VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE, Leah Giarratano

This is another of those book reviews originally published in July 2007 elsewhere, that I am re-publishing here.
VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE was Leah Giarratano’s debut novel.

Bantam Press, July 2007

Newly promoted Detective Sergeant Jill Jackson of the New South Wales Police force has a deep hatred of paedophiles and the “squirrels” who procure children for them. When Jill was twelve years old she was abducted and held in a basement for three days. During that time she was abused by men who were never caught. Even now, over twenty years later, she has recurrent nightmares, and unpredictable panic attacks. She is very security conscious and has also developed techniques for dealing with unwanted memories. Exhaustive exercise is one of her strategies.

David Carter, paedophile and voyeur, is found beaten to death in the sand dunes where he was watching a young couple. There have been two other bashing deaths with similar MOs in the Sydney metropolitan area. Jill’s colleague Scotty Hutchinson is as committed as Jill is to hunting down paedophiles. Jill and Scotty believe there are connections, perhaps even a serial killer who is hunting down paedophiles.

Mercy Merris is a psychotherapist who has treated both Jill and other trauma victims – not, it seems, particularly successfully. She is conducting a vendetta against those involved in paedophile rings, particularly those known to have been responsible for the misery of some of her patients. Her patients tend to be survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE seems to me to be rather thickly populated with unpleasant characters, including a colleague of Jill’s, whose brother she gaoled in the amphetamine bust that resulted in her promotion. Jill has many enemies and needs all her physical and mental strength to win through.

The subject matter of this novel is extremely unpleasant. We are told that VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE, “though inspired by real Australian crimes, is a work of fiction”. Author Leah Giarratano is a psychologist who has obviously drawn on her experiences in working with victims of sexual offences. In this, her debut novel, the plot is tightly constructed, and the action violent. However for me Jill Jackson is just a little too larger than life. At 34 years of age, too many bad things have happened to her. I am surprised that she actually made it into the New South Wales Police force, although Giarratano has built a very strong case for this being her mission in life. Giarratano’s next book is due to be released in July 2008.

July 2007 review, originally published on Murder and Mayhem
My rating: 4.2

I’ve also reviewed VOODOO DOLL (2008)

The Consequences of Sin, Clare Langley-Hawthorne


Penguin [2007], ISBN: 978-0-14-311293-8, 262 pages

My rating: 4/5, One-liner: Historically accurate, delightfully complex yarn full of wonderful imagery.

In Edwardian England Ursula Marlow is the only daughter of a widowed self-made man. She is woken one morning by a frantic phone call from one of her suffragette friends, Winifred “Freddie” Stanford-Jones, who has discovered her lover dead covered in blood in the bed beside her. Although she doesn’t want to be beholden to him, Ursula calls upon her father’s legal adviser Lord Wrotham to smooth the waters with the Police. Despite this Freddie is soon arrested and as Ursula tries to clear her friend’s name she discovers that the murder of Freddie’s lover may relate to a troubled expedition to Venezuela’s famed Orinoco Delta that her father financed 20 years previously.

I love it when a book surprises me. I was expecting a frothy historical romp and although this book does have its frothy moments there’s also a more melancholic, even sombre, thread that I, perhaps perversely, enjoyed. Also, Ursula is also more complex and credible heroine than I anticipated. She’s not the over-the-top force of nature that Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody is but nor is she an Austen-esque woman constantly being overcome by the vapours. At times she’s a take-charge gal forging ahead regardless of danger but at other points she’s indecisive and clearly scared by unfolding events. This dichotomy is far more realistic than the extremes you often find in fiction and it made Ursula more interesting and the book less predictable than others in this crowded space.

I’m no expert on the period but the historical setting seems to have been captured rather beautifully. There were many details of Edwardian life depicted that demonstrated that the past is indeed a foreign country: one fun to visit but nice to return home from. While exploring in South America a hundred years ago or sailing first-class on the Lusitania (5 years before it sank) might have been great experiences I wouldn’t trade them for being able to vote and look after my own finances.

While I revelled in the details of the explorers of the past and Edwardian life in general there was a solid mystery playing out at decent pace although there weren’t many red herrings or alternative suspects whose guilt I could ponder. The remaining characters other than the two leads played fairly minor roles and but perhaps other characters will participate more fully in future books. The only one here that I struggled with was the policeman (in fact I’m still not sure if he was supposed to be incredibly dumb or vaguely corrupt). However the book was crammed with enough other delights to keep me occupied and I’ll even admit (as long as you promise not to tell anyone else) that I was quite engaged by the romantic element to the story (which was almost entirely lacking in soppiness thank heavens).

THE BUILD UP, Phillip Gwynne

Pan Macmillan Australia, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4050-3849-2, 339 pages.

It is late September, and the Wet is coming to Darwin. Or rather the Build Up is happening. The temperatures and the humidity are rising, every day just a little more. 33 year old Detective Dusty Buchanon of the NT Police Force is originally from Adelaide. Until recently she had a boyfrined. Now she doesn’t.

Dusty has been working on the McVeigh case for nearly two years. Now a body has been found in the desert and it is almost certainly the abducted woman. But Dusty’s new boss has decided to take her off the case. Even before the body had been found, a case had been brought against a suspect, but he walked free.

But the Top End is never long without crime. Two weeks later there are rumours of a female body in a billabong. The location is very near a Vietnam Veterans bush camp, but when Dusty and her partner investigate there is nothing to see. Still the rumours persist, and when Dusty eventually locates a body buried near the billabong it is male not female.

There is a lot to like about THE BUILD UP. If you’ve ever been to Darwin you’ll recognise the names of streets and cafes, and somehow Gwynne has captured the essence of the place. I felt as if culturally I had been dropped right in it. And there are some wonderfully drawn characters including Dusty herself, newcomer Flick Roberts-Thomson, ex-footballer Trigger Tregenza, the Dutch policeman Tomasz, Viet veteran Barry O’Loughlin, and Trace born as the cyclone raged. Dusty seems to move effortlessly through a number of communities: the itinerant aborigines who camp in the parklands around Darwin; conversing in Indonesian with waiters in restaurants.

It is not just the interesting characters he draws though. Gwynne writes in a language that feels at once local and authentic. I couldn’t help wondering whether the book will have much appeal outside Australia. Are there too many idioms that will puzzle? There are references to cases like Azaria Chamberlain, places like the Emerald City – I wonder what a non-Australian reader will make of that? Perhaps it won’t matter.

If you read Australian crime fiction, then this is certainly a book to look for.
My rating: 4.7

THE BUILD UP has been shortlisted for the 2009 Ned Kelly Awards.
SBS have announced that they will be making a 13 part television series set in the Top End, in and around Darwin. Titled Dusty, the show will follow the trials of the crime-fighting police detective working in the self-styled ‘capital of the second chance’.

Other Reviews:

THE NIGHT FERRY, Michael Robotham

Sphere, May 2007

This review is one of a number that I am re-publishing as they were originally published elsewhere, not on this blog.

THE NIGHT FERRY is a fascinating book even if you only look at it from the point of view of how it fits with Michael Robotham’s earlier books. His first was THE SUSPECT where the central character was psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin. In a sense the second book, LOST (also published as THE DROWNING MAN) was a sequel to SUSPECT, with the same two main characters, Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz and psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. Whereas SUSPECT focused on O’Loughlin’s predicament, LOST focuses on Ruiz.

Now in THE NIGHT FERRY Detective Constable Alisha (Ali) Barba, a minor character in LOST, emerges in her own right, with assistance and mentoring from the now retired DI Vincent Ruiz. Ali Barba is still on medical leave, nearly recovered after her back was broken by a murder suspect a year earlier (in LOST). Now she is in limbo, her employers unable to decide where to place her.

There is to be a re-union of classmates at Ali’s old school. She receives a note from former classmate and best friend Cate, from whom she has been estranged for eight years. Cate says she is in trouble and asks Ali to come to the reunion. When they meet briefly Alisha sees that Cate is pregnant and Cate talks of people who are trying to take her baby. After the reunion Cate and her husband are knocked down by a taxi. The husband is killed and Cate is critically injured. Subsequent medical examination reveals that Cate was never pregnant.

From this tantalising beginning, Robotham builds a cleverly crafted story, and the character of Ali Barba grows and grows. We explore the consequences of a police force that moves too slowly, a justice system that refuses to charge criminals because it is not “in the public interest”, and the greed of those who see children as a saleable commodity. In true mystery style, things are not always as they seem and we discover the truth through Ali Barba’s eyes.

I have read all three of Robotham’s books. THE SUSPECT hooked me. I found LOST very dark but nevertheless intriguing and I remember thinking I must keep an eye out for the next. THE NIGHT FERRY is an excellent read. Has Robotham left the door open for another? The last line holds hope. “The end of one story is merely the beginning of the next.”

My rating for THE NIGHT FERRY: 5.0

For those who want to keep in touch with Michael Robotham, his website at http://www.michaelrobotham.com/aus/index.htm details his coming appearances and you can join his newsletter list. He also has a presence at CrimeSpace at http://crimespace.ning.com/profile/Michaelrobotham.

Michael Robotham links on my blog.

May 2007 Review

DARK MIRROR, Barry Maitland

Allen & Unwin, 2009, ISBN 978-1-7415-741-5, 364 pages

A research student collapses and dies in the London Library, vomiting and going into seizures. It appears that the cause of death is arsenic poisoning.

Marion Summers was studying pre-Raphaelite artists and writers, and among them, in the 19th century, use of arsenic was high.
There are several plausible theories – one being that she may have been self-administering arsenic to see what would happen.

However then Detective Kathy Kolla finds out that there is a side of the Marion, the dead student, that few knew. Just when the evidence of suicide looks pretty conclusive, another student dies in similar circumstances. Is the murderer Marion’s supervisor anxious to protect his reputation from academic disaster, or her violent step-father, or a lover trying to keep their relationship hidden?

Barry Maitland is an accomplished layer of false trails, sending the reader off blithely to explore red herrings and dead ends. Your mind tries to assemble the evidence in believable scenarios, and then right at the end, in the final resolution, you realise it has been staring you in the face all along. This is a novel that keeps your mind working all the time, the meaning of the title being just one of the little puzzles.

My rating: 4.7

DARK MIRROR is #10 in Barry Maitland’s Brock & Kolla series. I haven’t read them all, but I have enjoyed all that I have read. The relationship between the detective duo is a tantalising one, full of tension, partly generated by the fact that Kolla isn’t always wise, in Brock’s opinion, in the action she chooses to take, and it is an unequal partnership.

Last year I remarked that Barry Maitland is one of those authors who may slip under the radar. You’ll find mini reviews for ALL MY ENEMIES, NO TRACE, and SPIDER TRAP in that post. An Australian author, Maitland is interesting because the Brock and Kolla series is authoritatively set in London.

Maitland has shown though that he can handle a stand-alone too. See my review of BRIGHT AIR from earlier this year.

Maitland’s first mystery The Marx Sisters was a nominee for the John Creasey award for Best First Novel and his second, The Malcontenta, won the 1996 Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction. Check Maitland’s profile.

The Brock and Kolla series (listed in Fantastic Fiction)
1. The Marx Sisters (1994)
2. The Malcontenta (1995)
3. All My Enemies (1996)
4. The Chalon Heads (1999)
5. Silvermeadow (2000)
6. Babel (2002)
7. The Verge Practice (2004)
8. No Trace (2006)
9. Spider Trap (2007)
10. Dark Mirror (2009)