Review: ONLY DAUGHTER by Anna Snoekstra

onlydaughtersnoekstraI wasn’t surprised to read that Anna Snoekstra’s debut novel ONLY DAUGHTER has already been picked up by Hollywood. To me it read more like a movie script than a novel and whether you think that is a compliment or not will probably determine whether or not you’ll want to read it. For me it was quick and readable but never really delivered on its intriguing premise.

A young woman is caught shoplifting. To avoid being fingerprinted – when the truth about her past would come to light – she tells police she is Rebecca Winter. She’d seen a TV show about Winter a few months earlier: a teenage girl who had disappeared from her Canberra suburb a decade earlier. The young woman looked uncannily like Bec. At least enough like her to pretend for a few hours until she can escape police clutches. Only she doesn’t escape. Instead she goes home with Bec’s family. Because she really misses having a family.

We never learn the young woman’s real name so I’ll call her Pretend Bec. About half of the book is told from her perspective in 2014 in the days after she is ‘found’. Her parents, twin brothers and best friend all seem to accept that she is really Bec. Anything she doesn’t know she either fakes or pretends not to remember. Pretend Bec is enjoying having a family, especially a mother who looks after her. We don’t learn much about whatever it is that Pretend Bec is running away from but we do know her real mother has not been in the picture for some time. The other half of the book is real Bec’s story unfolding in 2003 in the days leading up to her disappearance. She is a fairly typical teenage girl with a best friend, a crush on an older boy at work and a couple of secrets that could lead to an unpleasant demise. Snoekstra pulls off this narrative structure well and the two threads are easy to keep track of while offering a good way to build up tension.

The rest of the book was less successful for me. This is mostly because I never really bought the situation I was meant to suspend my disbelief for. I could accept that the people who knew Bec would accept her reappearance – at least for a while – because the power of wanting such a thing must be fierce. But the way officialdom handled the event never rang true. For example the act Pretend Bec used to get out of providing DNA (which would have immediately proven her a liar) is completely implausible, as is the broader way police (represented by a lone detective) are portrayed as handling the reappearance. Snoekstra had already given herself a tougher than normal job of maintaining suspense by showing readers that Pretend Bec wasn’t the real missing girl; adding a laughably incompetent police and a strangely standoffish media presence just made it all the more difficult. Not to mention a complete lack of social media which for events taking place in 2014 just added to the lack of credibility for me.

The other element that didn’t really work for me were the characters. Real Bec was decently drawn and her teenage friendship with Lizzie has a genuine feel to it. But there are limits to my interest in the inner life of 16-year old girls. Especially ones interested in clothes, makeup, shoplifting and an older boy who turns out not to be prince charming. Yawn. Pretend Bec just annoyed me. Partially because I am not the world’s biggest fan of unreliable narrators but mostly because her inner life was even less interesting than Real Bec’s and I never got to the point where I cared much if she got found out or would meet the same fate as her doppelganger. The rest of the characters are pretty one-dimensional and I cannot possibly be the only reader who saw the end coming – including who’d done what – from a mile away. The red herrings – such as they were – felt way too forced and the culprit too obvious.

As always, other opinions are available and I can imagine that if you are not a nearly-50 grump then you might get more from this novel than I did.

AWW2016This is book 16.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Publisher: Harlequin Enterprises [2016]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781489210814
Length: 191 pages
Format: eBook (ePub)

Review: TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL by Melina Marchetta

tellthetruthshamethedevilI was intrigued to see that Melina Marchetta had written a crime novel for adults because she’s bucking a trend. These days it seems nearly all the crime writers I know of are moving away from writing for adults towards the presumably more lucrative YA market whereas Marchetta, who has won a string of local and international awards for her YA novels, has gone in the other direction. I knew nothing about the book before diving in other than that it was for adults and at least vaguely a crime novel.

Perhaps not surprisingly given her previous work TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL does feature more teenagers than the average book for adults but the story’s main character is Bashir “Bish” Ortley, a senior desk-based officer with the Metropolitan Police in the UK currently on suspension for reasons I won’t go into here. When the book opens Bish is at home teetering on the edge of a personal abyss when he learns that there has been an explosion on a tourist bus full of teenagers in Normandy. Bish’s daughter Bee is on such a trip and he is immediately galvanized into action. He and his mother soon arrive at the Calais campground where the explosion took place and discover death, barely controlled chaos and a whole lot of fear. It soon becomes known that one of the teens on the bus is the daughter of a notorious terrorist, a woman who confessed more than a decade earlier to a bombing in England which killed 23 people. Violette LeBrac is at once a ‘person of interest’ but she manages to disappear from the campground before much official questioning can take place. Bish, being currently unemployed and having a personal stake in matters, becomes semi-officially involved in the subsequent hunt for Violette and the younger boy who disappears with her.

This is one helluva story. It does rely on some potentially unlikely coincidences – it reminded me of Kate Atkinson novels in that way – but Marchetta’s skill at weaving all the complex strands of narrative together allows the reader to believe it all. This overall sense of credibility is aided by the many real-world elements incorporated into the storyline such as the role social media plays in most lives these days and the ever-present tension between society’s demands for punishment and revenge and the fact that most individuals have a basic humanity to them. And then there’s the fact that it’s a damned fascinating story and perfectly paced to boot. Where so many thriller writers go wrong (for me) is that they never let their characters, or their readers, catch their breath. TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL is full of suspense (it kept me awake way too long on a week night because I had to know what happened) but there are pauses and light moments and characters have time for some introspection even while chaos unfolds around them.

As a nearly 50 year old woman I’m not all that interested in stories which only show the world from teenagers’ eyes so have been a bit bemused by the recent explosion in YA popularity among adults and was a little wary when I realised so much of this book would focus on teens. But Marchetta has done a great job of allowing us to see things from all her characters’ perspectives. The dialogue in particular is spot on and the subtle differences between adults talking to each other, teens talking to adults and teens talking to each other shows both where the adult and teen worlds are similar and where they’re wildly different. It’s a real highlight of the book. In fact the characterisations as a whole are a highlight. Whether it is Bish himself or Violette or her mother – whom Bish is forced to visit in prison to gain what insights she’s prepared to share that might help him to locate Violette – or any of the more minor characters they are all very believable and compelling.

In short, I loved TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL. It’s got action, suspense, humour, sadness and enough hope to ensure the reader is not left feeling suicidal at the end. It has a very ‘of the moment’ sensibility in that it tackles very topical issues such as the role of social media in the modern world and the complex way we collectively deal with horrendous crimes such as terrorism, but all of this is done intelligently so that the book won’t feel out of date in a year’s time. Highly recommended.

AWW2016This is the 15th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (well technically it’s 14.5 as one book was written by a father daughter team). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Publisher: Penguin [2016]
ISBN: 9780670079100
Length: 405 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE WRONG HAND by Jane Jago

thewronghandjagoI suppose it was inevitable that the real-life 1990’s kidnap, torture and murder of 2 year-old James Bulger by two 11 year-old boys would become the subject of exploration by writers and other artists. Evil acts are hard enough to understand, let alone evil acts perpetrated by children, and surely one of the purposes of art is to expose such incomprehensible things to scrutiny if not explanation. Although she doesn’t make specific reference to the case there are enough similarities to it in THE WRONG HAND that Jane Jago has clearly spent more than a little time contemplating the horrendous events and their fallout on everyone involved. The result, to her credit, is a thoughtful, sometimes confronting but never sensationalist, depiction of the aftermath of horror on those left behind and at least the start of a conversation about the broader responsibility we all – as members of a shared society – have in dealing sensibly, and perhaps even compassionately, with all those involved in such events.

Although it has at its heart a kidnapping and murder similar to the Bulger case THE WRONG HAND doesn’t provide prurient details of these events. The book is not really concerned with what happened. Instead it is primarily concerned with what happens afterwards, and, to a lesser extent, what went before. In chapters told from multiple perspectives the bulk of the book takes place 15 years after the death of 3 year old Benjamin, although there are some passages set at the time of the murder and a few at other moments in between. At each stage we meet people who are largely sympathetic. There are the boy’s parents, Rachel and Matthew, as well as the lead detective from the investigation and a journalist who has covered the story from the beginning. Essentially the book offers us character studies of these people and shows us the different ways each copes, or doesn’t, with Benjamin’s death and the discovery that he was murdered by two boys not that much older than him. Not surprisingly Rachel and Matthew separate. Rachel is re-married and has two children who she physically struggles to let out of her sight. Matthew on the other hand is still fuelled by anger and a burning desire for revenge so has built up a network of informants and others who offer ‘information’ about possible sightings of his son’s killers since they were released from prison.

In some ways this is all standard fare, even if done well, but where Jago has been brave is to incorporate the perspectives of other, less sympathetic people involved in and impacted by the murder. This includes the parents and siblings of the two perpetrators who are hounded and in some cases haunted by their connection to the horrors. And it includes the two perpetrators themselves who, for the bulk of the book, have been released from juvenile detention and are living under their new identities which have been provided for them along with some ongoing monitoring and counselling. At times this aspect of the book is confronting. As adults both men struggle with their pasts and it’s so very easy to believe they deserve all the inner turmoil that comes their way. Until Jago reminds us that they were so very young when they did what they did and neither of them had an ideal home environment. Ought they live in torment forever? The question of how long people should be held accountable for things they do as children permeates the book, as does the exploration of what options society has for dealing with child perpetrators of violent crimes. Jago doesn’t offer concrete solutions – I doubt that was ever her intention – but rather prompts the reader to really contemplate these complex issues with more thoughtfulness and consideration than sound bites and social media outrage allows in the modern era.

Although it is this aspect of the book – this exploration of an almost impossible to contemplate social issue – that has been uppermost in my mind since I finished it I must say the book is also a great work of fiction. The story is always compelling, even when it is recounting events that the reader knows will not end well, and the characters are all sensitively drawn, credible and engaging. I particularly admire that Jago was able to make the two perpetrators come to life as something more than cardboard cutout evildoers. She doesn’t make excuses for them or portray them flatteringly but neither does she demonise them. That cannot have been an easy thing to achieve.

My only criticism of the book is its almost total lack of a sense of place. It’s just about possible for a local to tell the story is taking place in Australia (I couldn’t tell you what state though) but it seems like there has been a deliberate attempt to have this be seen as a story that could be taking place anywhere the reader is familiar with. I suppose I can understand this but at times I think that detracted a little from the otherwise very authentic sensibility the book has (especially as the edition I read used some very jarring American terms like ‘downtown’ and ‘subway’ which are simply not used here in the same way they would be in the US). However this is a relatively minor complaint and overall I was thoroughly impressed with Jago’s ethically sound and well-considered handling of a truly difficult subject.

AWW2016This is the 15th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (well technically it’s 14.5 as one book was written by a father daughter team). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Publisher: Penguin [2016]
ISBN: 978405920421
Length: 362 pages
Format: paperback

Review: DEAD IN THE WATER by Tania Chandler

deadinthewaterchandlerAny Australian my age will surely remember the 70’s advertising campaign for a non-alcoholic mixer called Claytons: the drink you have when you’re not having a drink. To me DEAD IN THE WATER feels like the crime fiction you have when you’re not having crime fiction. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but in this instance I thought it made the book a bit bland; unsure of what it wanted to be. Although there is a crime it doesn’t really drive the story or any of the characters and I didn’t feel that the psychological suspense was moving things along either. In fact there wasn’t much moving along of any kind. To me this novel reads more like literary fiction in that it is primarily an exploration of one human being’s life and the stuff that happens in it is less important than how the subject feels about and reacts to those life events. Except for the last dozen or so pages where there is action a-plenty. Again this is not a bad approach in itself but the issue I had with it in this instance is that I didn’t find the book’s subject – the tragedy-packed life of Brigitte Serra – all that compelling.

The book is Tania Chandler’s second novel to centre on this character. I haven’t read the earlier instalment but didn’t feel at a disadvantage for that, with Chandler providing just enough information about previously described events for me not to feel out of the loop but not, I think, too much that those who have read the earlier novel will be bored by the repetition. But even without me having read them both, I cannot fail to notice that this supposedly average suburban mum has had enough traumatic life events to fill two books (so far) and I struggled somewhat with that fact. I know that all the reading I do requires me to suspend my disbelief but I couldn’t get past the mental hurdle that an average sort of person, even one who makes poor decisions on occasion, is unlikely to encounter all the horrendous things that have happened to Brigitte (who’s only in her 30’s by my reckoning). A car accident that nearly killed her and caused amnesia, being suspected of murder, one dead boyfriend (or maybe he was a fiancé?), one dead husband and a nearly-dead second husband are among the traumas Brigitte has experienced before this book starts. And in this one there’s a family member’s death, another’s attempted suicide and more that I can’t reveal for fear of spoilers. Which is how it came to pass that I never really ‘bought’ her character. And even if I had, the exploration of her dealing with these events was basically to watch her get drunk and wish she hadn’t (that’s Brigitte wishing she hadn’t, not me doing the wishing).

Brigitte is married to Aiden, a former homicide detective who, due to the events depicted in the first book which included him being shot, is now performing more routine police duties in eastern Victoria. They live with Brigitte’s twins from her first marriage and their own daughter Ella on Raymond Island: a small strip of land accessible only from the water in the Gippsland lakes. When a woman’s body is found on the island Aiden is only tangentially involved in the investigation of her death as detectives are sent from Melbourne to take charge but because the community is such a small one everyone is interested in events and in what insider knowledge the Serra family has of the investigation. But they, and we readers, are largely disappointed as there is never much provided in the way of investigatory detail or progress in the case. Instead the book focuses more on how Brigitte and her family are adapting to their new life – I gather some years have passed since the events of the first book – and how Brigitte and Aiden are coping (or not) with all life has thrown at them. For me there are missed opportunities here. For example I thought it pretty obvious what was wrong with Aiden and would like that to have come to light earlier so that the issue could have been explored more thoroughly rather than being hurriedly crammed into the final couple of chapters of the book.

Chandler has written publicly of her uncomfortableness with her writing’s categorisation and heaven knows I have lamented too strict genre labelling. Isn’t a book just a book in the end? Perhaps my hackles rose because it felt a little like the book was making a play for being better than standard crime fiction by not conforming to the tropes of the genre.The most obvious manifestation of this is when Brigitte starts critiquing a crime novel that’s part of the story, written by an old boyfriend of hers. After the third or fourth sneering jibe about the genre’s clichés I couldn’t help but think “pot, meet kettle, it’s not like the ‘young woman in repeated jeopardy’ is uncharted territory.”

Ultimately I found DEAD IN THE WATER equally readable and forgettable. For me the genre elements (what there were of them) were too obvious and, aside from the beautifully captured sense of place, the literary elements of the novel lacking much in the way of insight into the human condition. But of course I read through the eyes of a die-hard fan of the crime genre; perhaps this is a book better suited to those whose preferences lie elsewhere.

AWW2016This is the 14th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (well technically it’s 13.5 as one book was written by a father/daughter team). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Publisher: Scribe [2016]
ISBN: 9781925321593
Length: 283 pages
Format: paperback

Review: DEAD MEN DON’T ORDER FLAKE by Sue Williams

deadmendontorderflakewilliamsIn crime fiction, particularly at the lighter, cosier end of the genre spectrum one of the issues that authors have to deal with is what I’ll call the Cabot Cove Effect. That being that in reality small towns and communities simply do not experience the number and variety of murders worthy of dramatic re-telling that even one book, let alone a series of them, demands. So there has to be something else about the books that makes it possible for readers to suspend disbelief. In my experience a lot of authors completely fail to achieve this which is the main reason I follow so few lighter series (many are started, few are finished). Having now published the second of what I hope will become a longer series of books set in the fictional Victorian town of Rusty Bore, population 147, Sue Williams could give lessons on how to get it right.

DEAD MEN DON’T ORDER FLAKE follows on from MURDER WITH THE LOT but you don’t have to have read the first book in order to enjoy this one. That fact is worth stating explicitly as it’s often difficult to dive into a series at anything other than the beginning so I am impressed when a book stands on its own merits. Furthermore, you could easily go back and read the first book after this one which is even less common. Full marks.

The next element Williams gets right is the tone of the story. It can’t be too serious (because of the aforementioned Cabot Cove Effect) but it can’t be so silly or gimmick-laden that it induces eye rolling in the average reader. Aside from the fact that there’s a higher than credible murder count for a small town, everything else about the story has a ring of truth so it is easy to ignore that one issue and go for the ride. The dead man of this book’s title is Leo Stone, an old flame of series heroine Cass Tuplin. Everyone in town thought Leo was dead. So dead they even held a remembrance ceremony and gave him a headstone. But he’s turned up now very much alive and with gun and/or diamond smuggling skills to his name. Or so the rumour mill goes. Meanwhile Cass is asked by the father of a local reporter to investigate her death. Police – in the form of Cass’ oldest son Dean – say Natalie Kellett was speeding and crashed her car at a notorious black spot. But her father is convinced this isn’t true. Could she have been working on a story important enough to have gotten her killed? Finding out proves to be very entertaining with lots of humour offsetting the dramatic moments.

The characters here are the sorts of people you work with or are related to or are neighbours with. OK maybe you don’t know anyone who owns multiple ferrets and don’t have a potential in-law who makes you buy g-string underwear while it’s on sale but I bet most of the characters display traits you are familiar with. The result is that it’s almost like being told a story about people you know. Sometimes they are annoying – I find Cass a mite too wrapped up in her adult children’s lives for example – but that’s what makes them realistic. And collectively Williams has created a group of people who are interesting and fun.

Based on the number of unfinished ones littering my ‘books to donate’ pile I suspect it sounds a lot easier than it actually is to wrte this kind of book well. Sue Williams has the balance of humour and drama just about perfect and without going over the top on ‘ocker traits’ provides an authentic Australian sensibility for this story. With a dash of nefarious local politics, a mysterious romantic element and terrific minor characters spanning twenty-somethings to the elderly there is something – or someone – for every reader.

AWW2016This is the 13th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Publisher: Text [2016]
ISBN: 9781925240948
Length: 281 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE SOLDIER’S CURSE by Meg Keneally and Tom Keneally

thesoldierscursekeneallyAlthough I am an ardent fan of Tom Keneally’s writing – and the man himself who is rightfully one of our national living treasures – I admit to wariness when approaching his latest book which he has written in collaboration with his oldest daughter Meg. Due to a combination of bad history teachers and my working for several years in an archives where the only researchers I met were on never-ending quests for convicts in their family trees there are few subjects more likely to send me to sleep than Australia’s convict era. I ought to have had more faith: THE SOLDIER’S CURSE successfully weaves literary, historical and crime fiction together in a very engaging package.

The story’s action takes place in the penal settlement of Port Macquarie in 1825 which, at the time, was some days sailing north of Sydney and was about as remote as it got in a country that was already a bloody long way from anywhere else. A suitable site then for the prisoner’s prison; the place where those criminals who had been transported to Australia and had subsequently transgressed for a second time were confined. The authors have done a superb job of depicting this time and place, eschewing some of the more familiar (and wearying) convict lore such as our collective desire to believe that the only people transported here were those who’d stolen stale bread to feed their starving families. Instead most people display a mixture of good and bad traits but generally try to do the ‘right’ thing, even if their definitions of the word differ. The isolation of the place itself and the fact so much of it is unexplored and unknown is also brought vividly to life and the settlement’s interactions with the Birpai, the Aboriginal group native to the area, are sensitively incorporated.

Hugh Monsarrat is one of the prisoners though his circumstances are not as dire as they might have been. Due to his penmanship and writing skills Monsarrat works as the clerk to Major Shelborne who runs the settlement and has some leeway in how he spends his time if not the full freedom he yearns for. His characterisation is a fascinating one as we learn that what has been his undoing is, at heart, his ego and his unwillingness to accept the limitations his world tried to impose on him. Even being transported to the ends of the earth doesn’t engender in him the capacity to be as prudent as his situation demands. It’s a wholly realistic depiction and doesn’t gloss over the fact that Hugh is a criminal by his society’s definition and he really has no one to blame but himself for his predicament.

Hugh becomes a kind of amateur sleuth when the Major’s wife falls gravely ill before dying and his friend and confidante Hannah Mulrooney, the Shelborne’s housekeeper, comes under suspicion. As is sometimes the way with historical crime fiction the mysterious elements of the story do take a back seat. There is certainly a crime but there’s not a lengthy suspense over who committed it so I suppose I ought not recommend this to die-hard whodunit purists. Though I think most others would enjoy the way this story doesn’t end when the culprit has been revealed which gives the authors time to explore what happens to the criminal after they have carried out their plan. There mixture of pride and fear and regret the culprit displays seems very credible and I found it totally compelling. I may even have shed a tear or two for the killer which is something of a feat given it was a truly heinous crime.

I’m always fascinated by joint writing projects so was interested to hear (via this Radio National interview) that the Keneallys had originally planned to write alternating chapters based on Tom Keneally’s initial outline but that they ended up with Meg doing the initial drafting with lots of input from her father. It certainly doesn’t feel in any way disjointed, as perhaps it might have done if the original plan was followed. Although she has been a journalist I don’t think Meg Keneally has written fiction before so it’s difficult to know how much of the story’s voice is hers, whereas it does seem like Tom Keneally’s voice is present. Some of the themes common to his other work, including the role of Catholicism in Australian society (Keneally trained to be a Catholic priest though left the seminary before being ordained) and the tensions between classes or social stratas, are certainly present.

Apparently there is at least one more book featuring Hugh Monsarrat and Hannah Mulrooney coming our way and I must say I can’t wait. Engaging characters, fascinating period details and the thoughtful exploration of sociopolitical themes is more than enough to have me coming back for more.

AWW2016Given it was written by a male/female pair I’m counting this as half a book towards my obligations for reading and reviewing books for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge, bringing my total so far to 11.5. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Publisher: Random House [2016]
ISBN: 9780857989369
Length: 369 pages
Format: paperback


13PointPlanForAPerfectMurderI don’t know if he had a 13-Point plan for it but David Owen’s latest novel to feature Tasmanian Detective Inspector Franz “Pufferfish” Heineken is just about the perfect murder mystery. From its deliciously out-of-the-ordinary cover (taken from a gorgeous art work by a Tasmanian artist) to its last linguistically playful sentence the book is a pure delight.

It is the seventh instalment of the series which spans 22 years and it sees the wily DI, known as almost universally as Pufferfish (due to his tendency for being generally prickly, occasionally toxic and sometimes exploding when severely provoked), confronted with a fascinating array of crimes. Aside from ensuring there is always something going on I found the mixture of matters requiring the attention of Owen and his team a good reminder that not all police work is about the hunt for crazed killers. Here, one of Pufferfish’s offsiders gets the team involved in the investigation of the theft of a school boy’s stamp album (the boy is a student of Faye’s old teacher and the alleged thief belongs to a family well known to police) and this unlikely thread provides a great deal of the book’s drama and humour. Two members of a different family that the police are also well-acquainted with claim that their husband/father has been the subject of an attempted murder (at the very least) and that they themselves are now under threat. Meanwhile, the case that grabs the whole island’s attention involves the grizzly murder of a well-connected visiting polo player. Owen has done a great job of pacing all three stories across the length of the novel and keeping the reader guessing about what inter-connections might be at play and when a story is really, truly over.

The book is told from the first-person perspective of Pufferfish himself. This is a narrative point-of-view I often find awkward but when done well, as it is here, it can provide a great perspective. We really see the world through Pufferfish’s occasionally jaded eyes, such as when the book opens and we find him on a course

In a room without a view, I’m one of 35 captives being tortured, a faceless cop…It’s agony. At the Police Training College we’re enduring a Professional Development course, the nasal drone of the lecturer soporific over a mid-distance lawnmower on this stuffy late summer afternoon.

As PD goes, this one is being delivered by a fellow with tortoiseshell specs on drop-down string is grindingly dull, except for encouraging that edgy sensation of trying not to nod off in a highly controlled environment.

Me and my miserably entrapped colleagues are here to learn about the constant need to improve the public image of policing.

Pufferfish is not always as downbeat as this might make him appear (not that anyone who’s ever sat through one of those Development courses would blame him for his despair) and is at heart a decent cop trying to get at the truth. That he’s not as enamoured with rules, senior management and wealthy types who attempt to wield power unduly as his bosses would like makes him all the more endearing to me.

The novel also offers a great sense of its place; bringing to life the isolation of island living, the ways that nature – with its beauty and its harshness – affect the state and incorporating real world elements very naturally. For example, the five-year old MONA, Australia’s largest (and just about only) privately funded museum, is the backdrop for a great scene and this is indicative of the kind of local colour the book is full of.

At some point I should stop being surprised that it is often people not born and raised here, like David Owen (who is from the Netherlands originally) and Peter Temple, who draw the best pictures of Australia in their writing. I like that Owen’s version of Australia is both light-hearted and serious when necessary, that his characters can laugh at themselves and stand up for the little guy when it matters and that beauty and ugliness co-exist if not harmoniously then inevitably. 13-POINT PLAN FOR A PERFECT MURDER is funny, fast and has a fiendishly good plot. You should read it immediately.

Publisher: Fullers Bookshop [2016]
ISBN: 9780994561107
Length: 297 pages
Format: paperback

The 2016 Australian Crime Writing Award Winners Are…

Although your humble correspondents have been woefully inattentive, this year’s Davitt and Ned Kelly Awards for Australian Crime Writing have been awarded this weekend as part of Melbourne Writer’s Festival celebrations. It seems we’ve both got some reading to do given the very few of these titles we’ve gotten around to (so far).

Davitt Awards (Saturday 27 August) Sisters in Crime Australia

ResurrectionBayViskicBest Adult novel
– Anne Buist, MEDEA’S CURSE (Kerrie’s review, Bernadette’s review)
– Candice Fox, FALL
– Sulari Gentill, GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE
– Bronwyn Parry, STORM CLOUDS
– J. M. Peace, TIME TO RUN (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
Emma Viskic, RESURRECTION BAY (Bernadette’s review) Winner

FerrisRiskBest Young Adult Novel

– Kathryn Barker, IN THE SKIN OF A MONSTER
Fleur Ferris, RISK Winner
– Ellie Marney, EVERY MOVE
– Maureen McCarthy, STAY WITH ME

xfriday-barnes-under-suspicion.jpg.pagespeed.ic.1XSQMpfW6IBest Children’s Novel


WildManBest Non-Fiction

– Carol Baxter, BLACK WIDOW
– Cheryl Critchley and Helen McGrath, WHY DID THEY DO IT?
– Kate Kyriacou, THE STING
– Alecia Simmonds, WILD MAN Winner
– Sofija Stefanovic, YOU’RE JUST TO GOOD TO BE TRUE

ResurrectionBayViskicBest Debut

– Kathryn Barker, IN THE SKIN OF A MONSTER
– Anne Buist, MEDEA’S CURSE (Kerrie’s review, Bernadette’s review)
– Caroline de Costa, DOUBLE MADNESS (Bernadette’s review)
– Fleur Ferris, RISK
– J. M. Green, GOOD MONEY (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– J. M. Peace, TIME TO RUN (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– Ann Turner, THE LOST SWIMMER (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
Emma Viskic, RESURRECTION BAY Winner (Bernadette’s review)

Emma Viskic also won the Reader’s Choice Award with RESURRECTION BAY (all members of Sisters in Crime Australia are allowed one vote for any of the books eligible for any of the categories). And for what may be the first time in history I am actually one of the in-crowd, having cast my own vote for this excellent novel.

Ned Kelly Awards (Sunday 28 August) Australian Crime Writers Association

ResurrectionBayViskicBest First Fiction

  • Tania Chandler – PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME HERE
  • J.M. Green – GOOD MONEY
  • Mark Holland – AMPLIFY
  • Gary Kemble – SKIN DEEP
  • Ian Ryan – FOUR DAYS
  • Emma Viskic – RESURRECTION BAY Winner (Bernadette’s review)

S.D. Harvey Award for Short Stories

  • Robbie Arnott – The Hall Chimp
  • Honey Brown – The Adjustment
  • Joshua Kemp – Sisters in Red
  • Roni O’Brien – Flesh Winner
  • Jemma Tyley-Miller – The Caretaker

certain_admissionsBest True Crime

  • Gideon Haigh – CERTAIN ADMISSIONS Winner
  • Kate Kyriacou – THE STING
  • Rebecca Poulson – KILLING LOVE
  • Mark Tedeschi – KIDNAPPED

BeforeItBreaksBest Fiction

  • Mark Dapin – R&R
  • Candice Fox – FALL
  • Barry Maitland – ASH ISLAND
  • Adrian McKinty – RAIN DOGS
  • Dave Warner – BEFORE IT BREAKS Winner
  • Emma Viskic – RESURRECTION BAY (Bernadette’s review)

The Australian Crime Writers Association also awarded a lifetime achievement award this year to Carmel Shute who is one of the founders and the longest-serving National Co-Convener of Sisters in Crime Australia and has spent a quarter of a century supporting and nurturing Australian women crime writers. Twitter tells me Carmel took an Enid Blyton novel on stage with her when accepting her award.

Fair Dinkum Crime congratulates all the winners and shortlisted authors and we look forward to catching up with some good reading.

Review: DEATH OF A LAKE by Arthur Upfield

DeathOfALakeUpfieldAudioFor the third time I’ve chosen an Arthur Upfield novel with which to participate in Crimes of the Century, this month requiring a novel originally published in 1954. Once again I chose to listen to a version narrated wonderfully by Peter Hosking (who’s won a narrator of the year award in his time and it’s not hard to hear why).

As with the previous two novels I’ve read it is Upfield’s depiction of the Australian setting that steals the show for me. This novel’s central place is a temporary inland lake: an area that has water for a year or three but which routinely dries up completely when the drought that is inevitable in Australia takes hold. Upfield’s lake is the fictional Lake Otway but it resembles real-life Lake Eyre which is, when it isn’t a dust bowl, is the largest lake in the country. We are introduced to it, and the novel, with these words

Lake Otway was dying. Where it had existed to dance before the sun and be courted by the ravishing moon there would be nothing but drab flats of iron hard clay and then the dead might rise to shout accusations shouted by the encircling sand dunes.


The out-station crowned a low bluff on the southern shore and from it single telephone lines spanned 50 miles of virgin country to base on the great homestead where lived the boss of Porchester station which comprised eight hundred thousand acres and was populated by 60,000 sheep in the care of some 20 wage plugs…

Three years ago the lake was so full of water that it was possible to swim in. And even to drown in, as apparently happened to young stockman Ray Gillen. But now, as police Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte arrives on the scene in the guise of a horsebreaker, the lake is rapidly emptying and Bony soon realises he’s not the only person keen to see what the disappearance of the lake will reveal about the stockman’s death. Gillen was a lottery winner and almost everyone connected to the station seems to think they have some claim on the dead man’s money, wherever it might be.

I’ve thought before that the Upfield plots are the weakest elements of his novels but this one was strong, managing not to get bogged down in too much esoteric detail and maintaining a cracking pace with a load of twists as Bony – and readers – whittle down the greed-driven suspect pool. Whether it be the motley collection of fellow workers or the mother/daughter cook and housemaid team that look after the station everyone seems to have had both motive and opportunity to take advantage of the scenario. The culprit, when eventually unveiled, is among the coldest human beings you’ll encounter fictionally.

Although there is much to anchor this book to place – including a heat which literally has birds dropping from trees in death and the kind of mass rabbit skinning that I can’t imagine happening anywhere else – there is not a great deal to pinpoint the novel in time. Mention is made that Ray Gillen had fought in Korea and there are one or two other indicators that this is one of Upfield’s later novels but it does have a fairly timeless quality. At least it does if you ignore the casual bigotry that pervades all these stories (though here it is women rather than Aboriginal people who cop the brunt of the social stigmatising).

I don’t know that I’d recommend this as the best place to start discovering Arthur Upfield and/or Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte but the book is a solid entry to the series and continues to provide a unique voice in classic crime fiction.

Publisher: This edition Bolinda Audio 1954 [Original Edition, 1954]
Narrator: Peter Hosking
Length: 6 hours, 12 minutes
Format: audio book

Review: COMMON PEOPLE by A.E. Martin

CommonPeopleMartinThe full title of the this novel – at least the edition I read – is COMMON PEOPLE: MURDER IN SIDESHOW ALLEY which gives a little more of a flavour of what is to come. The book’s original American title – THE OUTSIDERS (1945) – also offers a good feel for its story’s subject matter Initially published as a serialised story in an Australian magazine in 1943, as a novel it was first released a year later and tells the story of a group of ‘freaks’…carnival and circus acts who do what they can to get by in a world that either pointedly ignores them or stares rudely. The central character is not really one of them but feels an affinity with these outsiders having grown up an orphan and never really fitting in with ‘normal’ people. Pelham – or Pel as he’s generally known – is what today we’d call an entrepreneur but who is described in the book as

…he was city – a lurker, a fellow who lived on his wits, with no trade, no profession, relying on his imagination for his bread and butter.

His central work in this story is the financing. promoting and running of a 10-week show displaying the world’s most successful starving man to the people of London. Business-wise things are going well but on the eve of his big show’s commencement an old friend of Pel’s is murdered. This horror happens in the flat underneath the one in which Pel and his sideshow act friends are celebrating so they all become potential suspects and at least one policeman is champing at the bit to arrest at least one of ‘the freaks’.

The character of Pel must surely be at least a little autobiographical given A.E. (Archibald Edward) Martin’s own potted history which includes several years on the European carnival circuit with Houdini as his mentor. He also worked as a journalist, magazine owner, travel agent and publicist for a variety of the kinds of acts we meet in the book before turning his hand to writing (both fiction and non fiction). This breadth of experience gives COMMON PEOPLE its authentic feel and the sense that the reader is being drawn into a different world rather than being asked to point and snigger at it which could so easily have happened. There’s no hint that the author is laughing at or exploiting these people which gives the reader permission to simply be fascinated in learning about this truly absorbing world.

The plot rocks along at a fair pace with Pel hooking up with a couple of more enlightened policemen than the one who sneers at and suspects all the carnival acts. Even so there are a couple of genuine suspects among the crowd and suspicions must be worked through before a satisfactory resolution comes to pass. All the while we are treated to the trials and tribulations of being a carnival act or the promoter of one which provides the story with a lot of warm humour.

My only disappointment in reading the book – given the author was born in my home town – is that there is very little Australian about it. Aside from one character claiming to be an Australian that is. But for someone not terribly fond of the circus I found myself completely absorbed in this tale and its characters and gripped by the classic whodunit suspense. I’m grateful (as ever) to the people at Wakefield Press who included this story in the series of forgotten Australian crime classics they released in the 80’s and 90’s.

Publisher: this edition Wakefield Press [1994]
ISBN: 9781862543034
Length: 212 pages
Format: paperback