small fleet of boats.

After meeting Tom, the nephew of Alexander Hatrick, a local businessman and Ganga’s rival, Mary feels upset by his rudeness and sets out to teach him a lesson. Although this fails, she subsequently gets invited by him on a trip down the Whanganui River on one of Hatrick’s steamers. Mary accepts this opportunity and brings her brother Wayne, home from the army, along for the ride.

While on the boat, the three notice a deckhand acting suspiciously, carrying a letter around with him that he seems a little too obsessive about. Mary decides to take things into her own hands and investigate. When she takes the letter back to the boys, they discover it describes lost treasure hidden during the Maori Land Wars. Wary of the deckhand, the trio, now joined by Mary’s younger sister Billie, embark on a mission, trying to find the treasure before he does, so it can be returned to its rightful owner.

Although Murray Crawford’s style could often be described over-writing, I found this created a more descriptive story, suitable for the target audience. It reminded me of a Trixie Belden novel, entertaining but quite light, a book that you will find easy to read. Overall, after I got into the story, I found it interesting to read, full of thrills and mystery.

Mystery on the Whanganui will keep you flipping through the pages.

Nitha Vashti is a high school student in the North Island of New Zealand, and a budding journalist who has had multiple articles published in The Gisborne Herald newspaper. 

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Mystery on the Whanganui was originally published by Reed Children's Fiction in 1994, and has recently been republished by Rangitawa Press.  

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A clutch of Daggers at Crimefest

Craig Sisterson, Quentin Bates, Lilja Sigurdardottir,
Michael J Malone, and Barry Forshaw at Crimefest
Last Friday I made a spontaneous day-trip to Bristol for Crimefest, the annual crime writing convention. In recent years I'd gone for the entire four days, but this year I had to miss it due to other commitments. But then a last-minute window opened for a day trip.

So I hopped on an early train from London, and spent a full day there loitering with some of the world's finest criminal masterminds, before making a late-night getaway (and an eventual 2am return home to South London).

In between I had a terrific time catching up with a dozens of authors, publishers, reviewers, and others. There's a great atmosphere at Crimefest, with an exciting array of topical sessions, as well as lots of good times just hanging out in the bookshop, bar, and lounge areas, meeting and chatting to different crime-lovers. Like many crime festivals, there's a really great atmosphere, so whether you're a writer or reader, a newbie or an old hand, you'll be welcomed in and find yourself engaging with lots of people who share a love of good crime and thriller writing.

Even just being in Bristol for about 12 hours, there were too many highlights to mention. But to give you a flavour of what goes on at Crimefest, here are a few snippets, new memories created:

  • Meeting American crime writer CJ Box for the first time, and spontaneously setting up an interview, only for us both to get caught up in chatting about the frontier nature of the United States and New Zealand, what we love about the great outdoors, and much more. And a random fact: according to CJ, much of the 'wild game' served in US restaurants isn't that wild, due to hunting and commercial use restrictions, so the 'elk' I ate at a game restaurants in Jackson Hole years ago may have been - of all things - imported New Zealand red deer. 
  • Wandering into the downstairs bar during a lull in proceedings (many of the sessions were jam-packed), and ending up having a drink with Peter Guttridge and Stanley Trollip (half of Michael Stanley), leading to a long chat with Stanley about what he loves about living in Minneapolis, and kicking around ideas of how to approach setting up crime writing festivals in New Zealand and South Africa - neither of our countries have crime festivals yet. 
  • Meeting the German crime writers who were at Crimefest thanks to the efforts of Dr Kat Hall, who'd last year hosted a mini-session giving an overview of German 'krimis'. This year Melanie Raabe, Mario Giordano, Merle Kröger, and Volker Kutscher were there in person. It's great to see the evolution of Crimefest as it embraces a broader range of international authors, and the hard work of people like Kat paying off. I think we all benefit. 
  • Catching up with my fellow Ngaio Marsh Awards judges Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Peter Rozovsky (Yrsa is a current judge, Peter was a founding judge back in 2010), along with 'half-Kiwi' thriller writer CJ Carver, who's entered in this year's awards. Hopefully, like Kat has done with the German writers the past couple of years, we'll be able to get a bit more attention for great Kiwi crime writing at various British and European crime festivals in future. 
  • Running into fellow critics, awards judges, and event organisers like Mike Stotter, Barry Forshaw, Ewa Sherman, Jacky Collins, Sarah Ward, Quentin Bates, and the irrepressible Ali Karim. My knowledge of crime writing is always challenged and expanded by the conversations we have about various authors and books - and we always end up coming up with all sorts of grand ideas for the future - hopefully some of which will come to fruition!
  • Celebrating with the fine authors and publishers who made the CWA Dagger long-lists announced on the Friday evening (see full list here), and commiserating with some of my top reads of last year who missed out on being recognised. (And having some fascinating discussions with some of the CWA judges about the awards). I've been involved in judging the national crime writing awards for three different countries, and it's always interesting to learn how different things work, and a good reminder of differing tastes.
  • Finishing my day with late-night fish'n'chips with Peter Rozovksy and new-to-me British crime writer Lloyd Otis, whose debut crime novel Dead Lands will be out in October. There aren't enough black voices in crime writing, in Britain and elsewhere (a recurring discussion I've had with several people in several countries lately) so I'm excited to read Otis' debut. 
After all the festivities, I took a late-night train back to London, passing the time by finishing Glen Erik Hamilton's third Van Shaw adventure, Every Day Above Ground. A great day all around. 

Here are some more photos:

The irrepressible Ali Karim interview-bombs CJ Box and I


Three nationalities of Ngaios judges, new and old:
Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Craig Sisterson, and Peter Rozovsky

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review: EPIPHANY JONES

EPIPHANY JONES by Michael Grothaus (Orenda Books, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Jerry has a traumatic past that leaves him subject to psychotic hallucinations and depressive episodes. When he stands accused of stealing a priceless Van Gogh painting, he goes underground, where he develops an unwilling relationship with a woman who believes that the voices she hears are from God. Involuntarily entangled in the illicit world of sex-trafficking among the Hollywood elite, and on a mission to find redemption for a haunting series of events from the past, Jerry is thrust into a genuinely shocking and outrageously funny quest to uncover the truth and atone for historical sins

This is a bizarre, brilliant crime debut that is likely to divide readers. A 'marmite' book, you could say: some people will love it for what it is and tries to be, and others just not 'get it' or why others love it. I fell into the first category. It's not an easy read though. There is a lot of very dark stuff in here, with mentally disturbed characters and horrific acts secreted away - and although it's leavened with plenty of humour, it's dark, twisted, sick humour that (again), could be off-putting.

Outrageous is an apt description. Stunningly original would be another.

"Tonight I’m having sex with Audrey Hepburn."

Grothaus sets the tone from the get-go, with our 'hero' Jerry indulging in a bit of self-love to a pornographic version of the late Hollywood icon. Jerry's a slippery character that you find yourself rooting for regardless of his mountain of flaws, foibles, and fuck-ups. Grothaus's writing has a verve and energy to it, full of life that sucks you in despite the disturbing, unusual content.

Jerry's dealing (or not) with an overwhelming amount of past trauma, working at an art gallery (a job that's a favour from his mother's ex), and with a circle of friends that's exclusively imaginary. Only one of the figments of his imagination turns out to be real. Maybe. When a priceless Van Gogh goes missing from the gallery and Jerry is blamed, he goes on the run. But not before attacking his mother with a dildo. Yes, a dildo. It's madcap, crazy, crime fiction, but Grothaus somehow makes it work.

Jerry joins his non-figment, Epiphany Jones, on a rollercoaster sojourn to Mexico then Europe, as the pair hunt for Epiphany's missing daughter, who's fallen into the clutches of a sick predator. At least, that's what Epiphany says. But can Jerry (and we) believe her?

This is gutsy, courageous, crazy crime writing. There are plenty of 'tough subjects' out there that many authors avoid, even if they're a big part of our world, and Grothaus dives headlong into the morass. Not just picking at one as an underlying theme, but weaving together a dark yet funny tale from threads from many. Addiction, mental health, pornography, human trafficking, the cult of celebrity - nothing is off-limits for Grothaus, who rides the absurdity curve while delivering a delicious skewering of broadly held perceptions. All with an obsidian-like sense of humour.

A stunning, highly original debut that's disturbing, funny, and brilliant.

Or you might hate it.

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

Staalesen is Scandinavia's Top Gun(nar)!

Staalesen (second from left) with his publisher Karen Sullivan, translator
Don Bartlett, and Petrona judges Barry Forshaw, Sarah Ward & Kat Hall
An author described as "the finest Nordic novelist in the private-eye tradition of the American masters" scooped the prestigious Petrona Award at the Gala Dinner at Crimefest in Bristol on Friday evening. 

Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen, along with his translator Don Bartlett, won the 2017 Petrona Award for WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE (Orenda Books). Staalesen was presented with the trophy by last year's winner, Jorn Lier Horst.

In WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE, grieving private detective Varg Veum is pushed to his limits when he takes on a cold case involving the disappearance of a small girl in 1977. As the legal expiry date for the crime draws near, Veum’s investigation uncovers intriguing suburban secrets.

The Petrona judging panel called the book "both a coruscating and ambitious novel from the veteran writer, and a radical re-working of his customary materials - perhaps the most  accomplished entry in the long-running sequence of books about Bergen detective Varg Veum".

Staalesen and Bartlett were chosen from an outstanding shortlist that also included:
  • THE EXILED by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)
  • THE DYING DETECTIVE by Leif G.W. Persson tr. Neil Smith (Doubleday; Sweden)
  • THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn tr. Rosie Hedger (Orenda Books, Norway)
  • WHY DID YOU LIE? by Yrsa Sigurđardóttir tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton, Iceland)
  • THE WEDNESDAY CLUB by Kjell Westö tr. Neil Smith (MacLehose Press, Finland)

Now in its fifth year, the Petrona Award was established to celebrate the work of Maxine Clarke, one of the first online crime fiction reviewers and bloggers, who died in December 2012. Clarke, whose online persona and blog was called Petrona, was passionate about translated crime fiction, but in particular that from the Scandinavian countries.

The Petrona Award celebrates the Best Scandinavian crime fiction translated into English, and is awarded to both the author and translator. Previous winners were Liza Marklund for LAST WILL (2013), Leif G W Persson for LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDER (2014), both translated by Neil Smith, Yrsa Sigurdardottir for THE SILENCE OF THE SEA (2015) translated by Victoria Cribb and Jørn Lier Horst 's THE CAVEMAN translated by Anne Bruce.

The judges of the Petrona Award are Barry Forshaw (EURO CRIME, BRIT NOIR, etc), Dr Kat Hall (CRIME FICTION IN GERMAN: DER KRIMI), and Sarah Ward (IN BITTER CHILL, A DEADLY THAW), with British librarian Karen Meek (Eurocrime) acting as administrator.

You can find out more about the Petrona Award and past winners and finalists here.





Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: MARLBOROUGH MAN

MARLBOROUGH MAN by Alan Carter (Freemantle Press, June 2017)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Nick Chester is working as a sergeant for the Havelock police in the Marlborough Sound, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. If the river isn’t flooded and the land hasn’t slipped, it’s paradise. Unless you are also hiding from a ruthless man with a grudge, in which case, remote beauty has its own kind of danger. In the last couple of weeks, two local boys have vanished. Their bodies are found, but the Pied Piper is still at large. Marlborough Man is a gripping story about the hunter and the hunted, and about what happens when evil takes hold in a small town.

What makes a great thriller great is nerve-wracking plotting, rich atmospheric settings, and complex characters – Marlborough Man has the lot – and it treats the ‘Top of the South’ as Paul Cleave has been treating Christchurch for years – describing a heightened scuzzy substrate that tourists, and many residents, will never glimpse: “In rural New Zealand, calling police out at the sound of shots fired is like calling them out for the sound of cows mooing”.

Nick Chester, a Geordie cop, has been relocated to the Wakamarina Valley, near Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds, after an undercover job back home went South. Chester makes fun of the Zild accent, double takes at the literary references to The Hobbit, and settles in to continue his class-based grudges, and to get to know Latifa Rapata, his new partner.

Rapata is 24 and is often the voice of reason; for Chester is a rebel; happy to toe the line when his duties only stretch to bad drivers and petty theft, but when it emerges there is a sexual predator preying on young boys in the area he just wants “… to catch the prick who’s been murdering the kids” – and he starts playing by his own rules. He builds a case with the help of Rapata and her whanau. And his interest is galvanized when he starts suspecting that the press-named “Pied Piper” may be one of the local arrogant-ocracy – those people that “… never get looked at …” – and to make matters worse one of them starts a logging operation in the valley that is ruining his view!

In Marlborough Man Carter breaks all the rules about not hurting animals, and he pulls no punches in showing the many sides of Chester – who makes some very bad choices. Chester’s shaky marriage and his concern for their special needs son back-drop the story, as does the fact that comeuppance for the botched undercover job back in Geordie-land is stalking “the feral hills of the Wakamarina”.

The wild weather and visual beauty of the valley give you a sense of place in sand-fly-filled spades, and the mud and slips from the frequent downpours nicely echo Chester’s roller coaster ride. A trip back to the old country triggers a new look at the Wakamarina, and Chester’s re-entry into “A magic roundabout of people who won’t let go.” It also gives Vanessa, Chester’s wife, a chance to become a more interesting character, and another foil to Chester’s excitability. The crime plotting keeps you guessing the whole way, and the cliff hanger ending comforts me that there will be more.

Read this book!

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

Review: CORRUPTED ON THE COTE D'AZUR

CORRUPTED ON THE COTE D'AZUR by Richard Donald (Mary Egan Publishing, 2015)

Reviewed by Tony Chapelle

A young New Zealander, Tom, obtains a job in the South of France as a sous-chef. His sister, Maggie, joins him and becomes the mistress of an influential and unscrupulous owner of a supermarket chain. His list of misdemeanors includes theft, tax fraud, omitting to tell his numerous partners that he is HIV positive, child pornography and indirectly, murder. The question is whether he will manage to corrupt the legal system and avoid justice? Will Maggie be corrupted by her dangerous liaison?

A brother and sister from New Zealand, he a sous chef and she, it seems, an incorrigible seeker after the high life, are caught up in a web of dangerous intrigue.

The action is set mainly in the south of France, with excursions into Paris and Italy. There is a strong element of ‘innocents abroad’ and ‘Famous Five’ in this book. The two somewhat naïve antipodeans and their French friends meet frequently in cafes and other places to plot the next steps in their quest to locate and bring to justice the irredeemably nasty villain of the piece. There are thefts, home invasions, kidnappings, car chases, glamorous and amoral women, meetings with both helpful and obstructive policemen, corrupt local politicians, and brushes with the mafia. There is also tax evasion, a murder and evidence of child pornography.

The author is clearly familiar with the settings for the story, and frequently introduces authenticating detail concerning architecture, local food specialities, the merits of various hotels, and so on – to the extent that at times the book could almost double as a tourist guide. There is also plentiful use of French terms and phrases, often with accompanying, and sometimes cumbersome, translation or interpretation.

Much of the plot is unfolded through explanatory dialogue as the protagonists decide on their tactics and discuss their successes and failures, but at other times details concerning what happens are sketched in as narrative. An uneven but generally fast pace is set from the start and more or less maintained throughout.

Underlying all the derring-do is the much darker question of human selfishness and the propensity to give way to temptation. Essentially, as the title suggests, the story deals with corruption – both physical corruption in the question of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/Aids, and moral corruption resulting from a hunger for wealth and a lust for power. These are seen as an almost inevitable result of the systems by which the western world operates – systems that reward rather than punish the greedy and ruthless.

There is much of what one would expect from a high-voltage adventure yarn in this book – violence and tension, sex and subterfuge – though the sex and violence in particular are treated in a rather coy manner. There are also characters in the story for whom the reader can develop and maintain some sympathy, just as there are others who are beyond redemption or who prove in the end to be unworthy. A heavily loaded epilogue attempts to tie up the numerous loose ends, but also creates some more. We learn that ‘good’ has some victories, but it does not triumph; and apparently in only one instance does love (there are two incipient romances) conquer all.

While there is throughout an uneasy co-existence between the narrative and the author’s penchant for instruction and explanation, Donald does display a flair for plot, and a clear desire for the reader to get a true feel for place.

Tony Chapelle is a Manawatu writer and retired academic who has won and been shortlisted for several short story competitions. He has published a collection of short stories set in provincial New Zealand and a novel set in Victorian England. You can read more about his in this feature from the Manawatu Standard newspaper. 

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: THE CANDIDATE'S DAUGHTER

THE CANDIDATE'S DAUGHTER by Catherine Lea (Brakelight, 2014)

Reviewed by Jenny Argante

The plan is simple: kidnap the daughter of Senate candidate Richard McClaine, take the money and run. Nobody gets hurt, the kid goes home alive.  That’s what twenty-two-year-old car thief Kelsey Money thought she was getting into. She chalked it up to another hare-brained scheme dreamed up by her boyfriend Matt and his drug-fueled brother. Then she discovers the part she wasn’t told - that six-year-old Holly isn’t going home alive - and Kelsey makes a decision that'll take her whole world apart.

Elizabeth McClaine can't even tell the police what her daughter was wearing when she disappeared. Soon after Holly was born with Down Syndrome and a cleft palate, she was placed in the care of a nanny while her mother battled postpartum depression. When Holly is kidnapped and Elizabeth learns the detective on the case has already failed one kidnapped child, she vows not to fail hers. The clock is ticking. Both women have twenty-four hours to find Holly because in twenty-five, she’ll be dead. 

I haven’t read anything by Catherine Lea before, but I will now be eagerly checking for the next or any other book she has written. She has woven together a story that is tense, absorbing and structured cinematically by time and character perspective to hold the attention from page one until the end.

It’s a story of an optimistic kidnap that goes disastrously wrong because it’s carried out without proper planning by a moronic pair of brothers, Matt and Lionel. Matt has enlisted the help of his girl friend, Kelsey, whose own damaged past has impaired her judgement, and who comes to experience a shift in understanding and motivation as the narrative unfolds.

What lifts up this story from the ordinary is some clever plotting, and the 3-dimensional nature of main characters and support players. Each reveals to us how flawed human beings can be and, ultimately, that some of us are, if we choose to be, redeemable.

The kidnap victim herself is heartbreaking real. Holly is a six-year old Down’s Syndrome girl, and the daughter of high-achieving parents. Neither has been able to reconcile what they got when she was born with what they believed themselves entitled to. Holly is endearing and vulnerable, and she wins Kelsey’s heart.

Though this leads to a shift from being ‘one of the gang’ to the role of Holly’s defender, Kelsey is still deeply mired in the consequences of the criminal actions she consented to. How she manages to resolve this is nail-biting stuff.

Lea brings to her narrative a suspense that is tightly maintained throughout. One example is the unwelcome publicity this bungled snatch brings to senatorial candidate Richard McLaine and his wife Elizabeth and how it leads to an unravelling of carefully constructed facades, personal, professional and marital.

Brought face to face with the realisation of where they have failed, the two women, Kelsey and Elizabeth, work hard to avert pending disaster.  The end, when it comes, is a satisfying and heart-wrenching finale of losers and winners.

Because Catherine Lea has made you care so deeply about the significant actors within this compelling drama – the child Holly; reformed accomplice Kelsey and Holly’s shamed and self-blaming mother – we also care deeply about what happens to them. That makes The Candidate’s Daughter a real page-turner.

In my opinion, it would also make a great New Zealand movie. I hope some talent scout will sit down and read the book, uncover its potential and pitch it to a film director –  it’s Niki Caro or Jane Campion material for sure.

I am both a picky and experienced reader and I couldn’t put it down. Take a bow, Ms. Lea.

Jenny Argante is a Tauranga writer and editor, and a member of Tauranga Writers and the New Zealand Society of Authors. This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Five Terrific, Must-Read Kiwi Crime Novels Set in Otago




















The biannual Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival is now in full swing, with plenty of terrific events for booklovers to enjoy over this weekend. A big highlight is the Crime Time session with visiting mystery masterminds Ian Rankin, Stella Duffy, and MJ Carter, chaired by local crime queen Vanda Symon, but there's plenty more fantasticness on offer (see full programme here, crime picks here).

Inspired by our own City of Literature bringing some great international crime writers to Otago (and this feature I read today highlighting five classic Auckland-set novels in the lead-up to AWRF), I thought I'd reciprocate by sharing a reading list of superb Otago-set crime tales that can give readers from around the world a page-turning story infused with a real sense of this southern province in New Zealand.

So pull up a couch (don't set it on fire), grab your blue and yellow scarf, and let's dive in.


THE RINGMASTER by Vanda Symon
Given she's chairing the Crime Time panel at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, it seems only appropriate to start with New Zealand's modern day Queen of Crime. A former pharmacist who's recently completed a PhD studying the use of poisons in crime fiction by the likes of Dame Ngaio Marsh in crime fiction, Symon is also a medal-winning competitor in masters-level fencing. So the Dunedin author is doubly deadly in real life, let alone her excellent crime novels.

Symon has written five crime novels so far, including four in her Sam Shephard series. Her books have been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel three times, translated into German, and praised as “superlative storytelling packed with vivid scenes, touches of humour, and one of the most engaging heroines around”.

Symon’s 2008 follow-up to her excellent debut Overkill finds heroine Sam Shephard having moved to Dunedin from Mataura; bridges burnt. Undertaking detective training, Sam’s on the bottom rung of the ladder. 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.

One of many great facets of this novel is Symon's 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.”


HUNTING BLIND by Paddy Richardson
Symon’s fellow Kiwi crime queen Paddy Richardson is also appearing onstage this weekend, tasked with riding shotgun to the infectious energy of Tokoroa-raised novelist, theatremaker, and Fun Palaces champion Stella Duffy (grab your tickets here). Richardson is herself a prolific writer, with two collections of shorts stories and seven novels under her belt. Five of Richardson’s seven novels have been top notch psychological thrillers. Her books have been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel twice, translated into German, and been praised for blending modern thrillers with social commentary and history, creating very New Zealand stories that are “stylishly written and compellingly plotted”.

While all of Richardson’s psychological thrillers are good to outstanding reads, the one that screams ‘Otago’ to me the most is Hunting Blind, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award.  The story begins at a lakeside school picnic in Wanaka, Central Otago, back in the late 1980s. Minna Anderson is there with her four children, when tragedy strikes. Her four-year-old daughter Gemma disappears. A massive search fails to turn up any trace, not even a body. The family is torn apart by the tragedy, but the investigation eventually fades. Many years later Gemma's sister Stephanie is completing a psychiatry course in Dunedin, when she's assigned a suicidal and uncommunicative new patient who gradually reveals an eerily similar story. While reluctant to reopen old wounds, Stephanie is compelled to investigate - could the same person be responsible for both abductions?

This is a terrific read, a character study crime novel that's "a gripping and truly human story of what happens when families have to cope with the unthinkable", further elevated by its strong sense of place. As US mystery writer, professor, critic (and now Ngaio Marsh Awards judge) Margot Kinberg said back in her 2011 review for Crime Watch, "As Stephanie searches for Gemma’s abductor, she travels to several places on South Island, and each is described in lovely but not overburdening detail. One gets a really authentic sense of life there not just from the physical setting but from several other little touches that really add to the context".


PANCAKE MONEY by Finn Bell
The most recent of my recommendations, just published last year and in the running for this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards (judging is currently going on). Finn Bell is a new addition to the #yeahnoir ranks, with the Dunedin-based full-time author releasing both his debut Dead Lemons, and Pancake Money, on Amazon Kindle in 2016. He has another two crime novels coming out this year.

I first came across a mention of Bell's writing thanks to the well-respected British website, CrimeFictionLover, which gave a big thumbs up to Dead Lemons as part of its 'Ten to Taste' roundup of top self-published novels that could 'blow your mind', last November. A separate, more in-depth review on the same website was equally effusive, calling Bell a talented writer who'd "constructed a compelling and accomplished story that doesn't wallow or stall... this slice of Kiwi noir is very moreish" and that he was a welcome arrival and an author to watch in future.

I was intrigued. And having now read Bell's first two novels, I can see why the overseas critics were raving. While both are very good crime reads from a distinctive new voice, Bell’s debut is set in Southland and this second tale is based in Otago, so Pancake Money gets the nod here. Bobby Ress is a Dunedin detective with a family life who just wants to make a difference. But he's thrust into a horrifying case when two Catholic priests are not only murdered, but martyred in torturous, medieval fashion, Ress and his partner Pollo don't know whether they're hunting a vicious serial killer, or a team of vigilantes exacting some sort of revenge. As they dig into the priests' pasts, they have to confront some of the darkest corners of humanity, putting their own lives on the line.

This is clever, dark crime fiction populated with engaging characters, authentic relationships, a strong narrative drive, and powerful threads about philosophy and human psychology. All set against a cinematic evocation of Otago's urban and rural landscapes, which add to the moody atmosphere.


TWISTER by Jane Woodham
If you like deeply character-centric crime, then this recent Kiwi crime novel, which was a finalist in last year's Best First Novel category at the Ngaio Marsh Awards, could be right up your alley.

Woodham, who immigrated to Dunedin from London almost twenty years ago, is a founding member of the Dunedin Detection Club, alongside fellow Ngaio Marsh Award finalists Symon and Richardson, and 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award winner Liam McIlvanney. Before writing Twister, Woodham had twice been a finalist in the prestigious BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Competition, and had her short stories published in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She certainly knows her way around a great story, and how to craft deep, authentic characters that tug at readers’ hearts and minds as the pages turn.

In Twister, Dunedin is suffering from a series of plagues: an unseasonal flu epidemic, cats are getting tortured, and a spate of gay bashings. When a storm tears up the city, the body of a missing schoolgirl is uncovered. It’s a particularly tough case for Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd, whose own daughter disappeared nine years ago. He and his wife Kate have never really recovered, and unbeknownst to Judd, Kate has been having an affair with their old neighbour, Rea, and intends to leave him. Pressure mounts on the work and home fronts, as Judd tries to overcome his own grief while Kate plucks up the courage to confess not just her affair, but a secret she’s been keeping for years.

This is a very fine novel that’s as much or more about the impact of crime on the people involved, as solving crime or catching criminals. Woodham crafts an emotional spiderweb of human relationships, with the investigation bubbling along in the background and used to ramp up tension and reveal character. She also does an excellent job evoking a strong sense of Dunedin. As US author and Ngaio Marsh Awards judge Margot Kinberg said, "It’s the kind of ‘small world’ place where people know each other and where gossip spreads ... Woodham shares the diverse cultural makeup of the city. Readers who enjoy a strong sense of place in the novel will appreciate this".


NIGHT VISION by Ella West
West is an Otago freelance journalist, novelist, and playwright who lives on a farm near Mosgiel, a small township just south of Dunedin. Her novels are thrilling tales for young adults. Her debut, Thieves, was shortlisted for the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children & Young Adults, and spawned an acclaimed trilogy.

While her first three books were thrillers set in a sci-fi world (the second book was also a finalist for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards from New Zealand's Science Fiction & Fantasy Association), West's fourth novel was a crime thriller that drew on her own love for and experiences of rural life. Night Vision, an engaging tale starring an exceptional girl, was published in 2014 and went on to win both the Young Adult Fiction Award at the 2015 LIANZA Children's Book Awards, and the YA Children's Choice Award at the 2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Young Viola was born with rare genetic condition Xeroderma Pigmentosum, making her at dangerous risk from anything that emits ultraviolet light, including the sun. So she's a 'moon child', and while her parents sleep she explores the family sheep farm and surrounding forest by night, sharing the natural world with the moreporks, possums, and other nocturnal creatures prowling the darkness. One night, she witnesses a vicious crime, and sees the perpetrator bury a sack of money. With her parents in danger of losing their farm, Viola decides to take the money to help her family, drip-feeding it to them over time. While the Police are looking in the wrong direction, Viola finds herself in the criminal's crosshairs after a newspaper interview about her and her condition tips off the local drug dealer as to just who might have taken his money.

Night Vision would be a truly superb mystery for adolescent readers, and could still be greatly enjoyed by older teens and adults. I liked it a lot, even if the young adult-targeted plotline was more straightforward than the adult crime I usually read. Viola is a terrific narrator, a unique and engaging girl who draws us into her perspective on the world. West brings the Otago rural setting to life, on the farm and in the forest. The nocturnal perspective on the local bush, the dual serenity and danger of nature, was well evoked and created an atmospheric backdrop to an intriguing tale.

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 festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson