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.
THE RINGMASTER - Vanda Symon
Death is stalking the southern South Island. And what role does the visiting Darling Brothers Circus have to play?
Sam Shephard is on the bottom rung of detective training in Dunedin, and her boss makes sure she knows it. She gets involved in her first homicide investigation there when a university student is murdered in the Botanic Gardens. Sam soon discovers this is not an isolated incident. There is the chilling prospect of a predator loose in Dunedin.
THE RINGMASTER is the second in the Sam Shephard series from NZ author Vanda Symon. Sam has moved to Dunedin, is in detective training when the body of a young university student is found in the Botanic Gardens. In Sam's world it goes without saying that nothing is ever going to be straightforward, and once the possibility that this murder isn't a solitary event, the connection between murders all over the Southern South Island of New Zealand and a local travelling circus becomes a distinct possibility.
Which, as it does, leads to a sympathetic relationship with an elephant. Which ends badly. So maybe I should get this out of the way up front, things for the elephant don't end well at all, and Sam is just as upset about this outcome as the reader is going to be. But that isn't going to help readers who are completely opposed to anything bad happening to animals. For me, the events, whilst distressing, really demonstrated how sometimes the life of the police isn't a pleasant one. But getting back to the murder investigation, there are aspects of Sam's personality (and personal life) that have come forward from the first book - OVERKILL. There are also aspects of the investigation that remain the same. Sam plays a solo hand again, partly because she's sidelined in a major way by the same bosses that tried to sideline her in the first book, and partly because Sam's much more comfortable out on the edge, playing a solo hand. It's probably that sense that somewhere off in the rough is exactly where Sam is at her best that stops any sense of cliché or convenient repetition. That and the humour, but more on that later.
As with OVERKILL, the great strength in THE RINGMASTER is the characterisations. Using the same tricks as the earlier book, Sam really is easy to identify with. Her own self doubt, her willingness to feel real emotion, make mistakes, beat herself up, be jealous, angry, daft as a brush, brave, sad and rather clever all at the same time.
There is another great supporting set of characters in THE RINGMASTER. Maggie remains, housemate, and best friend, Sam's touchstone. They are now both living in Dunedin, boarding with relatives of Maggie's, their domestic situation seemingly sorted, Sam's emotional life is still a massive rollercoaster. There is a love interest bought forward from the first book, although it takes quite a while for Sam to twig that this is a love interest, and not just some bloke hanging around being annoying. There is also a great sense of place and sensibility. The book doesn't read as a travelogue, but you really do come away from it with an unscratchable itch to see that place, meet those people.
As with the first book, the humour is pitched perfectly. At no stage is the reader allowed to forget that there are victims involved in any series of murders, there are unwitting involvements that impact everyone as a result, and there are the guilty that have their own, often inexplicable reasons, for doing what they do. CONTAINMENT is the next book in the series, followed by recent release BOUND. Do you think it's too much to hope that now that I'm revisiting the first three books, and have the fourth to look forward to, that a fifth isn't that far away?
OVERKILL - Vanda Symon
When the body of a young mother is found washed up on the banks of the Mataura River, a small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide.
But all is not what it seems.
We've got this little dog... Jedda is a 3 year old Australian terrier female. She's short, red-golden haired, extremely independent, determined to the point of obsession, friendly but can switch quickly into extreme bolshie and she is absolutely and utterly incapable of stepping away from an argument. She's the sort of dog that will continue the fight after she's been physically picked up and carried away from the conflict point. I suspect if I'd read OVERKILL before we'd got that dog, there would have been a strong case put for naming her Sam.
OVERKILL is written from Sam's viewpoint. Which is a tricky approach as the reader is going to have to like Sam, or at least feel some sense of connection with her, and be comfortable that Sam is fairly investigating this death. Which is complicated because the grief-stricken widower is Sam's ex-lover. Somebody that you'd have to be dead or thick not have noticed Sam still holds quite a torch for. That, and some really ... well let's go with naive rather than stupid actions, means it's not a big step for the powers that be to suspend Sam from the investigation because she's made herself more than suspicious. Perhaps a little unfairly as it was Sam that first wonders if this death wasn't more than a tragic suicide and it's her sniffing around that finds the forged prescription that triggers the murder enquiry in the first place.
Needless to say, a piddling little technicality like "suspicion" and "suspended" isn't going to stop Sam, anymore than a cow manure shampoo or a few stitches in the head. (And that's got to be one of the funniest scenes I've read in years - thinking about it still made me cry with laughter when we were changing our own ute tyre the other day!)
Whilst there's always the exception to the rule, in the main there are some elements that are kind of expected in some forms of Crime Fiction. With your cop protagonist it doesn't hurt that they are a bit of a self-starter. It works well if there's conflict with higher authorities, and suspension allows your cop to head off into somewhat tricky "procedural" territory. There's really nothing wrong with using some formulaic elements in a book provided that they aren't one-dimensional and there's enough other elements for a reader to identify with to allow you to forgive the occasional blatant setup. Where OVERKILL compensates in spades is in the main characters. Sam and her best friend, housemate Maggie are a good pairing - whilst Maggie takes no active part in the investigation part of the novel, she's the calm in Sam's chaos. And the affection, sarcasm, pithy commentary and observations between the two of them are frequently very very touching and funny.
Part of what I really liked about these books was that sense of humour. Frequently self-deprecating, the humorous touches are part of what makes the first-person voice work. At no stage is Sam overbearingly smug or self-serving. She's flawed and human and probably harder on herself than anybody around her could ever hope to be. OVERKILL is the first book in what is now a 4 book series, and having read the next two before I went back to re-read this one, I can see the developmental elements in this debut. Every series, after all, has to start somewhere and there's nothing worse than a debut book that says and does it all. Sam has places to go, people to annoy, problems to solve, ladders to climb, snakes to slide back down again. You just have to hope that 4 books isn't the end and there's a lot more of Sam in the future. (Expect a flurry of these reviews - I've been slack and need to catch up with talking about this terrific series!)
BOLD BLOOD - Lindy Kelly
When Dr Caitlin Summerfield took the message, her satisfying life included a rich, sexy boyfriend, an exciting career and, best of all, she was free of the emotional maelstrom that characterised her disastrous relationship with her mother.
Her father and brother are both long dead, and reluctantly Caitlin returns home when her mother is left in a coma after a riding accident. Someone has to look after her mother's horses. But instead of the well-run training business she expects, she finds financial chaos and a dangerous mystery.
Lindy Kelly is an experienced eventing rider in New Zealand and she's taken the idea of write what you know to heart. BOLD BLOOD is set deep in the world of horse eventing - although for the author's sake, you have to hope that some of the action in this book is made up!
Dr Caitlin Summerfield was raised with horses. By a mother that she most definitely does not get on with, who she still blames for the premature death of the father and brother she adored. Called back to the family farm after her mother has an accident and is in hospital, deep in a coma, Caitlin has to leave city life, medicine and her boyfriend behind to step into the training and riding of her mother's horses until it becomes clear whether her mother is ever likely to recover. On the farm, accidents continue to happen and pretty quickly it becomes obvious that somebody doesn't want the business to continue.
There is a lot of detail in this book about eventing. Training, teaching, showing and working with horses is definitely the main point of this book. The information is interwoven with the mystery of why Caitlin's mother was attacked, and why threatening things happen at events - and at home. Whilst the horse aspects are obviously presented by an author who really knows their stuff, it doesn't read like Horse Eventing 101. Part of the reason for that is the terrific, dry funny humour - peopled a lot by a young strapper who steps up to help out when things start to get difficult. Kasey is a wonderful character - full of teenage attitude and misfit vulnerability, with a tremendous sense of irony and a fine line in bad language. She had me laughing out loud at just about every outing. Unfortunately Kasey rapidly outshone Caitlin. Caitlin was a little over-earnest, and there was such an inevitability to the various storylines around her that she struggled to stay sympathetic or even interesting at points. Especially as very early on the book - enter Dom McEwan. Softly spoken, gorgeous looking next-door-neighbour - the requisite love interest / strong male figure who appeared on the scene and the romantic tension was immediately switched on.
BOLD BLOOD is very much a romantic thriller - with all the will they / won't they / ooo ick must you do that here (as Kasey puts it) going on in. There is a reasonably good plot idea with a lurking threat that takes a while to materialise into a motive and a list of possible suspects. But the mystery elements do struggle for air in amongst the horses and the romance. That, combined with a hefty dose of fem-jep cataclysmic ramped up ending, leading to all threads neatly tied up (including the personal), meant a very mixed reaction. Whilst there were aspects of the book I liked, there wasn't enough of the believable and palpable thriller components to compensate for the overt romance and the predictability of the personal story of Caitlin. Having said that, BOLD BLOOD could work for well for fans of romantic thrillers who would probably rate that particular aspect of the book much higher.
CUT & RUN - Alix Bosco
When a rugby star who began his life on the streets is murdered in the arms of a beautiful celebrity, it seems to be an open-and-shut case of a drug deal gone wrong but Anna Markunas, legal researcher for the prime suspect's defence team, begins to uncover a far more sinister truth - one that could ultimately destroy her.
We used to wonder what was in the water in Scotland and Ireland, there was such good crime fiction coming out of those locations. It's rapidly getting to the stage where we have to add New Zealand to the list. Now I think I've already warned people to stand by for some enthusiastic reviews - well this is one of them!
CUT & RUN is the first Anna Markunas book from Alix Bosco (pseudonym), luckily there's already a second book out and let's hope there's a lot more to come.
Bosco has pulled off a very stylish balancing acts in CUT & RUN with a blend of quite a lot of Anna's personal life and background, within the crime narrative. Neither side interferes overtly with the other, in fact a lot of the personal elements provide background either to Anna's motivations or even her attitudes and methodology. It helps that there's a nice line in sardonic humour built into the telling of this story. Anna's got a dry, self-deprecating way about her, which makes her very accessible - a sympathetic character. And there's quite a bit to feel some sympathy with. Anna worked for many years as a social worker, helping the most disadvantaged in society. She'd burnt out and walked away from that career, starting out again as a freelance researcher. Investment worries have driven her husband to commit suicide, leaving Anna to deal with her own grief and the resulting family fall-out, including a drug addicted son and an uptight daughter, despite her own happy marriage.
Working for an old family friend and defence lawyer with personal problems of his own, she is drawn into the case of a young man accused of killing a famous rugby star. The accused young man is somebody she remembers from a torrid family rescue back in her social work days, and somehow, the accusation just doesn't seem to make sense, nor does the accused's attitude. Anna puts herself into some difficult situations to find out the truth, but, in that way that this author has of telling a story, there's no sense of daft femjep. There's some deliberate jeopardy undoubtedly, but at no stage does the reader feel like Anna's not completely in control. Or at least aware. Okay so occasionally she's running a lot on instinct and less on street-smart, but she's not an idiot and she can peddle hard if she needs to.
There is a bit of romance towards the end of this book - one of those older people with their edges roughed up by death, divorce and a desire to dull the lights in front of the mirror just a bit - romances. As with all the personal elements, the romance isn't out of place, it's adroitly handled. There's a real sense of searching for justice in the investigation, setting the wrongs of the world right, and making something right. What is really appealing about Anna is that she's prepared to stick with a problem regardless of how dodgy the circumstances get because it's the right thing to do. What's really appealing about CUT & RUN is that it feels real. Anna seems like somebody you would know; the world she inhabits feels just like our world; the problems, the happy moments, the sad moments, the challenges and the sheer living of life is all so very very realistic.
THE IHAKA TRILOGY - Paul Thomas
Relentlessly tough yet hilarious, ingeniously plotted and full of killer one-liners, and featuring a rogue's gallery of weird and wild characters, THE IHAKA TRILOGY brings together the three novels that put New Zealand crime writing on the map.
INSIDE DOPE by Paul Thomas won the inaugural Ned Kelly Award and I blinked and then struggled to get my hands on a copy. I managed to track down GUERILLA SEASON years ago, and then not so long ago at the end of a long quest I found a copy of INSIDE DOPE. But still the search went on. The first book in the IHAKA series - OLD SCHOOL TIE continued to evade me. So you can imagine the joy when THE IHAKA TRILOGY arrived. I was so pleased that it jumped a considerable number of books to the top of the reviewing pile.
I just love these books. I love the settings, I love the humour, the quality of the plots and all of the characters. I love the way that Tito Ihaka is a central character, but not necessarily THE central character. These are very much ensemble cast books with Tito and others never taking the entire focus. I also love the way that these books are not necessarily straight-forward police procedurals, although they do involve police investigations (and ex-police investigations) and journalistic investigations and a whole bunch of things happening all at once. Making Ihaka not the entire focus of these books is quite an achievement as he's a larger than life sort of bloke. Maori, toe treading, unconventional, he's balanced beautifully against his very proper, very buttoned up, very Irish, dour boss Ulsterman Finbar McGrail. These two are a wonderful unlikely pairing - very very different, yet understanding of each other and able to work together in the most unlikely of partnerships.
Each of the three books in the trilogy stand up really well on their own, but presented in this book together, they also show just how much Paul Thomas must have enjoyed writing these stories. OLD SCHOOL TIE is all about the suspected suicide of a man who had it all. It's not until freelance journalist Reggie Sparks' investigation connects this man to the 24-year old suicide of a teenage girl at a private school ball, that things really start to move. This opening book sets up a style, a series of characters and a great sense of New Zealand place. Oh and a feud between the Sydney Mafia and a Maori gang. The second book, INSIDE DOPE, involves a race for the lost treasure of the Mr Asia drug syndicate between a rogue American narcotics agent, the CIA, Ihaka, an ex-cop and assorted family and hangers on. The final book GUERILLA SEASON has Ihaka looking into a series of very high profile murders, all in the name of an unknown terrorist group.
Cleverly each of these books weaves a little truth into the fiction (Mr Asia / the terrorist group with connections to the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior), whilst also incorporating a hefty dose of humour, some sad moments, some clever plots and some magnificently lunatic goings on. You can probably tell from this review - I loved the two books I'd previously read, I loved reading them again, I loved the first book and I loved having all 3 in the one trilogy. And it was most definitely not a trial to read three Ihaka books in a row - it's a bit of a trial knowing that's it for the time being. Hopefully just the time being.
(Paul Thomas is the author of seven works of fiction. In addition to the Ihaka novels there are two Sydney-based crime novels (Final Cut and The Empty Bed), as well as collection of short stories (Sex Crimes) and a non-crime novel (Work in Progress).)
STONEDOGS - Craig Marriner
In between drug deals and binge-drinking, reckless driving and street fights, the delinquents of the Brotherhood wage the holiest of wars. Yes, they will derail the Juggernaut before it can suicide . or have a ball trying at least. But when one of them falls prey to Roto-Vegas gang members, the cultural terrorists mobilise in earnest.
Sometimes you pick up a book, start reading, and instantly start wondering what on earth is going on. Yet for some reason, you cannot put the darn thing down. That's exactly what happened for me with STONEDOGS. Mind you, if I'd have read the blurb that states that Craig Marriner is New Zealand's answer to Irvine Welsh and Quentin Tarantino, I probably could have recognised a hint about what I was in for.
STONEDOGS isn't a recent book - it won the Montana New Zealand Book Award Deutz Medal in 2002, but it is a book that was recently bought to my attention by a correspondent on my website. Boy am I pleased about that pointer, otherwise I might have missed reading this completely.
Not that STONEDOGS is a particularly easy or pleasant read. The book is manic, rapidfire, and insane at points. Basically you've got a small group of teeanagers - the Brotherhood, waging the holiest of wars. Against something. Or somebody. Not sure. But they are a bunch of kids who stick together through drug deals, binge-drinking, abortive attempts to pick up girls (and not so abortive attempts for some of them), reckless driving and street fights. At heart, a bunch of fun-seeking young lads, there's a closeness and a supportiveness in this little band that just makes them so likeable - even though you have to scrape through a fair amount of trash talk and faux toughness to get to the reality. But as in so many of these coming of age type tales, things go awry and revenge takes over and the journey gets mad, bad and very dangerous.
Undoubtedly cringe inducing, STONEDOGS will also have you laughing out loud. As well as feeling vaguely reassured that whilst the language may change, and perhaps there's a tighter, tougher, slightly more dangerous edge to some of the activities, teenagers, basically haven't changed that much. Or at least they are still recognisable. As are the bonds of friendship, the lunacy of risk taking, the rites of passage.
I definitely had no idea what was going on at points in this book, but I also found I simply could not put it down. Dark, violent, very in your face, this isn't going to be a book for everybody. But for anybody who does pick it up - I think I can guarantee it will stay with you for quite a while.
A YEAR TO LEARN A WOMAN - Paddy Richardson
When freelance journalist Claire Wright is offered a commission to write the story of notorious serial sex offender Travis Crill, her initial reluctance is overridden by the lure of financial reward and her own growing fascination with her subject.
A YEAR TO LEARN A WOMAN is the second novel and first crime fiction offering from New Zealand writer Paddy Richardson. Travis Crill is a serial rapist - convicted and jailed for a series of bizarre attacks. Claire Wright is a freelance journalist, living alone with her young daughter after the sudden death of her older husband. When Claire is first contacted to see if she would be interested in writing the story of Crill for a very much needed large sum of money, she finds she can quickly overcome her initial reluctance to look closely at a man like him. But understanding Crill's story means that Claire must also look closely at the impact of his crimes on his victims and she gradually comes to realise that, despite being in jail and not in regular contact with Claire, Crill seems strangely to be in control.
A YEAR TO LEARN A WOMAN is broken down into a series of chapters from various characters viewpoints - Claire, her daughter Annie and many of Crill's victims. There are also scattered chapters written from Crill's own viewpoint. It seemed that this styling is what makes this a very disquieting book. Being inside the heads of the victim's is a sobering experience. Interspersing that with the normal daily life of Claire and Annie, moving backwards in time to when Annie was a baby, and into the current with Annie a teenager, and Claire - firstly trying to decide if she is willing to take the commission to write Crill's story, and then working through the research required to start the book.
One of the factors that most interests Claire is that Crill doesn't really have a classic rapist profile (if there is such a thing). His attacks are yearly - and he uses that year to stalk and "learn" his victims. He seems less motivated by the need for power and control and more by a need for love and acceptance. He seems to come from a very stable family background, he holds down a job, is a very attractive man. His crimes are terrifying, but odd, sad, very strange. It's possibly this dichotomy of character that interests Claire, that draws her into the story. Crill doesn't seem that threatening.
A YEAR TO LEARN A WOMAN is one of those deceptively creepy, sneaky, slow building tense books, that frankly is extremely discomforting to read. The story moves from the mundane, to the discomforting, from the research to the reality of dealing with a serial criminal very deftly. There is a rapid build up at the end and a resolution which, whilst there is a point at which you can start to see it coming, is still frightening and sobering. It's not often that a crime fiction book makes you want to leave the lights on. A YEAR TO LEARN A WOMAN did that and made me want to wait to finish it until I was sure I wasn't home alone!
CEMETERY LAKE - Paul Cleave
A standard exhumation becomes anything but for private investigator Theodore Tate, when bodies begin bubbling to the surface of the cemetery lake. Tate knows he has to let it go and let his former colleagues in the police deal with it. But when the coffin is opened and its occupant is not the old man supposed to be inside, he knows he cannot walk away. He can't let the police keep digging either, because they are getting dangerously close to digging up the real truth: the truth about him. With the evidence mounting against him, Tate must stay ahead of the police and out of jail in orde
Christchurch private investigator Theodore Tate is attending the exhumation of a man who died two years before. Suddenly bubbles appear on the surface of the small lake in the middle of the cemetery, and several bodies slowly rise to the surface.
When the exhumed coffin is opened, it does not contain the expected occupant. And as the identities of the lake bodies are established, their graves are dug up to reveal further unexpected corpses. Could this be the work of the Christchurch Carver who has been terrorising the city for the past two years, or is there another serial killer on the loose?
The cemetery caretaker has disappeared, and Tate is sure that the priest of the little church next to the cemetery knows a lot more than he is willing to say. The police try to warn Tate away from the investigation, but his curiosity is aroused, and he can’t help but delve deeper and puts his own life in danger as a result. He steps on a number of toes in the process, and even his sympathisers in the police force begin to tire of his interference.
Tate is an intriguing, but very flawed character. A former police officer, who left the force under a cloud, he is still dealing with the consequences of the accident, caused by a drunk driver, which destroyed his family. He drinks heavily, is hardly coping with life, and for much of the book seems bent on self- destruction. The reader shifts between feeling great sympathy for Tate, and utter frustration with him. There are moments of great poignancy, particularly in the scenes with his severely brain damaged wife, when we get a glimpse of the person Tate used to be. There are also moments of incredible stupidity!
Cleave’s Christchurch is a much darker and nastier place than the Christchurch of the tourist brochures. The action is centred on the cemetery and adjacent church, mostly amid swirling mists in the dead of night, creating a very atmospheric mood. There is plenty of suspense in this book, although there is a section in the middle where the plot goes off on a bit of a tangent and the story loses its focus a little. However, it’s not long before things get back on track as we head to the thrilling conclusion.
Cemetery Lake is Cleave’s third book, after The Cleaner and The Killing Hour. It is an exciting thriller, and I look forward to Paul Cleave’s next offering.
THE KILLING HOUR - Paul Cleave
They come for me as I sleep. Their pale faces stare at me. Their soft voices tell me to wake, to wake. They come to remind me of the night, to remind me of what I have done.
First line: They come for me as I sleep.
Charlie Feldman wakes up aching all over, with a large painful bump on his forehead, and his blood spattered clothes on the floor. When he turns on the tv, he learns two women he was with the night before have been brutally murdered. The police evidence links Charlie to the crime. Charlie knows that Cyris is the murderer, but he's the only one who believes Cyris exists. When he goes to his ex-wife Jo for help, she doesn't believe him either, so he feels he has no option but to kidnap her. As his memory of that night slowly comes back, Charlie tries to work out why the murders occurred.
Inspector Bill Landry has just found out he is dying from cancer, and wants to end his career with a big success. He keeps vital evidence to himself, and sets out on a one man crusade to track down Charlie, and see justice done.
As Charlie and Jo are pursued by the police and the murderer, and as horror follows horror, the tension keeps mounting, and you wonder just how much more these people can take.
The story is told from multiple points of view, with each chapter shifting to a different character. This could have made for a very disjointed story, but works brilliantly here.
Before you read this book you should make sure you have turned on all the lights and checked all the doors and windows - twice. This is a seriously scary book.