The Reckoning by John Grisham
Crime , Historical , Review / 13/12/2018

John Grisham’s first book A Time to Kill was set in the fictional town of Clanton in the Mississippi region of Ford County. He has returned to Ford County a few times in his career and in The Reckoning he is back again. This is Clanton in 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, still surviving on cotton and low paid labour. When the book opens Pete Banning is preparing to commit an act which will reverberate through that small community for years to come. Pete Banning, latest in a long line of cotton farmers in Clanton, returned from the war a changed man. He had been missing presumed dead, his family having been notified of his death three years earlier. His experiences in the war, which he refuses to share but which are detailed later in the book, shaped him and his outlook on life. When the book opens, Pete plans and carries out a murder. He walks into the Methodist church, kills the preacher Dexter Bell, and essentially admits to the crime but refuses to explain why he did it. The crime splits the small community, many of whom revered Pete as a decorated serviceman….

November Road by Lou Berney
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 07/12/2018

The Kennedy assassination is the literary gift that keeps on giving. Authors like Don Delillo, James Ellroy, Norman Mailer, Tim Baker and Stephen King just to name a few have used the assassination as the jumping off point to tell bigger stories. Lou Berney goes the other way. In November Road, the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath is used to tell an intimate tale of love and loss, with plenty of blood and violence along the way. Frank Guidry is a hood with not a huge serving of morals. Based in New Orleans, he works for the Marcello crime organisation. When November Road opens he is selling out his friends and sleeping with a string of women. Then the Kennedy assassination happens and it turns out that he may have tangentially been involved, having a few days before organised for a car to be waiting at a particular spot in Dallas. This was the getaway car for the actual shooter and before long Guidry has been given the job to make that car disappear. Only he quickly realises that, as a loose end, once this is done he too will be made to disappear. While he does not know it…

Kill Shot by Garry Disher
Crime , Review / 05/12/2018

Garry Disher’s Wyatt, master thief with a code, returned spectacularly in the eponymous reboot in 2010 which went on to win the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction. Kill Shot is now the third book in what is essentially a second series of Wyatt books (the first series coming out in the late 80s and early 90s) and it starts to provide a glimpse as to why Disher might have given the character an initial sabbatical. Kill Shot opens in Sydney. Wyatt has moved to the harbour city to carry out a series of jobs scoped by an old criminal mate called Kramer. Kramer is in prison but while on day release he passes information about potential jobs to Wyatt. When the book opens, Wyatt is in the process of stealing Ned Kelly memorabilia from an old collector, a job that goes off without a hitch. Wyatt keeps a cut for Kramer which he doles out to Kramer’s family. Unfortunately for Wyatt, that family includes waster son Josh who brags about the cash to an Afghanistan vet mate of his. At the same time, a dogged policeman has put some facts together and is also closing in on Wyatt. So…

The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell
Crime , Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 30/11/2018

Paraic O’Donnell’s debut novel The Maker of Swans was one of the standout fantasy novels of 2016. In a genre that often deals in warmed over tropes, The Maker of Swans was a work of beguiling originality. So the question was, how would O’Donnell follow this debut up. Much like another debutant of the previous year, Natasha Pulley, he does so with an emphatic change in direction which maintains the features that made his debut so enjoyable. The Maker of Swans was set in a more contemporary time but always had the feel of a more Victorian novel. The House on Vesper Sands is Victorian so allows O’Donnell more licence to lean into period flourishes (also drawing further comparisons with Pulley’s works which are both set in this era). In the cold open a seamstress, suffering from some undisclosed medical condition, who is brought to the house of Lord Strythe late at night to complete a secret commission commits suicide. The story proper opens with young Gideon Bliss coming down from Cambridge to see his uncle and failing to find him runs into a young woman from his past. At the same time, society reporter Octavia Hillingdon has happened on…

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Crime , Literature , Review / 28/11/2018

Award winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk follows up her first novel Flights (which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018) with something completely different. While that book concerned itself with travel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is located in one small village in Poland near the border with the Czech Republic. The main character and narrator, an old woman named Mrs Duszejko, seems to have lived in that location her whole life and has a deep connection to the place and its wildlife. When the book opens Duszejko and her neighbour Oddball (she gives everyone nicknames, trusting them more than their real names) discover a third neighbour Bigfoot dead in his cabin. When they arrive there are deer outside his cabin and when they find that Bigfoot died by choking on a deer bone Duszejko comes up with a theory that he was killed by the deer as revenge for his hunting of them. Duszejko herself has been waging a campaign against the local hunters (a group which involves all of the high and mighty in the town) so this fits with her own view of the practice. Bigfoot is only the first death and…

The Lost Man by Jane Harper
Crime , Recommended , Review / 23/10/2018

Jane Harper burst onto the crime scene with The Dry, a book set in a small Victorian rural community beset by drought. Her second book, Force of Nature returned with the character of Aaron Falk as investigator and while there are few easter egg connections to The Dry, her third book The Lost Man is a standalone mystery. In some ways it covers similar territory to The Dry – a rural community, an apparent or possible suicide and plenty of secrets – but shows a development in confidence and style. The book opens with the discovery of a body. Cameron Bright has been found, dead from dehydration, at the lonely single grave of a long forgotten stockman. It appears that he walked nine kilometres from his vehicle, became disoriented and never made it back. The place is outback Queensland, 1500 km west of Brisbane where pastoral properties are the size of, well, pick any smallish country in Europe. It is a large, empty landscape in which it is easy to go missing, cars are sporadic and people stay in touch by radio. And in summer the heat is relentless, unforgiving and potentially deadly. Cameron is the middle of three brothers…

Snap by Belinda Bauer
Crime , Recommended , Review / 15/10/2018

The members of the Booker Prize Committee were very proud of themselves when they longlisted a crime novel for the 2018 Booker. With Peter Temple having won a Miles Franklin a few years back it feels like Australia might be a little ahead of the game in recognising that crime genre fiction can be (and often is) “literary” enough to be considered for these awards. Unfortunately Belinda Bauer’s Snap did not make the Booker shortlist, but hopefully this represents a chink in the armour. The book opens with a tragedy. It is 1998 and eleven year-old Jack and his two younger sisters have been left in a broken-down car by the side of the M5 while their mother goes to find a phone. Their mother never returns. Three years later the children are living on their own, their father having left them, all still traumatised in some way by the events of that day. Jack has become a thief to support his siblings and he always holds on to the idea that he can find his mother’s killer. At the same time, heavily pregnant Catherine scares off a burglar but returns to her bed to find a wicked looking knife…

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
Crime , Historical , Review / 02/10/2018

Ambrose Parry is the pen name of multi-award winning Scottish crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman. It was Haetzman’s research into medical practice in Edinburgh in the 1850s that put the two down the track of collaborating on a novel set in the period. Being a crime novel, The Way of All Flesh opens with a death – a prostitute named Evie, found by one of her regular clients, but also friend, Will Raven. Raven runs from the scene, straight into the arms of the debt collectors looking for repayment of the money he had borrowed to help Evie out. Raven is hoping that his new apprenticeship with famous “male midewife” (aka obstetrician) James Simpson, will help him earn the money that he needs. In Simpson’s house, which also serves as his clinic, is housemaid Sarah who has the capacity to be more and yearns for something better. It takes some time for the murder mystery to come into focus. Some news about other deaths slowly builds in both Raven and Sarah a suspicion that something strange is afoot. They form a loose partnership as they tentatively investigate. Both characters are engaging and distinctive enough to avoid…

Restoration by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 18/09/2018

Restoration is the third in what Angela Slatter describes as “the first Verity Fassbinder trilogy”. For fans of this series this means that, firstly, some hanging plot elements are likely to be resolved. But secondly, that there are likely to be more Verity Fassbinder books after this one. And that can only be a good thing. This noir-infused, wryly observational urban fantasy series about an investigator/enforcer for the Weyrd community of Brisbane has been a bright spot on the fantasy scene for the last few years. Restoration opens with Verity at a low point. At the end of Corpselight she made a deal with the self-styled ‘Guardian of the Underworld’ for the return of her mother. She had to give up her family and her position and work with Joyce, a kitsune (were-fox) assassin who has an axe to grind, to find a “grail and a tyrant”. But Joyce is only one of a long line of people who are seeking revenge on Verity. At the same time, the police still call on Verity to help them solve a string of strange deaths and there is a coup in the offing in the Weyrd society of Brisbane. While it takes…

Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson
Crime , Review / 12/09/2018

The rise of the popularity of true crime podcasts and tv shows has not gone unnoticed in the fictional world. The fact that journalists or entertainers are reviewing settled court decisions and, through their interpretation of the evidence, putting pressure on lawmakers to reconsider these cases is a situation ripe for drama. This year already we have had Charlie Donlea’s Don’t Believe It and now we have Benjamin Stevenson’s debut Greenlight. In both cases, a documentary maker exploring a cold case becomes a little too close to their subject. Greenlight opens with an intriguing cold open, cheekily headed “Cold Open” (in fact the chapter structure and names are taken from the fictional series, including a final, twisty “Mid-Credits Sequence”). A woman called Eliza has been held in a cellar of some kind for an indeterminate length of time when something strange starts to happen and walls of her cell appear to start bleeding. Cut to the present where producer Jack Quick is wrapping up the last episode of his TV series which casts doubt on the conviction of Curtis Wade, accused of murdering Eliza whose body was found on his vineyard. When Curtis is released and his defence laywer dies…

A Double Life by Flynn Berry
Crime , Review / 06/09/2018

Flynn Berry burst on the crime thriller scene with her page-turning debut Under the Harrow, a book with a female narrator who may have been a little unhinged but was not unreliable. And so to A Double Life which boasts a similar, reliable, if not particularly stable main character. Only Claire has reason to be as she is – a trauma early in her life which she and her brother are still trying, in their own ways and unsuccessfully, to outrun. A Double Life is loosely based on the very famous Lord Lucan affair, although transposed to a more modern frame. In 1974, Lord Lucan, killed his childrens’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, and then attacked his wife. His wife identified him as the assailant but he was never found. All that was found was his car, abandoned, covered in blood stains. On the way to that point he had stopped at a friend’s house. But he was defended by his friends and no one admitted to helping him. While an inquest and later the coroner brought down a finding that Lucan had killed Rivett, he was never found and has since been declared dead. In A Double Life, Berry uses these…

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 04/09/2018

Move over Scandi-crime and possibly even Aussie-crime – the next wave of page-turning, gut wrenching, crime fiction might well be coming out of Korea. Although this is probably something the Koreans already knew given that Un Su Kim’s novel The Plotters, his first to be translated into English, was released in Korea in 2010. The Plotters is a pitch black look at a world of assassins and assassinations but it is much more than this, as Kim delves into the lives of not only the main character but those around them. Kim’s text has been skilfully translated by Sora Kim-Russell who has also translated the works of celebrated Korean author Hwang Sok-yong. When the book opens assassin Reseng is on a mountainside, watching his next victim through the scope on his rifle, deciding whether or not to pull the trigger. He doesn’t and ends up spending the night drinking with the old ex-general, hearing a long, shaggy story about a whale hunter. This opening sets the tone for the whole book, bleakly fatalistic leavened with moments of profound character revelations. Reseng, it turns out was abandoned as a baby and raised in an old library by an assassin runner called Old…

Scrublands by Chris Hammer
Crime , Review / 22/08/2018

Rural seems to be the new black in Australian crime fiction. Far from the gritty Melbourne backstreets or white collar crime of Sydney. And rural crime is definitely getting some recognition. From books like Jane Harper’s multi-award winning The Dry and Garry Disher’s Bitterwash Road through to two of this year’s Ned Kelly Award Best First Crime shortlist nominees – Wimmera and The Dark Lake. Into the fray comes Chris Hammer’s first fiction outing Scrublands, much like The Dry, a book that announces itself by its title as reflecting a part of Australia that most Australians have never seen but would like to feel a connection to. And Hammer has the chops – a long time journalist, he has set his debut fiction outing during a lengthy drought in southeastern Australia, a milieu that he investigated in his non-fiction first book The River. Scrublands opens with a shocking crime. One Sunday morning, out of the blue, the local priest in the small Riverina town of Riversend opens up with a rifle and kills five of his parishioners before himself being killed by the local policeman. Rumours of child sexual abuse lead to the crime being written off by the world as “perverted…

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan
Crime , Recommended , Review / 10/08/2018

It has been another great year for Australian crime debuts and Derval McTiernan’s The Rùin continues this run. Much like Adrian McKinty, McTiernan sets her first Cormac Reilly novel in the old country, aka Ireland. But her take, while still procedural, is more contemporary and less overtly political. The book opens twenty years before the main action. Reilly, a fresh faced rookie policeman, is driving down a dark country road looking for the source of a call about a domestic. He does not expect what he finds – Maud, a self-possessed fifteen year old girl, her five year old brother Jack and their single mother, dead of a heroin overdose. Reilly takes the children to a local hospital where Maud disappears and Jack goes into the care system. Twenty years later, now detective Reilly moves back to Galway from Dublin where, for his sins, he is put on cold cases. After the apparent suicide of now twenty-five year old Jack and the reappearance of his sister Maud, Reilly is handed their mother’s cold case to reinvestigate. The narrative follows not only Reilly but Aishling, Jack’s pregnant girlfriend. Aishling believes the original theory that Jack may have committed suicide but is…

Lonely Girl by Lynne Vincent McCarthy
Crime , Review , Thriller / 07/08/2018

Lynne Vincent McCarthy’s debut novel Lonely Girl is a thriller with a bit of a gender swap. Gone is the femjep woman kept in a basement. Instead, McCarthy turns the tables on this tired trope and in this psychological thriller puts the woman in charge. But like many books and plays of this type, the interest is not in the kidnapping itself but in the mind games that are played between the captive and captor.  But before she gets to that, with the exception of some short tantalising POV sections about a dangerous affair, McCarthy spends some time setting up Ana, her protagonist. And this groundwork is really important to give some credence to how the plot later plays out. Ana lives on her own in a small house in a secluded valley some distance from the Tasmanian capital of Hobart. Her only companion is River, a dog she has had since she was twelve. But she is now twenty-seven and River is dying and she has decided that when he dies she too will take her own life as no one will miss her.  One night she witnesses a couple having sex in a van outside a local bar. For readers, this gels with the hints of…

The Other Wife by Michael Robotham
Crime , Review , Thriller / 06/07/2018

Michael Robotham admits in his Afterward that he never expected his Joe O’Loughlin series to go as long as it has. But the character continues to surprise and engage and in The Other Wife, Robotham gets to dig deep into O’Loughlin’s childhood and the experiences which shaped O’Loughlin as a character. Fresh off his stand alone thriller The Secrets She Keeps it is perhaps not a surprise that the latest O’Loughlin thriller could also be described as domestic noir, if categorization was your thing. It begins with O’Loughlin being told that his father is in hospital having fallen down the stairs of a London house. He is also told that his mother has given the hospital his number but when he arrives he finds not his mother but another woman who claims that she too has been married to Joe’s father for the past twenty years. From here the plot spins out into a range of family secrets and revelations which shake O’Loughlin’s image of his father and forces him to reconsider their relationship. At the same time he is dealing with the aftermath of his own wife’s death and the effect that has had not only on himself but…

Into the Night by Sarah Bailey
Crime , Review / 04/07/2018

Sarah Bailey follows up her successful debut The Dark Lake with another procedural focused around detective Gemma Woodstock. Into the Night is, in some ways, a more traditional procedural. Having moved Gemma from her home town of Smithson to the bright lights of Melbourne, Bailey does not need to rely on the personal backstory (and clear conflict of interest) that drove much of the action in her debut. Into the Night opens with a murder. A homeless man is found stabbed to death and detective Gemma Woodstock is first on the scene. Despite this, her commanding officer gives the case to another detective to run. Soon this murder is well and truly overshadowed by the murder of a movie star on set during filming. This death, also a stabbing, took place on camera but in a zombie crowd scene which makes it impossible to identify the assailant. This case is handed to Woodstock and her alpha male partner Fleet to run and before long they are confronted by a mass of suspects and red herrings while also running the media gauntlet. Gemma’s voice is once again the centre of Bailey’s narrative. In the move to Melbourne she has left her…

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin
Crime , Review , Thriller / 03/07/2018

Megan Goldin follows up her domestic noir unreliable narrator debut The Girl in Keller’s Way with something completely different. The Escape Room does what a good thriller should do. It takes something new and faddish, in this case escape room games, and makes it sinister. At the same time, Goldin takes square aim at corporate greed-is-good culture. And with new studies showing it is environment as much as personality that makes financial workers corrupt, this is a very timely thriller. After a bloody cold open, Goldin winds the clock back 36 hours. Four corporate high fliers – team leader Vincent and his team – Sam, Jules and Sylvie – are invited to an escape room challenge. Despite reservations they go, because when the company calls, they respond. Only they quickly find out that this is no ordinary team building challenge. Stuck in an elevator (lift for those in the colonies) with no mobile reception and a series of increasingly obscure clues, the four start to turn on each other. The first clue refers to Sara Hall, neophyte financial analyst who joined their team many years before and is quickly socialised into the greed mentality of the firm. And Sara’s story,…

The Nowhere Child by Christian White
Crime , Review / 02/07/2018

The Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award has been discovering some of Australia’s favourite authors. Some recent recipients include Jane Harper’s The Dry and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. So when Christian White’s manuscript titled Decay Theory picked up the award in 2017, publishers sat up and took notice. And for good reason. Now renamed the more catchy The Nowhere Child, White’s novel is an assured crime thriller with a well constructed mystery at its heart. The hook for The Nowhere Child comes early and hits hard and sustains any bumps in the narrative. In Melbourne, 30 year-old photography teacher Kim Leamy is approached by an American stranger. He tells her that she is actually Sammy Went, abducted as a two-year old from her home in the small town on Manson, Kentucky 28 years before. This mystery of how a two year old American girl ended up in suburban Melbourne in 1990, living a seemingly normal, well adjusted life, unravels slowly in chapters alternating between 1990 and the present day. Kim’s mother died four years before, taking her secrets with her and her stepfather, who had come on the scene after she was born, knows something but is not talking. Kim…

Head On by John Scalzi

John Scalzi’s 2014 science fiction/crime mash up Lock-In posited a world in which survivors of a worldwide flu epidemic were struck with what is called Haden’s syndrome, in which they have fully functioning brains in bodies that do not otherwise function. To counter this disability, neural interfaces have been developed that allow Haden sufferers to interact with each other in a virtual space called the Agora and to get around using either android bodies, known colloquially as ‘threeps’ (think C3-PO), or through specially wired humans known as Intefacers.  In Head On, the protagonist of Lock-In, famous Haden and FBI agent Chris Shane and his partner Agent Vann are back. This time they are investigating the first death during a game of the Haden-centric sport of Hilketa. In Hilketa specially designed threeps compete on field to rip off and score with the head of a randomly selected member of the opposing team. Shane and Vann’s investigation into the death of player Duane Chapman blows out from the original crime to take in corruption, money laundering, murky corporate shenanigans and Haden rights. As with the previous book, much of the plot is driven by the US Government’s previous disability support for Hadens and its decision to stop that support.  Lock-In is worth catching up with in its own right, but despite the obvious connections Head On works fine as a standalone. Scalzi manages to bring his usual verve and humour to the plot, the characters and their interactions and has a deep understanding…