Long ago, Meston Park in Brisbane's West End marked the city's boundary. A curfew kept its Aboriginal population outside the city limits after dark.
When the park becomes the site of a multi-million dollar development, the Corrowa People vow to fight and file a native title claim. Hours after rejecting the claim, Justice Bruce Brosnan is brutally murdered.
Some believe it is the work of an ancient assassin, returned to destroy the boundary.
THE BOUNDARY is the first novel from Australian author Nicole Watson. Nicole is a member of the Birri-Gubba People and the Yugambeh language group and her novel is set in Brisbane, at the end of an unsuccessful land rights claim, soon after which high profile people start dying.
Reading this book it's impossible not to be aware of some fundamental elements. There is a sense of anger in the book - anger at the treatment of an ancient people in their land and anger at the deprivation and desecration of those people. There's also a sense of celebration - Aboriginal sensibility, thinking, belief systems, and society are clearly illustrated. That's not to say that this is a saccharine view of life - there's good and bad and right and wrong on both sides. There's so much damage to many of the people in this book, but there's also signs of self-reliance, repair and restoration. THE BOUNDARY is told in a style which has a real feeling of difference, choppy, abrupt, scathing as many difficult subjects are tackled - politics, land rights, alcoholism, dysfunction, family tensions and the difficulties that change continues to bring.
THE BOUNDARY is most definitely not a light and easy read, nor is it a perfect, flawless debut. The subject matter alone makes it confrontational, and the writing is often as abrupt as the content. It provides a real sense of the "other" with a glaring distinction between the mystical and reality which starts off feeling a little choppy, but does ends up making some sense. The use of the crime genre to tell this story rings true, the subject matter confrontational and whilst I did at one point think the writing a little patchy, the personal stories are strong, involving and very moving. So many aspects of the story THE BOUNDARY illustrates are raw and brutal, it does makes sense that the reader should sometimes be uncomfortable. It also makes sense that the flights into the mystical aren't explained, it makes sense that the resolution solves the immediate problem and raises a lot more questions.
What THE BOUNDARY really did for me is make me hope like hell that more and more indigenous Australian's set out to write their stories in their own language, and stylings, so that more and more of us can get an insight into the differences, understand the pain and get even just a glimpse of a reality which is quintessentially their own.
TRUTH LIES BLEEDING - Tony Black
Four teenagers find the mutilated body of a young girl crammed into a dumpster in an Edinburgh alleyway. Who is she? Where has she come from? Who has killer her - and why?
Inspector Rob Brennan, recently back from psychiatric leave, is still shocked by the senseless shooting of his only brother. The case of the dumpster girl looks perfect for getting him back on track. But Rob Brennan has enemies within the force, stacks of unfinished business, and a nose for trouble.
Tony Black has a taken a break from journalist turned Private Eye Gus Dury in his earlier four novels to write a police procedural featuring Edinburgh cop Rob Brennan. Comparisons are obviously going to be drawn between Dury and Brennan so let's get them out of the way up front. Dury is an outsider, the sort of bloke that trouble will turn right across heavy traffic to have a go at. Brennan's a family man, albeit one that's been indulging in a bit of extra-marital with the police psychologist. One that's having trouble coming to grips with a teenage daughter, and who obviously needs to sort it out with his wife. He's also suffering badly over the unsolved murder of his brother. There's a distinct possibility that trouble for Brennan will be wielding a handbag, looking for a word in his shell-like.
Brennan has just returned to work when he's given the case to solve. The body of a young girl in a dumpster in an Edinburgh alleyway seems somehow sort of predictable. But as her identity is revealed, her family found, and the fact that she'd recently had a baby of which there is absolutely no sign revealed, Brennan finds himself with quite a complicated problem to solve. Not helped because his boss is climbing the slippery ladder of career achievement and is more than happy to grind her high heels in the head of a subordinate that she can't even pretend to like.
Scottish noir at it's absolute and utter best, TRUTH LIES BLEEDING is a rollercoaster of the personal and professional, dark and light, desperation and determination. The personal relationships swirling around Brennan are drawn beautifully, and the fight to solve the crime, and find this missing baby is just the right mix of frustration and desperation, intuition and good old fashioned detecting. I must admit I did start to wonder at one point what it is about women and Brennan - just about every female character in this book wanted at or rid of him.
Aside from that one observation TRUTH LIES BLEEDING was very difficult to put down. There's none of the lunacy of the Dury books, and despite Brennan being yet another complex and confronted policeman making mistakes, up against the world, put upon and misunderstood, he's a very solid example of those characteristics. Likeable and annoying, understandable and completely inexplicable, Brennan's very believable. I can't remember who said it or where it was, but I do always remember something about police characters needing that sort of conflict in their lives in order to explain their drive to succeed - solve the case. Certainly that idea rang in my head as I read this book, but at no stage is the conflict overdone or overblown. There are echoes of some other well known Scottish detectives from the same location, but Black has set Brennan in the margins of Edinburgh society, sad, grim and surrounded by a lot that seems hopeless, and then he gives him a spark of something that could just mean he's going to get his act together.
FALLING GLASS - Adrian McKinty
Killian makes a hard living enforcing other people's laws, collecting debts, dealing out threats and finding people who do not wish to be found. Retired hitman Michael Forsythe sets Killian up with the best paid job of his life: Richard Coulter, a prominent, politically connected, Irish businessman, owner of a budget airline, needs someone to find his ex-wife and children. He offers Killian half a million to track her down and bring his children back.
There are some books that it is just flat out a relief to finish. Too much sleep deprivation and the dust bunnies can start to look like they are moving into formations for the final onslaught. FALLING GLASS really cheats a lot. Having become a somewhat besotted Michael Forsythe fan, I did think I could approach FALLING GLASS with the vague hope of keeping reasonable hours. He plays a bit part only in this book after all, with the action centred around enforcer Killian. Should have known better. McKinty writes that brand of dark, violent, no holds barred, tempered with touches of raw and magnificent humour, Irish noir that makes me forget to feed the dogs and forces me to remind myself that no normal person is still awake at 4.00am convincing themselves that just a few more pages won't hurt.
There are differences between Killian and Forsythe. Killian is an enforcer, rather than a straight out hitman. He looks for solutions to problems, and he's not above using some elegant albeit somewhat crafty ways of getting results for whoever is paying him. He's also looking for a way out. A chance to retire and enjoy the good life, it's his expertise in finding people that don't want to be found that means Forsythe recommends him for a big job. A very wealthy Irish businessman, Richard Coulter, is prepared to pay big money for somebody to find his ex-wife and return his two young daughters. Fed the line that the ex is a drug addict who is going to endanger the girls, Killian is attracted by the sheer size of the pay packet - retirement seems just that bit closer. Of course things are going to get complicated, and of course there's going to be more than meets the eye to the wife's disappearance. The fact that there are a few elements to the plot of this story that are predictable is neither here nor there - this is a book about the journey. Killian's journey from enforcer to retiree. His journey from it being all about the money, to an understanding that there are some things that are more important than money. The journey from being the chaser to the chased.
Along the way there's a wonderful sense of the Irishness of this book. Killian is a tinker, a traveller, a background that he can't get away from, a lifestyle to which he can return with absolutely no questions asked and all kindnesses forthcoming. The landscape in which the action takes place, the weather, the characters that everyone rubs up against in the chase go further to making such a strong sense of place. The humour, the outlook, the language, the tone - it's all very very Irish. As is the ending. Spectacularly Irish, utterly unresolved - it's an ending that's probably going to drive some readers bats and made me joyously happy. Because I still love Michael Forsythe - and not just because he's a bad guy - but I also love Killian - not just because he's complicated. And I don't know if he'll be back in another book. And now that's keeping me awake.
PRIME CUT - Alan Carter
The world is in economic meltdown but the mining town of Hopetoun, Western Australia, is booming.
With the town's population exploding, it's easy enough to hide a crime - and a dirty past.
Disgraced police-service golden boy DSC Cato Kwong is doing time investigating roadkill with the Stock Squad. But when the ocean throws up a human torso onto the shores of Hopetoun, Cato is called in from the cold.
There's absolutely nothing like a quintessential Aussie bloke, a cop in purgatory, stuck in outback Western Australia, doing time on the Stock Squad for offending the powers that be. Alan Carter's debut novel PRIME CUT starts out with considerable promise, despite the slightly unrealistic picture of a Stock Squad peering that closely at roadkill!
But the setup is beside the point as DSC Cato Kwong has to be out in the middle of nowhere for some reason, therefore becoming the only option on hand when a mangled torso is washed up on the beach of mining town Hopetoun. Much to his old bosses displeasure. But then it's just for a few days until some resources can be freed up in Perth. So Kwong has a mystery, an existing force of two cops, and a deadline if he wants to drag himself back from the brink of investigating rustling for the rest of his born days. And things are even more complicated when he arrives in Hopetoun to find that one of the local cops is an ex of his, sidelined to the bush because she was badly injured in an incident after they split up, Tess Maguire has problems of her own.
Because Kwong and Maguire both have pasts (separate and their failed relationship) there's obviously going to be a hefty dose of self-evaluation and backward looking focus at points in the book, but that's handled with considerable aplomb - and helped immensely by some really deft touches of humour, and a laid back, Australian sensibility. There's also a point at which you can see that this author has spent some time in this town, he has a keen eye for the effects of a mining boom on a quiet little seaside town and he's developed a good sense of place - albeit a place in the middle of nowhere, a 21st century outback Australian frontier of a sort.
The pressure of the deadline gives the story a good feeling of tension, without it being played overtly. There's a nice balance of investigative ability and observation, assisted by some risky moves and some strong local knowledge. There's also a lot of threads playing out in the book, so the reader is kept well on their toes keeping track of who is who and what is what, let alone why! The characters are really well handled, from the ambitious but flawed Kwong, to the local policeman who can hold his own. Tess Maguire was interesting, her life obviously considerably derailed by her encounter with a man who injured her badly when on duty one night, her story weaves its way into the narrative, just the same as Kwong's personal story is drawn out. The only downside is that towards the end Maguire disappears a bit in the hurly burly. The series stars DSC Cato Kwong, but Carter may just have a team on his hands here. And let's hope that we see a lot more of one or both of them into the future. PRIME CUT really is a terrific debut novel.
DEATH OF A RED HEROINE - Qui Xiaolong
Shanghai in the mid-1990s is a city caught between reverence for the past and fascination with a tantalizing, market-driven present. When the body of a young "national model worker," revered for her adherence to the principles of the Communist Party, turns up in a canal, Chen is thrown into the midst of these opposing forces. As he struggles to unravel the hidden threads of this paragon's life, he finds himself challenging the very political forces that have guided his life since birth.
To my mind, the very best crime fiction in the world provides a window into the world in which it is set. Be that the psyche of the people, the machinations of the society, how a community is structured and operates, the laws and mores, even the way in which authorities deal with the disorder, how they implement authority. DEATH OF A RED HEROINE is set in Shanghai in 1990, a year after Tiananmen Square, an ancient city with a population tightly controlled by the Communist Party. Poet Chen Cao is an unlikely policeman, forced into the job by the party system, he's caught between a love of poetry and his own innate sense of responsibility. A loner, a romantic soul, he heads a special unit which is given the task of investigating the brutal murder of Guam Hongying. A National Model Worker, the death of Hongying is viewed as much a political situation as it is a crime.
DEATH OF A RED HEROINE is a very intricate book, exploring many aspects of the society in which the action takes place. Firstly the character of Inspector Chen Cao, a maverick (as much as you can be under totalitarian control), he's a poet, a loner, a romantic soul forced into the life of a policeman. Enjoying the very small privileges that come with rank, he's also uncomfortable with their existence. He's more fortunate in his friendships - both with long-term friends and with his colleagues.
The second aspect of the book that is carefully explored is the victim herself. Her status as a National Model Worker means that her death hits the desks, and the minds of the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Her treatment, in death, as it was in life, is slightly different. The way that her status, and her life was regarded is a particularly interesting aspect of this book, as it leads to the final component of the book worth mentioning - Chinese Society in its own right. Possibly the strongest aspect of the book, because the culture and political system of the society imposes itself over every aspect of it's people's lives. From the way that the investigation is regarded, to the way that Hongying and Chen Coa lead their lives, every move everybody makes is somehow choreographed by the ever present "Party" and its cadres.
The parts of the book that don't work quite as well are the plot, and some of the messages that the author is attempting to impart. Second part first - there is some rather heavy-handed repetition of the ills of Communist China. Whether or not you agree or disagree with the messages being delivered, constant repetition doesn't help. The first part - the plot - well got more than a bit hazy at times. Sometimes this was because we'd wandered so far from the central point of the book memory faded, at other points it was simply because plot points sort of got "dumped" into the narrative. Either way, it's not the most complex or unexpected resolution to the death of an attractive young woman.
It also isn't on the fast, tense, light read side of the scale. This is a book which will require a bit of concentration, some acceptance that as with many debuts, there's a bit of work going on to establish a character and his place in the world. But as a lead into a new series, this book has ticked yes to a lot of questions. This is undoubtedly a series that I want to catch up with. In a hurry.
PAYDIRT - Garry Disher
Wyatt is back in a new adventure set on the far side of morality.
Introduced in Kickback, Garry Disher's bestselling, widely praised crime novel, Wyatt reappears in the South Australian outback, intent on snatching a payroll. But Wyatt is not the only one eyeing the funds.
The Outfit has business with Wyatt. Business that will only be finished when he faces the hitman's gun.
One of the great joys of my reading life is the occasional chance to wander back through a much loved series. And what's not to absobloodylutely love about the Wyatt series from Garry Disher.
Taut as, these books are short, sharp and to the point. 173 pages short. A salient reminder to the reader that you don't actually need 500 or so pages in which to develop a storyline, build a character, create some tension, get in some action, build up a bit of angst, bring in a few double-crossers, and get Wyatt out of trouble by the skin of his teeth.
If that doesn't appeal then consider Wyatt - unrepentant, unapologetic thief. Controlled, self-contained, a crook with none of that fluffy heart-of-gold bullshit. Wyatt is clinical, careful, considered and out to ensure that Wyatt survives. This series is different, fantastic and it just got better and better. It's no trial to reread these. They are the perfect solution to the reading slump that hits even somebody as addicted to a book in hand as me.
DIE A LITTLE - Megan Abbott
School teacher Lora King finds her quiet surburban life disrupted when her brother Bill, a junior investigator with the District Attorney's office, meets a woman by chance and quickly marries her. His new wife is Alice Steele, a beautiful and charming Hollywood wardrobe assistant, and although everyone else is entranced by her, Lora becomes suspicious of the inconsistencies in the stories from Alice's past.
DIE A LITTLE is the first in a series of books from Megan Abbott flagged somewhat unhelpfully as "modern noir". I'm not at all sure what that should imply in terms of expectation, but whatever caused it, something didn't really work about this book for me.
Leaving aside the fact that the cover is absolutely wonderful and the title is glorious, the style very atmospheric and the build up interesting (woman with a "past" who marries a cop, cop's sister smells a rat, digs), something about the delivery of this story simply flat out didn't hold my interest. I suspect part of this is because the "sister" whose viewpoint is paramount, didn't seem to fit with the noir stylings. For a while I wondered if the "bad girl" telling the story, might have helped, but ultimately I think the problem was partially the complete lack of suspense. Noir can be predictable to my mind, but it shouldn't be flat. It shouldn't drone on leaving a feeling of impatience for the damn thing to get to the point.
I suspect part of the problem really was that the focus on the sister's viewpoint isn't supported by her being a character that you can get involved with. It wasn't too long before I was forced into thinking I'd be on side of the bad girl wife, regardless of the question.
SEX CRIMES - Paul Thomas
The things we do for sex - lie, cheat, scheme, kill ...
Sex Crimes is seven delicious helpings of irony, intrigue and full-on entertainment from the writer who the celebrated Australian author Marele Day described as 'a master of plot, pace and the killer one-liner'.
I'm more than a bit of a fan of books by Paul Thomas. I'm more than a bit of a fan of his short stories now as well. SEX CRIMES is a series of fantastic short stories themed around sex. As the blurb puts it "exploring the unpredictable and sometimes fatal consequences that can occur when sex rears its not-so-uly head." (To say nothing of the odd looks you get when you're sat in public places, with a book which declares it's title obviously on the cover, and you, the reader, are snickering and outright laughing at points). Needless to say - this book quickly became a home based guilty pleasure.
Universally these stories are incredibly clever in the way that they build up the scenario quickly, create strong plots and/or strong characterisations, and deliver the resolution in such a short, sharp burst of words. The only story that perhaps doesn't work as well is, strangely, the longest one - revenge being a fantastic subject to explore, unfortunately this vehicle may have just simply been a bit too long at the end of a book that delivered so many other short, sharp, elegantly composed offerings.
I really do wonder why it is that short story collections have been so rare at points. They are the perfect fodder for busy readers, they work as a quick read before turning off the light, they are perfect for the time spent waiting in the car for whoever it is that's running late from wherever, they are particularly perfect for that "sitting around" waiting time that seems to go with all appointment based services these days. Although, given that you're not going to be able to get through this entire book without collapsing with laughter at some point, it might be best to wrap SEX CRIMES in a plain paper cover - you might find the area around you clears a bit and people start crossing the road to avoid you otherwise.
SCREAM - Nigel McCrery
As people disappear from his streets, and a handful of battered and broken bodies are discovered on his patch, Lapslie has no idea that he's up against a man who feels sound like he can taste it.
I doubt it's much of a coincidence being a big fan of the scripts and the acting in the TV Series NEW TRICKS, that I'm also a fan of the DCI Mark Lapslie series. After all, Nigel McCrery is a writer and creator of both. (Along with many other excellent TV series including Silent Witness and All the King's Men.)
SCREAM is the third in the DCI Mark Lapslie series, Lapslie being an unusual central protagonist who suffers from a particularly acute form of synaesthesia. In other words he experiences sounds as a variety of different flavours. Which makes receiving a very disturbing email; with a sound file attached which appears to be a recording of an unknown woman's death throes particularly confrontational for him. The situation isn't made any easier as Lapslie is in Pakistan at an international course on counter-terrorism, which means he has to fly back immediately to lead the investigation as it's obvious that the killer wants him involved.
In the meantime Lapslie's sergeant, Emma, is leading an investigation into the murder of a woman on Canvey Island. It seems that the victim was tortured before death, and whilst they do manage to identify the victim, it doesn't seem to move the investigation any further. Eventually it's trace evidence and the search to see if they have a serial killer that edges it slowly forward.
Lapslie and Emma have been developing a tentative working relationship in all three of these novels now, although in SCREAM things are complicated by Emma's ongoing relationship with local crook and police informer Dom McGinley. He's a most unlikely love interest for Emma, but there's something very pointed about Lapslie's objections, not that he's got any romantic feelings for Emma himself, his concerns are partly paternal, partly professional.
Obviously Lapslie's synaesthesia (which does contribute to his investigative ability) has been a major element in all the books thus far, although in SCREAM he is getting treatment, and the condition is not as overpowering, and therefore it's not as major a thread throughout the entire book. Which is actually a really good thing. Not only has the condition improved, his life in general is improving, he's even able to enjoy concerts or meals out with a new girlfriend. A considerable change, particularly from the first book, where he was effectively housebound. That sense of moving on helps make this a very engaging series, but I suspect, if you've not read either of the earlier books, you could be missing out on the importance of Lapslie's improved circumstances and outlook. It may make reading this book out of sequence a little less of an enjoyable experience.
But that won't make it an unpleasant experience. McCrery has a very deft manner in the way that he plots out a story, and draws a verbal picture of the forensic and crime scene details. Having said that, the books don't read as a film / TV script in the making - SCREAM is a great novel, with pace, humour, intrigue and tension.
1222 - Anne Holt
1222 metres above sea level, train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered.
Take one gloriously grumpy central protagonist, add that train crash, include a massive snowstorm cutting off a train full of people 1222 metres above sea level in an inaccessible hotel, add a mysterious locked carriage and a group of shadowy unknown passengers, then kill off a high-profile passenger and see what happens.
What happens is that our grumpy protagonist, Hanne Wilhemlsen, ex-police officer, in a wheelchair as a result of being shot on duty, has to work out what is going on before the body count continues to increase. With no official help from the outside, and way too much interfering help on the inside, Hanne and a small group of trusted people - some passengers, some staff, some locals, need to work out who wanted to kill off a seemingly harmless, albeit annoying, priest. And the killing doesn't stop there.
Of course this plot has more than a hat-tip to a few perennial favourite devices - a closed room setting, albeit a biggish closed room in this example. This is a very large, rather luxurious resort, capable of taking in 269 or so people at a moment's notice. Then there's the idea of the thinking, observational detective - in this case enforced because of physical restrictions, there's something vaguely reminiscent of Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poriot about Hanne, although her Archie / Hastings is embodied in more than one person in 1222.
There is a large potential cast of passengers, staff and local helpers so it's just possible that the concept of a resort (that's further divided after a particular storm event) could be what makes the action being centred around a very small group of people feasible. Despite this, there was more than one point where I did wonder where everybody else was hiding - 269 plus people not being a small number after all. Add to that the secretive sub-thread about the mysterious closed off carriage, and you couldn't help wondering what was going on behind closed doors, besides the murder plotting of course!
That secretive sub-thread is probably the only part of the book that simply flat-out, doesn't work. This reader had to assume that perhaps the closed carriage was there as a bit of a hap-tip to the classic red-herring (being another perennial favourite), but to be honest, it didn't work as a red-herring throughout the book and the resolution... well it was just pointless.
Ignoring that bit of off-kilter action, the rest of the book was really good. I really like Hanne (and not just because I like grumpy protagonists!), and the use of the setting to provide a closed off, claustrophobic environment along with a sense of potential threat worked. There was a good cast of supporting characters, some nice touches of humour and good pace, and for readers who like to work out the whodonnit aspects, the author has played pretty fair - you've got a good chance of sorting it out, although you will be waiting until the last minute to get your deductions confirmed.
After a bit of a look around it seems that, in that delightful habit publishers have designed to drive readers mildly bats, 1222 is the eighth Hanne Wilhelmsen novel, but the first to be translated into English. Hopefully we'll get the rest of the series "toots sweet". In the right order would be greatly appreciated.