When THE MIDNIGHT PROMISE won the Ned Kelly Award in 2013 it was impossible not to agree wholeheartedly with the judges' decision. That book telegraphWhen THE MIDNIGHT PROMISE won the Ned Kelly Award in 2013 it was impossible not to agree wholeheartedly with the judges' decision. That book telegraphed clearly here was an author to be followed closely. Three years on, BLACK TEETH is worth the wait. Unusual, dark, often funny, always disquieting, this is an intriguing novel.
In it, the lives of two loners, slightly lost men, collide as they search for the same man. One, Jason Ginaff is a technical wiz. He earns his living researching job candidates, finding out the things that people don't want discovered. Raised by a single mother who recently died, he's socially awkward, suffers from anxiety and is grieving the loss of his mum deeply.
Rudy Alamain is also grieving the loss of parents. His mother died years ago, his father much more recently. The difference here is that his father was serving time in prison for the murder of his mother - whose body Rudy discovered years ago.
When these two damaged and hurting men come across each other, Rudy is looking for life insurance before settling some scores with the cop he thinks framed his father. Jason, on the other hand, is searching for the same man - the father he's never met. As simple as that scenario sounds, nothing should be taken at face-value in BLACK TEETH.
In what seems like a brave move, Lovitt hasn't set out to create a cast of characters here that everyone is going to like, or connect with. As vulnerable, fragile and broken as everybody in this book is, they are also unlikeable, untrustworthy and in many ways complicit in their own destiny. Yet somehow readers will be drawn into a form of caring, almost barracking for somebody, anybody really, to rise above their circumstances and do something. Preferably the right thing, but more often it comes down to anything, to take charge, or make a difference.
It's also a book, that in the early part, is littered with hacker terminology that kind of works, if you don't look too closely. Convincing in a way, slightly questionable in others, there's enough truth in the methods and terms that Jason uses to let it go (although to be honest the confluence of doxing, brute force attacks and rainbow tables was a What The? moment).
What's more important is that the character of Jason as a hacker quietly working on google dorks in his lounge room, discovering people's hidden secrets, works. It also makes him the sort of person that would dig into the past and people's backgrounds to find the truth. It's still what he would do even after he discovers the truth can hurt. It also means that he has some choices in how he approaches a fragile and damaged person like Rudy. Whether or not he, or any of them for that matter, make the right choices is less predictable - you can't code a human emotion and expect somebody to run the script to completion after all.
The complex set of character interactions at play in BLACK TEETH are ably supported by an equally complex and well-executed plot that keeps everyone (including, it seems, the participants themselves) guessing until the end. Add to that some touches of excellent scene setting - from tired old blocks of brick flats in tired old suburbs, through to the mouldering and neglected house that Rudy lives in, surrounded by disconnected and disinterested affluence, and you've got all of the necessary elements of noir crime fiction with none of the predictability.
In fact predictability is the one thing you can forget about if you're about to read BLACK TEETH. There is so much in this novel that's unusual and unexpected but never once does it feel out of place or overly engineered. It's dark, it's classic noir, it's very Australian and it's about as pitch perfect as you can get.
Disco from the late 1970's / early 1980's being a formative part of my early years, some of the sheer enjoyment that BLACK SAILS, DISCO INFERNO providDisco from the late 1970's / early 1980's being a formative part of my early years, some of the sheer enjoyment that BLACK SAILS, DISCO INFERNO provided could be put down to nostalgia, but there's a lot more to it than that.
Based on the ancient story of Tristan and Isolde, with a pulp / noir sensibility, there is a strong sense of homage and a deep understanding of the original medieval romance. The setting employed here is an unnamed city, sectioned off into the territory of rival crime families the Holts and the Cornwall's. Issy (Isidor Junior) is the playboy heir of the Holt family. Trista Rivalen a trusted niece and heir to Marcella, head of the Cornwall family. The switching of the gender of the two main characters is a device that works seamlessly, even if you're steeped in the original tale, because of all the things that BLACK SAILS does well, it absolutely excels at character. Issy's background is pretty simple - the only child and heir, a boy with all the advantages and not a lot of responsibilities, his relationship with his parents is strained. Similarly Trista's relationship with her parents is difficult, and she's mostly been raised by faithful lieutenant Governal. His idea of extra-curricula education might seem a little peculiar, but Trista has a future that needs to be considered. Needless to say, around the two main characters of Trista and Issy, there's a wonderfully elaborate cast of good and bad, villains and the slightly misunderstood.
The cast is then placed in a setting which is all about atmosphere, with location names that echo the Irish / Cornish roots of the original. The plot then revolves around the bones of a grand old family feud, covering off the scenarios of the original, enhanced with some complications you'd expect in noir set in the 70s. There's plenty of twists and turns built into that - including a very interesting twist on the adultery storyline, and the tragedy of the ending.
Into this go the sorts of cultural hat-tips that Bergen excels in, including my very favourite - the references to disco songs that are now so deeply embedded as earworms, they are pretty well all I've been able to hear since reading this book. It has all come together into something that's extremely addictive reading.
Having loved, but gleefully not understood parts of an earlier book by Andrez Bergen (Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat), and having seen the early publicity for BLACK SAILS, DISCO INFERNO I was expecting it to be good. It exceeded good by a very big measure.
Barry Weston's debut novel THE LONG CON, brings Queenslander and ex-cop, now PI, Frank Cousins to the mean streets of Hobart in search of a client, goBarry Weston's debut novel THE LONG CON, brings Queenslander and ex-cop, now PI, Frank Cousins to the mean streets of Hobart in search of a client, good pizza, a lot of booze and coffee, and with a bit of luck, Detective Sharon Becker. In the aftermath of The Fitzgerald Inquiry into Police Corruption in Queensland, Cousins was not best pleased to discover the funds he'd salted away from the backhanders known as 'The Joke', have relocated along with his wife. An unfortunate encounter with her and her new live-in lover means that Cousins has to make himself scarce in a big hurry.
After calling in a few favours, a new identity and a relocation later, the Tasmanian Private Investigation Agency has been ticking along now for 20 or so years when three new jobs meander their way into his office, causing Cousins to actually have a bit to do. Whilst tracking down a missing student, or getting the goods on a cheating politician husband might seem like regular tasks for a PI in Hobart, babysitting an aging, wealth female environmentalist isn't.
Cousins is a typical wise-cracking, loyal to friends, implacably opposed to the cops type of PI. He's often found welded to his chair in the pub, his office is scruffy, as is he and his capacity for cynicism boundless. For the expectedness of the character portrayal, the setting provides some unique aspects. Hobart isn't the mean and darkened streets of Sydney or Melbourne. The Salamanca Market is light and bright, the people slightly more laid back, the air a little clearer and the wind that bit crisper.
With Cousins the focus of this novel he's got some heavy lifting to do. Following in the footsteps of a huge cast of wise-cracking, hard headed PI's is always going to be a tricky prospect - there's a fine line between pastiche and caricature which Weston manages to negotiate, despite some slightly odd verbal "quirks" that Cousins is prone to indulge in. Obviously the quoting of "dear old mum's sayings" are, in the main, amusing, but after a while they get a tiny bit predictable shall we say. Other aspects of the dialogue are considerably more successful and there's something quite realistic about it that makes you comfortable with the idea that Cousins is an old bloke whose been there, done that, and will never fit into the t-shirt again.
Given this is a debut novel, with a big concentration on establishing the character, there are some plot elements which are a little wobbly. Cousin's reasoning gets a bit perfunctory at times, and some plot points are just dumped into the fray with little expansion or qualification. Personally this reader would also have preferred that some of the info dump about The Fitzgerald Inquiry had been worked into the narrative more - keeping pace and story progression early in the book. There is also a slight feeling of panic towards the end as it seems like a lot of threads are desperately hauled together.
Those sorts of slight glitches and niggles are not unknown though in first novels - especially where there's so much heavy lifting going on to get a central character established and some background / motivation defined, and they are balanced out by some very good points. Cousin's is a fun sort of PI and there's a trilogy of books planned in the Tasmanian Investigation Agency series for those that really like their PI's hard-boiled, sarcastic and just a bit dodgy.
Not your average challenge this: "why not base a large part of your next crime fiction novel around the story of a disappearing camel". Then set it inNot your average challenge this: "why not base a large part of your next crime fiction novel around the story of a disappearing camel". Then set it in a Victorian seaside town, with some tenuous connections to a murder victim discovered along the Murray. Luckily Dorothy Johnston seems to be made of stern stuff and great skill as she has taken this most unlikely scenario and created a page turner in THROUGH A CAMEL'S EYE that, frankly, was a standout read.
Introducing two new characters - local man, long-time cop Constable Chris Blackie; and blow-in from Melbourne, rookie recruit Anthea Merritt, this book is a brilliant combination of personal and professional, character and plot, menace and mundane. Blackie's love of gardening, and the restrained manner in which he lives a life seems unbearably limited to his big city rookie sidekick. Merritt, on the other hand, battling a doomed romance with a bloke who frankly comes across as an utter prat, feels that this move to the seaside is a necessary, but unwelcome step in a career that she intends pushing places. Driven and slightly snippy, she's instantly astounded by small-town policing. Be it Blackie's careful maintenance of the police station rose garden, through to the way that everybody knows everyone and everything, and the most mundane deserves attention, Merritt's the picky, easy to arouse one; Blackie's the quieter, sanguine one. In reality, neither of them are all that happy with the way that life is panning out.
Set in the real-life town of Queenscliff on the Bellarine Peninsula in southern Victoria, the sea is a constant throughout this novel. Whether it's the danger (Constable Blackie's father drowned in a pilot-boat accident), or the calm of the processional cargo ships moving through the channel to and from the major port in Melbourne. The setting reflects the two main character's own personality traits, and personal battles - calm, wild, windy, sunny - and it's elegantly presented as a comparison and a companion. It's that style of comparison, and controlled, almost understated style in the writing of THROUGH A CAMEL'S EYE that makes it immersion reading. Right down to the presentation of a missing camel as something that deserves proper investigation and a resolution. Even at the same time as a connection between the town and the discovery of a woman's body on the Murray - close to where she came from, unfurls into something that again, seems perfectly reasonable to investigate, and the only sensible approach to take. Even if the connection seems innocuous and unimportant to many.
The inclusion of Riza the camel works beautifully as a catalyst for reaction. You can feel the distress of Riza's trainer Julie, faced with the loss of her lifeline, and stabilising influence, to say nothing of the terror of what could have happened to her beloved animal. For Camilla, cut off by the inexplicable loss of her voice, the camel becomes an outward focus, something to rouse interest in a life that's been inward and timid for a long time. Add to that the reactions of the farmer whose paddock the camel was kept in, the young boys in the town who have their own involvement with the camel's welfare and you end up with not just a rallying point, but a reason to search for this animal that makes sense. It might make a young city cop think that small town policing is going to be underwhelming, but there's an issue of community as well as animal welfare here that Blackie knows is as important as working through the discovery of a dead woman's coat in the sand dunes.
Whilst some of the "who done it" is going to be easy to made educated guesses about, THROUGH THE CAMEL'S EYE really is exploring the why. Why somebody kills, why somebody steals, why sometimes ending up in the last place you thought you'd be happy, actually works for you. It's also very much about small town life, with all it's foibles annoyances and strengths. It's a character study, wrapped up in a police procedural, with a very strong sense of place, and, one would hope, a long-term future as a series.
Ultra-gritty describes the 1930's Stockholm that Harry Kvist occupies, as well as Kvist himself. To say nothing of the people that he mixes with. It'sUltra-gritty describes the 1930's Stockholm that Harry Kvist occupies, as well as Kvist himself. To say nothing of the people that he mixes with. It's a beautifully evoked world of dark and despair, littered with violent sexual encounters, drinking, and oddly, an unexpected love affair of sorts.
Told from his point of view Kvist is nothing if not brutally honest about himself, his situation, even the way he looks. And as an ex-boxer he's well suited to his now role of debt-collector, and general intimidating presence. It's the role of debt collector that sees him become the prime suspect after a debtor he has just visited, and roughed up just a touch, is discovered murdered in his apartment. Kvist might be the last known person to have seen him alive, but this time he knows he's definitely not guilty. Unfortunately clearing his name isn't going to be straightforward as finding the witness that saw him leaving on the night, when he's just got is a working name and physical description to go on, isn't easy.
The plot itself is not unfamiliar - the lone wolf character, presumed guilty because that's the easiest conclusion to draw, setting out on his own to clear his name. What lifts CLINCH out of the familiar is the strength of the character of Kvist and the world that he occupies. Working the streets, the slums, the brothels and the dives of Stockholm, there's something deeply physical about the way that Kvist undertakes his quest. But then sheer physicality is the thing about Kvist - be it his hetero- and homo-sexual encounters, or the way he inhabits the darker places in which he seeks.
When Scandinavian crime / thriller fiction first elbowed itself into the consciousness of crime fiction fans it frequently bought with it something unusual at the time - introspection and consideration, the examination of why people do what they do, rather than always the crime, an investigation and resolution. CLINCH seems to come from somewhere slightly different again. Kvist feels like he'd be comfortable walking the dark, gritty streets of a dangerous American city, and equally at home on the hard edges of the Scottish and Irish tenements plagued with violence and social problems. That he's from Stockholm, and the world he inhabits is dark, cold, dirty, desperate, and frequently pretty nasty makes more sense than this reader ever imagined would be possible.
If you've read the blurb for CLINCH and formed some conclusions about style, and outcome in your mind, then it's likely you got close in some things and miles away in others. There are shades of noir in this novel so unexpected that even after reading CLINCH, this reader is still mildly stunned and absolutely thankful for the opportunity.
The second novel in the Constable Sammi Willis series, THE TWISTED KNOT, has Sammi returning to work after a close shave with death in the first novelThe second novel in the Constable Sammi Willis series, THE TWISTED KNOT, has Sammi returning to work after a close shave with death in the first novel (which you don't have to have read to get this one, but it wouldn't hurt).
Life back at work isn't easy though, and she's currently mostly behind the desk in the station, a cause of some friction with other members of the team. It takes the death of a man, charged but never convicted of paedophilia in the past, to drag her back out in the field and what turns out to be a fraught case for the local community.
The problem is that "Pete the Ped" has never been convicted, due to lack of evidence, but everyone in this small country town knows exactly what sort of a person he is. Living alone on the family farm - his brother and mother both having moved into town, Pete is vulnerable, and if the locals are to be believed, dangerous. Unfortunately while there are plenty of rumours swirling and lots of vigilante-styled behaviour going on, nobody is prepared to name the suspected current victim. Things have been increasingly fraught and tense in town as a result.
As already mentioned, you don't have to have read the first book in the series to understand that Sammi has had a very difficult experience. Having said that it would be a very worthwhile experience to see what the buzz was about in the first place, as THE TWISTED KNOT didn't live up to the earlier books standards for this reader. Whilst it comes as no surprise that in any working team there's a misogynistic moron bitching and whinging his way through life, that particular character appears at the start with "token idiot" on his forehead, only to contribute minor walk-ons throughout the rest of the novel. There's nothing in his behaviour or attitude resolved or even addressed again. Then there's the positively gobsmacking attitude of a local community, happy to go into lynch mode over an alleged paedophile but absolutely unwilling to suggest a potential victim, or give the police a chance in hell of investigating. Granted that's sort of explained away by the earlier case which has the shadow of either police incompetence or cover-up about it - but you're going to have to believe that the horrendous outcome there somehow justifies a lot of huffing and puffing and not a lot of cooperation from an entire town in the current day.
You're also going to have to swallow hook line and sinker a lot of misdirection / failures to see the nose in front of your face from current coppers which might smack of dumbness, convenience, poor procedure or one of each. Granted the set up is designed to be quick, the action relentless and the push forward constant, but it wasn't too far into the book and this reader was starting to wonder if she was seeing things - some of the red herrings being more than a tad on the nose. And don't get me started on the weird relationship between Sammi and her current-day-mechanic, would-be-cop partner.
Given the debut novel (A TIME TO RUN) was a highlight and a most unusual concept, THE TWISTED KNOT did arrive with some reasonably high expectations and perhaps that was unfair. In the main it's not a bad crime novel, it gets Sammi back to work, it sets up a small police station and team with some inner tensions and some things to work through, that might be an indication of future directions. Unfortunately this current outing headed off in directions that either went nowhere or had too many neon-lit street signs along the way.
FRONT PAGE NEWS is the debut novel from former Australian journalist Katie Rowney. From the lighter, intended as humour side of crime fiction, cadet jFRONT PAGE NEWS is the debut novel from former Australian journalist Katie Rowney. From the lighter, intended as humour side of crime fiction, cadet journalist Stacey McCallaghan has her first job in the small country town of Toomey working on the local newspaper. Struggling with the grind of making front page news out of the daily goings on in a small town, it's almost like the first dead body is heaven sent for McCallaghan's journalistic ambitions.
The hassle, as always with humour, is that it's only going to work for some readers. Needless to say this reader won't be at all surprised if fellow country dwellers in particular find plenty to annoy about McCallaghan's attitude, and some of the attempts at humour in the book. Enough to make some very clunky sentence construction in the earlier part of the book, and the incomprehensible use of "trunk" when it's a car boot grate to the point of dental endangering.
There's also something equally teeth grindingly annoying about a 22 year old who shows up, thinking she can take it up to the local cops, whilst constantly low-level whinging about the day to day life of the town that's providing her with a start in her career. How many times do we have to be told that as a cadet journalist you don't get paid much, and how poor the life choices of her fellow cadet / neighbour are ... But obviously, this is an aspect of that humour component that again, is going to work much better for some readers than others.
Once you get over the worst of the jabs and digs at everything and everybody, and the actual plot gets moving, FRONT PAGE NEWS is a much better book, with the coincidences and clues laid out for readers to follow. It is also very hefty on the will they / won't they romance side of things, with the obvious opposites attracting element writ large from their first encounter.
Overall however, this reader struggled to stay with this book. The clunkiness of some of the sentence construction, along with that arch, smart-arsey type of tone grated badly. The potential of threat never quite ramps up enough, with the slight surprise that McCallaghan ends up as a target of suspicion, when she seemed to fit the mould of likely victim to a tee. Whilst the plot, when it did sort of drag itself out into the open was better than early indications, there's not a lot that's particularly surprising about the resolution overall.