Monday, August 14, 2017

The verdicts are in: the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists revealed


There’s fresh blood aplenty and the usual suspects were nowhere to be found as the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists were revealed earlier today. And for the first time since the inaugural award in 2010, when Greg McGee’s fish-netted alter ego Alix Bosco pseudonymously scooped the spoils, the power balance in #yeahnoir may have shifted back north of the Bombays.

Speaking as the judging convenor of this year's awards, it's been a remarkable year. After record entries last year, we really weren't sure what to expect in 2017. None of our previous winners would be in the running, nor a host of other great Kiwi crime writers who'd been multiple-times finalists. In fact, eighteen of the nineteen authors who'd been finalists in the first years of the awards were MIA.

Would 2017 be a lull in #yeahnoir?

The answer was an emphatic 'No!', thanks to a flood of fresh voices bringing lots of new, exciting storytelling to our New Zealand crime writing stocks. Entries in our fiction categories (Best Crime Novel, Best First Novel) were up fifty per cent, and we added a Best Non Fiction category too.

It seems #yeahnoir (hat tip to Steph Soper of the Book Council for coining the term) is going from strength to strength, as debut authors as well as more experienced writers from other parts of the book world turn their hands to stories entwined in crime. The pool is deepening, and widening.

Our international judging panels praised the inventiveness and variety of crime, thriller, and mystery tales that Kiwi authors were producing. Although this made the judging even tougher. “Talk about judging apples and pears,” said Paddy Richardson, a two-time past finalist and now judge of the Best Crime Novel category. “It was more like apples, asparagus, avocados, and melons!”

It's been fantastic to see that growth in numbers and variety since 'Alix Bosco' won at our first awards night back in 2010 - an event that had been postponed after the September earthquakes forced the cancellation of the Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival that year.

The Ngaio Marsh Awards are proud to have been working with WORD Christchurch since our very beginning. We've had a terrific run of awards events in Christchurch, and are looking forward to another great event to celebrate this year's finalists and announce the winners later this year.

Speaking on behalf of the Awards, we're very grateful for WORD Christchurch's ongoing support, including sponsorship of the cash prize for the winner of the Best Crime Novel category. Since those earliest days, even as they were personally dealing with their city's long and ongoing recovery from the deadly 'quakes, the likes of Rachael King, Ruth Todd, Morrin Rout, and Marianne Hargreaves have been so helpful and supportive of our Awards, and helped created some really fantastic events.

We're currently finalising the details of our 2017 event, to be held in Christchurch on 28 October.

And perhaps on that night we'll see a changing of the guard in more ways than one; while all the trophies since McGee’s inaugural prize have gone to crime writers from Christchurch, Dunedin, and Wellington, this year more than half of the finalists are from Auckland.

Ado done, here are our 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists, with judges comments:











BEST CRIME NOVEL
The finalists were chosen by a panel consisting of Richardson, New Zealand book critics Greg Fleming and Stephanie Jones, renowned overseas reviewers Karen Chisholm (Australia), Ayo Onatade (UK), Janet Rudolph (USA), and Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

Pancake Money by Finn Bell (ebook): Detectives Bobby Ress and Pollo Latu are put to the test when someone starts martyring Dunedin priests in the most medieval of ways: "A brutal page-turner with compelling characters that takes a deep-dive into the psychological and a captivating examination of urban and countryside life."

Spare Me The Truth by CJ Carver (Zaffre): a man suffering memory loss, a grieving daughter, and disgraced cop all have their lives upturned as they’re plunged into a global conspiracy: “Intriguing characters, twists that keep you guessing, and at heart a complex tale of betrayal and deception – a brilliant page-turner."

Red Herring by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins): private eye Johnny Molloy and reporter Caitlin O’Carolan get entangled in deadly agendas and union politics as the 1951 waterfront dispute rages: "Cullinane’s characters fizz and sparkle in this historical thriller whose cracking dialogue and ceaseless pace make it feel utterly current."

Marshall’s Law by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin): After his witness protection handler is kidnapped, ex-NYPD undercover cop Marshall Grade decides that offense is the best form of defense, infiltrating  his old haunts for answers: "Some of the tautest writing and nastiest characters around, an adrenalin-charged tale where no-one emerges unscathed."

The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman (Allison & Busby): a survivor and a perpetrator of a brutal home invasion seek to come to terms with their altered lives after the news cycle moves on: “Lyrically and sensitively written, a harrowing yet touching story that stays with you; this is brave and sophisticated storytelling.”













BEST FIRST NOVEL
I was joined on this judging panel by three-time finalist Vanda Symon, US crime writer and critic Margot Kinberg, and British reviewer Chris Simmons, to choose these finalists.

Dead Lemons by Finn Bell (ebook): a wheelchair-bound man contemplating suicide or recovery in Riverton is obsessively drawn into a dangerous search for a father and daughter who went missing years before: "A wonderful new voice in crime writing delivers a tense, compelling tale centred on an original, genuine, and vulnerable character."

Red Herring by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins): remarkably similar to book of the same moniker in the Best Crime Novel category: "A very impressive debut that sucks you into the story and politics of the time with laconic description and dialogue".

The Ice Shroud by Gordon Ell (Bush Press): Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan, the new head of CIB in the Southern Lakes, faces moral and professional challenges when the body of a woman he recognises is pulled from an icy canyon: "An intriguing plot with solid character development in a well-drawn setting; a great local debut."

The Student Body by Simon Wyatt (Mary Egan Publishing): Newly promoted Detective Sergeant Nick Knight grapples with personal demons while trying to solve the puzzling murder of a teenage girl at a school camp in the Waitakeres: “A well-executed, tense police procedural delivering a solid sense of modern New Zealand.”

Days Are Like Grass by Sue Younger (Eunoia Publishing): paediatrician Claire Bowerman ran from a shadow of kidnap and murder, but her past is uncorked when she hits the headlines after a family refuses medical treatment for their sick kid: "A really impressive and enjoyable debut, a strong character-driven story".












BEST NON FICTION
Jones, Auckland lawyer Darise Bennington, Hamilton true crime writer Scott Bainbridge, and Scottish crime writer Douglas Skelton selected the following finalists for the new prize.

In Dark Places by Michael Bennett (Paul Little Books): the astonishing tale of how teenage car thief Teina Pora spent decades in prison for the brutal murder of Susan Burdett, and the remarkable fight to free him: “A scintillating, expertly balanced account of one of the most grievous miscarriages of justice in New Zealand history".

The Scene of the Crime by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins): a penetrating look into the brutal and banal realities of the criminal justice system, told via twelve tales: "Braunias’ unique way of finding dark humour in tragic circumstances gave a new perspective to crimes that have been written about incessantly by others".

Double-Edged Sword by Simonne Butler with Andra Jenkin (Mary Egan): a stark look behind the scenes at the prelude and aftermath of Antoine Dixon’s notorious ‘samurai sword’ attack: "A shocking, moving, but ultimately uplifting account of a woman who endured so much yet came through it with her spirit remarkably intact".

The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie by David Hastings (AUP): a whodunit turned whydunnit illustrating the social and political tensions of 1880s New Zealand after a young woman is found near Opunake with her throat slit: "A highly impressive historical tale which balances industrious research with terrific storytelling".

Blockbuster! by Lucy Sussex (Text Publishing): the story behind how Otago Boys High old boy and wannabe playwright Fergus Hume irked Conan Doyle and wrote the bestselling crime novel of the nineteenth century: "Very enjoyable, a richly detailed, highly readable account of the world and work of Fergus Hume".


This year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists will be celebrated and the category winners announced at a special event in association with WORD Christchurch on 28 October. You can keep up with awards news on Facebook and Twitter

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: THE LAST RESORT

THE LAST RESORT by Steph Broadribb (Orenda, Aug 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Done with a life of exploitation and violence, Lori Anderson is training to be a bounty hunter. Holed up in the Georgia Mountains with her reclusive mentor, JT, Lori is determined to put her new skills into practice. Behind JT's back, she breaks his rules and grabs the chance she's looking for. Will her gamble pay off, or will she have to learn the hard way?

One of my favourite reads of the past year is Steph Broadribb's debut crime novel Deep Down Dead, a terrific, action-packed thriller set in America's Deep South which introduced bounty hunting momma Lori Anderson. Sultry and suspenseful, Deep Down Dead is an absolute cracker of a debut that introduces a fresh voice to the crime scene, one that has a strong, compelling narrative voice.

I've been keenly awaiting the next instalment in the Lori Anderson series, Deep Blue Trouble, but while that;s still a few months away, today I was very glad to discover that Broadribb has given us a tasty wee amuse-bouche in between full courses: a Lori Anderson short story.

The Last Resort is a fun, quick read. It takes us back to Lori's days first training as a bounty hunter in the Georgia mountains with her mentor JT. For those who've read Deep Down Dead, it provides another look at a character we've met, while for those new to the burgeoning series, it'll give you a first-impressions insight into whether Lori might be a character you want to follow.

There's certainly plenty about her that's worth following. Lori is tough while not being impervious, full of attitude but with plenty to learn. Brave, stubborn, and more. She's a really interesting heroine, and as I said in my review of Deep Down Dead, offers something deliciously different to the floods of middle-class suburban housewives or working mothers traipsing through oceans of domestic noir.

Broadribb packs a lot into what is a short, quick read in The Last Resort. She skilfully evokes Lori's character, the complicated relationship between her and JT, and the surrounding landscapes of the Georgia mountains. There's a rawness and ruggedness to Broadribb's storytelling, a tough vulnerability that really draws you in. I think she's a superstar on the rise. Broadribb and Lori both.

Like a great amuse-bouche from a great chef, The Last Resort gives you a wee taste of her skill, and leaves your mouth watering in anticipation for the courses to come.


Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading publications in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, discussed the genre onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia and on national radio, and is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize and the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Monday, August 7, 2017

Review: A KILLER HARVEST

A KILLER HARVEST by Paul Cleave (Atria, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Joshua is convinced there is a family curse. It’s taken loved ones from him, it’s robbed him of his eyesight, and it’s the reason why his detective father is killed while investigating the homicide of a young woman.

Joshua is handed an opportunity he can’t refuse: an operation that will allow him to see the world through his father’s eyes. As Joshua navigates a world of sight, he gets glimpses of what these eyes might have witnessed in their previous life. What exactly was his dad up to in his role as a police officer...

I fear I'm sounding like a broken record when it comes to Paul Cleave's thrillers - book after book he shows himself to be one of the world's finest authors when it comes to creating page-turners with real depth that dance along the darker edge of the crime and thriller genre.

His tenth novel is something of a departure: there's a teenage protagonist (but this is very much an adult thriller with a teen hero, rather than a young adult novel), and Cleave veers towards his horror roots with the inclusion of an eye transplant and the idea of 'cellular memory', where an organ recipient feels that they've inherited memories or feelings from the donor. Long-time Cleave fans shouldn't worry though - these aspects just add fascination to his tale, rather than overwhelming it.

If Cleave was a literary author - particularly one from Latin America - A Killer Harvest might be considered 'magic realism'; a story with a single fantastical element intertwined in a rich portrayal of an otherwise very realistic, grounded world. As Cleave showed with his previous novel, the superb psychological thriller Trust No One, he's not afraid to stretch his literary legs within the crime genre.

Despite its slightly experimental feel, A Killer Harvest is still one of those thrillers that you can absolutely tear through in one sitting, while never feeling like it's 'thin' or 'breezy'. It's a terrific read, darkly hypnotic, that entices you through the power of Cleave's characterisation and storytelling even more so than its high-concept hook. As we've come to expect from Cleave, there's a delicious malevolence, tempered by his trademark obsidian humour and prose that crackles like a campfire.

The narrative switches between teenager Joshua, struggling with the tragedy and opportunity surrounding his new eyesight, and several other characters. Cleave masterfully builds the tension as we shift perspectives; A Killer Harvest dances along assuredly through all the movements.

At its heart, A Killer Harvest is a tale of an isolated boy struggling to fit in, who now feels like 'a freak' in both the blind world and the sighted one. Who's faced tragedy from his earliest days, and must find something deep within himself as the sins of the father threaten to be visited upon the son.

Overall, A Killer Harvest is a superb read from a virtuoso of the darker edge of crime that is firmly in the mix for my 'best read of the year'. Very highly recommended.

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 literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, and on national radio and top podcasts, 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

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Subway pub crawls and Stephen King dissertations: an interview with Mason Cross

Welcome to the latest instalment in the 9mm series! I'm very grateful to all the terrific crime writers who've generously given their time over the past few years. You can see the full index of author interviews here. If you've got a favourite author who hasn't yet featured, leave a comment, and I'll make it happen.

Today, I'm very pleased to welcome thriller author Mason Cross to Crime Watch. Cross is a Scottish author who, like his protagonist Carter Blake, operates under an assumed name. Carter Blake is a highly skilled operative who specialises in finding people who don't want to be found; Mason Cross pens high-octane thrillers that have been praised by the likes of thriller masters Lee Child, Simon Kernick, and Lisa Gardner. His debut, The Killing Season, was longlisted for the prestigious Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, while his sophomore effort, The Samaritan, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick.

Part of an exciting new generation of thriller writers, Cross is published on both sides of the Atlantic, and there are now four books in his Carter Blake series (the fourth, Don't Look for Me, is already out in the UK, but will be published in the United States in the coming months.

For those on the festival circuit, this weekend Mason Cross will be appearing in two events at the Bute Noir festival in Scotland, alongside Steve Cavanagh on Friday night, and with Steph Broadribb on Sunday afternoon (all three are British authors who set their books in the USA). If you can't make it to Bute, in September you can see Cross at Bloody Scotland in Stirling, including as part of the 'From Tinseltown to Sin City' panel with Chris Carter that I will be moderating.

But for now, Mason Cross becomes the 167th crime writer to stare down the barrel of 9mm.

9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH MASON CROSS

Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
That’s a tough one, because I have so many favourites, including Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Travis McGee, Tempe Brennan, John Rebus and more. If I had to pick one, it would probably be the classic: Philip Marlowe. So much of the template for the maverick hero who always does the right thing was laid down by Raymond Chandler in those books. He’s a compelling character, but his smartass attitude and ability to find poetry in the most unpromising of places make him a great character (though not always a completely likeable one) to spend time with.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I remember loving the Three Investigators book The Secret of the Vanishing Treasure when I read it in primary school. It’s probably what kindled a love of mystery books, and I read all of the other books in the series I could get hold of.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything)? Unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I had a short story called ‘A Living’ published in the Sun Book of Short Stories, after entering it for a competition. I got a kick out of going into bookshops and libraries and seeing my name in a real book, and I think that definitely spurred me on to keep writing. I had a few other stories published in small magazines.

Probably the biggest piece of work I completed before writing a novel was my final year dissertation at university, which was on four Stephen King books and the movies adapted from them. I’m told that tutors at Stirling University cite that as evidence you can write your dissertation on anything, which is either a compliment or a criticism, I’ve never been sure. Oh, and I had one unpublished novel before The Killing Season. Looking back, it was for the best that it didn’t find a publisher, because it allowed me to avoid a lot of the rookie mistakes for the next one.

Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Unfortunately, between writing a book a year, having a day job and being dad to three kids I don’t have a whole lot of time to indulge my other interests. I used to love playing basketball and cycling, but at the moment climbing three flights of stairs just about kills me. I also love walking, both long distance trails like the West Highland Way, and just wandering around a big city like New York or London. I still try to explore a new place whenever I travel.

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?
Glasgow is a great town because it’s big enough that you have all the social and entertainment advantages of city life, but its location means you can get in the car and be surrounded by mountains and lochs and complete solitude in less than an hour.

In terms of off-the-tourist-trail stuff, I’ve always liked exploring the hidden parts of the city. You can go on a guided tour of the caverns underneath Central Station where they have abandoned Victorian platforms, and you find out all sorts of cool stuff, like fact they buried an entire village during construction, or where they stockpiled the dead coming back from World War I. If I was a horror writer, there would be a lot of material for a book there.

The other great way to get a feel for the city is doing the Subway pub crawl, getting off at each of the fifteen stops which span some of the most deprived and most affluent parts of the city.

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
It would be an exceptionally boring movie. One of my American friends keeps telling me Liev Schreiber should play me, but I think that’s just because we both have moderately chubby cheeks.


Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
I like all of them once I have enough distance from the writing process (you absolutely hate a book by the time it gets to proof stage), but I’d probably have to say the first one, The Killing Season. Maybe that’s just because it’s longer since I wrote it, but I enjoyed having all the time in the world to finish it, as opposed to the subsequent books where I’ve had deadlines to hit.

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?
I was pretty happy about it. I found out when my agent called me on a Friday night half an hour before I had to leave the house for my second job delivering pizzas. So the immediate celebration was eating dinner and going to work, but I picked up a few beers after my shift to celebrate.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I think I’m too new to have experience anything truly bizarre yet, but there was one guy at a library event who asked a long, rambling question about why you need to go to Eton to be an actor or a musician or get a book published. He was pretty upset about it. I didn’t go to Eton.


Thank you Mason. We appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch

You can read more about Mason Cross and his tales at his website, and follow him on Twitter

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review: PAYBACK

PAYBACK by Geoff Palmer (2016)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Solikha Duong lives the carefree life of a village girl in northern Cambodia until her world is torn apart by ‘truck men’ from the south. But Solikha is tough, resourceful, and won’t give up without a fight ...

Alice Kwann is on vacation when she’s set upon by thugs at a stopover in northern Nevada. But Alice too is tough, resourceful, and won’t give up without a fight ...

What binds these women together is a shocking trade – the third-largest criminal activity in the world – but one we’d rather ignore.  Now Solikha and Alice must go deeper than they’ve ever gone before, to fight the demons that haunt them and battle the evil men who would use them and destroy them ... because sometimes your past won’t let you go. 

A vengeance styled thriller, set in Asia, PAYBACK tackles sex-trafficking and child abuse head on. Opening with the recounting of a young village girl being trucked off to the south of the country, along with many others, to be forced into a child sex ring. The resourcefulness this young girl and the small boy she has befriended show in escaping their intended fate goes on to be reflected in adult life, with the two of them staying in touch, close friends to this day.

The blurb includes the line: "What binds these women together is a shocking trade - the third-largest criminal activity in the world - but one we'd rather ignore." That really should stop anybody dead in their tracks. If the sex-trafficking is that big, and child sex trafficking is included in that figure then what on earth is wrong with us as a species?

Whilst there is much that is shocking in PAYBACK, there is also much that is hopeful - built in main around the central character - a strong, sympathetic and complex female protagonist who is not adverse to a bit of action hero fighting into the bargain. The only slight downside to her is a bit of heavy lifting to create vulnerability in the character which isn't always convincing and didn't feel necessary. On the upside however, the subject matter is handled sensitively, there's layers to the revenge aspects of the story, and the US setting rings true.

Overall PAYBACK is a good action thriller that's well worth reading. If I'm reading Palmer's website correctly it's the first he's written, given his other novels appear to be in the fiction/science fiction/young adult category.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and the Ned Kelly Awards. She kindly shares and republishes her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review: SHAFTS OF STRIFE

SHAFTS OF STRIFE by David Bates (2016)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

The New Zealand government – led by autocratic Prime Minister Wynyard Nairn – approves the establishment of a USA naval facility, and in the middle of Wellington’s pristine harbour. Given the anti-nuclear stance in the country, all hell breaks out! Daily protests and rallies occur and threats of mayhem are made. Within days anarchy rules; Parliament is occupied, the US Embassy is attacked and two die, a major TV communications tower is destroyed and central Wellington is blockaded. But when the International Airport is forced to close, the situation reaches crisis point.

The Prime Minister – under increasing pressure from the scale of continuing protests – attacks the Police, threatening to remove their independence and bring in the army. Will Nairn change his mind, is he even listening? … or will it be up to the people? A story of democratic power and protest!

New Zealand's decision to declare itself nuclear-free in 1987 created quite a stir at the time, so it makes considerable sense that an autocratic Prime Minister approving a US Navel facility in the middle of Wellington harbour (and therefore allowing the possibility of nuclear powered vessels back into New Zealand waters) would create an even bigger stir.

SHAFTS OF STRIFE is built around that concept - where daily protests and rallies occur, mayhem and anarchy ensue and, well all hell breaks out as the blurb says.

The novel builds a picture of an authoritarian Prime Minister, hell bent on what seems like a ridiculous direction, in the face of absolute opposition from most sides.

Unfortunately there's something soberingly real about the scenario put forward. Unfortunately, an idea that doesn't quite hit as hard as it should, due in part to a tendency towards expository style with big info dumps, and a simplistic "bad politicians" versus "good cops" underlay.

Well worth a look though - especially as a reminder that there is a world of difference between an autocrat and a strong leader.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and the Ned Kelly Awards. She kindly shares and republishes her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: PANCAKE MONEY

PANCAKE MONEY by Finn Bell (2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Bobby Ress is a cop with a simple life. He believes in making a difference. He loves his wife and his daughter. He has a place in the world. Then people start dying, a lot of them, in horrible ways. It's a case like no other. And step by gruesome step the simple, true things Bobby knew to be right and good begin to make less and less sense. Because Bobby is learning about pain. He doesn't like to admit it. He doesn't like to know, but he's slowly realizing: If you hurt someone bad enough for long enough then there's nothing, absolutely nothing, they won't do.

When I look back on my crime reading for the 2017 year, no matter what books I rate as my top reads, I am pretty sure that I'll consider Finn Bell as my 'find of the year' in terms of new-to-me authors. This is the second of Bell's books I've read, after his terrific debut Dead Lemons, and this is equally as good. Perhaps better, depending on your personal tastes.

Whereas Bell's debut centred on a wheelchair bound amateur sleuth, this one has a more traditional hero, police detective Bobby Ress (who makes an appearance in Dead Lemons in a supporting role).

Partnered up with the likeable Pollo Latu, one of New Zealand's many Pacific Islands policemen, Ress is called out to the brutal murder of a Dunedin priest. It's a particularly horrific crime, where it's clear the victim was made to suffer. When another tortured priest is found, it's clear someone is targeting the local clergy, but why? Could this be payback for abuse at the hands of the church? Were the victims men of God who'd fallen from grace? What do the medieval style deaths represent?

While the 'killer targeting priests' trope is hardly new, Bell's writing comes across as fresh and packed with power and narrative drive. There's just something about his crime storytelling that drags you in and keeps you welded to your seat, whirring the pages. While in Dead Lemons he did a great job evoking the remote south of the south setting of small-town Riverton, here he balances urban life and the countryside that lurks closely wherever you are when you're in New Zealand.

I particularly enjoyed the interplay between Ress and Latu, the two main cops. There's an authentic sense of long-time partners who care for each other, joke around with each other, and worry for each other, even as they try to do their best in a very tough job, and maintain their sanity despite the horrors they see. Bell peppers the narrative with interesting characters and philosophy as well as action. Occasionally he has a tendency to go slightly monologue-y, delivering chunks of information or philosophy - but for me it didn't come across as too expository. Maybe because it was fascinating, or delivered in an interesting way, or wrapped up in enough other good things it didn't bother me.

Bell has real storytelling talent, and has shown in his first two books that he's a powerful new voice in antipodean crime writing. Wherever you are in the world, I'd recommend you give him a go.


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

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: THE BISHOP'S SWORD

THE BISHOP'S SWORD by Norman Berrow (1948)

Reviewed by Kate Jackson

When Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith finds a puzzling case he seems to find three of them at a time. This time, all three are real puzzlers. (1) How did someone steal the priceless Bishop’s Sword from the hermetically sealed glass case? (2) How did a man who was in jail visit a police official at night at his home? And (3) how did seven men enter the one-exited cave and only six come out?

This is another book choice inspired by JJ at The Invisible Event and definitely gives value for money for the number of locked room/impossible crimes/scenarios it includes. The book takes place in and around a country town called Winchingham and the story’s setup has a range of familiar and unfamiliar characters. There is the new young companion-secretary, Toni Meridew who has come to work for the elderly Mrs Miriam Pendlebury. The latter was definitely a character I enjoyed as she is not the typical tyrannical parent and is actually quite humorous.

Within this household there is also Miriam’s son Eric and sister, Emmeline Forbes, the last being interested in mysticism. Eric immediately seems very taken by Toni and this attraction becomes a source of comedy for the reader, as Miriam rebukes him mildly for it: ‘Don’t stare at Miss Meridew like that!’ Nearby there is also a mystery man, a mystic called Matthew Strange and his six Chinese followers, who are busy working on preparing a cave for their leader. Although Matthew is described as sometimes wearing flowing robes, it is interesting to note that he is also said to have ‘looked like a cross between a retired banker and an absent minded professor.’ Miriam’s home houses two valuable items, an expensive pearl necklace and a family sword which was:

‘sheathed in a red velvet scabbard decorated with gold filigree and thickly encrusted with either real or imitation jewels. The wide, curving hand guard was also apparently of gold and studded with more jewels, and about the hand-grip was more red velvet worn and stained by the clutch of dead and gone fingers…’

It’s not surprising that Toni finds this ‘an incongruous object… [for a] household of women.’ The sword also has an interesting backstory, having been gained by an ancestor who was a priest turned pirate. The sword is supposed to be impossible to steal due to the difficulty of selling it on and also due to practical reasons surrounding the cabinet it is in.

Yet life does not remain tranquil at Mrs Pendlebury’s with there apparently being an intruder in the garden and house at night, the latter of which seems to have disappeared out of a sealed room. But due to the house proud Forbes and the conscientious gardener any potential prints are removed. It is only a few nights later that there is anything to investigate, which is not surprising considering Miriam’s pearls are stolen and the gardener is found murdered with a blunt instrument.

An early suspect for the police is Strange, which is to be expected when there is so much circumstantial evidence against, including the fact the pearls were found in his pocket. In itself this seems a fairly open and shut case for DI Smith, but when Strange claims in court that through projecting his psyche he will visit the magistrate events turn towards the bizarre, especially when it seems that he has done just that, while the police swear that he was locked in a police cell. What is more disturbing is that he is able to repeat this action and bring disturbing news each time, including another theft at the Pendlebury’s…

Is Strange the genuine thing or a phoney? Have the police got the wrong man after all? Will DI Smith and his cohorts reach the solution in time? The solving of this case takes a lot of brain power from DI Smith, breaking down the multiple layers of illusion and assumptions which have been built up around the case. Moreover, there is another perhaps even more fantastical act which I haven’t mentioned but cranked up mine and DI Smith’s befuddlement immensely.

With such confusing events coming up with a credible solution was always going to be no easy task and overall I think Berrow handled this area well, devising an interesting solution which did not make the explanation of the crime dry and overly detailed. However, I do think there is one element of the solution which feels a little bit like a cheat or perhaps a fairer way of putting it would be that the element was convenient. Although on the other hand I do realise that this element needed to be incorporated to explain away the most peculiar aspects of the case.

The narrative style for a locked room/ impossible crime novel where the mechanics of the crimes are given higher priority, was good and didn’t become too technical. However I think one area which could have been developed concerns the characters, as the ending of the novel did terminate rather abruptly and could have benefited from a rounding off or up of the characters. Moreover, I think although Berrow sets up a number of characters at the start of the story, he tends to ignore, overlook or possibly even forget some of them as the story progresses, focusing on a much smaller group. Consequently I think the relationships between the characters could have been developed/ included more. DI Smith though is a likeable and engaging detective character and it is enjoyable watching him work his way through the investigation, tackling events which are fairly mind boggling.


Kate Jackson is a teacher and mystery lover from the north of England who blogs at Cross Examining Crime. This review was originally published on her blog, and is reprinted here with her kind permission.  You can follow Kate on Twitter @armchairsleuth 

Note: the cover image used above is for the 2009 reprint of this book from Ramble House (which was the edition Kate read, and the one now available).