Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review: IN DARK PLACES

IN DARK PLACES by Michael Bennett (Paul Little Books, 2016)

Reviewed by Victoria Goldman

Teina Pora, a 17-year-old car thief, was wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Susan Burdett, who had been beaten to death with the softball bat she kept next to her bed for her own protection. Tim McKinnel, en ex-cop turned private investigator, discovered the long forgotten case 18 years later, saw an injustice had been done and set out to win Teina’s freedom. 

Reaching from the mean streets of South Auckland to the highest court in the Commonwealth, this is the story not just of Tim’s quest, but also of how an innocent man who was left rotting in a prison cell for two decades found the inner strength to rise above the dark places to which he had been condemned.

In Dark Places is one of the best books I've read all year. The story is not only fascinating but also heart-breaking - of a man sentenced to life in prison for murder, a crime he didn't commit. And of the 18 years he spent there (more than half his life) before he was finally freed.

I was glued to the story of New Zealander Teina Pora and private investigator Tim McKinnel's quest to determine the truth about Susan Burdett's death. The book is compelling and fast-paced from the outset and reads like fiction.

There are cliffhangers, twists and turns, tensions and drama - everything you'd expect to find in a crime novel. Except this isn't fiction -  these are real life events and real people involved. I had to keep reminding myself of that. With his brilliant writing, Michael Bennett makes the people, places and events leap out of the pages.

The police procedure, legal framework and forensics are described in detail, yet very easy to understand. During his research, Tim McKinnel explored the science of false confessions and racism in the New Zealand justice system. This devastating miscarriage of justice left me with one word:

Why?

In Dark Places is perfect for true crime fans and those who followed Making a Murderer. But I also urge people who don't usually read true crime to pick up this book. I hadn't read any true crime for years, but now, thanks In Dark Places, I'll be reading lots more.

Victoria Goldman is a health journalist and editor who also reviews crime novels and talks about books and writing at Off-the-Shelf BooksThis review was originally published on her website as part of the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour, celebrating this year's finalists across three categories, and is reprinted here with her kind permission.  You can follow VIctoria on Twitter: @victoriagoldma2

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: THE MANY DEATHS OF MARY DOBIE

THE MANY DEATHS OF MARY DOBIE by David Hastings (AUP, 2016)

Reviewed by Kate Jackson

Dreadful murder at Opunake’, said the Taranaki Herald, ‘Shocking outrage’, cried the Evening Post in Wellington when they learned in November 1880 that a young woman called Mary Dobie had been found lying under a flax bush near Opunake on the Taranaki coast with her throat cut so deep her head was almost severed. 

In the midst of tensions between Maori and Pakeha in 1880, the murder ignited questions: Pakeha feared it was an act of political terrorism in response to the state’s determination to take the land of the tribes in the region. Maori thought it would be the cue for the state to use force against them, especially the pacifist settlement at Parihaka. Was it rape or robbery, was the killer Maori or Pakeha?

In this book, David Hastings takes us back to that lonely road on the Taranaki coast in nineteenth-century New Zealand to unravels the many deaths of Mary Dobie – the murder, the social tensions in Taranaki, the hunt for the killer and the lessons that Maori and Pakeha learnt about the murder and about themselves.

This is the first true crime book I have reviewed online. True crime is not a subgenre I dabble in much. I’m not into grisly books on Jack the Ripper, and I really didn’t enjoy Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). It tried to be dramatic fictionalisation as well as a non-fiction text detailing the historical/social/cultural data and for me it failed on both counts. Not sure I even finished it, which is certainly a rarity for me.Therefore, to be honest, I was a little worried about trying another true crime book. However, fortunately for me, my fears were unfounded and Hastings' book is a successful book, which importantly for me delivered a writing style which was consistent, engaging, well-paced, and entertainingly informative.

The story Hastings’ book relates is of the murder of the artist Mary Dobie in 1880 in New Zealand. She, with her mother and sister, had been visiting New Zealand for three years, with her sister having married someone over there. Mary and her mother were due to soon leave for the return trip to England. Yet this was not to be for Mary, as one day when she went for a walk, she did not return and as darkness was falling she is discovered, her throat cut so deeply that she is nearly decapitated.

After an introductory chapter setting up the crime in its basic details, hinting at the role the newspapers would go on to play in the investigation of the murder, Hastings then turns back the clock a couple of years to look at Mary Dobie, her family, and their stay in New Zealand before the fateful day. In doing so Hastings deftly explores the wider context of the crime and how it coloured perceptions of the suspects involved.

The political and social context particularly intrigued me as before, during, and after the crime there was a lot of tension between the native inhabitants and the settler communities, whose government was trying to reallocate their land. Into this powder keg of tensions and barely restrained violence, Mary’s murder can be seen as a lighted match and it was especially fascinating to see how this situation affected everyone’s earnest need to know why the murder was committed and also how in turn the murder and the subsequent trial affected the land dispute.

Mary Dobie is an interesting person to read about, having not been a very conventional woman in many respects. Hastings does not romanticise her, nor whitewash her. She is not a wholly likeable woman, suffering from class snobbery in part and an imperialist outlook not every modern day reader will get along with. Nevertheless she was still a remarkable and talented woman, recording her trips around New Zealand in sketches and paintings, going to far-flung places and experiencing the out of the ordinary. One contemporary newspaper wrote that: "It is of women like her that the heroines of history are made". Hastings’ handling of her is skilled, providing a balanced picture and where her outlook on native New Zealanders is myopic, he is able to fill in the gaps. For instance in a community where Mary saw happy and healthy Maori inhabitants, Hastings counters this was a government official’s findings of a settlement riddled with tuberculosis.

Hastings does a good job of providing insightful little details into the case and its aftermath, without overloading the reader with too much data. He takes you on a journey as the case twists and turns, making you wonder how it will all end. The section on the surprises at the inquest and the subsequent trial were very interesting. In particular I enjoyed reading about the legal processes and the problems this case had with following them. Reader sympathy is not centred wholly on the victim, as Hastings brings to the readers’ attention the much wider scope of victims this crime has. Looking at the confessional evidence, Hastings pulls out of it a poignant and sad story of cultural misunderstanding and fear, which ended in violent death.


So unsurprisingly I give this book a big thumbs up. Not only was it a brilliant read, but it encouraged me to give the true crime subgenre another go. The case Hastings explores is compellingly written and you can’t help but be drawn in to the individuals and the society they were living in. The only slight niggle I had was that throughout the book photographs are referenced in text, yet they are not displayed in text nor in a middle section. Instead they are clumped together at the back. Personally I would have preferred to have had the pictures closer to the in text references, as I found it hard afterwards to connect them to what I had read. However, this is only a slight issue as I say and shouldn’t put anyone off from giving this book a go.

Kate Jackson is a teacher and mystery lover from the north of England who blogs at CrossExaminingCrime. This review was originally published on her website as part of the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour, celebrating this year's finalists across three categories, and is reprinted here with her kind permission.  You can follow Kate on Twitter @armchairsleuth 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: A SERPENT'S TOOTH

THE SERPENT'S TOOTH by Craig Johnson (Viking, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

It’s homecoming in Absaroka County, but the football and festivities are interrupted when a homeless boy wanders into town. A Mormon “lost boy,” Cord Lynear is searching for his missing mother but clues are scarce. Sheriff Walt Longmire and his companions, feisty deputy Victoria Moretti and longtime friend Henry Standing Bear, embark on a high plains scavenger hunt in hopes of reuniting mother and son. The trail leads them to an interstate polygamy group that’s presiding over a stockpile of weapons and harboring a vicious vendetta.

Over the past couple of years, Longmire has become one of my absolute favourite television shows. It's got beautiful cinematography coupled with brilliant writing and acting; multi-layered storytelling which is full of conflict and shades of grey. Lots of real-life issues threaded throughout exciting plotlines and fascinating character arcs - for the 'supporting cast' as well as the main players.

It's an exquisite show, that just launched its sixth and final season on Netflix today (if you're in the USA, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. UK viewers have to wait, unfortunately).

Longmire the television show is based on the highly acclaimed, long-running mystery series by Wyoming author Craig Johnson. Until earlier this year, I hadn't yet gotten around to reading the actual books. What a mistake that was: Johnson is a fantastic writer, who's built an amazing 'world' in his writing; an authentic array of characters probing mysteries in a unique, richly drawn setting. The tone of the books is a little different to the TV show (both are great in their own right) - there's more humour, a little more warmth, and Sheriff Walt Longmire comes off as a little less gruff and action-oriented as we get more of a look at his interior world thanks to the first-person narration.

In this ninth instalment, Walt and his deputy Vic Moretti stumble across a teen runaway with ties to a shady polygamist cult group who've been growing stronger on the fringes of Absaroka County. With stockpiles of weapons and an 'us vs them' mentality, the group might be a dangerous powderkeg.

As Walt, Vic and Walt's long-time pal Henry Standing Bear (aka The Cheyenne Nation) try to reunite a lost boy and his mother, they encounter a host of eccentric individuals, including a Houdini-esque man who claims to be 200-year-old Mormon lawman, an elderly man who builds spaceships in his backyard, and an amiable woman who swapped life in the CIA for the rural idyll.

There's a heck of a lot to like about Johnson's writing. He crafts rich characters that upturn stereotypes, is a master of dialogue, and offers mysteries that have plenty of heart and soul.

Absaroka County may be a fictional place, but it feels incredibly real, full of fascinating people that are a delight to spend time with, whose adventures make you think and feel. I for one will be working my way through Johnson's backlist as he's become a must-read author for me.


Craig Sisterson writes features for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed 200 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at  literary festivals in Europe, North America, and Australasia and on national radio and top podcasts, and had been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: A GAME OF GHOSTS

A GAME OF GHOSTS by John Connolly (Atria, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

It is deep winter. The darkness is unending. The private detective named Jaycob Eklund has vanished, and Charlie Parker is dispatched to track him down. Parker's employer, Edgar Ross, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has his own reasons for wanting Eklund found.

Eklund is no ordinary investigator. He is obsessively tracking a series of homicides and disappearances, each linked to reports of hauntings. Now Parker will be drawn into Eklund's world, a realm in which the monstrous Mother rules a crumbling criminal empire, in which men strike bargains with angels, and in which the innocent and guilty alike are pawns in a game of ghosts ...

Traditionally crime fiction was about reason, rationality, and logic - detectives using their acute minds and observation skills to deduce who was responsible for (usually) a murder. Even as the genre has expanded far beyond the strictures of Holmesian or Golden Age puzzling whodunnits, nowadays most crime fiction is still firmly grounded in 'the real world'.

Few crime writers dare to blend the supernatural or paranormal into their mix, but among those that do, Irishman John Connolly is the platinum standard. His Charlie Parker series is simply superb, and Connolly is one of the very best crime writers, of any sub-genre, on the planet. A poet of the genre.

This fifteenth instalment in the award-winning series ramps up the paranormal elements even further; it feels like the mythology Connolly has been stoking novel by novel is bubbling to a furious boil.

Parker is roped in by a shady FBI agent to try and hunt down what's happened to an unconventional private eye who was delving into hauntings with a deadly edge. Meanwhile his home life is in disarray: he's battling his ex Rachel over custody to their daughter Sam. Rachel blames Parker and his crime fighting life for putting Sam in danger, unaware that there may be far darker dangers lurking.

A Game of Ghosts is a tricky book to review. Connolly is both a fine prose stylist and excellent storyteller. There's depth and intelligence to his tales. He regularly pens five-star reads that challenge best-of-the-year lists (or should), and I'd expect to see A Game of Ghosts on a few this year too.

But for me, I wonder if this instalment might not be the best one to start with if you're a new reader to the Charlie Parker series. Although it can stand on its own, and is another superlative tale, I kind of feel like you might be better off to have read at least a couple of prior Parker books to fully appreciate all that's going on. Not from an understanding or plot perspective, but just in terms of getting extra resonance and satisfaction when it comes to the character arcs and supernatural elements. .

Connolly turns the paranormal dial up high; there are various ghostly or demonic figures lurking as Parker hunts for the truth of Eklund's disappearance. This book crackles with malice and threat.

There's a palpable sense of evil throughout the Parker books. The 'bad guys' are really, really bad - true grotesques in the gothic tradition. Layer in Connolly's literary stylings, and you have something unique and quite special in the crime writing field. Highly recommended - whether to dive into straight away, or put by the bedside table as you work your way through some of the backlist.


Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features and reviews for a range of magazines and newspapers in several countries. In recent years he's interviewed almost 200 mystery writers and discussed crime writing onstage at festivals on three continents, and on national radio and top podcasts. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), the McIlvanney Prize (Scotland), and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: DISPOSABLE SOULS

DISPOSABLE SOULS by Phonse Jessome

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

The body of Pastor Sandy Gardner, a TV preacher with a global following, turns up near a Halifax container pier. The mysterious case lands with Cam Neville, a city cop with a dead wife, PTSD, and a haunting past. Can Neville, a former biker and war hero, solve the killing and find himself?

In search of the truth, Neville and his partner, a Mi’kmaw Mountie named Blair Christmas, enter a perilous world of strippers, kiddie porn, and corruption that threatens to destroy them. Meanwhile, Neville is torn between loyalties to his two brothers, one still with the Satan’s Stallion bike club founded by their father, and another, a priest who wants to save everyone, including Cam.

Well, this was a very pleasant surprise. Exploring Nova Scotia for a few days before Bouchercon last month, I was keen to find, buy, and read some local crime fiction while travelling. But I struggled to find much until I discovered Phonse Jessome's Halifax-set debut while browsing the excellent Lexicon Books in the historic seaside town of Lunenburg.

There is a heck of a lot to like about this crime tale. In movie tagline parlance, it's like Harry Bosch meets Sons of Anarchy, a talented, maverick cop with a military background whose often off-side with his superiors and the politics of policing, heavily peppered with the outlaw life of 1 per centers.

But reducing it to a tagline would be a bit of an injustice.

Disposable Souls is dark yet thoughtful, packed with not only action but also authentic, fascinating characters and a good sense of place. A great, page-turning plot that had me completely absorbed, while never feeling 'breezy' or thin. There's substance here, on many levels. Overall, I loved it.

I learned after reading Disposable Souls that Jessome was an award-winning Canadian journalist, who'd suffered PTSD during a 35-year-career specialising in the darker side of human nature: he covered everything from war zones to international disasters to human trafficking to outlaw motorcycle gangs to extremely brutal local crimes. He'd also written two bestselling true crime books, but had given away the journalism when his PTSD flared seven years after diagnosis.

That perhaps explains his writing chops (though not every good journalist becomes a good novelist), and even more so the great authenticity Jessome brings to the characters, situations, and underlying issues in Disposable Souls. Even before I knew of Jessome's background, Disposable Souls just 'rang true' when it came to outlaw biker life, issues of mental health and PTSD, and various aspects of the collisions between cops, criminals, and citizens spanning different worlds and worldviews.

Things are far from black and white in Disposable Souls, even if some characters think that way. It's a book about the choices people make, the lifestyles they live (or portray), and how they deal with the shit that comes their way. It might have you questioning not just what is really true, but who are really the good guys or bad guys. Labels don't matter as much as actions.

I certainly hope this is just the beginning of Phonse Jessome's foray into crime novels.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features and reviews for a range of magazines and newspapers in several countries. In recent years he's interviewed almost 200 mystery writers and discussed crime writing onstage at festivals on three continents, and on national radio and top podcasts. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), the McIlvanney Prize (Scotland), and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review: TREACHERY ROAD

TREACHERY ROAD by John Rosanowski (Cornwall Publications, 2017)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Treachery Road examines the infamous exploits of the Burgess-Kelly gang which marauded the goldfields in the 1860s. It seeks to crack one of New Zealand's noted "cold cases". Who actually carried out the six murders attributed to the gang?

A gentleman with an alcohol problem is in Sea View Lunatic Asylum on the hills above the Hokitika goldfields. He has been making a nuisance of himself in Hokitika and other gold mining areas, trying to gather information about the infamous Burgess Gang: Richard Burgess, Philip Levy, Thomas Kelly and Joseph Sullivan. The man is obsessed with the case, Burgess, Kelly and Levy having been hanged years before. As an ex-journalist (hence the alcohol problem) he has stumbled across information that makes him doubt the evidence of Sullivan – the fourth member of the gang – evidence that was used to convict the other three.  Once he realises he will be held in the asylum until he can prove his ravings about the case have a logical and fact-based foundation, he sets about to record his research and his findings. Not a straight forwards task when: “The reader should be aware … that members of the criminal classes can be consummate liars”.

The Maungatapu Murders are a well-known incident in New Zealand history, with four men and a horse killed on their way to Nelson from Canvastown, and another man, an old whaler who had been working as a farm labourer, killed while travelling from Pelorus. The murders took place in 1866.

In “these more enlightened days of the 1890s”, the ex-journalist intends to find the truth about the case using the methods of his hero, Sherlock Holmes. He uses his two volumes of Conan Doyle’s stories as his text book, and he writes to journalist colleagues and friends to assist him in gathering information – much as Holmes sends out his Baker Street Irregulars.

There is always a challenge when presenting large amounts of historical detail in a novel. Making the job easier for Rosanowski is the fascinating material he is working with – he peppers his story with the actual press clippings from the day, and matches their phrasing in his own writing. The framing of the ‘author’ of the story being in Sea View is also a great idea, as the possibility of unreliability hovers around him, and when he finally faces his drinking problem, he is spurred to be even more logical and scrupulous. The only small complaint I had with the style was the footnotes, most of which I found unnecessary.

Knowing the bare bones of the story, it was really amazing to read how the justice system connived to get Burgess, Kelly, and Levy convicted, the role the media played in determining the outcome of the trial, the pressure from the public who had decided the ‘facts’ – especially when the people concerned didn’t behave as they ‘should’ – and the story of guilt became self-perpetuating, for example when the new field of phrenology was enlisted to support the verdicts, folding all the prejudices and anti-Semitic sentiment into pseudo-scientific jargon.  I was reminded of Steve Braunias’ The Scene of the Crime, a non-fiction books making the same disturbing points (minus the phrenology) about well-known current cases.

Rosanowski does a great job of laying out all the information, and the description of the executions is genuinely moving, with the despair of Kelly, the bluster of Burgess, and the resignation of Levy as they face their deaths. Well done too is the following of Sullivan through to his death in 1881- wandering unwanted and shunned wherever he went.  Treachery Road hovers nicely between fiction and non-fiction. And brings to life a period of history through the details of a murder case that has always captured the public imagination.

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Review: THE EASTER MAKE BELIEVERS

THE EASTER MAKE BELIEVERS by Finn Bell (ebook)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

When an innocent family is taken hostage in their home no one is ready for how fast it all goes terribly wrong. As the close knit community of small town Lawrence reels from the shock, detectives Nick Cooper and Tobe White stand among the dead bodies knowing that it’s not over. Because while grateful that at least the two young daughters survived unscathed, they now know that their father is still missing, somehow impossibly vanishing from a house surrounded by police. 

The mystery deepens as Nick and Tobe realize that they know every gunman lying dead here – because up to last night they were the leaders of the biggest criminal gang in the country. As the desperate search and rescue mission starts it soon collides with their own challenging investigation leading them into the centre of a deeper, older tragedy. Where they begin to learn just how far someone will go for those he truly, dearly hates.

A hostage crisis in the small Otago town of Lawrence in the South Island goes horribly wrong. A woman is shot, her children traumatised, four guys are fatally shot by police snipers, and another is killed by an explosion that blows the house to smithereens.  Not only that, the father of the house has been taken hostage, and he and his kidnapper have headed into the bush.

Enter Detective Nick Cooper and Detective Tobe White.They are initially called in due to the extent of the crisis, but they become deeply involved when they realise all the dead men in the remains of the house are local gang royalty – and Nick and Tobe work for the Gang Intelligence Centre. They start leaning on gang affiliates, hoping to encourage them to put pressure on the fleeing gangster, Remu Black, to turn himself in before he does anything nasty to his hostage.

Nick and Tobe end up doing search and rescue shifts in between trying to come up with theories of what might be going on. Things are not making sense, none of the usual reasons for large scale gang activity play out in this small-town hostage situation. And Nick is pretty shaken, having been at the heart of the action rather than “called in either well before or long after the bad things happen” as usual with gang intelligence.

Nick is a pretty damaged individual all round, living with the fall out of a nasty event in his youth. But he is a dedicated cop, just like his partner who won’t retire as “I don’t think he knows how to do anything else, or even how much of him would be left over to go and do it”.

There is much time for Nick and Tobe to ruminate on the traumatisation of innocent and trusting children, the effects on people and society when bad things happen to good people, and to what extent it is OK to do bad things for good outcomes. And the story is well played out; the reader starts to realise the truth of the situation long before the two detectives, as the reader is privy to the goings on in the bush.  And the reader is also aware of the approach of a seemingly human-activity-sparked weather bomb that is working its way up from the Antarctic.

There is great suspense in The Easter Make Believers, and the predicament the detectives end up in really thrilling. Nick: “A harsh kind of honesty that can come with getting yourself this exhausted” – you really care for these people. The only disappointment for me was that the nuanced and measured lead up to the final denouement was suddenly dropped at that point, and a wall of words explains what is happening, rather than the reader working it out from the action. And black/white statements like “These people won’t change, won’t listen or ever feel sorry” appear.

I much preferred the bulk of the novel, where things were grey and messy, allowing sympathy for people like one old gang patriarch, whose frozen body is crying tears, “as tears have salt in them, it lowers the point at which they freeze”, and the cops commit to their job on the side of the angels, “an ugly job where you have to do bad things to mean people”.

Another great read from Finn Bell.

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Wonka’s Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight: a 9mm interview with Fiona Sussman

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 to Crime Watch this year's winner of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, Fiona Sussman. A former doctor who grew up in Apartheid South Africa before moving to New Zealand almost thirty years ago, Fiona became the first female author to win New Zealand's best crime novel prize, at a great WORD Christchurch event last Saturday.

Her winning novel, The Last Time We Spoke, is a superlative tale of a brutal crime and its aftermath for both victim and perpetrator. A literary crime tale, it's a character-centric novel that delves deeply into the ongoing impact of crime on those involved, not just the investigation or pursuit of the culprits. “Laden with empathy and insight,” said the Ngaio Marsh Awards' judging panel. “A challenging, emotional read, harrowing yet touching, this is brave and sophisticated storytelling.”

Fiona has said she's "still reeling" from being named a Ngaio Marsh Awards winner on Saturday night (you can listen to a radio interview here, read a print feature here), but we show no mercy here at Crime Watch, and today she becomes the 171st author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH FIONA SUSSMAN

Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
My taste in books is quite eclectic, so I don’t tend to commit to an entire series. Recently, I very much enjoyed Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die set in the 1950’s South Africa. Detective Emmanuel Cooper is a compelling and authentic character. I will definitely read another of Nunn’s books in time. Growing up, I absolutely loved amateur sleuth Nancy Drew.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are two that stand out. I remember feeling such excitement and empowerment, matched only years later by learning to drive! I’d wake at five in the morning, make a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich, then climb back into bed to immerse myself in Dahl’s fantastical worlds. No peach in real life has ever tasted quite like the luscious one described in James and the Giant Peach. As for ‘Wonka’s Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight’, I scoured the shelves of corner stores for years, but to no avail. If anyone knows where I can get my hands on one . . .

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything): unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
My first novel, Shifting Colours, was published in 2014. Set against the backdrop of Apartheid South Africa, it tells the story of a little black girl, Miriam, who captures the heart of a white couple while her mother, Celia, is working as a maid for them in the white suburbs of Johannesburg. After the Sharpeville unrest, the couple decide to move to the UK, and they ask to adopt Miriam. The decision Celia makes is one made out of love, but it comes to haunt all the characters from therein out.

I enjoy writing short stories too and have been fortunate to have a number broadcast on National Radio. Writing short stories definitely helped me hone my craft. The tight form leaves no room for flabby writing – every word has to count. Writing short stories also taught me about the power of the unsaid. Most of my short stories, unlike my novels, have a medical theme, which I guess hearkens back to my days as a family doctor.

I have been fortunate to be invited to write articles for a number of publications, including the Irish Times, The Writers and Artists Yearbook, We Heart Writing, Female First, and Stuff.co.nz.

Outside of writing, touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I’m a keen tramper and love to hike with my family. We are absolutely spoilt for choice in New Zealand. I also run several times a week with my loyal boxer dog as running companion. We head out in rain, hail or shine. I find it a useful way to manage stress, and it seems to jumpstart my creativity; ideas for books and stories frequently pop into my head while I’m pounding the tarmac. Then it’s a frantic dash to get home before the idea disappears.

A pastime I’m passionate about is cooking. Nothing makes me happier than getting a crowd together around a table of good food. It’s in the genes – my late mum hailed from the wonderful culinary region of Piedmont in Italy. She was the best cook I know. A bit of trivia: I own over two hundred cookbooks. It’s a bit of an obsession, I know!

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?
If you come to Auckland in May you should try to attend the Auckland Writers Festival. It is world-class, attracts amazing voices from all over the globe, and will leave you inspired, excited about life, and with a lot of extra luggage! (Books are heavy.)

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Meryl Streep

Of your books, which is your favourite, and why (not which you think is best, but has a special meaning, for whatever reason)? 
Shifting Colours. For so many years I never felt proud to call myself a South African. Despite growing up in a very progressive family, with parents who actively opposed apartheid, I still felt in some way implicated by virtue of my white skin and my privilege. Writing Shifting Colours was the first opportunity for me, outside of the restrictive, censored confines of South Africa, to express my abhorrence for such a very brutal, inhuman regime. Shifting Colours was also my first literary baby. I learnt the craft while writing it. There were so many drafts. How could I not love it?

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?
My agent’s email will forever be imprinted on my mind. ‘I hope you are sitting down, Fiona. A publisher in London wants to publish your book!’ I was cycling the Timber Trail with my family at the time. Wifi was intermittent. I didn’t want to budge from the spot where I’d received the good news, and had to be practically dragged out of cellphone range. I was deliriously happy, and a little overwhelmed.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
A most lovely woman and her daughter asked me to sign a copy of The Last Time We Spoke at The Auckland Writers Festival. A close family member of theirs had recently been murdered. They decided to buy the book after hearing me read an excerpt from it, feeling that it might help their family to heal. I felt very humbled, and also profoundly sad.


Thank you Fiona for chatting to Crime Watch. 

For more information on Fiona Sussman and her books, you can read more about her Ngaio Marsh Awards win here, check out her website here, or follow her on social media: Facebook and Twitter