The Three Deaths of Magdalene Lynton, Katherine Hayton
Forty years ago Magdalene Lynton drowned in a slurry. She choked to death as her hands scrabbled for purchase on the smooth concrete walls. A farmhand discovered her bloated body three days later.
Or she didn't.
Paul Worthington just confessed to her murder.
Forty years ago Magdalene Lynton died in a dirty shed. He smothered her life along with her cries for help and tossed her defiled corpse into a river when he was done.
Or he didn't.
THE THREE DEATHS OF MAGDALENE LYNTON is the first in a new series from New Zealand author Katherine Hayton, followed by THE SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF and THE ONLY SECRET SHE KEEPS. The last of these, THE ONLY SECRET SHE KEEPS, has been long listed in the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards which will come as no surprise if you've been lucky enough to follow the evolving story of Ngaire Blakes.
The central character in this series, Detective Ngaire Blakes, really works. A flawed, grumpy, complicated woman, frustrated at being stuck behind the police station reception desk recuperating from nasty injuries received in an earlier case. She's a good combination of knowns and unknowns, as there is much to Blakes and her background that you'll have to take on face value. This first book doesn't waste a lot of time on backstory for her or her colleagues, it assumes that you'll work out this is a policewoman with a past and roll with it. It's also a location with a past history, and some of the classic elements of small-town connectedness and combined past histories, again a fair bit of which you'll just have to take as given. Overall this creates an extra level of mystery, and makes sure that things don't bog down in the personal past, keeping the pace of the revelations - past and present - tight, fast and flowing freely.
The blurb gives readers a pretty good idea where the title for this novel comes from. Magdalene Lynton died 40 years ago drowned in a farm slurry. Or in a dirty shed. Or did she? The plot device of three possible deaths of the one woman is an interesting idea to start out with, but add the complication of 40 years ago and things get very twisty indeed. There's a lot of red herrings for Blakes and the reader to sort through, there's a heap of confusion and doubt everywhere, and at the centre of the mess there's an investigator that's determined, flawed, pig-headed, and extremely real. It's one of those pleasing confluences of good characters, good plot and interesting sidelines. About the only downside is a slightly unclear sense of place with the incorporation of American spelling and terminology muddying the waters (pun sort of intended - what with farm slurry and the whole thing...).
Despite that minor niggle, the main aim of THE THREE DEATHS OF MAGDALENE LYNTON: introducing a new, intriguing and interesting character in New Zealand Crime fiction delivers in spades. Enough to make this reader pick up the second book in the series, THE SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF, pretty well straight away.
Review - Dead Lemons, Finn Bell
Leaping with confidence straight out of the gates, DEAD LEMONS has a cracking opening chapter that will stay with you for quite some time. You just can’t go past a man hanging over a cliff, hanging upside down in his wheelchair, thinking such dire and witty thoughts.
Finn Bell presents as a surprisingly pragmatic creature for all the challenges he is required to face in his every day existence. Laconically hilarious plus unnervingly calm in a tight spot, is our Finn. This is the strength of DEAD LEMONS, as the humour is presented shockingly side by side with all the heartbreaking details of the town’s murders. The dark is balanced with the redemptive light that emanates from Finn finding his way back to what it is that makes the world turn – the complexities of human relationships.
DEAD LEMONS is an absorbing and disturbing window into a part of the world that time seems to have left well behind. Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t look, don’t dwell. Injecting a character like Finn into such an eerie and remote location is reading gold as there is a push/pull with his modern awareness and the slow pace practiced by its residents. There is so much in Finn’s character to like, admire and barrack for. Hoping very much to see this character again. The pace does slacken off during the middle of the novel a little as so much is discovered in such a short space of time right at the start. Kudos to the author for not dwelling on any physical limitations of Finn as he crawls and throws himself around where necessary. A very polished debut novel that any crime fiction enthusiast will enjoy.
Review - Nothing Bad Happens Here, Nikki Crutchley
The body of missing tourist Bethany Haliwell is found in the small Coromandel town of Castle Bay, where nothing bad ever happens. News crews and journalists from all over the country descend on the small seaside town as old secrets are dragged up and gossip is taken as gospel.
Among them is Miller Hatcher, a journalist battling her own demons, who arrives intent on gaining a promotion by covering the grisly murder.
I forgot NOTHING BAD HAPPENS HERE was a debut novel as you'd never know it from reading it. Set in the sort of small town in New Zealand that caters mostly to the summer tourist trade, journalist Miller Hatcher is sent there when the body of a tourist who went missing a while ago is discovered. Her and just about every other journalist in the country creating a frenetic, odd atmosphere in a town which should be quiet, safe, nondescript at that time of the year.
It was an odd disappearance really - Bethany was last seen in a local hotel, before quietly vanishing. Nobody saw anything, or has any clues, although local police never forgot. When her body is eventually discovered deep in the surrounding forest, the media scrambles, but with nothing much to go on, the story quickly peters out. But Hatcher was late arriving in town, and finds herself staying at an outlying retreat, closer to the forest, populated by strangers and locals. Working, as she does for a monthly magazine rather than a newspaper, she's got more leeway to meet longer deadlines, so she's after a hearts and minds type of article. A good job might be the key to a promotion, and it might also be the thing that Hatcher requires to get her own life back on track. She wouldn't have expected the type of woman who runs the retreat she's staying at though, nor the fellow guests, or the handyman, certainly not the things that the surrounding forest starts to reveal.
Needless to say we're talking a damaged central character, an odd, closed room type of town, and a hefty dose of an odd supporting cast. Balanced well against a great police character - the genuinely likeable character in the mix, and some decent, and caring behaviour from some people. You can't help but wish Bethany had caught some of the good, but her back story is as sad as her eventual demise.
A combination of solid plot, with plenty of hints dotted along the way to a final twist that works well, NOTHING BAD HAPPENS HERE is very addictive reading. Hatcher is undoubtedly a flawed character, frequently almost pathetic, but there's enough in her back story, and the way her problems are presented to make her understandable, if not completely sympathetic, and as a result absolutely real. Sergeant Kahu Parata, the local cop is the balance of straight up versus Hatcher's edgy, he's a decent sort of a bloke, personally and professionally. All of the supporting cast contribute to understanding the place, the people, and the sensibility of somewhere that's struggling with the combination of natural beauty and human cruelty. Despite that beauty, there is always the sense of a dark place, outside the edges of the town. Dense forest, brooding, with goodness knows what lurking. Using the sense of menace that place creates, the plot has pace, and more than enough spark to keep the reader guessing right to the final twist.
Review - Dead Lemons, Finn Bell
In the far south a young girl goes missing, lost without trace in the wilderness beyond her remote family cottage. A year later her father disappears in the same place. Then nothing. At all. Eventually the years grow over the grief. The decades wear away the questions, life flows past the forgotten tragedy.
Until Finn moves into the abandoned home, looking for a fresh start.
When reviewing Best Crime entrant PANCAKE MONEY, the second book from Finn Bell in the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards, I wasn't aware that DEAD LEMONS had won Best First Novel. Not even slightly surprised to be honest. These are both very good books.
As mentioned then, these novels are grouped together as "The Far South Series" the grouping coming from location rather than any connection between characters and storylines so whilst you absolutely should read them both, you can do that in any order you like.
The central character named Finn (I'm going to assume not completely autobiographical...) is a complicated man, trying to rebuild a complicated life. In a wheelchair after a bad accident, he's got some seriously big demons from his past and his present to deal with. The past disappearance of a young girl and her father seem like a bit of distraction therapy, as he moves into an abandoned house, starts to explore the local community, and come to grips with some big mistakes made. Helping him come to terms with the drunken car accident that put him in the chair, the subsequent break up of his marriage and most of his friendships, is local therapist Betty, the professional help he obviously desperately needs. Helping him with more local issues is hairdresser Patricia who guides him in getting to know the personalities and history of the town, but would he listen when everybody warned him to stay the hell away from the weird neighbours down the road? There's much in the broken, repentant character of now that reflects the bull-headed, determined character of the past. So stick his nose in he does, and the expected personal jeopardy he deals with is complicated by his confinement to a wheelchair in some rather unexpected ways.
Part of the strength of DEAD LEMONS is the restrained, dry sense of gallows humour. Even when Finn is at his most extreme jeopardy it's hard not to laugh at some of the predicaments he's gotten himself into, and the slightly bizarre ways he rescues himself, or at the very least protects himself, until help arrives. That's not to say that it's all humour, with some confronting aspects woven into this story, including as is required by convention, a warning about some animal cruelty that's short, sharp and brutal. As is some of the treatment dished out to Finn, as he discovers more about a place that he seems to have become reluctantly attached to along the way.
The plot here is believable, complex without being complicated, fitting nicely into a small town, surrounded by a rural area, populated by people who know everyone, have secrets, and are darn good at keeping them to themselves. You will have to accept the odd bump and jolt along the way with some motivations for events not being as seamless as it could be, but as a stranger in a strange place, Finn works as a catalyst for discovering the truth, partly because he doesn't want to let sleeping dogs lie, and partly because he seems like a character who will do anything to avoid confronting his own problems.
As the blurb puts it "Now he must choose between exoneration and condemnation, justice and vengeance." Readers are all too often left wondering which one he gets to choose, and which one he deserves.
Review - Pancake Money, Finn Bell
Bobby Ress is a cop.
He believes in God and making a difference.
He loves his wife and he loves his daughter.
He has a place in the world.
Then people start dying, a lot of them, in horrible ways. And step by gruesome step the simple, true things Bobby knew to be right and good begin to make less and less sense. His partner Pollo tells him he's being too much of a boy scout to be a cop. His wife, Em tells him he should stop being a cop. And Bobby doesn't know what to tell his daughter anymore.
Finn Bell made quite an impact on the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards with two shortlistings - his first novel DEAD LEMONS in Best First Novel, and PANCAKE MONEY in Best Crime Novel. Grouped together as The Far South Series, these aren't series books as such, so you can read them in any order, but read them you most definitely should.
PANCAKE MONEY features police detective Bobby Ress, who did have a cameo appearance in DEAD LEMONS. He's a straight-forward sort of cop, loves his wife and daughter, has a successful marriage even though they married young and everyone said it wouldn't last. He's also from a straight-forward sort of a place where mostly people are law abiding, and life is uncomplicated even tranquil. Which makes the way that people start dying even more horrific than what are some pretty horrific ways to die. The case is bad enough at that level as far as Ress is concerned, but it's the way that he must confront some uncomfortable truths about human behaviour that is really doing his head in.
PANCAKE MONEY is a traditional police procedural in structure, but as with Bell's earlier books, it's his ability to build characters who are accessible and believable into plots that often lurch into controlled frenzy that really stands out. Ress is paired up with another very approachable, very likeable Pacific Islander policeman - Pollo Latu. Both men are happy men, content with their lot, which contrasts elegantly against the brutality that they must confront. Even as somebody is torturing and killing local clergymen in increasingly bizarre ways, there's nothing expected about the plot which is driven forward strongly, and balanced beautifully with the very human reactions of these two interesting cops.
The dialogue is spot on as well, particularly between the two characters who wise-crack and short-hand their way through some pretty horrible stuff. They obviously care about each other, and their respective families but it's not delivered in an overt manner. There's a connection between these two that's palpable, there's also a connection between them and the place that they live in that's completely believable.
Ultimately what's really good about both books by Finn Bell is that this is an author who can spin a yarn. He sets up a sense of place and character that gives the reader an immersive experience without labouring the point. He's got well delivered plot elements that combine pace and forward drive with strong dialogue and he gives permission to the reader to extrapolate their own theories on who did it along with the cops. He's also brave enough to go into some difficult territory, giving any reader edging towards complacency a darn good wake up call when required. Having been lucky enough to read DEAD LEMONS first there was plenty of promise there, and PANCAKE MONEY delivered on every required element.
Review - Shafts of Strife, David Bates
The New Zealand government – led by autocratic Prime Minister Wynyard Nairn – approves the establishment of a USA naval facility, and in the middle of Wellington’s pristine harbour.
Given the anti-nuclear stance in the country, all hell breaks out!
Daily protests and rallies occur and threats of mayhem are made. Within days anarchy rules; Parliament is occupied, the US Embassy is attacked and two die, a major TV communications tower is destroyed and central Wellington is blockaded. But when the International Airport is forced to close, the situation reaches crisis point.
New Zealand's decision to declare itself nuclear-free in 1987 created quite a stir at the time, so it makes considerable sense that an autocratic Prime Minister approving a US Navel facility in the middle of Wellington harbour (and therefore allowing the possibility of nuclear powered vessels back into New Zealand waters) would create an even bigger stir. SHAFTS OF STRIFE is built around that concept - where daily protests and rallies occur, mayhem and anarchy ensue and, well all hell breaks out as the blurb says.
The novel builds a picture of an authoritarian Prime Minister, hell bent on what seems like a ridiculous direction, in the face of absolute opposition from most sides. Unfortunately there's something soberingly real about the scenario put forward. Unfortunately, an idea that doesn't quite hit as hard as it should, due in part to a tendency towards expository style with big info dumps, and a simplistic "bad politicians" versus "good cops" underlay.
Well worth a look though - especially as a reminder that there is a world of difference between an autocrat and a strong leader.
Review - The Ice Shroud, Gordon Ell
When a woman's body is discovered frozen in the ice of a river near the alpine resort of Queenstown, Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan faces both a mystery and a moral dilemma. The identity of the nude woman is critical to the motives and manner of her murder, and Buchan is personally involved. So are a number of locals, from ski bums to multi-millionaire businessman.
Newly appointed to head CIB in the Southern Lakes district, Buchan hunts the killer through the entanglements of corruption and abuse that lie barely below the surface of the tourist towns.
THE ICE SHROUD is a very promising debut fictional novel from New Zealand wildlife photographer and non-fiction writer Gordon Ell. Structured as a combination village mystery and closed room scenario, the locations in this novel are beautifully described, the plot is good, the dialogue crisp and believable, and the main police character pairing well imagined.
Any writer who can evoke the amazing scenery and sensibility of some of the wilds of New Zealand is obviously off to a very good start, and a woman's body, frozen to the iced cliff edges of a river, discovered by a touring jet boat party because the location inaccessible by any other means, is a pretty good opening salvo. It provides a number of questions for the subsequent investigation, not the least of which being how the body got there. From the point at which recovery of the remains becomes an exercise in physical dexterity, to the need to combine cleverness in investigation with doggedness in traversing a wild and tricky landscape, there is much to keep the reader engaged.
The central pairing of the local traffic sergeant and the incomer - Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan - is nicely pitched as well, avoiding a lot of the clichés that hamper the believability of those sorts of working relationships all too often. About the only clangers here are a rather glaring personal relationship that isn't declared and just screams WRONG, and some well-worn characterisations in the supporting cast (surely every big man about town doesn't have a heavy-drinking, pathetic, put-upon wife?), but they are very minor quibbles in a novel where everything else works particularly well.
Review - The Student Body, Simon Wyatt
In The Student Body, Simon Wyatt takes the reader on a thrilling journey to catch a killer through his eyes as a former police detective. A popular fifteen-year-old girl is strangled to death at a school camp on Auckland's west coast. The posing of the body suggests a sexual motive. Nick Knight, a week into his role as a newly promoted detective sergeant, is tasked with the critical job of leading the Suspects Team.Nick - who turned his back on a lucrative career as a lawyer - is well-versed at dealing with the dark sides of human nature.
In case you hadn't noticed there's a number of debut novels recently out of New Zealand, often written by authors with a policing or related background, many of them telegraphing potential for interesting things to come. THE STUDENT BODY is Serious Fraud Office investigator Simon Wyatt's first novel, written while on sick leave recovering from a rare, and potentially life-threatening autoimmune disorder.
The central character in this novel, Detective Sergeant Nick Knight, is a little bit different from current day crime fictional norms in that he's a young, not yet cynical cop, in a murder enquiry team after a few years of adult sex crimes investigations. Readers may see something in the link between his experience of sex crimes, and the death of a young female student, found semi-naked, strangled and dumped in the bush near a school camp. From the circumstances, sexual motivation is upper-most on everyone's mind. But there are secrets to be found amongst her family, school teachers and friends, the community around the camp, as well as those in her home neighbourhood.
Wyatt's background in policing is very obvious in THE STUDENT BODY, deployed to great effect when revealing the inner workings of CIB, not as effective when describing characters in ways that have more than a whiff of wanted poster about them. It's obviously an extremely difficult balancing act to get the information on internal workings and readability right though, and whilst at some level details can be fascinating, it's not quite as successful when the reader can't quite shake the sense of an exam coming up. Having said that the personal touches: the baking provided by lower ranks in the team, and the difficult family dynamics, in particular, are well done. Because the story is told from Nick's point of view it's hard to avoid the idea that he might not be seeing the full picture on some things and his observations about family members, relationships with colleagues etc have just the slightest feeling of unreliability about them. On the other hand, there's some nice sprinklings of humour dotted throughout and not just the gallows style that could be expected in a police procedural.
It's in the shadows of Nick's personality that there's particularly interesting hints. He's not perfect, he's self-centred, and on the face of it his difficult relationships with a lot of people could be coming from both sides. Which probably also sums up THE STUDENT BODY. It's not perfect, it's got the odd continuity issue, a few clanging terminology / naming problems, and an ending that reads like a lot of heavy lifting of a lot of elements in a big hurry. Overall, however, THE STUDENT BODY is a promising first take, and it will be worth seeing what happens in any follow-up novel.
Review - Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, Danyl McLauchlan
A desolate valley.
A missing mathematician.
A glamorous and beguiling council bureaucrat with a hidden past.
A cryptic map leading to an impossible labyrinth.
An ancient conspiracy; an ancient evil.
A housing development without proper planning permission.
All leading to the most mysterious mystery of all.
Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is a dark and forbidding new comic farce by the author of Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley.
The second book from NZ based author Danyl McLauchlan MYSTERIOUS MYSTERIES OF THE ARO VALLEY follows on UNSPEAKABLE SECRETS OF THE ARO VALLEY. If this reader's experience was anything to go, it may be better to have read the first book, as there was quite a bit that remained somewhat unfathomable in this second instalment.
Having said that, MYSTERIOUS MYSTERIES might be relying heavily on an in joke. Whilst the comedic farce aspect is a huge part of this novel, it also leans more towards supernatural than straight suspense or even fantasy, which means you've got a pretty tricky kettle of fish to deliver to potential readers.
This is one that's definitely going to come down to personal taste, connection with characters (and maybe place / events). The problem is in knowing who to recommend something like this to. Having seen some comparisons with the likes of Ben Elton there could be something in the comedic stylings there - although MYSTERIOUS MYSTERIES doesn't do rant in the same way. I'd personally disagree strongly with other comparisons I've seen to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Both of whom are particular favourites of this reviewer and nowhere could I sense any similarities to work by either of these authors.
Perhaps it comes down to readers who are looking for something different. I'd have no hesitation whatsoever in saying MYSTERIOUS MYSTERIES OF THE ARO VALLEY is undoubtedly different.
Review - Marlborough Man, Alan Carter
Nick Chester is working as a sergeant for the Havelock police in the Marlborough Sound, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. If the river isn’t flooded and the land hasn’t slipped, it’s paradise. Unless you are also hiding from a ruthless man with a grudge, in which case, remote beauty has its own kind of danger. In the last couple of weeks, two local boys have vanished. Their bodies are found, but the Pied Piper is still at large.
Marlborough Man is a gripping story about the hunter and the hunted, and about what happens when evil takes hold in a small town.
Alan Carter is the author of the Ned Kelly Award winning Cato Kwong series (PRIME CUT won the Best First Award in 2011), but MARLBOROUGH MAN features a new character - UK born, New Zealand based cop Nick Chester and his family.
Chester's had an "interesting" working life - starting out as an undercover cop in the UK, ending up a country cop in Havelock in rural New Zealand as part of a witness relocation scheme when his undercover work goes decidedly pear-shaped. Even with what would seem to be the impossible task of tracking him, his wife and their young son Paulie down, he's constantly on edge - anybody new could very well have been sent to exact revenge.
You'd also think that the move to rural New Zealand would mean that policing would be limited to the odd drunken skirmish, a lot of traffic tickets, and a bit of low level thieving (it does seem that the local villains are particularly obsessed with meat in various forms). Unfortunately there's been a spate of horrific child murders in these parts and the discovery of a young boy's body close by gives the neighbourhood an internal shaking echoing the constant threat of earthquakes.
There's quite a lot of set up in this novel, working the back-story of Nick's undercover exploits, and the resulting outcomes, into the current day activities. Nick's a great character, but all of the characters in this book are fabulous - especially his cop offsider Latifa Rapata; his two guardian pig-shooters Gary and Steve; Denzel the Maori kid not beyond redemption; Charlie the chicken and alpaca farmer and particularly his wife Vanessa. Each of these characters slots into the action perfectly, seamlessly contributing enough to both the good and bad of a complex story like this.
As the big wigs from the city come to take over the child murder investigation, there's less and less chance of Nick letting go, and as his old life starts to catch up with him, he determined to sort out everything and everybody in his neighbourhood. Including the local logging magnate with whom he openly shares a mutual vendetta. There's lots of strings to the bows in MARLBOROUGH MAN and just when you think they are all going to twang around Chester's neck, somehow he manages to find the right targets, granted at great risk to everything that he values most highly.
There's nary a hitch in MARLBOROUGH MAN. The characters work, the plot is cleverly executed and the sense of place is visceral. There's touches of humour and self-inflicted jeopardy which are perfectly justifiable. There's also personal loss, sadness and guilt. All in all it's so good this reviewer even managed to recover from the death of an alpaca and a pet pig which got a bit too close to home for comfort. Shows what a seriously good writer like Alan Carter can do in an absolute stand out book like MARLBOROUGH MAN.