• Books and reading

    Casual crime? ‘Liars’ by James O’Loghlin

    As an ABC Radio listener for many years, I was quite familiar with presenter James O’Loghlin’s voice and his wry humour. This is the first book of his I’ve read, and I will be returning for more. Liars is a great read.

    Set on the NSW Central Coast, where several of my family members and friends live, the story plays out in what is somewhat familiar territory for me (though it was slightly unsettling to read about the local drug dealer in Woy Woy – perhaps based on similar real-life characters?)

    One of the central characters is Barbara, a middle aged handywoman who is recovering from the shock of her husband walking out after many years of marriage. She finds herself drawn to two recent deaths – startling in a small quiet coastal town – which the Homicide team feel have been solved, but Barb is not so sure.

    Also not sure is Sebastian, the local cop. Detectives have pointed to his old school friend, Joe, a recovering drug addict, as the perpetrator of one of the deaths. Then Joe himself is found dead and it’s ruled a suicide, the result of guilt. Seb just can’t see Joe, for all his faults, as a murderer.

    Barb and Seb team up and begin their own, off the books, unauthorised investigation. Joe and Seb were part of a tight-knit group in high school and the years immediately following. One of those six friends was killed seven years ago, and although that (unsolved) murder was judged likely to have been one of several committed by a serial killer, it begins to look like Sally’s death, too, is somehow connected to these more recent ones. But how?

    Each of the five remaining friends has something to hide, and as Barb and Seb dig deeper, there are more complications waiting to confound them. Liars is a very appropriate title for this story.

    The first section of the novel is told almost completely through text messages, emails and other documents by and between the five friends. Later, we hear snippets of recordings of interviews done by Joe, canvassing people’s memories of the time leading up to Sally’s death. It’s a clever technique to illustrate the differences in what people remember, and the way recollections are often flawed, or even deliberately obfuscated.

    The aspect of the story that I found most alarming was the almost casual way in which some killings were carried out. There are paid ‘hits’ of course, but also murders committed not because of a deep desire to kill, but simply as a means to an end, a way to solve a problem. The murderer does not see themself as a ‘psycho’, as someone who loves killing. They kill because they can’t see an alternative solution.

    The novel is well paced, the characters and setting realistic, and the plot kept me guessing until the end. I enjoyed Liars very much; and I’m happy to add James O’Loghlin to my list of good Aussie crime writers.

    Liars is published by Echo Publishing Australia in July 2024.
    Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an advanced review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Jake Jackson is a former London detective who has retired to live outside a small rural village. He is still troubled by unsolved cases from his past, and he is pulled into an informal investigation involving a supposed suicide, a snatched child, and a murdered man.

    Before long the stakes are raised to a frightening level, threatening his new partner and her little girl, as well as several people who have helped Jake find answers.

    This is Book 2 in a new series by London based author Stig Abell. The premise of an ex-detective being unable to leave his former job behind completely, is not a new one. However in this case it is given an extra fillip by the place Jake now inhabits and the lifestyle he has chosen.

    His new home is called ‘Little Sky’ and its surroundings are an important part of the novel. The setting and even the weather have a presence, by turns calming and peaceful, foreboding, or threatening. There are immersive descriptions that take the reader right into Jake’s chosen home:

    The storm abates, and he wraps up and goes outside, his feet damply bare in old wellies. The world in its aching iciness is still, as if all has been frozen and fixed into place. He can feel the expanse of the lake rather than see it, the silent night cloaking him softly like dark silk. The air is fresh in his lungs, the bitter cold somewhat cleansing.

    Death in a Lonely Place p75

    Jake has left the crowds and hubbub of the city behind, re-entering it only with reluctance. His house is isolated, almost completely ‘off grid’ in terms of communication with others. His routines include exercise (runs followed by winter swims in his private lake), healthy food, idyllic nights by the fire, reading his beloved detective and thriller novels. He is content.

    Yet when trouble comes calling he does not hesitate to respond, though he has long discussions about the wisdom of re-entering a criminal world both with himself and his partner, Livia, who is anxious about trouble imposing itself on them, especially as she is sole parent to a little girl.

    Livia and daughter Diana are more than just the ‘love interest’ and child; they are drawn into the action to a certain extent, which puts some strain on the relationship, with Livia also needing to make decisions about the right thing to do.

    Jake is an attractive character, too. He has his own preoccupations but no fatal flaw such as alcoholism, so often seen in the detective genre – probably with good reason, given the things that they see and the crimes they have to deal with. Instead, Jake’s ‘problem’ is a tendency to take responsibility, such as his feeling that he has let down the families of the victims of crimes he was unable to solve.

    With the help of several others, he uncovers a criminal conspiracy that is happening right under his nose. The nature of this conspiracy is particularly distasteful and distressing, actually. I left the novel thinking -hoping – that it is just fiction, that such crimes would not actually take place or find willing participants in today’s world. Probably very naive of me, but I do prefer to leave some crimes in the world of make believe, and I can still enjoy a good detective novel even when they include such abhorrent behaviour.

    And I did enjoy this novel. The plotting is tight, there is a good pace (without page after page dedicated to – yawn! – drawn out fight scenes), and the characters around Jake are, mostly, people I could warm to.

    But most of all I loved the way the author brought Jake and his home to life for me: snowy fields, woolen jumpers, frozen streams, and hot coffee by the fire.

    Now that I have met Jake I’ll no doubt look up Book 1; Death under a Little Sky, to read more about how he came to be in this beautiful part of the country.

    Death in a Lonely Place is published by Hemlock Press, an imprint of HarperCollins, in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Different worlds: ‘The Sea Captain’s Wife’ by Jackie French

    Possibly one of Jackie French’s more unusual historical fiction creations, The Sea Captain’s Wife takes us into a vivid world of her own imagination, informed by folklore and research.

    The protagonist is Mair, a young woman who lives on a remote fictional island. It is 1870. Her tiny community is made up almost entirely of women, after a tsunami hit a nearby island, sweeping away many of the men who’d gone there to collect bird’s eggs. It’s a matriarchal society where women make the decisions. They wait for those men who’d survived The Wave to return from sailing ventures, or search the beaches in case a shipwreck washes a man onto their shore.

    ‘Wait’ and ‘search’ are perhaps misleading verbs here. These are not passive women, pining for a man, or immobilized by grief. They build gardens on the poor rocky soil of their volcanic island, birth babies and raise children, fish, prepare meals and create beautiful, functional garments. It’s essentially a subsistence life, where what they grow and produce is supplemented by occasional visits from a ship with goods to trade. They are busy and, largely, content.

    They wait for, or seek out husbands for companionship, support, procreation. Potential husbands must be approved by the council of women. The community has their own way of dealing with any man who poses a threat to their way of life or to the peace and safety of the island. There are strong expectations and rules; however the individuals who live here enjoy freedoms only dreamt about by most women in western society at the time.

    They named their island ‘Big Henry Island’ after the active volcano that rumbles beneath them, throwing out black boulders and sulphur-laden fumes. Islanders have lived with Big Henry for two centuries and know its moods. But they are mostly unaware of the danger it poses.

    Into this world arrives Michael, a ship’s captain washed onto the beach. Mair takes him to her cottage and nurses him back to health, during which time he learns a little of the customs and ways of living. He can barely comprehend the enormous differences between the world of colonial-era Sydney, and the seemingly free and easy lifestyle on Big Henry, especially for women. However he admires Mair’s intelligence, kindness and skills. Admiration turns to love and when the next ship arrives, Michael takes Mair back to live in Sydney.

    Here is where the different worlds of Michael and Mair collide. She is shocked and bewildered by the restrictions on women, in a society where wives are expected to be helpmeets to their husbands, and have little in the way of individual freedom or agency.

    Michael tries to understand, but he is preoccupied by the challenge to find a ship laden with gold that he discovered on the voyage which ended in him washed up on Big Henry Island. His upbringing leads him to believe that once Mair experiences his wealthy family’s life in Sydney, she will be happy there:

    But all across the world women left their childhood homes to follow their husbands. It might not be the island way, but it was the natural order of things, and surely Mair would find it so once she had the luxuries and comforts that awaited her in Australia, with three women to make her feel she had family and a home there. The most important criterion for a sea captain’s wife was a woman who was used to waiting in a household of women for her husband’s ship to sail to harbour.

    The Sea Captain’s Wife, p83

    There are several mysteries that wind through the narrative: the ‘ghost ship’ that haunts Michael’s dreams, and a series of accidents and deaths that take place within his family. Does the gold ship really exist? Were the accidents really mishaps or something more sinister? The conclusion brings these to a satisfying end.

    But the novel has deeper themes. It asks questions about humans’ lack of perception of danger – all too relevant in today’s world, threatened by climate change and conflict. And it asks readers to reflect on our own lives. What makes a worthy life? What responsibilities do we have for others?

    As always Jackie French has brought her setting to life, creating not one, but two very believable worlds.
    Readers who enjoy her historical fiction will not be disappointed in The Sea Captain’s Wife, which is published by HarperCollins in March 2024.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Lives of crime: ‘Sanctuary’ by Gary Disher

    Gary Disher writes the kind of crime stories I like best: ones that focus on the people more than the crimes. He manages to show the how and why of the crimes committed, sure; but also the impact on both perpetrators and victims. This is meaningful fiction, not showcasing crime for its own sake, but to say something about humans and why they do the things they do.

    Sanctuary is unusual for this genre in that the workings of the world of law enforcement are of minimal importance to the narrative. It centres on several people whose stories overlap, though for much of the book we don’t necessarily know how or why.

    There is Grace, formerly known as Anita, who grew up in an unlovely and unloving foster home, along with Adam. They become a team involved in petty crime, just the two of them against a hostile world, until Anita meets a man who teaches her the tricks of a higher level criminal life. When she decides she has had enough of this man’s cruelty and control, she becomes Grace and continues her life of crime alone.

    But Adam harbours a grudge and when they inadvertently cross paths on a ‘job’, she runs again, fearful of what he might do.

    So begins a series of intricate and well planned moves; staying several steps ahead, constantly checking on surrounds and on people, distrusting of others, always looking for an escape, adopting a series of disguises.

    Disher vividly conjures the loneliness and insecurity of this life, and we feel some sympathy for Grace as she tries to adopt another way of being, the kind of ‘legitimate’ and ordinary life that she now longs for. It takes enormous mental and physical energy to live like this. I was reminded of Maxwell Smart in the 1960’s cold-war spoof series Get Smart, in which he often says of the ‘baddies’: If only they could use their cleverness for niceness instead of nastiness.

    Through the viewpoint of another character we are given insight into the mind of someone who indulges in digital stalking and illegal surveillance of people. It’s an unpleasant place and I was always relieved to move onto another scene, away from this sordid and rage-filled character’s world view. But I am very aware that sadly, technology has provided increased opportunities for people like this to frighten and hurt others.

    The tension mounts as the trajectories of Grace, Adam and other characters head towards collision, with complications cleverly woven in.

    The resolution does not tie everything up in a neat bow; that would be unrealistic and too tidy. But we are left with a hope that perhaps, at some future time, Grace and Adam can find a more satisfying way of being in their world.

    Sanctuary is published by Text Publishing in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and to NetGalley for an early review copy.

  • Books and reading

    When the past bites: ‘Tipping Point’ by Dinuka McKenzie

    I’m now a definite fan of Kate Miles, the central character in this third novel by Aussie author Dinuka McKenzie featuring this determined, but very human, police detective. You can read my thoughts about Taken, book 2 in the series.

    Once again Kate is on her home turf in the fictional town of Esserton, in the NSW Northern Rivers region. She is still juggling her very demanding job with two young children while trying to be more present for them and her husband Geoff. Not an easy task.

    In this story, her birth family and its complications feature heavily and place more demands on Kate. Her brother Luke, long estranged from their father, returns to Esserton for the funeral of one of his two closest friends during their school years. A few days later, the third in their old friendship trio is found dead.

    Luke has many other issues he is trying (not very successfully) to deal with, and it’s not surprising when the shadow of suspicion falls on him.

    While Kate attempts to convince Luke to help himself, things begin to spiral out of control. Her impartiality and professionalism is brought into question as another death in the town rocks the community.

    Events from Luke and his dead friends’ pasts become inextricably linked with these tragedies, in ways the characters struggle to understand.

    The novel nicely meets the requirements of a page-turner, but as always for me it’s the characters who are the most important, especially Kate and her family. She is entirely believable and relatable and I found myself cheering for her the whole way through.

    She knew that Geoff would love her to give up the police force for a profession that placed less strain on their family life and removed his constant worries about her welfare and safety. But that would mean throwing away all the years of slog, the slow and patient climbing, dealing with all the bullshit and dick swinging and bureaucracy to prove her worth. It felt like so much of her life and identity were tied up in proving herself against those jeering voices that told her it was her skin colour, her gender and her father’s influence and not her ability that had got her there. To give it up now felt nigh-on impossible.

    The Tipping Point p99

    The Tipping Point was published by HarperCollins Books in January 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Deep questions: ‘What Happened to Nina?’ by Dervla McTiernan

    Irish-born Australian author Dervla McTiernan writes gripping crime fiction with well drawn characters and vivid settings. What Happened to Nina? is set in a snowy Vermont winter, and centres around the main character, twenty year old Nina.

    The prologue tells us much of what we need to know about the story. Nina lives with her mum, stepfather and younger sister Grace. She has a boyfriend, Simon Jordan, and they both love rock climbing.

    One weekend they go away to stay at Simon’s family holiday cabin to climb and spend time together. Only one of the pair returns from that weekend away.

    So, what did happen to Nina?

    The narrative takes the reader into the aftermath of crime: the devastation wreaked on a victim and their family, as well as on the perpetrator’s. To a certain extent, the novel keeps us guessing, as both Nina and Simon’s families have different versions of the events that played out that weekend.

    In essence, it is a story of the awful acts that people can commit, and the lies they can tell to avoid responsibility. As readers we are invited to step into the shoes of the main people involved: Nina’s parents and sister, and Simon, his mother and father. How do you move on from tragedy? How can justice be best served? What lengths would a parent go to, to protect their child?

    It also touches on the power of social media to work both for and against victims of crime and their loved ones.

    It’s the kind of crime fiction I enjoy, raising deep questions about human behaviour and asking the reader to reflect on those questions. I found it compelling, the characters believable and in some respects, the events all too familiar.

    What Happened to Nina? is published by HarperCollins in March 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an advance review copy.

  • Books and reading

    A very modern whodunit: ‘That Night in the Library’ by Eva Jurczyk

    I’m always a bit of a sucker when I see a book about libraries or even with the word library in the title. And I enjoy a good ‘whodunit’ and crime novels.

    So of course I had to read this one, by Polish born Canadian writer Eva Jurczyk.

    Set in the rare book library of a university, the cast of characters are seven students who gather for a night of (unspecified) ritual and drugs on the night before their graduation. Some of the seven know each other, having studied or worked together, others are almost strangers.

    Why these seven?

    They’ve been hand-picked by the event organiser, Davey, keen to try out a ritual from the ancient Greeks said to banish the fear of death. As these youngsters are on the cusp of their real adult lives and unknown futures, it seems as good a time as any to try something new.

    But within minutes of dropping the acid tabs, one of them drops dead – seemingly poisoned. And then the lights go out, plunging their basement venue into darkness.

    Fear and suspicion immediately overtake the six survivors, each of whom has their own insecurities and problems or preoccupations.

    As with any good whodunit, the death toll climbs, and so does their paranoia.

    That Night in the Library is a little like a cross between Lord of the Flies and Cluedo, with a very modern take on the ‘locked room’ mystery trope. It’s both fun and compelling as the possible murderer and their motive keeps shifting.

    I didn’t completely buy the resolution, however I was very happy to suspend my judgement in order to enjoy a fast-paced mystery with believable young characters. And as always, I did love the library setting.

    That Night in the Library is published by Sourcebooks/ Poisoned Pen Press in June 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an advance review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Behind the scenes: ‘The Mystery Writer’ by Sulari Gentill

    I first fell in love with the work of Australian best-selling author Sulari Gentill with her historical crime fiction Roland Sinclair series, which combine my love of the two genres of historical and crime fiction in a brilliant and somewhat addictive way.

    Since the last book about Roland and his friends, Ms Gentill has written several stand-alone novels, set in contemporary America. A theme that unites these disparate stories is the ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses of the worlds of writing and publishing, with twisty tales of dark deeds threaded throughout.

    The Mystery Writer is set in middle America, a town called Lawrence in Kansas. This is where Australian student Theodosia arrives unexpectedly on her older brother Gus’ doorstep. She has left behind a partly completed law degree and brings with her a burning desire to become a writer.

    She meets a best-selling author Dan and a friendship starts to form, but to her horror, Theo discovers Dan dead on the floor of his apartment, his throat cut.

    The murders begin to mount up and Theo is suddenly the prime suspect. What can she do to protect herself, her brother and his friend Mac? She has to make a difficult choice which leads to devastating consequences.

    Gradually she understands that Dan’s life and death have a connection to a dark web network of conspiracy theorist fantasists and ‘preppers’. The online posts of key members of this group preface each chapter of the novel, and are by turns hilarious and chilling.

    In the midst of all the dramatic events, Theo receives an offer of representation by the literary agency connected with Dan. A condition is that Theo turns over total control of her social media and online presence to the agency for management by them. She is assured that this is standard procedure. We are left to wonder if this is true…

    The novel explores how fictional narratives can be used to vicariously wield political and business influence. While this is in a context of a piece of fiction, it is worth thinking about in the broader sense, given the events that we’ve seen in US, British and Australian politics, economies and societies over past years.

    Theo, Gus and Mac are all sympathetic and relatable characters,; the tension is nicely calibrated throughout the novel. It’s a book that will please crime and mystery readers and which also provokes some thought about the online worlds we now inhabit.

    The Mystery Writer is published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in March 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an ebook copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    ‘Original sin’: ‘The Seven’ by Chris Hammer

    I read Chris Hammer’s first, best-selling novel Scrublands soon after its publication in 2018 and was taken by its visceral descriptions of an outback Australian community and landscape. Crime fiction must always be about more than the ‘whodunit?’: I like stories that transport me to a place and time, with characters that I come to care about, and Hammer’s stories fit the bill.

    ‘The Seven’ takes place in the western part of NSW, the region known as the Riverina. This was country made fertile by an ambitious and extensive irrigation scheme, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, and Hammer has set his story in a similar, though smaller, fictional region, with the town of Yuwonderie at its centre.

    It was here that one hundred years earlier, seven founding families established the scheme, creating a network of companies and trading arrangements that fueled their wealth, prestige and power in the district.

    The story is told across various time-frames and points of view. There are letters from Bessie, an indigenous woman employed by one of the Seven households, just before, and during, WWI. In the 1990’s we follow Davis, a young man from one of the Seven families, on the edge of making a decision about his future. And in the present time there is Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic, brought to the town with his detective colleague, Nell, to investigate the murder of Athol Hasluck, from another of the Seven.

    Ivan and Nell feature in two earlier books, but there is no need to have read those to enjoy this one. They are terrific characters: with strengths that complement each others, and their own weaknesses too, which seem to be a must-have in crime fiction!

    As I read this novel, I thought about the many country towns I have visited or driven through, and found myself wondering about their foundation stories and people. Certainly this is a solid thread running through The Seven: how the establishment of a town or farming community frames its future.

    The author makes the case here:

    He flipped to the first chapter, ‘Foundation.’ The text was heroic…no mention of any Indigenous people, no mention of how the Europeans had come to the district, no mention of any pre-existing ecosystem. But that in itself might prove useful: the document reflecting bygone attitudes, still alive, maybe even more so, by the 1970’s.

    The Seven ebook page 76 of 375

    In the case of Yuwonderie, its origins are mired in misdeeds that carry down to the present, where criminal activity, corruption and deceit lie at the heart of the current murder, and also an unsolved double-murder from decades before. We are indeed looking at ‘original sins.’

    The part of the book that didn’t work so well for me was the series of letters written in the early twentieth century by Bessie to her mother. The events and relationships related in these letters prove crucial to later events and I usually enjoy novels set over different time periods. It was something about the voice used in the letters that somehow jarred a little, drew me out of the story for a bit.

    Overall, however, I enjoyed this novel and the light it shines on essential resources and the role they play in communities: in this case, water, without which none of the Seven founding families would have been able to create or maintain their wealth and influence.

    See that line of trees, that grey-green line? That’s the river. The Murrumbidgee. That’s where the water comes from. And the money. Everything, really.

    The Seven loc 119 of 375

    Readers who like gritty crime fiction set in recognisable Australian landscapes will enjoy this one.

    The Seven is published by Allen & Unwin in October 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Charm and crime: ‘A Deadly Covenant’ by Michael Stanley

    Michael Stanley is the pen name for writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. They were both born in South African and bring their considerable familiarity with the neighbouring country of Botswana to their series of crime novels. Featuring Botswana CID Detective Bengu (nicknamed ‘Kubu’ – the word for hippopotamus – because of his girth), A Deadly Covenant portrays Kubu as a rookie detective, still learning the art and craft of solving crime.

    Author’s synopsis: While digging a trench for a new water project, a backhoe operator unearths the skeleton of a long dead Bushman. Kubu and Scottish pathologist, Ian MacGregor, are sent to sort out the formalities, but the situation rapidly gets out of hand. MacGregor discovers eight more skeletons—a massacre of Bushmen including women and children. However, the locals deny any knowledge of the event.

    Several more murders in the district convince the pair that there is a link between that historic crime and current events nearby. Things get more complicated by the day, as what began as a simple pathology and administrative task becomes a dangerous venture into local politics, personalities and history.

    There is much to like about this book. The setting is full of interest and complex characters. The protagonist Kubu and his other police colleagues work well together, with the expected tensions and hiccups along the way. Kubu himself is a delight: still with his ‘Learner’ plates on, I enjoyed seeing his uncertainty and self-doubt morph into something closer to confidence in his growing abilities and knowledge. So much of crime fiction features a detective at the top of his or her game: we rarely glimpse their early years on the job with all the mistakes and doubts that can appear.

    I found the plot quite a complicated one and the pacing a little slow in parts. But – and this is a good test of crime fiction – I suspected, but was not certain, who the culprit was until towards the end.

    A Deadly Covenant will be enjoyed by Australian readers who like crime fiction with interesting characters and different settings, and a dollop of charm mixed in with the crime.

    A Deadly Covenant is published by White Sun Books in 2022.
    My thanks to the author for an eBook version to review.