Top Five Crime – 2017
Crime , Top Fives / 13/12/2017

In 2017, most of the top crime was Australian. Adrian McKinty took out the Ned Kelly Award for the sixth novel in his Sean Duffy series – Police at the Station and they Don’t Look Friendly.               Candice Fox was shortlisted for the same award for Crimson Lake – the first book in her new series set in steamy far north Queensland.               Michael Robotham’s The Secrets She Keeps was a stand-alone page turning thriller with two intriguing women at its centre.               Mark Brandi’s debut novel Wimmera, a story of the impacts of child sexual abuse, not only on the victim but on all those around them, was a revelation.               And Attica Locke went to rural Texas and revealed the deep seated vein of institutionalised racism in the United states in Bluebird Bluebird               Honourable mentions: Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher Too Easy by JM Green Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyer Corpselight by Angela Slatter  

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham
Crime , Review , Thriller / 29/11/2017

John Grisham delivered not one but two novels this year. While there was some crime and legal shenanigans involved, the first,  Camino Island, was more of an excursion for Grisham into the world of writing and writers. The second, The Rooster Bar, is more in Grisham’s wheelhouse – a thriller of sorts based mainly  around the underbelly of legal training and practice.  Grisham took his inspiration for The Rooster Bar from an article called the Great Law School Scam. This was an exposé of private universities, set up as diploma factories for law degrees that in the end are not worth the paper they are printed on. The Government lends money to the students which goes straight into the coffers of the law school, the students themselves rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, get a substandard education and have no career prospects when they graduate.  The Rooster Bar is about four such students – Todd, Mark, Gordy and Zola. All are in the last year at the not very prestigious Foggy Bottom Law School in Washington DC and all have debts in excess of two hundred thousand dollars which they will have to start repaying as soon as they graduate. But the four have other things on their minds. Zola and…

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Crime , Review / 24/11/2017

Graeme Macrea Burnet’s first novel was presented as the translation of an obscure French crime novel written and published in the early 1980s by French author Raymond Brunet (note the anagram). The conceit of that novel – The Disappearance of Adéle Bedaeu – was deepened by the creation of a faux trailer for the film version of the book. After his Booker prize nominated His Bloody Project, Burnet returns to the world of Brunet. The Accident on the A35 is, according to the preface, the translation of an unpublished Brunet manuscript, released after his mother’s death. Once again, the book centres around detective George Gorski and the small, seemingly dead end town of Saint Louis in which he lives. When the book opens, Gorski’s wife has left him and he is called to the scene of a car accident on a nearby road. The scene appears to be an open and shut case but there are some odd details and Gorski allows himself to be charmed by the dead man’s widow into investigating further. At the same time, the dead man’s son Raymond, after finding an address in his father’s drawer of a house in a nearby town, is also…

Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher
Crime , Recommended , Review / 16/11/2017

It has been a big year for Garry Disher. Late 2016 saw the release of Signal Loss, the latest in his Challis and Destry/ Peninsula Crimes series. Then, mid this year, he published Her, a historical drama set around World War I in the Victorian countryside. And now, a return to crime and potentially, a new series, in Under the Cold Bright Lights. Alan Auhl has come out of retirement as a detective to join a cold case team. The body is found in the intriguing cold open when a concrete slab is cracked open to try and drive out a potential nest of brown snakes. But Slab Man, as the body becomes known, is not Auhl’s only case. He is also dealing with a long unsolved murder of a farmer and a current not-so-cold case which links to one of his own, older cases, of a doctor who’s wives keep mysteriously dying on him. Auhl is another great crime protagonist from Disher. Auhl has an abiding need to see justice done, fuelled by his won pain, darkness and regrets. He lives in “Chateau Auhl”, a rambling old house and takes in “tenants, waifs and strays”. This includes Neve Fanning,…

Girl In Snow by Danya Kukafka
Crime , Review / 02/11/2017

Another ‘Girl’ book, but this one is actually about a girl. When Danya Kukafka’s debut novel Girl in Snow opens, 15 year old Lucinda Hayes has been found dead in the local playground. The narrative that follows circles around her peers at the local high school and one of the policemen involved in the investigation. The book opens with Cameron who in the opening lines remembers Lucinda by “her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs”. While this gives the impression that Cameron has a relationship with Lucinda it quickly emerges that this relationship is all one way. Cameron has been obsessed with Lucinda and has been watching her at night through her window, quickly making him a key suspect. Although never stated, Cameron comes across potential as having aspects of autism or at least some sort of mental health issue. Cameron was out the night Lucinda was killed and has a drawing of her dead body but, conveniently for the thriller aspect of the plot, has blackouts occasionally and in this case can not remember anything about the night itself. At the same time, Jade, an old frenemy of Lucinda’s, takes…

Too Easy by J M Green
Crime , Review / 31/10/2017

JM Green’s debut novel Good Money was published after being shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award for unpublished manuscripts. It went on to be shortlisted in 2016 in both the Ned Kelly Awards Best First Fiction category and Davitt Award for Best Debut. While it had some flaws it was overall a cracking debut and the promise that Green showed in that book comes good in the follow up Too Easy. Too Easy is once again anchored by world weary social worker and occasional detective Stella Hardy. Stella’s narration and observations are once again a joy.  Such as this: I wish I could do that, suppress all outward signs of thought and feeling. Instead I was cursed with a face like an open book – and not a normal book, one of those kids pop-up books with moving parts. This time, Hardy has to investigate her friend Phuong’s policeman fiancé, her own artist boyfriend’s interest in his muse, the sale of the family farm and her day job as a social worker where big changes are afoot. With much of Australian crime these days turning to the bush, it is refreshing to have a classic noir novel set in the…

City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C Anderson
Crime , Review , Young Adult / 29/09/2017

City of Saints and Thieves has an immediately engaging open. Sixteen year old Tina is a thief in the Kenyan city of Sangui. Together with her street-criminal backers she is embarking on an audacious robbery of the Greyhill mansion in an upmarket part of town. But Tina has more on her mind than just theft. Her mother was killed in that house while working there as a maid and Tina believes that Greyhill senior was responsible. So the theft is also about revenge. But the heist does not go as planned and from there the tale spins out with Tina only barely in some kind of control. Natalie C Anderson, the author of City of Saints and Thieves has a long history of working with refugees in Congo, Rwanda and Kenya and this experience shows. Anderson brings both the Kenyan and Congolese settings vivdly to life. The book is rich in detail about the lives of women and children in Africa’s conflict zones and the role of blood gold in fuelling the violence. As a young girl living on the streets of a fictional Kenyan city, Tina’s skills as a thief are the only thing keeping her from a life…

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for and Eye by David Lagercrantz
Crime , Review , Thriller / 25/09/2017

Steig Larsson had originally intended his Millenium series to run for ten volumes but only managed to finish three. The decision of Larsson’s estate to appoint Lagercrantz to continue the series was no whim. In The Girl in the Spider’s Web David Lagercrantz took the extremely popular Millennium series and made it his own. The first of Lagercrantz’s forays into the world of Salander and Blomkvist showed not only a deep understanding of those characters but was in many ways a better novel than any in the original trilogy. When the latest volume opens, Lisbeth Salander is in prison due to her actions in the previous book. With plenty of popular fiction now venturing into women’s prisons, placing Salander in this environment seems a little lazy. There are the usual tropes here – Benito Andersson, a queen bee who rules the prison with an iron fist, corrupt guards and a helpless victim, Faria Karzi. But Lisbeth Salander is such a unique character that there is interest even in putting her in this situation. Salander is not really interested in prison politics, more about finding a way to investigate a new lead into her past while also protecting Faria. She puts…

Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre
Crime , Review / 07/09/2017

Pierre Lemaitre is one of the premier French crime writers. His crime novels have won numerous awards and his recent post World War I novel about a pair of con artists, The Great Swindle, won the Prix Goncourt, a premier French literary award. So it is no surprise that his latest novel Three Days and a Life (translated by Frank Wynne) is a very literary crime novel. The crime comes early, the culprit is clear but what Lemaitre is interested in is the psychological impact and the consequence of the crime on both the perpetrator and the small community in which the crime takes place.  It is hard to talk about the plot without giving too much away. But suffice to say that 12 year old Antoine commits an unforgivable crime which he covers up. He then spends the next few days, as the town around him works itself into a frenzy, trying to come to terms with his actions and expecting to be caught. He has to watch as townsfolk are accused and arrested and start to turn on each other. The narrative returns to the town many years later to explore the ongoing effects of the crime.  Three Days and a Life is a psychological thriller. Most of the tension comes from the mind of a twelve-year-old boy….

Killing is My Business by Adam Christopher
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 29/08/2017

A few years ago, Adam Christopher had a fantastic idea based on a dare from a long dead author. Raymond Chandler, one of the greats of noir fiction derided science fiction. Out of his comment “they pay brisk money for this?” came Christopher’s short story Brisk Money, which itself morphed into the science fiction noir detective mashup novel Made to Kill. Made to Kill was set in the 1950s and centred on Ray Electromatic, the last robot in America, plying his trade as a private detective, only not. Ray’s handler, a computer called Ada, had reasoned logically that assassinations paid more money and so while Ray’s cover was as a detective his day job was an efficient killer. Killing is My Business is a the second in a projected trilogy about Ray Electromatic. Early on, Ray’s first couple of hits go wrong, the first through apparent suicide and the second because his target has done a runner.  So Ray takes on another job, getting close to a mafia boss in order to find out his secrets before killing him. There is lot of set up here and then a huge leap of faith that the mafia boss would take Ray…

October is the Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson
Crime , Review , Young Adult / 17/08/2017

Christoffer Carlsson is a Nordic crime writer best known for his crime series starring ex-cop Leo Junker. October is the Coldest Month is ostensibly his first Young Adult novel and has won a Swedish crime award for writing for young readers. But parents beware, when the Swedish Crime Writing Academy says “young readers” they are skewing well towards the more adult end of the young adult spectrum. That said, there are good reasons why this novel may have picked up that award. Vega Gillberg, the sixteen year-old narrator of October is the Coldest Month, is woken by a policeman looking for her brother Jacob. She does not know where Jacob he is but knows that he is in trouble and has an inkling why. That inkling drives her to go looking for her brother and to try and solve a mystery that no one wants solved. In the best tradition of noir detectives, Vega is not content with being kept in the dark and keeps pushing at people and pulling at loose ends of their stories until the truth emerges. October is the Coldest Month is a coming of age story of sorts. Vega deals with the depths of the…

Crossing the Lines by Sulari Gentill
Crime , Fantasy , Literature , Review / 09/08/2017

Sulari Gentill is best known for her historical crime fiction series starring Roland Sinclair. Set mainly in Australia between the World Wars, Sinclair mixes it with historical figures and solves crimes with the help of a gang of bohemian friends. Crossing the Lines is a long way from Roland Sinclair, a speculative fiction deconstruction of the crime genre and the writing process. But there are echoes of Sinclair as one of the main characters in this book, the crime author Madeleine d’Leon, has a long running historical crime fiction series set in 1916 about a crime solving domestic servant called Veronica Killwilly, and is also trying to break free of the shackles of the expectations that series has created.   So far so meta. And in fact Crossing the Lines is full of meta-moments and situations like this. The premise is that d’Leon feels compelled to write a new crime novel where the main character is a literary fiction author called Ned McGinnity. At the same time, literary fiction author, Ned McGinnity, decides to write his new literary fiction novel about a crime writer called Madeleine d’Leon. Gentill effortlessly segues between these two narratives as they bleed into each other and it is never clear which is  the author and which is the fictional creation (while both are of course both authors and fictional creations).  Neither the crime novel nor the literary fiction novel in this book, taken on…

The Twentieth Man by Tony Jones
Crime , Historical , Review , Thriller / 07/08/2017

ABC journalist and host of Q&A Tony Jones put the cat among the pigeons last year when he suggested that there was Croation terrorism in Australia in the 1970s. There was fierce debate at that time around this suggestion about Croatian extremists and the involvement of the Communist Yugoslavian Government in potentially creating or manipulating the threat. In The Twentieth Man, Jones doubles down on his claims, in a historical thriller that gives Australian its own Day of the Jackal. The Twentieth Man opens with a historical bombing in the heart of Sydney in 1972. The bombs are planted by an anonymous Croatian terrorist seeking to destroy targets associated with the Yugoslavian government. Jones uses this opening to introduce a range of characters and it is a while before the narrative settles down around a few key players, particularly Anna Rosen, junior ABC journalist and daughter of a known Communist, Al Sharp, with the Federal Police, and rogue ASIO agent Tom Moriarty. Later in the book the action moves to Yugoslavia where a group of twenty Croatians have infiltrated the country with the aim of creating a popular uprising against the Communist Government. The Twentieth Man of the title is the survivor of this mission. Jones has crafted a fine historical thriller. The threat, when it emerges, is…

Half Wild by Pip Smith
Crime , Historical , Review / 25/07/2017

In 2005, the Police and Justice Museum in Sydney had an exhibition of police photographs from the early twentieth century. One of these that caught the eye of author Pip Smith was of a man called Harry Crawford, arrested for murder. It turned out that Crawford was actually a woman, Eugenia Falleni, who had been passing herself off as Crawford since 1899. Crawford/Falleni was arrested and convicted for the murder of one of his wives, although the circumstances surrounding this case were vague and sensationalised by its protagonist, known in the media as the “man-woman”. Pip Smith has taken the bare bones of this story and contemporaneous transcripts and newspaper articles to fashion a captivating version of Falleni’s life. Half Wild works in four distinct sections. The first, and most successful of these is the first person narration of Falleni’s childhood in New Zealand. Falleni was one of a brood of Italian children literally running wild on the streets of Wellington and even then battling with her identity and sexuality. This section of the book is rambunctious, sometimes surreal, and utterly engaging, although disturbing in parts. The short second section is Falleni’s reinvention of herself into the Scottish immigrant Harry…

Corpselight by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 19/07/2017

Angela Slatter’s debut novel Vigil was a great mix of noir detective and urban fantasy genres. Her main character Verity Fassbinder had one foot in each of the Weyrd and Normal communities of Brisbane and so was used as an investigator and enforcer for the Weyrd community. That book ranged over a number of interconnected mysteries, some of which connected directly to Verity herself, putting her in the firing line. The follow up, Corpselight, takes a similar approach, although everything is a little more connected here, and is just a successful. When Corpselight opens, Verity is eight months pregnant, and the pregnancy has robbed her of her usual powers of super strength. Despite this, Verity is getting on with the job, investigating strange occurrences on behalf of an insurance company that pays out for “unusual happenstance”. At the same time she is also investigating a series of strange dry land drownings for the police and being harassed by fox-girl assassins known as kitsune. When one of those attacks bring on her labour and she is saved by a mysterious stranger, the plot comes even closer to home. Verity Fassbinder continues to be a great character. And in Corpselight Slatter really…

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 18/07/2017

Michael Robotham’s crime thrillers stand out from the crowd for a number of reasons. One of these is the psychological depth that he often gives to his “bad guys”. They may do the wrong thing, they may do evil things, but as a reader we can understand at least some of their drivers and motivations. But they are still for the most part, secondary characters. In The Secrets She Keeps, both the criminal and victim are front and centre and the focus is squarely on their motivations and actions. It is the police and investigators that are kept in the background. The Secrets She Keeps alternates its narrative between Agatha and Meghan. At the start of the book both are eight weeks pregnant and both have secrets, damaging secrets, that they are keeping from their families and from the world. Agatha, who opens the book, works in the local supermarket and clearly is having a tough time. You initially have some sympathy for her as she watches successful Meghan and her mothers’ group but the creepiness factor comes in early when it turns out that she is doing more than causally watching Meghan. Meghan, on the other hand, seems to…

Wimmera by Mark Brandi
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 11/07/2017

Mark Brandi’s Wimmera comes with an impressive pedigree even before it was published. It won a Debut Dagger from the British Crime Writer’s Association while still unpublished. Much like Dodgers, another recent Dagger winner from the US, it is takes the coming of age narrative to a dark place, dealing compassionately with a range of contemporary issues along the way. Wimmera starts with a killer first line: “Dad told us never to cross the highway.” The highway, rattling with giant trucks is clearly a dangerous place to hang out. The prologue, which sets the action firmly in country Victoria, hints at something more dangerous, but all we see at that point is a wheelie bin in the river. So that when the main story opens, focussing on 12 year old Ben and his best mate Fab starting Grade 6 in the late 1980s, a pall hangs over the narrative, darkening even further with the suicide of Ben’s young neighbour. Wimmera is told in three acts. The first focusses on Ben and Fab and has a slow decent into darkness. The second jumps forward to Fab as an adult, still living with his mother, working pushing trolleys in the supermarket managed…

Camino Island by John Grisham
Crime , Review / 05/07/2017

John Grisham regularly turns out a legal thriller every year around October. This year he has delivered something extra for fans in which lawyers hardly feature. Camino Island is part heist novel, part satire/commentary on the literary world and part thriller. And while it sometimes moves as languidly as a day on a Florida Beach, Grisham is still professional enough to always keep things moving. Camino Island opens with the daring robbery of five F Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts held securely in the basement of a library at Princeton. Things almost immediately go wrong for the thieves but the manuscripts get away. Jump to a few months later and the insurer has an idea that the manuscripts are being held by Bruce Cable, an antiquarian bookseller who runs a successful bookshop on Florida’s Camino Island. They recruit, Mercer Mann, a struggling young author, to go undercover in the community and gather information on Cable. From there the book becomes, for the most part, a lengthy commentary on the American literary scene. Camino Island is full of authors of various genres and various stripes. All have something to say about the industry and advice for Mercer who has been unsuccessfully trying to…

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey
Crime , Review / 08/06/2017

Sarah Bailey’s debut Australian crime novel The Dark Lake opens strongly. The body of a popular teacher is found by an early morning jogger in the town lake, surrounded by long stemmed red roses. The teacher is Rosalind Ryan, daughter of wealthy family of developers, who left town but had returned a couple of years before under cloud. Detective Gemma Woodstock is called to the scene. She comes across very quickly as on edge and conflicted both about the case and her life.  Gemma went to school with the victim and knows her better than the casual acquaintance than she makes it sound, although the full details of their connection do not emerge until much later. The Dark Lake falls into the crime sub-genre of police procedural run by a too-invested, damaged cop. Gemma Woodstock is a fairly unlikeable but not uninteresting protagonist. Woodstock has lived in the small town of Smithson all her life and has a young child but is also having an affair with her work partner Felix, who himself has a wife and three daughters. So from the start she is juggling a complicated personal life with potential unearthing of deeper secrets and trauma from her…

The Girl in Kellers Way by Megan Goldin
Crime , Review / 02/06/2017

Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins have a lot to answer for. While The Girl in Kellers Way is an effective, sometimes creepy domestic thriller there are no girls in it (except for little Alice who is not a main player). The two main characters are women, and the body found in Kellers Way is also a woman. The word “Girl” in the title is the tool used to give bookshop browsers an idea that this is a domestic noir. Australian author Megan Goldin’s debut does tick off on some of the aspects of the domestic noir sub-genre indicated by the title: strained domestic relationship, creepy controlling male character and an unreliable narrator. And she does so in a way that brings something new and a little chilling to the genre. The narrative of The Girl in Kellers Way flicks between Julie and Mel, two very different women. Julie is the second wife of charismatic psychology lecturer Matt, bringing up Alice, the daughter by his first marriage. That first marriage ended in a tragedy that is widely known in the small American university town in which they live. Julie, still jealous of the dead Laura, has been on some cocktail of…