When Jock Serong's debut novel QUOTA was released it was the first crime fiction book I could recall using over-permit limit Abalone catches as a centWhen Jock Serong's debut novel QUOTA was released it was the first crime fiction book I could recall using over-permit limit Abalone catches as a central theme. The incorporation of crime and cricket therefore shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise in his second novel, THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET. If both of these books are anything to go by, this is an author with a keen eye for an unusual but extremely workable scenario.
The depiction of cricket, from the Keefe brother's backyard contests, through to their District, State and ultimately Australian representation is brilliant. The careful use of tactics everywhere, the effects of micro-waving tennis balls for the backyard form, everything about the all consuming nature of the game and it's subtleties is gloriously depicted. The way that this sport provides a way forward for the two sons of a fierce single mother, her involvement, her constant presence behind them, and the dawning realisation that Darren comes to, of the sacrifices that their mother must have made, are perfect.
Which does not sit well with the opening of this novel - starting as it does with a trussed up Darren in the boot of a car, at night, being driven somewhere to pay a hefty price for something. As the novel starts to switch backwards and forwards through the boy's childhood, and Darren's current predicament, a picture starts to emerge of two different and yet similar brothers. Darren's always been a bit of a loose canon. A fierce player, erratic and undisciplined, he had potential and yet, ending up in the boot of a car has some sort of inevitability about it. The older brother, Wally, is a quieter, more reflective boy and man. A less flashy cricketer, he's still good enough to follow the same trajectory. Wally's the brother who makes it to Australian Captain. He's got the big house, the travelling lifestyle, the testimonial dinner on retirement. Darren was the one always in trouble for breaking team rules, the one with nothing much to fall back on when injury takes away his big chance at cricketing fame and fortune.
There's a lot about the tensions between the brothers that come from them simply being brothers, and then there's that which comes from the intricacies of the cricket world. The difference between being a respected Test Player, and a bit of a one-trick showman in the shorter forms for example. Then there's the question marks over the game itself rearing their ugly heads as the two men are stepping away from the game.
All the way along there's Darren's voice - looking back at their childhood and the lives that they lived, and at his present - in that boot with its inevitable sense of doom, approached with determination and a calm level-headedness that's somehow apt. Darren might have been a mercurial customer in his youth, but he's no fool, and he's not prepared to lie in that boot and take what's coming to him without an argument.
Really, everything in THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET is brilliant. As the novel progresses, slowly and steadily, like a tactical battle against a good opposition test team, Darren works his way through his options, playing the timeframe, working the percentages. He's also calmly analysing what got him into this situation, and, as in any good cricket game, sometimes you can see the moves being played out, and sometimes they come straight out of the back of the bowler's hand.
For a cricket obsessed reader, fond of the assertion that test cricket is a metaphor for life, THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET made me wonder about that just for a moment. Darren, Wally and their mum used the game as a way out of a difficult background, something that gave them a chance of a better future. What they got was more like a rain-affected draw, in the final game of a tied five day test series. For this reader though, THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET was nearly as good as 5 nil whitewash, home series defeat of the old enemy.
Current readers of TWO DAYS will be greatly relieved to know that DRAINLAND (Book 1) was released in early August 2016 because this novella is the preCurrent readers of TWO DAYS will be greatly relieved to know that DRAINLAND (Book 1) was released in early August 2016 because this novella is the prequel and it would be very unfair if we had to wait for the full show.
Iain Ryan does a particularly good job when it comes to noir set in unlikely places. He's also particularly good at action scenes, a constant level of menace and threat, creating good twisty plots, and putting it all together with a good sense of time, place and some engaging characters.
What more, after all, could the thriller reader want. There's politics, corruption, vice, tropical islands and a hand-delivered message from a heavy. This particular setting, the vice-ridden tropical island, creates a really interesting sort of a closed room scenario if you've got time to consider those sorts of things, what with the anti-hero character, John Dannen, busily trying to survive in a very weird world.
Everything in TWO DAYS indicates that DRAINLAND is going to be a hell of a read - and it's there, ready to go for anybody who gets hooked by this short, sharp and particularly engaging prequel.
GUNSHINE STATE has been compared to Garry Disher's Wyatt series for a very good reason. The anti-hero characterisation here is as crisp and clear as yGUNSHINE STATE has been compared to Garry Disher's Wyatt series for a very good reason. The anti-hero characterisation here is as crisp and clear as you'd want, with Gary Chance the sort of loner survivor that has stepped straight from the pages of classic noir into the bright lights and dodgy business of Queensland's high-roller world.
When approaching such well sculpted and highly stylised ground as this, there can be a lack of fresh perspective. Not so in GUNSHINE STATE which uses many of the well-known elements of noir (the bad boy central character, dark settings, shabby dives, surrounded by a very dodgy group of potential back stabbers), lifting it somewhere different with the predominantly Queensland "Gunshine" setting, establishing a character like Gary Chance who is part hardman, part hair trigger, part lover, all of whatever it takes.
Chance is the sort of bloke that you know will get himself out of all the trouble that his choice of occupation (thief / standover man / enforcer / whatever pays) gets him into. You will, however, always be guessing just how much clinical violence will be employed to achieve that. Having said that, just about everybody he surrounds himself with here has an element of questionable character about them (even the victim) so there's something nicely contained about the entire situation.
There are many high-points in GUNSHINE STATE. Written in beautifully crisp prose, lean and pointed, there is still sufficient room for nuance in character development. The main characters here all have their good and bad points, they are believable, without overt clichés and extremely easy to connect with. The setting is perfect, with the high-rise anonymity of a tourism focused location, and excesses of the Surfer's "reputation" combined with the image some have of sun and surf to create a very effective contrast. Even the title - GUNSHINE STATE - with its spin on the well known tourist slogan, fits exactly with what for many, is a much more sleazy underground vibe.
What GUNSHINE STATE does as well is avoid the trap of style over substance. For all the lean and mean styling and strong characterisations, there is also a very solid plot. Believability again being the key here. There are all twists and turns you'd expect when the people on your side are as bad as the ones you're up against, and there's a certain type of person that does not take being screwed over - literally or figuratively - quietly.
It is evident that much of Nette's work (and interest) centres around noir and pulp styled fiction. His deep knowledge of the style and cadences of that sub-genre have been evident in earlier works, but in GUNSHINE STATE it's pitched just about as perfectly as you can get it.
There's room in Australian crime fiction for two lone-wolf anti-hero types, and Wyatt's got some serious competition now.
Gary Kemble's first book SKIN DEEP was shortlisted for the 2016 Ned Kelly Award for a very good reason. It was a hands on, in your face, blood, guts aGary Kemble's first book SKIN DEEP was shortlisted for the 2016 Ned Kelly Award for a very good reason. It was a hands on, in your face, blood, guts and glory paranormal crime mashup with a quintessentially Australian bloke central character that worked incredibly well. So well that a reader would be excused for wondering where Harry Hendrick could be taken next. Straight into the web of a dominatrix with an overwhelming ability to manipulate her clients wasn't quite what I was expecting.
Yet again, in BAD BLOOD, we have something that just shouldn't work for this reader on so many levels and yet it's compulsive reading. In this outing Gary Kemble has upped the ante in a number of aspects. There's quite a bit of sex, of the erotic / vaguely weird variety. There's considerably more of the paranonormal than was in the earlier book. There's some short sharp bursts of very confrontational violence (of the self-inflicted variety) and there's again an historical viewpoint - in this case child abuse. There's also Union corruption, people behaving badly, suspicious wives and always, at the centre of the web there's the mysterious and slightly unnerving Mistress Hel, and her suburban lair. Which means that there's also humour and more than hefty dose of tongue in cheek in this series as well. Or it might just be me that found the idea of a luxurious, custom built, den of a dominatrix in an otherwise "nice" suburban street not just apt, but funny into the bargain. Not that what Mistress Hel is up to is funny, nor her reasons.
There are quite a few strengths to this series. The paranormal aspects work for this slightly allergic reader, mostly because they are presented in such a matter-of-fact, every day sort of style. There's always that slight sense that Hendrick isn't 100% convinced about what's happening around him either, and he's certainly not presenting it as special or mystical or "other". It's a pain in the neck (literally) and he's not afraid to show that.
Aside from the paranormal Harry Hendrick comes across as a pretty normal sort of bloke. Able to screw up a relationship in a single bound, somewhat erratic when it comes to household chores, struggling to pay the bills and looking for a way to give his life some direction. Martial arts helps, mates help and stick close despite some ups and downs. All in all it's a really average, normal sort of a life, aside from the paranormal, and that's what makes it work so well.
BAD BLOOD is accessible crime / thriller / paranormal / action packed day to day life style storytelling, although a series that would be more compelling if read in order. It's good fun and at the same time it's tackling some serious social failings. Very cleverly done and well worth following even if, like me, you're normally a little leery of speculative fiction.
James Patterson has been working with a number of crime writers recently, producing these co-authored books, so it's hard not to read each one playingJames Patterson has been working with a number of crime writers recently, producing these co-authored books, so it's hard not to read each one playing a sort of "who wrote what" game in your head. Candice Fox, as Australian's all know, is the author of a brilliant series of crime fiction books of which the first (Hades) won the best first novel, and the second Eden, the best novel in the Ned Kelly Awards. The third novel Fall was shortlisted in the Neds as well. So the other thing that was always in this reader's mind - other than the who / what bit, is how this melding would pan out. Fox is a particular favourite of this reader for her darker characters and clever, intricate plots.
NEVER NEVER starts out in the expected dark manner with a character known only as "the Soldier" killing somebody in the desert, at night, in some sort of sadistic military-style game. Switch from there to Sydney and you're introduced to Detective Harriet "Harry" Blue who is trying to process the information that her brother is the only suspect in a series of brutal killings. Up until that point the characterisations were absolutely going to form, with darkness and complexity rife. Where the wheels seemed to initially fall off is in the idea that a NSW detective was suddenly up and sent to WA as part of an investigation into the death of a young FIFO miner in Western Australia. Even allowing for the slight "what the" about the cross-border / cross-force transfer for the rest of the book I couldn't for the life of me work out what a sexual crimes expert from inner-city NSW was doing bashing around the desert in WA in search of a serial killer at a remote mine site.
If you're happy to park the doubt about that, once the action moves to the mine it's an interesting sort of a case with a series of suspicious disappearances, which, and here things started to get a bit ropey plot wise again, is basically pretty lawless. There are resident drug dealers, violence, threats, odd behaviour and some almost devil may care attitudes that didn't quite jell for this reader. Again with some great characters dropped into the mix, but with some very thin plot elements and some very odd goings on from one end of the site to another. To say nothing of the creepy chapters in which the "the Soldier" gets to reveal all.
There's a reasonably populated list of suspects that are ticked off, although so much about the build up is pretty predictable, as is the final twist which was very unfortunate as Harriet's really a great character with just enough attitude to be believable. Having said that Harriet is no Eden so don't expect the dark and light, and the complications of Fox's series characters.
Perhaps this is one that's more out of the box for Patterson fans, although it's got enough thriller aspects that will work for reader's who aren't as bothered by a dose of plot wobbles.
For the record the game ended with the conclusion that the characters and sense of place had a hefty touch of Fox about them.
A lot of things happen to normal, everyday father, husband and businessman David in a big hurry. His wife confesses to a secret past which he can almoA lot of things happen to normal, everyday father, husband and businessman David in a big hurry. His wife confesses to a secret past which he can almost handle and then he collapses with a rare brain disorder requiring urgent surgery, forcing him into a period of recuperation. This leads to some rash business decisions and a chance meeting with a total stranger. From that meeting, David is led into a weird world of identity-theft and criminal behaviour, the likes of which you'd expect any sane, rational, normal person would run away from. But so much about MAN IN THE CORNER is off-kilter.
What is it about Ben Strbic that a seemingly normal man, granted recovering from a serious health scare, would allow himself to be seduced into extreme identity theft? What is it about David that would mean he can shrug off his wife's revelations, his own health scare, the craziness of an offer for his business that's blatantly wrong, and head to the dark side that Strbic's offering?
The scenario is fascinating in a car crash, oh no, kind of way, because it's well written. Evocative and absolutely involving, everything that David sees / believes and ends up doing either makes sense to the reader, or simply isn't questioned as you are pulled through the story. Of course it's easy to assume that somehow David's odd behaviour is as a result of his brain surgery, and part of the cleverness of the construction of this novel is that it's never overtly discussed or refuted, instead there are pointers and clues dotted throughout allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions, and revise them every step of the way.
In the current day, MAN IN THE CORNER is mostly the story of David and Ben's interactions. David's family are there in the background, and there are fleeting references to workers and other characters. Much stronger is the voice of the man that David is inhabiting. A sad, lonely man involved in engineering works, Green's voice is "heard" via the journals he wrote. He's a presence in this book because of his words, and because David starts out wanting to "emulate" him as part of assuming identity, and in the end develops a palpable sense of empathy and connection. The journals go from the words of a missing, timid man to that of somebody real and as much part of the narrative of this novel as the two living men.
The denouement makes sense, but somehow, possibly because there is so much grey, uncertain and unexplained in MAN IN THE CORNER, resolution become less important than the journey that got David and the reader to that point in the first place. An astounding debut novel, this was a most unusual, and very rewarding read.
William Power has been "resting" for a long time now, so his re-emergence in THE SERPENT'S STING is a relief for all concerned. For those that haven't
William Power has been "resting" for a long time now, so his re-emergence in THE SERPENT'S STING is a relief for all concerned. For those that haven't read the first three books in this series (GOOD MURDER, A THING OF BLOOD and AMONGST THE DEAD), Shane Maloney described Power thus:
Literature has had its share of heroes, heroes of many kinds: classic heroes, super heroes, accidental heroes, flawed heroes, anti-heroes. And now, at last, it has a dickhead hero.
Readers would be hard-pressed to miss the tongue firmly implanted in authorial cheek in this series. In THE SERPENT'S STING William and his brother Brian are back in Melbourne after their war efforts in the Northern Territory, back to the bosom of home and their loving mother Agnes ... and her inconvenient beau Peter Gilbert and his own children. There's quite a bit of history to this little family tableau, given enough context in this outing to allow new reader's into the secrets.
It also isn't going to take too long for new readers to pick up on the substance behind Maloney's characterisation of William Power. He's gloriously, wonderfully, completely and totally self-involved. As much as he fancies himself a great Shakespearean actor, it's very hard to get that line Richard II out of your head "Infusing him with self and vain conceit". Yet, as surprising as this might seem, there's something touching and quite endearing about William Power. For all his self-regard and self-centeredness, always there's a sneaking suspicion that William is as aware as anybody else that "one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages."
Obviously character plays a huge part in the William Power series. Despite William being at the core of everything, with his voice being the main perspective into the bargain, his brother Brian, his mother Agnes, Peter Gilbert and his family manage to hold their own in comparison. Somehow they manage to form personalities of their own - perhaps because they so often disappoint or confuse William himself.
Because of the time at which these books are set, all the plots revolve around aspects of life in Australia during the Second World War, always with a strong local connection. This novel creates an particularly curly domestic scenario interwoven with the fallout from the killing spree of Eddie Leonski - the notorious "Brownout Strangler"; the presence of American Serviceman in Melbourne and the changes in society that are concomitant with the pressures of war. It also uses realistic feeling locations around Carlton and the inner city for most of the action to take place in - with casual insertions of walking through parks, past cemeteries and to and from the city to give a real sense of place and atmosphere.
The interweaving of war work and the world of the theatre is elegantly presented, and at the heart of it all there is the wonderful William Power. Of course wonderful is understating his magnificence - as I'm sure he'd assert should you meet in a darkened post-theatre bar, preferably after a performance of high culture and wit. As opposed to the vaudeville and pantomime that alas, even an actor of William Power's worth, has been forced to sink.
Look for the sly sense of humour in these books (which frequently tipped over into outright laughter for this reader), and past the bombastic outer shell of William Power, because THE SERPENT'S STING is a worthy addition to a series of novels that must come highly recommended.
Pufferfish is one of my all time favourite Australian Crime Fiction identities. He's taciturn, reticent and often recalcitrant. He's frequently obtusePufferfish is one of my all time favourite Australian Crime Fiction identities. He's taciturn, reticent and often recalcitrant. He's frequently obtuse, often slightly grumpy, addicted to strong espresso and liquorice all-sorts and finally, he's back. No matter how many of these books are written, it's always going to be way too long between visits with DI Franz Heineken, his offsiders Rafe and Faye and the brief glimpses of glorious Tasmanian locations.
In order to get this series readers will need to love dry, wicked humour with a dose of tongue firmly placed in cheek. Sort of. Owen is an author who is not above a little go at just about everybody via our beloved and tricky Pufferfish. Even his own, where a hapless professional development course in which a lone blowfly is considerably more appealing than yet another Powerpoint slide, includes a lovely dig:
Our PD man further averred that the enduring popularity of the genre sends inappropriate messages about policing's reality, the public gulled into assuming that being a cop is a glossy gun-and-capspray-on-hip caper with no need for more government funding, and he singled out the absurdity of the dramatic insistence that there must be a dead body in the first chapter or before the first ad break, and he further said that while crime fiction readers are innocent fools and can therefore be forgiven, its authors, by peddling and profiting off their deliberate distortions and falsehoods, should themselves be treated as criminals, and he quoted S.18 C of the IGGA, the Ill-Gotten Gains Act, to prove his point.
Oh Pufferfish, if being at one with the sort of character that quotes such bitterness is a fool's game, it's one worth playing :)
But then that's the point of Pufferfish. He grumps and mumbles his way through the excesses of the worst and highest of society in his books. In 13-POINT PLAN these class distinctions collide in a most unpleasant manner - what with the murder of a posh, wealthy English polo player, at the feet of the rotting, and somewhat Tasmanian Tiger mangled corpse of a local, recently released from prison, criminal. How these two deaths are connected, if the crime scene is to be believed becomes foremost in Pufferfish's mind. As does the need to understand why Rafe's taken to wearing skinny leather ties, why his ex-girlfriend is back in town and what current paramour Hedda's going to make of that, and when he is ever likely to cut a break when it comes to bosses.
Part of the sheer joy of these books is obviously Pufferfish himself. A man with a chequered background he's not so much hiding out deep in the Tasmanian Police Force as he is immersed. He's not exactly unlucky in love, but he certainly makes it hard for himself sometimes. He's a good boss, provided his colleagues don't mind the occasional outburst, and that habit of drinking espresso and eating liquorice all-sorts is enough to make a reader vaguely queasy. This whole series is part sheer enjoyment, part laugh out loud, and part serious detecting with some particularly horrible criminals to be tracked down. In this outing the family connections of both victims play and interesting part in the entire story, with Pufferfish and his team moving between the two different worlds seamlessly for them, creating all sorts of dangerous rips for others.
If you've not caught up with the earlier books in the Pufferfish series (and seriously why the hell not!) the earlier ones might now be a a challenge to find (Pig's Head - 1994, Z and Y - 1995, A Second Hand - 1995 and The Devil Taker - 1997), but the more recent ones from 2011 No Weather for a Burial and How the Dead See should be around. If access is an issue then start wherever you can - you'll get enough of the background to DI Franz Heineken, his team, his bosses, and his Tasmania to feel right at home.
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.
There is a very good reason for all the buzz around about The Dry, another great debut thriller from an Australian writer. Review at Newtown Review ofThere is a very good reason for all the buzz around about The Dry, another great debut thriller from an Australian writer. Review at Newtown Review of Books...more
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.
NOTHING SHORT OF DYING is the debut release from author Erik Storey, which arrived with considerable fanfare. It's flagged as something that will haveNOTHING SHORT OF DYING is the debut release from author Erik Storey, which arrived with considerable fanfare. It's flagged as something that will have Lee Child's Reacher watching over his shoulder which clearly flags this is action packed, with a lone hero up against it from all sides central character.
Clyde Barr is a mountain man, hunter and a mercenary. After many years fighting conflicts in Africa amongst other places, and a torrid stint in a Mexican jail he's heading back to his native Colorado, out into the mountains, going bush as we'd say in Australia, looking for a low key sort of life. Which all goes to hell in a hand-basket when he gets a frantic call from one of his sisters, and heads out to save the day. At this point you start to find out that Barr's personal life is anything but uncomplicated, his family is fractured, his younger sister has been a bit of a trial and just about everybody is flat out nasty or at the very least disinterested. Unless you count Allie the barmaid with a sort of heart of gold and taste for adventure, who joins him on quest, serving as companion, love interest and recently arrived conscience or reason to get his act together.
NOTHING SHORT OF DYING is really quite the roller-coaster ride, and in that I'm not just referring to the action packed, race to find and free the sister. There are many highs and lows in dealing with Barr to navigate as well. The action here is bloody and violent, there's a feeling of the wild west about the pace, and the free-wheeling bash, crash and killing spree. Whilst it's obvious that those who have taken Jen are definitely the black hat wearers, Barr's not so easy to pigeon-hole. There are times when he feels like part of the problem - with a tendency to wipe out anybody who even looks like they are going to get in his way, and times he's haunted by memories of things that have gone wrong in the past, people who he's failed to save, bodies he's left in his wake. And of course, there's a budding romance with Allie - who is carting around more than a few issues of her own.
There were points where I absolutely loved NOTHING SHORT OF DYING, and points where I'd cheerfully have flung it across a room. Whilst there are aspects of Barr's characterisation that rang true, that has to balanced up against the constant concept of anything can be solved if you shoot it, hit it hard enough, or drive around it fast enough. All of which has been done - to death - before, although undoubtedly that doesn't sound particularly fair as the same could be said of lots of thrillers. It's all going to come down to a question of connection with Barr and even with Allie. If, as a reader he's somebody you instantly feel you can barrack for, or even just understand a bit, then the quibbles will disappear. If he's somebody you're struggling with, then the lack of subtlety, and the constant bang bang, shoot 'em up, loner out to save the day, getting it wrong, getting it right and the extreme violence is going to be less successful.
NOTHING SHORT OF DYING is definitely one for readers to make their own minds up about.
Cass Tuplin has returned in second book DEAD MEN DON'T ORDER FLAKE. Proprietor of the recently rebuilt Rusty Bore Takeway, she's a fish, chip and dimCass Tuplin has returned in second book DEAD MEN DON'T ORDER FLAKE. Proprietor of the recently rebuilt Rusty Bore Takeway, she's a fish, chip and dim sim dispenser extraordinaire with a sideline in private enquiries. Which means she's one of those slightly nosy women who can find out stuff, despite objections from her eldest son, and local Senior Constable, Dean. Her propensity to dig until dirt moves out of the way is part of the reason why a local father, Gary Kellett, asks her to look further into the death of his only daughter. Natalie was a journalist in the "big town up the road" Muddy Soak, and her death in a car accident at a notorious traffic blackspot was put down to poor driving, until Cass starts looking around, and Dean starts getting a bit huffy about the question marks over police conclusions.
Now you'd expect that an investigation like that would ruffle a few local feathers - not just Dean's - but Cass has the state of her own plumage to worry about as well. The return of presumed-dead, teenage heart-throb, and previous romantic interest is causing mild interest in lots of places. When Leo Stone casually wanders into the Rusty Bore Takeaway, acting like his twenty year disappearing act, and the headstone in the cemetery (incidentally organised by Cass) are just a blip in the timeline of their shared attraction, the questions over where he's actually been and what he's been up to fight for prominence with the questions about that car accident. To say nothing of what happened to a watch that went missing many years before.
Needless to say, if you hadn't worked it out from the blurb, this is a humorous, on the eccentric / cosy side, Australian rural series, set somewhere fictional in the Wimmera / Mallee of Victoria (in other words just up the road), populated by a mildly dotty crowd of locals with a track record (after two books) of death and destruction that is starting to feel like it could give Midsomer Murders a run for their money.
Told from Cass's viewpoint, the first book in the series, MURDER WITH THE LOT, did for self-deprecating humour what over-salting takeaway chips can do, but the balance in the second book is much better. There's still plenty of one-liners and a lot of wry observations, but they don't hold up advancement of plot, and Cass doesn't come across as quite the flake (pun only slightly intended) that she might have in the earlier novel. As with the earlier book, the investigation is only part of life - it goes up against the ongoing business workload, the problems with maintaining good relationships with two sons and their love interests, offers of more than friendship from the other shop-owner in town, and the need to be there for the older members of the community. And the long-lost love interest, now unencumbered by fiancé's, husbands, potential mothers-in-law, and the daftness of youth.
The plot here is good - with interwoven elements between the present and the past nicely held together with a combination of believability and local involvement to support that. There's also some good old fashioned motivations behind a lot of actions - money, power, prestige - human nature being what it is regardless of size of location. Lovers of dogs might also want to be aware that all's not well in that department, although a supporting cast of ferrets fare considerably better.
DEAD MEN DON'T ORDER FLAKE obviously comes from the entertaining side of crime fiction. It's central character is one of those women of a certain age, unencumbered by the constraints of expectation and "rules of behaviour" that age, experience and a certain level of "who gives a..." provides, eventually, to us all. The only downside to DEAD MEN DON'T ORDER FLAKE is personal as there are fish and chip shops in small Mallee towns that I have a lot of trouble going into without a bit of a giggle. Luckily last time I was in one, the bloke behind the counter didn't have red hair, and didn't have the slightest idea what I was laughing about.