Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review: ERASERBYTE

ERASERBYTE by Cat Connor (Rebel ePublishers, 2015)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Washington D.C. is burning, blowing up before SSA Ellie Conway’s eyes. More than ever she needs her controversial connections to prevent more terror attacks and horrifying deaths. Surveillance footage mysteriously wiped away, explosions rocking the city, people blown apart, an insider forging Ellie’s signature to release suspects, and her helicopter taken down, all challenge Delta A to find the link between the terror attacks, international trade in missing girls, coded price lists and a rogue Interpol agent.

ERASERBYTE is the seventh in the "byte" series from New Zealand author Cat Connor. The characters are all part of a crack team of special agents, operating out of Washington DC, led by Ellie Conway. Conway is a classic all-action hero, capable of absorbing massive amounts of physical punishment (including injuries in a helicopter accident), and just keep on keeping on. There's romance, and the extra twist of visions, and a psychic in-head connection with the new man in her life.

Having managed to come to this series originally with DATABYTE (which I think is the sixth overall), I will admit it left me more confused than anything else. This is a cast of characters, and a scenario, that take some getting to know. Given that it's a series that's big on action, it's pleasing that there is a strong concentration along the way on characters, and in particular, how the team work together. Which means it's likely that this is a series that you're really going to have to read in order to fully appreciate. It was marked how much better the experience was with ERASERBYTE than it had been with the earlier book for this reader.

Having said that, you are also going to have to be okay with the whole paranormal visions and the speaking inside each other's head connection between the two love interests. It's possible to work around it if, like this reader, you're hard to please with that type of approach, but it is prevalent and might feel slightly out of place given the rest of the high-action, high-threat aspects of the stories.

There's also something slightly unexpected about these characters who joke, rib and tease each other mercilessly, and are closely bonded enough to be capable of light-hearted banter in the middle of extreme circumstances. Their informality appeals to a Southern Hemisphere dweller, whilst also making you wonder a bit about the more buttoned down, formal and very controlled agents of much American storytelling from a similar environment.


Having now read two books in the series it's definitely making much more sense, and allows for some of the "what the" moments to flow more easily. One for fans of high-threat action, who would appreciate a strong female central character, don't mind a hefty dose of romance and that spot of paranormal into the bargain.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and the Ned Kelly Awards. She kindly shares and republishes her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Review: ELEMENTARY - THE GHOST LINE

ELEMENTARY: THE GHOST LINE by Adam Christopher (Titan Books, 2015)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Summons to a bullet-riddled body in a Hell’s Kitchen apartment marks the start of a new case for consulting detectives Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson. The victim is a subway train driver with a hidden stash of money and a strange Colombian connection, but why would someone kill him and leave a fortune behind? The search for the truth will lead the sleuths deep into the hidden underground tunnels beneath New York City, where answers—and more bodies—may well await them...  

The book of the TV show, ELEMENTARY: THE GHOST LINE is based around the characters of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Joan Watson. Set in New York, and having never seen the show, it seems that likely that the TV show is a reworking of the recent English reboot of Sherlock. Which probably raises the biggest question in my mind... Why?

Anyway, back to the book, which is undeniably engagingly written. Catching a lot of the colour and movement from the rebooted Sherlock (the one I've actually seen with Benedict Cumberbatch in it), there's high energy and high risk in this story. There's nice puzzle elements built into the overall plot of the stash of money, and Colombian connections, combined with what seemed like a nicely done evocation of hidden New York, in particular a network of tunnels underneath it.

The twist of a female Watson is carried off as well as you could hope for, with nothing seemingly out of place about the relationship you'd expect from two working colleagues, despite some fem-jep which made my teeth grind. The biggest problem is possibly that without ever having seen the TV series it's almost impossible to tell if the written version of the characters is true to the TV version. Of themselves they were okay, with Sherlock having enough foibles to make him seem at least sympathetic to the original and/or the English rebooted version.

Whether or not any literary companion to a rebooted Sherlock Holmes would work for diehard fans of the original is another question altogether. Taking ELEMENTARY: THE GHOST LINE in "standalone mode" for want of a better term, it's an entertaining read, with pace and a good plot. Even if, like this reader, you've never seen this version of the TV show, if you're a fan of a bit of swaggering action and logical concluding, it could work for you. If you're a fan of the reworked, reboot, it would likely be an even better read - as you've already dealt with the obvious twists on the original.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and the Ned Kelly Awards. She kindly shares and co-publishes her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Review: THE MARK OF HALAM

THE MARK OF HALAM by Thomas Ryan (Thomas & Mercer, 2015)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

USS Ulysses: State-of-the-art nuclear submarine. Deterrent. Target. When an Olympic medalist is the subject of an attempted assassination, former SAS trooper Jeff Bradley knows his past is once again casting a shadow over his new life. A note left by the assassin confirms his suspicions: Bradley made an enemy back in Kosovo, and the man is out for revenge. But Jeff knows the killer is not working alone: higher up the ranks sits Avni Leka, a terrorist warlord who will stop at nothing to achieve his bloody goal.

And it’s not just Bradley who is under threat. A hijacking leads him to sense something bigger is being planned—a plot that, if successful, will end thousands of innocent lives, and could light the touchpaper of global conflict.


The second Jeff Bradley novel from New Zealand author, Thomas Ryan, certainly made me really want to shunt my as yet unread copy of the first (The Field of Blackbirds) up in priority.

A thriller in construction, THE MARK OF HALAM is fast-paced, big-threat, enemies on all sides, one man to save the day in style. It helps that Jeff Bradley is a reluctant sort of a hero, dragged into the conflict initially when a good friend is threatened, and ultimately because there is a terrorist plot, and then there's something much more personal.

Setting THE MARK OF HALAM mostly in New Zealand, against the backdrop of that country's long-term anti-nuclear stance, making the terrorist target a nuclear powered submarine is an interesting undertaking. As with all thrillers of this nature there are aspects to the plot that you're just going to have to go with - a target like that staying put when the threat is so profound, the way that the defences are laid out, probably even some of the technical details which would pass most readers by completely. What matters here is that there are those few minor "moments" throughout, and none of them really threaten to drop the reader out of the storyline. Once invested, you are very much with Bradley until the end, come what may.

Given that this is a second novel in a series, not having read the first one yet didn't have any impact. Bradley's background and his personality are quickly understood. His role as all action hero nuanced enough to provide reasons for what he's doing regardless of whether or not the personal threat is something that is or isn't explored in the earlier book (no idea if that is the case as yet).

With a reasonable supporting cast, and a really good central hero figure, THE MARK OF HALAM is classic big threat / big risk action thriller. The setting of the harbour, the political background and even the inclusion of a winery, created a good sense of place, time and society in which to act out all of the elements of the story. All of which definitely means the first book needs to be read as soon as possible.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and the Ned Kelly Awards. She kindly shares and co-publishes her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Hitchcock scenes in the subway and secret police in the audience: a 9mm interview with Anya Lipska

Welcome to our latest issue of 9mm, the long-running author interview series here on Crime Watch. Last month we hit the 150 interviews mark, and I took a moment to pause and reflect on all the fantastic authors who have been interviewed thusfar, and where I could take 9mm in future.

I've really enjoyed interviewing so many fascinating crime writers, and hearing their stories about books, writing, and broader life. I hope you have too.

Today I'm very pleased to share my recent interview with the wonderful Anya Lipska. A London-based television producer, Lipska writes a gripping crime series that delves into the experience for Polish immigrants in modern Britain. Centred on Janusz Kiszka, an unofficial 'fixer' to East London’s Polish community, and rule-breaking detective Natalie Kershaw, the series began with WHERE THE DEVIL CAN'T GO in 2013, followed by DEATH CAN'T TAKE A JOKE and A DEVIL UNDER THE SKIN. The BBC has acquired the rights and is looking into developing the book series into a television drama.

Barry Forshaw, one of Britain's leading crime critics, has said "Lipska is at the forefront of a new wave of culture clash crime writers", and leading man Janusz Kiszka has been described as "a latter day Philip Marlowe in an army greatcoat". There are plenty of readers eagerly awaiting the next book in this fresh and intriguing British crime series, but for now Anya Lipska becomes the latest crime scribe to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH ANYA LIPSKA

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
That’s a toughie – there are so many great ones to choose from. But if you were to put me in a half-Nelson… in the UK, it would have to be Ian Rankin’s fabulous old curmudgeon Rebus, who I like to think shares a bit of DNA with myown fixer/detective Janusz Kiszka. Stateside I’d go for Dave Robicheaux in the bayou-set series by James Lee Burke. I love the deep attachment they have to their very different settings, something I relate to as a reader – and a writer.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
It was one of the William books by Richmal Crompton. He is such a great character: an unruly boy who drives his family mad, but also a free spirit driven by a powerful sense of justice.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I’m a journalist by training and then became a TV documentary producer, so I’ve probably written millions of words over the years. Not the kind of writing to make the heart beat faster, but a great apprenticeship, learning the basics of putting one word in front of the other,how not to use three words where the single correct one works better, or long words where short ones do the job.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I love travel – whether within the UK or overseas. I’m just back from Barcelona and my next destination is Gdansk, a wonderful medieval city and birthplace to the Solidarity movement, where I can also do useful research for the Kiszka books. Whenever I hit a writing roadblock, the best medicine is a change of scenery – I always come home inspired.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
London’s East End where I live has some incredible post-industrial landscapes that I find strangely beautiful – places like the undeveloped stretches of docklands east of Canary Wharf. Also, my local tube station, Leytonstone has a subway lined with stunningly intricate scenes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, our most famous local, created out of mosaic tiles.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
When I was young, some awfully kind people said I looked a bit like Sigourney Weaver, so umm, I’d take that– especially in her guise as Ripley in Alien… Loved her implacable grit.

7. Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
Gosh, I’m tempted to say my debut, since nothing quite beats the thrill of writing your first book… But I think I’d actually choose A Devil under the Skin, the third in the trilogy – because I like to think I’d learned my craft a little more by then? Not that I ever stop learning how to write: that’s a lifelong project…

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
When I got my first deal – from Random House in Germany – I took my OH to The Wolseley, a stunning but not stuffy 1900s brasserie in Piccadilly. He deserved it since if I hadn’t married a Pole I’d never have had the idea of creating a Polish émigré detective.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I was invited to speak about my work to around fifty Poles in Toxteth Library, Liverpool which, given I’m a Brit by birth writing about Poles in the UK, made me feel a bit of a fraud... I was later told there was even a former secret policeman from the old Communist regime in the audience, just like one of the characters in my first book, so that was a bit spooky. In fact, the response was amazing: they seemed delighted that somebody was taking an interest in their history and culture.


Thank you Anya, we appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch. 

You can read more about Anya and her books at her website here, and how her tale fit into the broader Polish crime writing landscape in this great feature from The Independent here.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Review: DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD

DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD by Steven Bochco (Fawcett, 2003)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson


From the acclaimed co-creator of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue, Death by Hollywood is a suspenseful, shocking, and darkly comic crime novel about a screenwriter, a billionaire’s wife, a murder, and, of course, a cop. 

I've been a big fan of Steven Bochco's television crime writing - while Hill Street Blues was a bit before my time, I loved LA Law and Doogie Howser, MD as a kid. Then, for my mind, it was actually NYPD Blue that began our current golden age of television writing (most people point to the West Wing/Sopranos when cable TV like HBO started pushing boundaries and delivering very high-quality narratives - but NYPD Blue was truly groundbreaking, and led the way for those shows, even doing so on network television).

More than twenty years on, NYPD Blue still stands up remarkably well if you watch re-runs. I also thought Raising the Bar, a New York legal series Bochco created, was excellent - sadly it didn't last beyond its second season. The vagaries of television land.

So I was both curious and excited when I came across this crime novel from a master of high-quality television crime drama. Could Bochco transfer his screen talents to the page? The premise of the novel certainly seemed interesting: a fading screenwriter witnesses a brutal murder but instead of reporting what he saw finangles himself into the police investigation and the lives of those involved, using it as inspiration to pen his comeback screenplay, but entangling everyone in a dangerous game.

There is plenty to like about DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD, but overall I was left a little underwhelmed. The whole is less than the sum of the parts, and Bochco too often veers quite cheesy, eschewing nuance for lurid Hollywood tales that no doubt have some basis in reality, and would have been very interesting as seasoning or texture to his mystery, but overwhelm it when they're wall-to-wall.

I've had a lifelong interest in Hollywood and the film industry, so would be more forgiving than many readers. But for some reason I couldn't quite put my finger on, DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD never really gelled for me, despite having some interesting characters and events. Too often it felt a bit shallow or thin - which is interesting given that Bochco's television work often had characters of great depth and complexity. There are some good wisecracks, plenty of action and humour, and several 'inside jokes' about the Hollywood scene, and Bochco has an engaging narrative voice.

File this one in the 'airport thriller' category - a relatively entertaining and engaging book in a fascinating if lurid setting that veers cheesy and often seems more style than substance.

But then again, perhaps that's a point Bochco was trying to make about Hollywood life?

Craig Sisterson writes features and reviews for print publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Nordic Noir meets Kiwi Crime: a special Ngaios event in Reyjavik



The Ngaio Marsh Awards and Reykjavik City Library invite booklovers to a special Ngaio Marsh Awards edition of the Library's popular 'Dark Deeds' summer walking tours.

The walks are centered on dark deeds of various kinds in Icelandic fiction, happening in or around Reykjavík, and give a taste of Icelandic crime fiction, ghost stories and history. The walking tours are led by library staff.

On Thursday 30 June, in a special event, Reyjavik-based crime writer Grant Nicol, longlisted for this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards, will be part of the walking tour, reading from his works, and available for questions from participants.

Nicol's THE MISTAKE has been praised by judges as doing "a superb job taking a simple premise and layering it with complexities and intrigue... a dark tale that draws on the chill of Reykjavik surrounds to deliver caution about avenging in haste."

There will also be readings from Ngaio Marsh Awards' judge Yrsa Sigurdardottir's works.

The special Ngaio Marsh Awards Dark Deeds walk starts at the library in Grófin, Tryggvagata 15. The walk is at an easy pace and takes around 90 minutes. There is no reservation or booking necessary, just show up at the library in time.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Review: THE GARBAGE DUMP MURDERS

THE GARBAGE DUMP MURDERS by Rose Beecham (Silver Moon Books, 1993)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A New Zealand-based thriller starring tough and unconventional Detective Inspector Amanda Valentine. A monster dubbed the "Garbage Dump Killer" is on the loose leaving dead bodies in Wellington, and a beautiful TV reporter has designs on Amanda's living body as well.

Published in the United States under the title INTRODUCING AMANDA VALENTINE, Rose Beecham's first crime novel does just that, giving readers a first look at an intriguing and multi-layered police detective of that name. It's an engaging start to a series that still reads well, two decades on from publication.

Like Beecham, a New Zealander living in the United States, Amanda Valentine has ties to both countries (NZ father and US mother), and in this series-starter is working as a homicide detective in Wellington, New Zealand's capital, after leaving her job with the NYPD following the tragic death of her partner.

Beecham was one of a cadre of talented crime writers, including Val McDermid and Stella Duffy, who launched crime series in the late 1980s-early 1990s featuring lesbian protagonists. Valentine's sexuality is a strong and well-developed thread, adding extra hurdles for her in a career in such a male-dominated subculture as a police force. Already something of a celebrity due to her past on-the-job successes and her exotic pedigree, Valentine has to negotiate an interesting array of personalities both on and off the job, knowing that being fully herself often isn't an option. She has to shutter part of her life away, while doing her best to catch killers and keep her fellow citizens safe.

When body parts begin surfacing in Wellington's garbage dumps, Valentine and her colleagues come under increased pressure as the media, politicians, and the public all demand fast results. The spectre of 'The Garbage Dump Killer' grows, in a nation that's never had a serial killer, and Valentine finds herself in danger at work and home. Meanwhile a beautiful television reporter is showing strong interest - but what does she really want? Is she setting Valentine up for a 'gotcha' story, or could the talented but troubled detective finally be swimming in the warm waters of new love?

Beecham delivers an enjoyable mystery tale that despite being more than twenty years old, doesn't feel too dated. Of course technologies have changed (computers weren't as ubiquitous back then, and cellphones were rare and never 'smart'), but the interaction between a diverse cast of characters - the tension and drama of human relationships and criminal investigation, is timeless.

Overall, THE GARBAGE DUMP MURDERS is a more-than-solid start to the Amanda Valentine series that not only introduces a fascinating heroine but offers readers an exciting and engaging story that will have you wanting to read the subsequent books. I immediately did. 

Craig Sisterson is a New Zealander who writes for publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review: THE QUEEN OF PATPONG

THE QUEEN OF PATPONG by Tim Hallinan (William Morrow, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Poke Rafferty has an unusual family life: his wife Rose is a former dancer in Bangkok's most lurid red light district on Patpong Road and their adopted daughter Miaow lived on the streets. When a dangerous man from Rose's past reemerges, Poke realises to keep them all safe he may need to dig far deeper than what his wife has revealed about her former life. But will what he finds out shatter his entire world?

Tim Hallinan manages to take readers into some very dark places in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, the fourth in his excellent Poke Rafferty series, without ever becoming bleak or gratuitous. There's a vibrancy to Hallinan's writing, an electricity running through his prose, characters, and vivid Thai settings that helps balance things, bringing a little brightness to the blackness.

Bangkok is a sensuous city, and Hallinan uses that with aplomb to texture what is a cracking page-turner full of character and emotion as well as a storyline that grips, intrigues, and disturbs.

Travel writer Poke Rafferty has finally found some semblance of stability to his topsy-turvy life. He's married Rose, the bar girl turned businesswoman who stole his heart, and together they're living in 'domestic bliss', raising their adopted daughter, challenging adolescent Miaow. A 'real family', at last. The biggest issue on their plate seems to be that Miaow is in the local school production of The Tempest, but is miffed she's missed out on the lead role, instead playing Ariel. But for all the adventures and intrigues Poke has experienced throughout the series, he's never faced the truly dark side of Thai life that the women in his life, Rose and Miaow, suffered and survived.

Then it returns...

It is Rose's past, rather than series hero Poke's, that we delve into deeply in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG. Hallinan has taken a leap of faith centering this tale on Rose's story, but he pulls it off adroitly, deepening our understanding of Poke's world and the lives of those he loves.

Even Poke doesn't know all that went on during Rose's journey from rural village girl Kwan to star of Bangkok's notorious red light district, but the covers are painfully lifted when a malevolent man Rose thought was dead comes calling. When he interrupts Poke and Rose while they're out dining, Howard Horner comes across to Poke like another boorish ex-pat in Bangkok, but his appearance terrifies Rose. She knows the truth of his nature, and the danger that crackles beneath his surface...

As the present danger ratchets up, and violence ensues, Rose is forced to confess her full past to Poke and Miaow. It's a harrowing tale, and Hallinan intercuts between past and present, keeping the emotional needle high as THE QUEEN OF PATPONG unfolds. The twin timelines and strong focus on a supporting character's past could stumble in the hands of a lesser writer, but Hallinan proves once again he is a true master of the crime genre, finely balancing a powerful, page-turning narrative with a real sense of humanity in a vivid, evocative setting. Bangkok can be a bewildering metropolis full of sparkle and grime, flavour and heat, joy and danger - and Hallinan brings it to vibrant life.

Tim Hallinan is one of those writers who scores top marks across the board. He doesn't write pacy airport thrillers light on character, character studies light on plot, or tales with a strong sense of time and place while leaving readers wanting on other fronts. Instead he weaves a ferociously good story that blends all those elements into a near-perfect concoction. Like a Thai master chef who picks the freshest ingredients and expertly blends and balances them, bringing out their best, Hallinan has created a moreish feast that tantalizes and delights on a multitude of levels.

I can't wait for the next course.


Craig Sisterson writes features and reviews for print publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson