San Francisco, 1849: a place gripped by gold fever, swarming with desperate men come to seek their fortune. Among them are former convicts, Australians quick to seize control in a town without masters, a town for the taking. Into this world steps an Australian boy in search of his mother. Just twelve years old, and all alone in a time of opportunism, loyalty and violent betrayal, Samuel Bellamy must learn to become one of the Sydney Coves if he is to survive.
David Whish-Wilson is best known for his historical crime fiction set in Perth and surrounds, but The Coves takes us to 1849 San Francisco, gold fever and the Australian gangs who controlled the part of it known as Sydney-town.Newtown Review of Books
Preservation, Jock Serong
Preservation, based on the true story of the wreck of the Sydney Cove, sees master storyteller Jock Serong turn his talents to historical narrative.
On a beach not far from the isolated settlement of Sydney in 1797, a fishing boat picks up three shipwreck survivors, distressed and terribly injured. They have walked hundreds of miles across a landscape whose features—and inhabitants—they have no way of comprehending. They have lost fourteen companions along the way. Their accounts of the ordeal are evasive.
I've been trying to think of somebody else that could write books about abalone fishing quotas, cricket, asylum seekers and now early white Australian settlement, convicts, rum runners and shipwrecks and make them all equally compelling, memorable, and ... crime fiction.
Jock Serong is one of those writers whose books induce a spot of awkward happy dancing when they arrive - you're guaranteed of something different and unusual after all. Whilst each of the settings, and approaches have varied, at the core of Serong's books is a tale of people being people. Good, bad, indifferent, inspired, capable, incompetent, awful, ordinary, predictable and utterly unpredictable.
In the case of PRESERVATION we have a fictional reworking of a true story - the attempt by seventeen shipwreck survivors to walk from the Victorian coast, east to Sydney. There was a diary of their exploits that survived, along with the three of the original sailors, and Serong has used the historical records of the time and the diary to weave a dark and mysterious tale of murder, treachery and theft. There are multiple threads to PRESERVATION though. The story of the sailor's survival, trek and the importance (and value) of the cargo the ship carried, is interwoven with a tale of the Indigenous people of the various areas, and how they initially helped, then attacked, the sailors. This provides a bigger picture of the causes and outcomes of tension between the locals and white settlers, including the poor choices of many white settlers in rejecting any local people's expertise and experience in the landscape. The other ongoing thread is the story of the white settlement of Sydney itself, seen mostly through the eyes of Lieutenant Joshua Grayling and his wife Charlotte. Grayling is tasked with discovering the truth of the shipwreck and trek as accounts vary, and his, and Charlotte's interaction with all the shipwreck survivors and the local aboriginal people is nuanced, sympathetic and complicated.
The Grayling characters are one of those portrayals that we need to remind us that it isn't true to say that all early white settlers behaved badly - therefore it's okay to dismiss the worst as "normalised". They are a reflection of many people that have recently been written about who upheld the rule of law, regardless of skin colour or social background, that stood for fairness and understanding.
At the heart of PRESERVATION is a crime story though - it's a story about murder, identity theft, ill-gotten gains and greed. It's also a story of survival, intrepidness and standing up to authority on matters of principle. It's the sort of novel that will appeal to both pure crime fiction fans and historical novel readers alike and another perfect example of the sort of yarn that Jock Serong specialises in. I cannot wait to see where he takes us next.
Missing Pieces, Caroline de Costa
In 1992, toddler Yasmin Munoz goes missing from a rainforest picnic spot near Cairns. No trace of her has ever been found. Yet in 2012, Andrew Todd, a wealthy businessman and former mayor of Cairns, dies, and leaves in his will directions for a search for the missing child, who if she is still alive must now be a young woman.
The second in the Cass Diamond series MISSING PIECES is set in far North Queensland, with Cass Diamond investigating connected cold case disappearances. In 1992, toddler Yasmin Munoz went missing from a picnic spot near Cairns. In 2012 local businessman and former mayor Andrew Todd dies, leaving directions in his will to search for the missing child, by now a young woman if she's still alive. Yasmin is the daughter of Todd and a local mixed race woman, who has since died. Once Diamond starts digging around she discovers there's another mysterious disappearance in the Todd family - the fiancée of Todd's son vanished on the night of their engagement party, and no trace of her has ever been found either.
Setting something like this in a small community has provided de Costa with a real opportunity for a closed room styled mystery, enhanced by the interwoven thread lines in a single family. As is always the way with these sorts of disappearances, the rumour mill in small towns provides heaps of possible scenarios, and much finger pointing - from the implications of poor mothering, question marks over the girl's father, the weird coincidence of the missing fiancée and a heap of possible motives. The official line on Yasmin's disappearance was that she was washed away when sudden rain flooded the picnic ground she was playing in, but the complication has always been that her mother left her supposedly supervised by an unknown person for a while, whilst helping with an injured boy. The lack of a body has never helped that conclusion, although it's Cairns, Queensland and there are always crocodiles to blame. Either way, Diamond finds herself digging around in both disappearances when the terms of Todd's will become well known and higher-ups in the Police get a bit nervous about the PR implications.
An interesting idea for a cold case investigation then, unfortunately not best served by the structure of the novel overall. The author here has a lot of worthwhile stuff to say about stereotypes of Indigenous Australians, on environmental issues, heavy-handed policing and a bunch of other social issues. The problem is that many chapters in the novel come across as mini-lectures on individual subjects, or are so heavily infested with foreshadowing that it's difficult to stay with it too frequently. There's also too many times when the side-alleys of lecture and points to be made simply overwhelm advancement of the plot and it's hard to come away from MISSING PIECES without wondering if there was a lot more novel here than actual story.
There's plenty of potential in Cass Diamond as a central character, so having really liked this idea of the intersecting cold cases as a plot device, here's hoping the third outing in this series achieves a better balance.
The Girl Without Skin, Mads Peder Nordbo
They were near the edge of the glacier. The sea beneath the helicopter was dense with pack ice. In front of them, the endless whiteness stretched as far as the light could reach. It hurt his eyes. Millions of white crystals. Except in one place. One spot. Right where the mummified Norseman had been found and Aqqalu had kept watch. There, the ice was glossy red.
Opening with a breathtaking first-person account of the car accident that killed Matthew Cave's wife and unborn daughter, THE GIRL WITHOUT SKIN isn't as straight-forward an undertaking for fans of Nordic Noir as it might seem.
Early on in the novel you're going to find yourself ticking off the required elements list. Awful personal tragedy; man lost in grief and lacking direction; isolation in a cold and inhospitable location; tension between different groups of people; local indigenous stories and customs; bone-chilling cold and weather creating a closed room setting; an outsider finding his way in a strange location; and since the advent of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, a loner, slightly weird, off-sider who is more of an outsider than the outsider who is the central cornerstone of this story.
In this case - Matthew Cave serves as the sufferer of the personal tragedy; the grief-stricken outsider in a strange place - a journalist from Denmark who finds himself in Greenland initially writing a story about the discovery of a mummified Norseman pushed up from a glacier, which rapidly turns into a current day murder. Which then reaches back into recent history and a series of cold-case murders that were never solved. The role of loner has been allocated to Greenlandic woman Tupaarnaq, recently released from jail for the murder of her entire family (except her brother), she's tough, stand-offish, less of an off-sider and more of the central protagonist at points through the story. She's the source of the title of the novel as well - covered in tattoos, she's seemingly without skin. Add to that a town that's isolated, a current day murder that's occurred on the ice shelf outside town, cold, snowy, inclement weather, the implications of the manner in which the killings happened, and the tension between the local Greenlandic people and the Danes and you have your list of required elements. Add to that the enigma of the character of Tupaarnaq, the complications of Cave's own father, and there is potential for some readers to get the distinct feeling we've been here before.
In many ways, dedicated readers of Nordic (Scandi) noir have been here before. There are many elements that seem to echo The Dragon Tattoo series in particular closely, and this novel is digging its way into societal problems, and the sorts of dark, deep secrets within families that make your stomach churn and your teeth grind. Although THE GIRL WITHOUT SKIN is less of the why than we've come to expect from many of the analytical psychological thriller versions around.
Which is making it sound like THE GIRL WITHOUT SKIN is a bit of the same-old-same-old. Which for the first third of the novel it was starting to feel like the case, until at some point it became hard to step away from. There was much to learn here about the cultural tensions and differences between Danes and the local Greenlanders. There is much intrigue about where Tupaarnaq and Cave are heading, and how they will both adjust to lives that have dished up a lot of hard blows. It was interesting to see that the domestic and authority blindness that lead to abuse of children and violence within families happens in all sorts of places and cultures, and it was good to know that there are some good people in all dark places.
Ultimately what THE GIRL WITHOUT SKIN did deliver was potential for what's likely to happen next. Just because it's got a list of required elements doesn't mean they weren't delivered well, making this an extremely readable and intriguing book.
Wetland, Colin King
When a Melbourne couple in witness protection are found assassinated in their bed, zoology student Josh Marshall recognises the address. He quickly realises he had inadvertently been an unseen witness to a bent cop divulging the couple's location to the hitman ... and he has the hard evidence to prove it.
Based around an event that followers of the Underbelly wars in Melbourne will likely recognise, this tale is the second outing for Detective Sergeant Rory James, based in part in the Bendigo region.
The first book in the series A VINTAGE DEATH was set firmly in winemaking region of Heathcote, with the action interwoven into the history of the place. WETLAND takes a slightly different tack in that James is still involved in the Bendigo region, and there are aspects of the action that take place in the area, but the feel is more Melbourne-centric this time.
There's an intriguing idea at the core of this - an accidentally overheard conversation - deep in a wetland area late at night, obvious connections drawn but reluctance to get involved on the part of the evesdropper, which is eventually eroded by the offer of a big reward for information 10 years later, leading to game of cat and mouse while Josh Marshall and his partner, lawyer Martha Portilo, try to protect their anonymity and their lives as it turns out.
Tackling the underworld, corrupt cops, hitmen, and the idea that reward money is what it takes to bring people out of the shadows, WETLAND is a big undertaking. At the core of the investigation is DS Rory James, he of the recent marital breakdown, the messy home, the sometimes tetchy relationship with his daughter, and the longing for more time with his girlfriend who remains resolutely living in her glorious old house come B&B in Bendigo. There's a precarious balance maintained between the personal and the professional, although readers who have undertake both books might find some repetition and not necessarily a lot of forward movement in these threads.
Taking the action out of the location and background that the first book explored is an interesting undertaking. It's created less of a local feel to the story, but opened it up to the Underbelly context of the plot, although from a purely personal point of view I liked the idea in the first novel where the local history and community was a big part of the goings on. As with the first novel there are still some minor quibbles with WETLAND. A tendency to repetition in sentences, a lot of ground that's covered multiple times, and perhaps a little too much made of the newly single man lifestyle.
Fans of localised storytelling would do well to have a look at these sorts of series novels though, there are too few of them popping up about the place, and I was pleased to note in the acknowledgements that the first novel and this one have found a new home at Accidental Publishing.
Know Me Now, C.J. Carver
A SUICIDE. A MURDER. A CONSPIRACY.
DIGGING UP THE PAST CAN BE DEADLY . . .
A thirteen-year-old boy commits suicide.
A sixty-five-year old man dies of a heart attack.
Dan Forrester, ex-MI5 agent, is connected to them both.
And when he discovers that his godson and his father have been murdered, he teams up with his old friend, DC Lucy Davies, to find answers.
But as the pair investigate, they unravel a dark and violent mystery stretching decades into the past and uncover a terrible secret.
Third in the Dan Forrester series, we're into classic thriller mode now with this series. Heaps of action, a fast moving, multi threaded plot, this one creates a partnership quickly between Forrester and ongoing series character Lucy Davies that works well. Again we have a couple of main threads, a supposed suicide and a seemingly natural death that turn out to be murder, with a very personal connection to Forrester.
In a nutshell KNOW ME NOW is a better outing than the second, but not quite to the heights of the first novel in the series. To be fair, a lot of the unusual elements - amnesia / grieving / ex-MI5 agent and cop with a problem have been expanded on now, and we're less into background development, and more into classic thriller derring doing and plotlines. If that's what you're looking for, then KNOW ME NOW is the third outing in a series that will be right up your alley.
Tell Me A Lie, C.J. Carver
How do you protect your family when you can't remember who's hunting them? A gripping international thriller, perfect for fans of Lee Child and Mason Cross
A family in England is massacred, the father left holding the shotgun.
PC Lucy Davies is convinced he's innocent
A sleeper agent in Moscow requests an urgent meeting with Dan Forrester, referencing their shared past.
His amnesia means he has no idea who he can trust.
An aging oligarch in Siberia gathers his henchmen to discuss an English accountant.
It's Dan's wife
Dan Forrester and Lucy Davies return in the second novel in this series: TELL ME A LIE. It's hard to say that these novels must or must not be read in sequence, or if there's enough leeway for readers to start anywhere. There is a bit of back story in this second outing that should help fill in the gaps for new readers, but those returning to the series may notice the obviously similar structure deployed in both novels. Again we have seemingly disparate story-lines converging, pulling the two main characters into a collaborative relationship, although in TELL ME A LIE that happens much earlier on than it did in the opening novel SPARE ME THE TRUTH.
Character development does also seem to have stalled slightly, and it feels like we're slipping into a lot of predictable elements. The diverging plots, the struggle with amnesia which is more of the same, and a woman's private life that's another car crash, all places we've visited before.
On the upside there is still plenty of action, and a complex plot evolving here with heaps of red herrings and TELL ME A LIE is populated by more than enough sub-plots and intrigue to keep a reader on their toes.
The Man Who Died, Antti Tuomainen
A successful entrepreneur in the mushroom industry, Jaakko Kaunismaa is a man in his prime. At just 37 years of age, he is shocked when his doctor tells him that he’s dying. What is more, the cause is discovered to be prolonged exposure to toxins; in other words, someone has slowly but surely been poisoning him. Determined to find out who wants him dead, Jaakko embarks on a suspenseful rollercoaster journey full of unusual characters, bizarre situations and unexpected twists.
If they are giving out an award for the most unexpected crime fiction novel, then THE MAN WHO DIED would have to be an odds on favourite.
Narrated by Jaakko Kaunismaa, this is the story of a Finnish mushroom entrepreneur, based in a small town, building a successful business after being made redundant in his last career. He has a beautiful home, a thriving business, faithful employees, a loving wife who cooks elaborate meals for him, and a perfect life.
Until he finds they have mysterious competitors just around the corner, when a new mushroom export business with very odd owners in charge starts up, and immediately tries to poach his markets and his very best employees. He then discovers his loving wife is screwing the company delivery boy, just after he is told that somebody has been slowly but surely poisoning him and that he will die.
What ensues is, as the blurb puts it, part Fargo and part noir, but it forgets to mention surreal. THE MAN WHO DIED is black comedy that takes a lot of leads from the Knights Who Say "Ni!", with just enough caper at points to have readers laughing, even though it's distinctly uncomfortable to be laughing with a man who does constantly remind you that he is dying. And can't do anything about it.
Now obviously, with his wife's indiscretions with the delivery boy, and then the odd goings on with long-term Japanese customers, and the fact that she is always so keen to provide hearty, rich meals for him, Kaunismaa is pretty sure he knows the likely source of his poisoning. It's hard to decide if he's most annoyed that he's being killed, or that his business is being undermined though. Meanwhile the police are very interested in his interactions with the owners of the new mushroom factory, a stolen sword (which wasn't) and the disappearances of a couple of the aforementioned owners. Then there's the whole business with the sauna and the borrowed car, and a night at the posh hotel when a new mushroom variety is served and, well this was amazingly engaging.
Having listened to the audio version, at the very beginning, with a flat, laid back sort of delivery in use, there were more than a few moments when a "What The" moment had me diving for the rewind button. This was without a doubt, one of the most intriguing books I've encountered this year and it reminded me, yet again, that Antti Tuomainen is a writer who deserves (and now has) a much higher position on the must read list.
The Last Witness, Denzil Meyrick
James Machie was a man with a genius for violence, his criminal empire spreading beyond Glasgow into the UK and mainland Europe. Fortunately, James Machie is dead, assassinated in the back of a prison ambulance following his trial and conviction. But now, five years later, he is apparently back from the grave, set on avenging himself on those who brought him down. Top of his list is his previous associate, Frank MacDougall, who unbeknownst to D.C.I. Jim Daley, is living under protection on his lochside patch, the small Scottish town of Kinloch.
There's something about the accents of some narrators that just make things so easy to listen to and David Monteath is doing a terrific job with the DCI Jim Daley series. There's enough wry, dry humour here, alongside some reasonably gritty plot lines to keep the reader engaged, although the series does have a hefty dose of the personal as well if you're a fan of that sort of thing. Daley has a complicated sort of a lovelife with a wife he doesn't exactly trust, a new position in a small Scottish town (introduced in book 1 in the series: Whisky From Small Glasses) and a surprisingly active Scottish gangster population surrounding him.
Another one of those quintessentially Scottish sounding audible books - perfect for listening to over an extended period of time.
My Name is Revenge, Ashley Kalagian Blunt
My Name Is Revenge is in two parts. There is a novella, and an essay reflecting on the historic events that inspired that novella, and meditating also on how history can inform fiction. In the essay the writer says she hopes everything she writes will ‘arouse curiosity’. Both the novella and the essay do just that, and also much, much more. Both pieces are informed by a passion to express the haunting of almost unimaginable historical crimes, and the tragic shapes that vengeance for those crimes can take.
A real act of terrorism in Sydney in the 1980s inspired Ashley Kalagian Blunt to write My Name is Revenge (a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award). Full review at Newtown Review of Books