Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review: THE AGENCY

THE AGENCY by Ian Austin (2016)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Dan Calder is an ex Brit and ex policeman looking for a fresh start in a new country but still carrying the baggage of failed relationships and a depressed, repressed past. He chose New Zealand because it was as far as he could get from his old life but did not take into account the universal six degrees of separation is no more than two or three in the land of the long white cloud. 

The Agency provides a service like no other and New Zealand is the ideal location to find a new client. When Calder first encounters it by sheer chance, his life instantly changes and before long others are depending on him too. Engaged in a deadly game with an unknown foe; this was not the new life Dan Calder planned for himself but now at stake is the ultimate reward; his own salvation.

The opening salvo in what's to be an ongoing series, THE AGENCY introduces the character of Dan Calder. Calder has joined the police force in the UK - following in his father's footsteps. His father had a successful public life and career, although the truth of their home life was very different. Ultimately, Calder finds himself on a collision course with authority, leaving the force and his home country behind, hoping to put his past behind him once and for all.

After setting himself up in his new home in New Zealand, he finds himself living next door to a very welcoming couple in Paul and Shelley who become his closest friends, determined to set him up with a life partner. When they introduce Calder to Tara, it feels like this is a relationship that could work. He also discovers she has a brother Neil who suffers from depression, and from there his cop instincts are tweaked by something going on with Neil.

This leads to the discovery of the shadowy and decidedly suspect "Agency" - formed by a woman with a variety of identities - preying on vulnerable people. Needless to say this sets Calder off on a quest to discover who the mysterious Stenning woman is, and what exactly The Agency has been up to, eventually linking them to an unsolved case in the UK.

Austin's background as a UK and NZ police officer is very obvious in this work. Perhaps a little too obvious at points as a solid plot is sometimes hampered by a tendency to provide a lot of background police procedural information. The same with plot advancement which can be lost in favour of personal sidelines and interests which go on for way too long. Interaction between the characters is mostly pretty good, although can sometimes lack normal conversational flow, and there is a tendency to reiterate plot points from multiple character viewpoints, bogging the reader down in "Groundhog Day" for no good reason.

The plot itself is a particularly interesting idea, and the way that the investigation is undertaken by Calder convincing. The minor flaws that are there are easily resolved, which does mean that overall THE AGENCY is another novel from New Zealand that's telegraphing serious potential for an ongoing character based series.


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

Review: A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS

A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS by Grant Nicol (Fahrenheit Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

A cryptic message left next to a charred corpse in the middle of Reykjavík leaves police worried they have a gang war on their hands. Across town Detective Grímur Karlsson investigates a missing girl from a nice suburban family and gets far too close to the truth for his own good. 

It becomes clear the two cases are connected and Karlsson doggedly pursues the trail that leads from junkies on the seedy streets of Reykjavík all the way to the very top of Icelandic society. 

In my last review of a Grant Nicol book – The Mistake, also set in Iceland – I suggested a longer novel might allow us more time to get to know his characters, saving them from the “all women are victims, prostitutes or evil; all men are well-meaning, just following orders or psychologically damaged” array.

A Place to Bury Strangers is a full-length novel – but we haven’t really moved on in terms of characterisation. I had hopes for Eygló (no surname provided) – a woman copper who seemed to have a bit of nous, but she disappears from the narrative very early on – after having been called to the murder scene where a low-down-in-the-chain drug dealer has been incinerated, and a message in Norwegian written in black paint on the wall behind him. She is called off (from the crime scene and the novel) when she and her partner get word that a policeman has been shot.

That policeman is Detective Grímur Karlsson, who we know from earlier novels. And Karlsson is even more depressed now – he is aging, and unpopular at work from having a habit of not solving crimes (or rather letting perpetrators go due to a confused moral compass). Karlsson has been shot whilst following a young woman he fears is in danger and things not going well.

Karlsson’s boss Ævar – worried about his job – focusses on a Norwegian for both crimes.This Norwegian’s frequent visits to Iceland are always accompanied by crimes that, until now, don’t really worry the Police, as they all involve damaging drug dealers. The novel jumps about all over the place time-wise (in part, I suppose, because of Karlsson being out of action for most of the ‘current’ timeline) – and the only way I could keep track was to memorise the date of the incineration and shooting and therefore knowing what events were ‘before’ and which ‘after’.

Laid out in a line the novel is about illegal migrant workers and their vulnerability, women and their vulnerability, the evil of drugs, and the corruption of the elite – oddly enough in this case circling around Icelandic fishing quota. And all of these topics are relevant and worthy of a crime novel, and Iceland is a great setting, but with all combined A Place to Bury Strangers doesn’t really get to the heart of any of them.

We get the stories of many women, and their end is implied, but their journey ignored. We almost get to know Knut Vigeland, ‘The Norwegian’, we almost get to know Svandís the young drug addict, we almost get to know many characters who I would have liked to know. And despite the long paragraphs on Karlsson’s world weariness I still didn’t get to understand him – some of his ethical calls sounding decidedly dodgy. And do they really talk of ‘lollies’ in Iceland?

Despite this review there is much to enjoy in this novel – the atmosphere is good and the situations inventive – it was just too busy for my taste.



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

Monday, June 26, 2017

Review: A MOMENT'S SILENCE

A MOMENT'S SILENCE by Christopher Abbey (Mary Egan Publishing, 2016)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Set against a backdrop of actual events in 1995, Martyn Percival, a middle-aged New Zealander, seeks adventure on his first OE to the United Kingdom. A chance sighting, providing a possible link between an explosion that has rocked the nation and the whereabouts of a renegade IRA operative, has Martyn reporting his suspicions to an attractive police sergeant in the Cotswolds. Scotland Yard becomes involved when the bomber is identified as a serial killer, who then embarks on a mission seeking revenge on the tourist who “shopped him”. 

Martyn’s burgeoning feelings for the sergeant have him agreeing to participate in a planned trap for his nemesis. When this backfires, Martyn returns to New Zealand. His stalker follows. Faced with fear for his own survival, Martyn has no alternative but to turn the tables and stalk the stalker. Thus setting up a face-to-face finale in New Zealand’s North Island wintry landscape. 

There's a particularly interesting idea at the heart of A MOMENT'S SILENCE. A holidaying New Zealander makes a chance sighting out of a bus window, subsequently connecting the dots between the car he saw, and a subsequent bomb explosion. Originally reporting his suspicions in the Cotswolds village he's staying in, it's rapidly escalated to Scotland Yard when the bomber is subsequently identified but not caught. Which puts Martyn and the information he can attest to in the firing line of a very determined serial killer.

The set up of this is very cleverly imagined - the idea of a chance sighting being part of the web of information that goes to identify a mass killer, bomber and renegade IRA operative is really intriguing. Intriguing enough that it didn't need the level of expository dialogue that has been used, and really didn't deserve the typecast romantic interest that Martyn instantly feels for the "attractive police sergeant" in that original village.

A MOMENT'S SILENCE clearly demonstrates the potential that this author has in creating believable and unusual plots. Perhaps what's required to make an entire package here is a little relaxing into the role of storyteller to improve some of the elements that didn't work quite as well - the sometime stilted narrative and the expository dialogue.

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

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Review: THE REVELATIONS OF CAREY RAVINE

THE REVELATIONS OF CAREY RAVINE by Debra Daley (Quercus, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

London in the 1770s is bursting with opportunity. It's a city fuelled by new ideas and new money, where everything is for sale - including entrée into the ruling class.

Making their way in this buccaneering society are Carey Ravine, a spirited young woman of enigmatic background, and her husband, the charming, endlessly enterprising Oliver Nash. Carey and Nash share a historic connection to India and a desperate ambition to better themselves. 

But as Nash's plans draw them into a restless association of gamblers and secret societies, Carey begins to question what's really hidden behind the seedy glamour of their lives. Her unease grows with the appearance of a mysterious man whose appearance unearths a troubling secret from the past. Carey finds herself forced to investigate the truth behind the stranger's claims­­ - and to confront her own illusions about herself.

A woman’s rise from dupedom in the 1770s. Carey Ravine is a smart and capable woman who has escaped her dismal teenage years by entering the social swirl, cons, and ambitions of her husband, Oliver Nash. Carey is not giving herself too much time to reflect on her life, or the puzzle of her father who has been missing in India for ten years.

But a series of discoveries tantalises her, and draws her into trying to solve a mystery concerning strange poisonings, blue lights, and her place of fascination: India. As she becomes aware of the potential impact of what is lying at the heart of the mystery, and the possible connection to her father – she finds she is not really satisfied with the frippery and dubious politics around which her life is revolving. And as she becomes aware of cover-ups and conspiracies she, and the reader, start to suspect those around her might not quite be who she took them for.

The setting and language (I really must use bloviate more often) are rich, and Carey’s character admirable. The book has historical detail, an intriguing plot, the evil East India Company, romance, and a strong female lead – a delight.

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review: THE STONEHENGE LEGACY

THE STONEHENGE LEGACY by Sam Christer (Sphere, 2011)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Eight days before the summer solstice, a man is butchered in a blood-freezing sacrifice on the ancient site of Stonehenge before a congregation of robed worshippers. Within hours, one of the world's foremost treasure hunters has shot himself in his country mansion. And to his estranged son, young archaeologist Gideon Chase, he leaves a cryptic letter . . .

Teaming up with an intrepid Wiltshire policewoman, Gideon soon exposes a secret society - an ancient international legion devoted for thousands of years to Stonehenge. With a charismatic and ruthless new leader at the helm, the cult is now performing ritual human sacrifices in a terrifying bid to unlock the secret of the stones.

Inspired by a recent visit to Stonehenge, I grabbed a copy of this book (from the Visitor Centre itself, and read it while in Salisbury for the weekend). I was pretty hopeful, but it turned out to be a bit of a strange read. Not in terms of the mysticism associated with the ancient stones, but in that it was a tale that wasn't particularly well-written, but I was strangely compelled to read to the end anyway.

The Stonehenge Legacy is touted as akin to The DaVinci Code, being "packed with codes, symbology, relentless suspense, and fascinating detail about the history of one of the world's most mysterious places". There's certainly some truth in that, both in terms of the 'ancient secrets uncovered' aspects, as well as the way Christer's writing, like Brown's, is a bit cringey at times.

The set-up is decent: the estranged son of a renowned treasure hunter is called home after his father commits suicide. If it was suicide. Nearby, a man is sacrificed by a hooded cabal in an ancient ritual. A local Wiltshire policewoman begins to wonder what is going on in her patch. Things don't fit.

Unfortunately for me (it may not bother other readers as much), Christer is overly fond of adjectives, depowering his prose and creating an eye-rolling rather than eye-popping effect to his characters and description. There's also a fair bit of 'on-the-nose' dialogue, all adding up to a bit of a 'cheesy' feel.

The underlying story is interesting though, and kept me turning the pages. I wanted to know what happened, even if I was frustrated with what the journey was compared to what it could have been. As I got further into the book, Christer's writing style didn't bother me so much - I'm not sure if it improved as the book picked up the pace and got deeper into the story, or I just adjusted.

I enjoyed learning more about Stonehenge and the Wiltshire area, and the 'secret society' stuff was pretty well constructed as it spiderwebbed throughout the story, and with some twists and reveals.

It's often said that the best books don't always make the best films, as you can't always translate much of what makes them great to the screen. Conversely, mediocre books can make good films, as it's the underlying story, atmosphere, and interesting characters that are used, and it doesn't matter if you lose the writing style of the author, or use different dialogue etc. That may be the case here. I could see The Stonehenge Legacy translating well to the screen, as there's an interesting cast of characters that could be brought to better, fuller life by actors. There is also plenty of action, mystery, and secrets that could possibly be even better onscreen than in the way Christer conveys them on the page.

Overall, this is a decent holiday or beach read. An airport thriller that definitely could be enjoyed by fans of Dan Brown or those who like films like National Treasure.

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, June 22, 2017

Review: MURDER ON MURITAI

MURDER ON MURITAI by Genesis Cotterell (Hayes, 2017)

Reviewed by Carolyn McKenzie

Curtis McCoy is called on to investigate his first case. Beautiful half-blood Ryxin Janux Lennan believes her husband was murdered, and she wants Curtis to find the killer or killers. They embark on their pursuit and find a bit more than they expected.

Muritai Island, somewhere off the coast of New Zealand, is a small community which has as its inhabitants some very unsavoury characters. Their mission: to take back the rights they lost upon landing on Earth and to eventually take over the planet themselves.

If you have ever met someone so ‘other-worldly’ that you thought they could almost be ‘from another planet’, then Murder on Muritai may be all the confirmation you need that aliens – Ryxins from the planet Ryxin in this case – have indeed settled on Earth, in human guise, naturally.

The book opens like any other murder mystery, with Curtis McCoy, a private investigator, listening to his client’s report of her partner’s death, which she assumes was murder. We soon learn however that this is no ordinary crime scenario since the deceased is Ryxin, and Human police are forbidden by law to investigate crimes involving Ryxins.

Muritai Island should be an idyllic setting in the southern Pacific Ocean but instead its population is deeply divided: lawless Ryxins are striving to outnumber the Human population. McCoy is a new comer to the island and a new comer to detective work – this murder is his first case and as he tries to solve it he becomes entangled with the worst features of Ryxin society. At the same time, his involvement with a couple of Ryxin women distract him from his investigation to the point where he seems to have forgotten that he has a murder mystery to solve. And yet, cunningly, as the book draws to an end, McCoy pulls himself and all his clues together and identifies the killer.

And on the surface, this is Murder on Muritai: a not overly gripping crime novel where the investigator spends much of the book either racing around the island (or catching the ferry to the mainland) in pursuit of various women, or mourning the end of his marriage to a Human.

In spite of weaknesses in the crime-solving aspects of this book, I found Murder on Muritai both fascinating and disturbing. Cotterell cleverly brought the Ryxin aliens to Earth – to Ireland in a flash of blue light, in 1905 – not so very long after the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand must have seemed like an alien invasion. From Ireland, many Ryxins have made their way to Muritai Island ‘in search of a better life’. Some of them have obeyed government regulations and only mated with Humans, thereby diluting Ryxin blood. Others are intent on illegally preserving their full-bloodedness, and all the superior powers that that entails.

Putting the science-fiction - suspended reality - aspect of Murder on Muritai aside, it is impossible not to reflect on its parallels with some of the volatile racial and migrant dramas currently unfolding around the world, with their associated issues of socio-cultural diversity, integration and identity preservation, or to muse on colonisation, ethnic cleansing and master races. And then there’s the question of those ‘other-worldly’ people that we’ve all met from time to time: could they have come ‘from another planet’?

Murder on Muritai is book one in the Ryxin trilogy. If Curtis McCoy is going to stay in business he will have to spend less time chasing beautiful women, but like all good first books in a trilogy, Murder on Muritai ends with some questions still unanswered – a reason for catching up with McCoy, as he strives for a better Muritai Island, in book two.

Carolyn McKenzie is a freelance proofreader, copy editor, and Italian-English translator. She also offers holiday accommodation for writers and others in Thames, New Zealand and Ventimiglia Alta, Italy. 

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 the kind permission of Bronwyn Elsmore and Carolyn McKenzie. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Review: FOUR DAYS

FOUR DAYS by Iain Ryan (Broken River Books, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

BRISBANE, 1984. Jim Harris is a hard-drinking Australian detective on his way to a nervous breakdown. Every day, he works alongside corrupt cops and dangerous crooks. That is, until a brutal murder case unravels his career, bringing past indiscretions to light. Alone, afraid, and out of control, Harris makes a pact with himself: Four days to locate the killer. Four days to take revenge. Four days to find redemption

This slim novel packs a powerful punch. It isn't always comfortable reading, but it's pitch-black classic noir of the highest order - all the more remarkable given it's a debut from Queensland author Ryan.

Four Days is beyond gritty - it's grimy, seamy, like a dirty fingernail scratching at your skin as you saunter down a rancid alleyway. It's unpleasant. Many characters are unlikable. Corruption festers. But it's also fascinating, and has a strong voice and atmosphere. The pages whir on currents of fresh prose. This won't be for everyone, but overall it's a very slick tale that is very good. 

Jim Harris is a detective who's barely hanging on. He's not just living on the edge, he's crossed far over it at times. They say you can tell a lot about a person from the people they spend the most time with: for Harris this is crooked cops, drug users and prostitutes, and dangerous criminals.

For all his own very-many faults, Harris seems to be the only detective interested in the death of a prostitute and the troubling disappearance of her brother, a fellow cop. He has four days until he gets his own life or death news. Four days to wade through the swamp of Australian policing in the 1980s, to find the truth, expose a killer/s, and maybe snatch at a tiny sliver of redemption.

There's a terrific blend of Aussie-ness with classic American noir here. Ryan brings the 1980s Australian setting to vivid life, delivered in sharp prose. Hot and sticky coastal towns, where corruption festers among those meant to serve and protect the citizenry. 

This is a very well-written book, centred on a very unlikable central 'hero'. Harris has few redeeming qualities, but is fascinating, and Ryan creates a really strong narrative drive throughout Four Days, pulling you along even as you may be holding your nose, shaking your head, or grimacing in disgust at some of the scenes and the choices made by various characters.

It is not a book for the faint-hearted, or those easily put off by stories of illegal and immoral acts committed by those on both sides of the law.

If you want your heroes good and your villains bad, and never the twain shall meet, avoid Four Days. But if you can handle a fascinatingly dark tale of corruption and self-destruction, where the hero not only stumbles but falls, where only wisps of honour separate the evil from the less-bad, then dive in. 

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, 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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tartan Noir's Dirty Dozen: the 2017 McIlvanney Prize longlist revealed




















Writing rookies are mixing it up with Scottish crime royalty and the 'defending champion' among a fascinating twelve-book longlist revealed today for the 2017 McIlvanney Prize. 

Thirty years ago, Ian Rankin introduced the world to Detective John Rebus in Knots & Crosses, and Val McDermid published her first crime novel, Report for Murder. It would take several years before the wider reading community started to catch on to the brilliance of these two Scottish authors, but nowadays thanks to them and the authors who've followed, Tartan Noir is held in very high regard.

The ongoing strength of the Scottish take on the genre is on show today, with the release of the longlist for the 2017 McIlvanney Prize, formerly known as the Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award (last year the annual prize was renamed after the man, William McIlvanney, who Rankin, McDermid and many others credit with establishing the tradition of Scottish detective fiction).

Fittingly, Rankin and McDermid are joined on this year's longlist by a diverse collection of crime compatriots, ranging from the winners of the past two prizes, Christopher Brookmyre and Craig Russell, and CWA Dagger longlisted Denise Mina (The Long Drop), to debutant authors Claire MacLeary, Helen Fields, and Owen Mullen.

"In what is shaping up to be a record-breaking year at Bloody Scotland (we sold twice as many tickets on our first day as last year), I’m pleased to see so many of the highlights of the 2017 programme featured on this longlist," said Bloody Scotland director Bob McDevitt. "It’s also brilliant to see a few debut novels on there slugging it out with the more established names. I certainly don’t envy our judges the task of picking a winner from this excellent crop of crime novels."

The twelve long-listed books are:

  • Lin Anderson - None But the Dead
  • Chris Brookmyre - Want You Gone
  • Ann Cleeves - Cold Earth
  • Helen Fields - Perfect Remains
  • Val McDermid - Out of Bounds
  • Claire MacLeary - Cross Purpose
  • Denise Mina - The Long Drop
  • Owen Mullen - Games People Play
  • Ian Rankin - Rather Be the Devil
  • Craig Robertson - Murderabilia
  • Craig Russell - The Quiet Death of Thomas Quaid
  • Jay Stringer - How to Kill Friends & Implicate People

The longlist was chosen by an independent panel of readers and features books from both small Scottish publishers and large multinationals. The longlist will be judged by Granite Noir programmer Lee Randall, comedian and crime fan Susan Calman, and New Zealand journalist Craig Sisterson. A shortlist will be announced in the lead-up to the Bloody Scotland festival. 

The winner will receive £1,000 and nationwide promotion in Waterstones, and will be announced at the opening reception at Stirling Castle on 8th September, followed by a torchlight procession - open to the public - led by longlisted author Ian Rankin.