Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review: THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB


THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB by David Lagercrantz, translated by George Goulding (MacLehose Press, 27 August 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

She's back. After all the waiting, anticipation, and controversy, Lisbeth Salander is back.

It starts with a hand, beating rhythmically on a mattress in an unknown bedroom. Why is the hand beating? Whose hand is it? Whose bedroom? What does it mean?

None of those questions are answered until much later in THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, and by then David Lagercrantz has taken readers on a heck of an absorbing ride.

Let's address the elephant in the room: not everyone will be happy with this novel. Many people in the books world seem to have decided to avoid it or dislike it on principle: that no-one should continue Stieg Larsson's series, the three books of an intended ten that he'd written but never published before his heart attack.

But those who approach THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB with at least a partially open mind will find themselves pleasantly surprised; it's a very good book. It's terrific to see Salander, who is much more than an antisocial goth hacker, back fighting against injustice in a new adventure. In her own inimitable way.

Undoubtedly the creation of Salander was Stieg Larsson's greatest genius in his initial trilogy: while his tales were swirling epics addressing some dark issues simmering below the seemingly perfect surface of Scandinavian society, Salander was the lightning rod that elevated the stories into something more.

In THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB Lagercrantz does a fantastic job at delving deeper into Lisbeth Salander, offering readers more of an insight into this 'grown up version of Pippi Longstocking' (as Larsson considered her). Lagercrantz treads the fine line between providing more texture about an enigmatic character, without losing the mystery and uncertainty that makes them so compelling in the first place.

Salander is the kind of iconic character who doesn't even need to be in the room to have a presence. Like James Bond, Zorro, Robin Hood, or Sherlock Holmes, she casts a shadow over a wider world, lingering in the minds and hearts of those she's touched, friends and foes alike.

Early on in THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, Mikael Blomkvist is battling against money-driven evisceration of Millennium, the magazine he loves, when he meets a potential source in a bar to discuss a story tip. Things are stock-standard, and Blomkvist's eyes are glazing as he listens to chat about technology and corporate espionage, when he - and the reader - is suddenly electrified by the passing mention of a female hacker. From there, the story becomes much more interesting, for Blomkvist and the reader.

As Blomkvist delves deeper, the story gets bigger and bigger. A world-renowned Swedish computer scientist, a verifiable genius, has seemingly abandoned his work and boarded himself up in his home. He wants to talk to Blomkvist, but is attacked before they can meet. His work has disappeared, and the only witness is an autistic child, who now becomes the target of a shadowy criminal organisation.

Lagercrantz does well juggling all the players in this tale, from the driven staff of the NSA, who see spying on everyone as the way to protect their country's interests, to Eastern European gangsters, Swedish authorities, and dangerous figures from Salander's own past. While Salander and Blomkvist are the stars, there is a broad cast of fascinating characters who add texture and intrigue - and Lagercrantz does an elegant job keeping THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB building then racing along rather than becoming convoluted.

For those who love Scandinavian crime for the way it delves into social and personal issues, there is plenty of that on offer in the fourth Salander book, from issues of privacy, what the public is entitled to know, to the various ways technology can be used and abused, the changing face of the media, and much more.

For me however, it is the evocation of Salander, who is one of the finest characters created in contemporary fiction, which is the real highlight of THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB. Much like Christopher Nolan did with his tremendous re-imagining of Batman, Lagercrantz delves deeper into Lisbeth while keeping her very much who she is. We see more and understand more, but remain fascinated, intrigued, and unsure.

And when the final page came, I was no longer doubtful of whether the books should be continued or not. In fact, I am very much hoping that we will see more from Lagercrantz, Blomkvist and Salander in future.

Review: DEATH IN A WHITE TIE

DEATH IN A WHITE TIE by Ngaio Marsh (1938)

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson

I’m slowly working my way through all of this wonderful series, reading in order for the most part. I was vaguely surprised when I realized that this book had been published in 1938, because there is nothing in it about World War Two looming on the horizon, and it’s set in London, England. However, as much as it’s set in the real world, this story also takes place, for the most part, in quite an enclosed world – the world of the British upper middle classes, with a focus on debutante daughters, in particular.

“The season” is happening in London, and mothers and grandmothers and aunts and patronesses are carefully grooming the young ladies in their lives to make their fresh, appealing appearances on the society scene, hopefully to make a good marriage match. There is a darker side to all of the parties and balls and concerts, however – a blackmailer is at work, and some of the women who are old enough to have histories that aren’t without scandal, are terrified of being found out.

When one of these women goes to Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn seeking help for her threatened “friend”, Alleyn enlists the aid of his friend Lord Robert Gospell, more familiarly known as “Bunchy”. Bunchy moves smoothly through high society circles, and begins to keep his eyes and ears open for the blackmailer.

Alleyn’s mother helps the investigation, as well as family friend Bunchy, and the relationship between Lady Alleyn and her son is interesting. This glimpse into a certain set of people in a certain era is also fascinating – one thing that happens during the course of the investigation is that Alleyn and his friend Detective Inspector Fox interview everyone’s servants about what day their silver is polished – a lifestyle that’s very difficult to imagine these days.

Marsh writes beautifully, so it’s simply a pleasure to read her descriptions of anything. She’s also extremely entertaining, and unflinching in her examination of various characters, from supposedly innocent young ladies to elderly tyrants.

I would call this a locked-room mystery, with a certain number of suspects who had access to commit the crime, so there is a good puzzle for those who read that way and like to try and solve the crime.

Alleyn has been enamoured of Agatha Troy, a talented painter, in a few books previous to this one, and their friendship progresses here, in a way that felt a bit clumsy to me.


I particularly liked the way that death is treated so seriously in the book, and the depth of the loss portrayed so carefully.

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Andrea is an avid mystery reader from Ontario who loves crime fiction, both old and new, with a passion. She says she is drawn to mysteries because they focus on the search for truth. You can visit her Facebook book review page here

Monday, August 24, 2015

Review: THE FIXER

THE FIXER by John Daniell (Upstart Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Considering the global appetite for crime and thriller novels - the most bought and most borrowed form of fiction - and the immense worldwide popularity, across all cultures, of sports and games, it's rather surprising how rare it is to see a thriller set in the world of professional sports.

Given all the scandals in recent years, from Lance Armstrong to FIFA, the impact of big money, and the way sports can bring out the very best and the very worst in people, fictional tales of danger and dirty deeds in elite sport wouldn't require much suspension of disbelief. In fact, the world of sport would seem incredibly fertile ground for a well-told tale.

That proves the case with THE FIXER, a rollicking story which takes us deep inside the locker rooms and politicking of top-level French club rugby.

Mark Stevens has played at the highest level of world rugby, as a test first five for the All Blacks (New Zealand's champion rugby team), and is now looking to secure his financial future as his playing career wanes by playing pivot for a French club in the less-elite but more lucrative European leagues. When a beautiful Brazilian journalist sashays into his life, it comes to pass that there is more than publicity and a fling on offer.

When a seemingly innocent comment about his team's chances in an upcoming game results in an expensive gift from 'a friend' of the journalist, Stevens realises he's unintentionally stepped onto an ethical tightrope. Battling his own injuries and form and looking to cash in while he still has a chance, Stevens finds himself at a crossroads, not just in his rugby career, but who he is and wants to be as a man.

Debuting novelist Daniell, a former rugby pro who's won a prestigious British sports book award for a non-fiction expose of French club rugby, takes us deep inside the world of professional rugby in this intriguing tale. We get a multi-layered insight into what is a fascinating setting.

While "the game the play in heaven" (as rugby union is nicknamed) was born in the private schools of England, and elevated by the working class on the fields of New Zealand and South Africa, increasingly it is French club rugby where the game's biggest money is pouring. Young stars on the rise as well as global superstars at the tail end of their career are cashing in and heading to France from all points on the global rugby compass. That is on show in THE FIXER, where Stevens' team-mates are a veritable United Nations cast of characters. And it is in that characterisation where Daniell particular excels.

While Stevens and his team-mates can at times seem a bit laddish, there is also a level of insight into the complexities of modern-day masculinity. Daniell has spun a page-turner that is full of banter and bloke-ishness, while also being a thoughtful meditation on various aspects of life. For readers in Daniell's native New Zealand, THE FIXER has echoes of bushman novelist Barry Crump, who had no compunction in extolling the virtues of 'the good keen man', or the pleasures of a rugged life connected to the land.

Stevens plays a hard physical game where careers are short. The pressures of top-level sport and their effects are laid bare for readers to see, from dodgy painkilling practices to the lies players and management tell each other. Daniell lifts the curtain on an intriguing setting, while delivering a novel packed with wit, humour, and a fun cast of characters who could be leading figures in other tales themselves.

It's not something I usually comment on in reviews, but I think THE FIXER is the kind of book that could be enjoyed by a broader-than-usual readership, from crime/thriller fans to sports fans and other readers, and even those out there (men in particular) who aren't usually keen on reading fiction. With the Rugby World Cup kicking off in England next month, it would be an ideal read for any rugby fan out there. Or anyone just interested in a cracking good story set in a world we don't usually get to see on the page.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: A HISTORY OF CRIME

A HISTORY OF CRIME: THE SOUTHERN DOUBLE-CROSS by Dinah Holman (Ravensbourne Books, 2014)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

It is 1887. The young colony of New Zealand is in the grip of a deep depression. Insolvent speculators conspire with corrupt politicians while Maori land slips from the hands of its owners. Into this landscape of barely suppressed conflict steps a young Anglo-French-Maori soprano, visiting New Zealand for the first time. Frédérique Bonnell – known to her family as Riki – meets another performer, the Italian tenor Francesco Bartellin. Unofficially, Bartellin has been persuaded to spy on lawyer Thomas Russell and his powerful associates, whose tentacles penetrate the political establishment. 

Riki is pitched into this treacherous underworld when she witnesses the attempted murder of Kaituhi, a young Maori man apprehended in Russell’s shipboard cabin. Mingling timeless themes of misunderstanding and betrayal, A History of Crime interweaves real and fictional crimes in 19th century New Zealand. It explores the seamy side of Victorian society, with echoes that resonate into the present day.

Combining history with mystery and a hefty dose of romance, A HISTORY OF CRIME was both a fascinating and slightly frustrating read.

The background to Frédérique Bonnell and her connections to France and New Zealand were unknown territory for this reader - as was the idea that in 1887 New Zealand had financial problems. Needless to say the corrupt land grab and the political and influence corruption behind it was fascinating subject matter for a mystery / crime novel to explore as was the seamy side of Victorian society (as it says in the blurb).

Bringing Bonnell, a known soprano back to the country that is a big part of her family origins, is an interesting idea, although events that lead to her being thrown from the ship off the coast, rescuing / being rescued by a Maori man, and ultimately "infiltrating the rich and powerful" alongside the Italian tenor she's teamed to sing with did seem to require some heavy lifting to contrive. Whilst the idea that Bonnell and Bartellin would be mixing in those circles worked, the inclusion of the Maori Kaituhi in the plot served, mainly it seemed, as a conduit for voicing the wrongs. Perhaps that might have worked if it hadn't been for the rather heavy coincidence of just the right Maori man being thrown off the same ship as Bonnell, their survival not discovered, her return to the ship undetected, and then the joint spying and informing activities of all and sundry staying under the radar in a very small place.

All of that might have been forgiven but, of course, the two single singers had to fall for each other didn't they. From very early on, their eye-fluttering romance threatened to obscure any of the mystery aspects. Which was muddled even further by much of the history recounting veering into Tell not Show territory a little too often for this reader's personal taste.

Of course, readers for whom one or more of these aspects are neither here nor there - if you're a fan of romance for example, or for fiction that occasionally veers into lesson, may find that these minor niggles never appear. The high point of A HISTORY OF CRIME is undoubtedly the sense of place and time that's generated, and whilst the method of historical telling might have been a little heavy-handed, much of it being news to this reader made for very interesting reading.

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Karen Chisholm is one of the most respected crime fiction reviewers in Australia. An absolute stalwart of antipodean crime fiction, Karen created and has been running her Aust Crime Fiction website since 2006, highlighting a plethora of authors and titles from this part of the world, to the wider world online. It is a terrific resource - please check it out. 

Karen also reviews for other outlets, such as the Newtown Review of Books, and since 2014 has been a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel - the New Zealand crime writing award. Her reviews of New Zealand crime novels will now be shared here on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Review: THE NURSING HOME MURDER

The 1976 cover, one of the
more evocative versions
For one unlucky Member of Parliament, a simple visit to the hospital (the “nursing home” of the title) proves fatal. But as Inspector Alleyn will discover, any number of people had reason to help the gentleman to his just reward, including the sour surgeon, his besotted nurse, a resentful wife, and a cabinet full of political rivals. 

The Nursing Home Murder is widely considered to be the book with which Ngaio Marsh, said the Times of London, “transformed the detective story” from a mere puzzle to a full-blown and fascinating novel. 

THE NURSING HOME MURDER by Ngaio Marsh (1935)

Reviewed by Kerrie Smith

This is #3 in Ngaio Marsh's titles, and the dust cover says that it continues to be one of her most popular novels, and has outstripped all of her other novels in sales.

First published in 1935, it is the precursor to those Robin Cook-style medical murder mysteries. I didn't think there was anything dated about the writing or the plot.

The setting is mainly the operating theatre of a small hospital (not the narrow meaning that nursing home has come to mean today). Roderick Alleyn has two sounding boards for his theories - his assistant Inspector Fox, and his journalist friend Nigel Bathgate.

The victim is the Home Secretary suffering from appendicitis and peritonitis, who collapses in Parliament when introducing a controversial Bill related to terrorists and anarchists. (this will have a familiar ring for modern readers although set 80 years ago). The appendix is removed successfully, but the patient never comes around after the operation. When an autopsy reveals that Derek O'Callaghan has been poisoned, the plot revolves around whether his murder is related to the opponents of his Bill, personal problems relating to an affair, or even side effects of pain relief administered by his doting sister.

The plot keeps the reader guessing right until the end. Very readable.

Ed Note: As well as being a groundbreaking novel for detective fiction, The Nursing Home Murder also has a couple of other points of interest: 
  1. It's the only novel Dame Ngaio wrote with someone else. The first edition listed the authors as Ngaio Marsh and H. Jellett - the latter a surgeon who Dame Ngaio worked with for the book. 
  2. In a nice nod to a fellow Queen of Crime, this novel is being read by a character in one of Agatha Christie's later tales, Murder in Mesopotamia. 

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Kerrie Smith is a renowned Australian crime fiction reviewer and the creator of Mysteries in Paradise, an outstanding online crime fiction resource where this review was originally published. She also runs the Global Reading Challenge. Kerrie has been kindly agreed to share her New Zealand crime fiction reviews here with the Crime Watch audience.  

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Monday, August 10, 2015

Review: VINTAGE MURDER by Ngaio Marsh

VINTAGE MURDER by Ngaio Marsh (1936)

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson

As this mystery begins, Alleyn is travelling on a train in New Zealand. He is on vacation, and happens to be sitting with a group of actors – The Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company – on tour.

Alleyn is dozing off as the train moves through the night, idly noticing the eccentric characters surrounding him. But when one of the company feels an attempt has been made on his life, Alleyn finds himself on a busman’s holiday, as he’s recruited to try and assist in the investigation.

I wouldn’t say this was my favourite of the Alleyn books that I have read so far, but it was still very good. Marsh’s great knowledge of actors and the theatre shows here, with her funny, detailed, and poignant descriptions of all of the actors. There are a number of references to a previous Alleyn novel that involved actors, Enter a Murderer, and one of the characters from that book is in this one as well.

This is the first book in the series set in New Zealand, and one of the main characters, Dr. Rangi Te Pokiha is a Maori. He plays a pivotal role in the plot, and explains a tiki – a Maori fertility symbol – which also has an important part to play. As well, there are a number of scenes where the beautiful New Zealand landscape is vividly described.

There was a scene that I found very interesting where Alleyn talks with one of the New Zealand policemen about the possibility of another war. It really brought home the time in which the book was written, 1936.

I liked watching Alleyn politely and deftly interact with the New Zealand police, diplomatically assisting them while trying not to step on their toes. It’s a pleasure to read about such a sophisticated man who misses nothing. One of the mysteries is whether poor Alleyn will ever end up getting any vacation time.

Andrea Thompson is a booklover from Ontario, Canada, who has a particular penchant for Golden Age mysteries. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Radio NZ: Crime Writing and the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award


Earlier this morning I was interviewed by Wallace Chapman on his Sunday Morning programme on Radio New Zealand. We discussed the state of New Zealand crime writing, the finalists for the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, what makes good crime, and much more. Nordic noir and authors including Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Camilla Lackberg, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Lisa Gardner and others also got a mention or two. You can listen to the interview online here.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Review: INTO THE NIGHT

INTO THE NIGHT by Jake Woodhouse (Penguin, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

The second instalment in Woodhouse's 'Amsterdam Quartet' is a very fine European police thriller, with a twisting storyline, fascinating cast of characters, and tremendous denouement. 

A headless body is found on an Amsterdam rooftop, hands blow-torched. Torture, or is the killer trying to slow down identification Inspector Jaap Rykel then discovers something even more chilling: his own image on the victim's phone. What's going on? When the killer publicises another headless body, the media start going nuts. Meanwhile a homeless woman is pushed in front of a train, and some of Jaap's closest colleagues are dealing with some very personal, very dangerous strife. Troubles they're keeping from everyone, even Jaap.

British author Woodhouse crafts an enthralling tale set in one of Europe's most intriguing cities, with a plotline that encompasses violent murder, war crimes tribunals, the drugs trade, kidnapping, and more. Interestingly, although there are moments of pretty brutal acts of violence, it never feels gratuitous. Woodhouse deftly treads the fine line between darkness and dirge. There's a life and forward motion to his storytelling that means I never felt I was wallowing towards 'look at this! - look how far I can take things' violence (or worse, torture porn). Everything felt natural and needed, fitting with the story and its world.

While the storyline thrills, perhaps the greatest accomplishment is Woodhouse's creation of a police squad that includes all the stock-standard relationships, frustrations, and power struggles you'd expect in crime drama, but in his hands it manages to feel fresh and not cliched. Amsterdam coppers Jaap, Tanya, Kees and Smit come across as fully-formed people, not caricatures or moving pieces for the plot. Their careers and personal lives clash; they're not supercops and have very real fears, hopes, distractions, and concerns. Other characters, including Jaap's ex Saskia, a war crimes prosecutor, and others who feature momentarily like drug squad cops, witnesses and villains are also given moments to shine, and not just be wallpaper.

The only minor quibble I have - and it's a small one - is that for much of the book I felt it could have been set in any big European city. There were plenty of mentions of Amsterdam-centric things, from coffee shops to the canals, Dutch names, the drug laws, foods, and much more, but for whatever reason I didn't 'feel' the setting so to speak. I was trying to put my finger on why, and perhaps it's just because INTO THE NIGHT is such a slickly written crime tale, the plot and characters power it forward and it has great narrative drive, that there wasn't time to linger as some writers do in the feel of a place. The setting was brought to life through good description, but I never 'felt' it as texturising the story, or having a character-like shadow.

But I digress. This is a very fine crime novel, full of merit. I was fully hooked by the characters and what was unfolding in both their personal and professional lives. Woodhouse takes readers on a heck of a rider that is as much about the people involved as the intriguing incidents, before delivering a gut-punch of a conclusion that surprises and yet feels so natural and cruelly ideal at the same time. I was left wondering where he'd take Jaap and those close to him next, and very keen to find out. Bring on book three. I'll be reading it.