For the past two weeks, seventeen-year-old Kate Bennet has lived against her will in an isolated cabin in a remote beach town--brought there by a mysterious man named Bill. Part captor, part benefactor, Bill calls her Evie and tells her he's hiding her to protect her. That she did something terrible one night back home in Melbourne--something so unspeakable that he had no choice but to take her away. The trouble is, Kate can't remember the night in question.
Marketed under the banner "incredible new literary thriller", CALL ME EVIE is the debut novel of New Zealand born, Melbourne based writer J.P. Pomare.
Opening in a manner guaranteed to make readers feel maximum discomfort, a young woman is in a bathroom, hacking at her long hair with a pair of small scissors when she's interrupted by an angry man, shouting and finishing the job roughly with a pair of hair clippers. She screams, he hits, neither of them clearly identified, the relationship and the power dynamic not explained. Gradually snippets of detail emerge, the pair are hiding out in a small town in New Zealand, avoiding something in the past, some never fully articulated threat, just "they" might find "them".
Putting aside the never-ending discussions of why "literary" and what it's telegraphing about the position of crime fiction in the literary world (let's just leave sales figures and reader engagement to speak for themselves), there is much about CALL ME EVIE that's classic psychological thriller, and much that's slightly different and cleverly constructed. Construction is possibly the key point here, the book is divided into parts, with the chapters within the parts headed "before <" and "> after". Told in the voice of central character "Kate / Evie" the action moves between these timelines. "before <" is all about her life as a teenager in Melbourne, daughter of a former sports star father, and a mother who died when she was a very young child. In this viewpoint she's a stereotypical teenager, struggling with one of those all too common bitchy all-encompassing friendships that are toxic and unbreakable when you're that age, as well as her growing attraction to "the" boy in their social circle. It's littered with the sorts of issues you'd expect of teenagers nowadays - access to phones, complicated engagements with parents, fraught social pressures, emerging independence and conflicts around love and developing sexual identity. The "> after" viewpoint is all set within the escape hole of New Zealand, and Kate/Evie's voice is more hesitant, more damaged, scared, vulnerable and obviously haunted by something that's happened in the recent past. Her relationship with the controlling and sometimes quite compassionate man isn't explained, her status of victim / captive / co-conspirator hard to define.
And from there we really must leave discussions of plot elements as the power of CALL ME EVIE is in how the reader isn't supposed to be sure what, exactly, is going on with Kate / Evie. There are definitely points in the narrative that you would be well within their rights to make some educated guesses, but you may also find yourself swept into the storyline so comprehensively that there's more page-turning happening than thoughtful contemplation. For this reader there was also the odd point at which the narrative dragged a bit, and a feeling of being overtly manipulated snuck into play.
CALL ME EVIE is however a powerful psychological thriller, exploring the complications of memory (as hinted at in the opening quotations). But it's memory in all it's false, guilty, happy, searching, fragmented, convenient and confrontational guises.
River of Salt, Dave Warner
1961, Philadelphia. After having to give up his brother to save his own life, hitman Blake Saunders flees the Mob and seeks refuge on the other side of the world. Two years later he has been reborn in a tiny coastal Australian town. The ghosts of the past still haunt him, but otherwise Coral Shoals is paradise. Blake surfs, and plays guitar in his own bar, the Surf Shack.
"Mile after mile of bush. Gum trees standing straight and silent along the side of the road like ghosts sitting in judgement on the living: on him. It was amazing you could drive so far and see so few people. With each passing minute, the sun sunk lower, as if embarrassed by the outcome of the day. Light that had been pale, almost white when he set out, turned the colour of urine. My life is like this, Blake thought. I keep driving on in my car, removed. I don't get out and touch what's around me. Little by little, things get darker and you don't really know where you are any more, you just follow white posts and try not to crash."
Blake Saunders has had a lot of unusual white posts to follow in his life, from life in Philadelphia as a hitman for the Mafia, to bar owner and guitar player in a NSW coastal town. Both lives have involved a lot of forethought and planning and a cautiousness that's inbred, instinctual and habitual. He's also able to accept that which cannot be changed - regular payments to the local cop to ensure the lack of business competition, or the need for personal intervention when that cop refuses to extend their arrangement to more active protection. He's loyal to his friends and employees though, so it's not just a killer he's after, he's also keen to track down the standover men who took their bid for protection money way too far.
RIVER OF SALT is an interesting undertaking from Dave Warner. The idea came to him at an Atlantics' gig, so the musical components of this novel are strong, the love that Saunders has for the surf-styled guitar band he plays with obvious. The rest of the novel though is different from more recent outings by Warner, it's more slowly paced, Saunders is restrained (I think that's the best word to describe him), and there are side-threads involving other characters that create a sort of Hydra of a story with the central neck obscured by heads until they are all accounted for.
The slower pace, and the controlled, cautious Saunders may take a little adjusting to for anybody who has only read the recent books. There are some echoes of Andrew (Lizard) Zirk in Saunders though (see Warner's earlier works MURDER IN THE FRAME / MURDER IN THE GROOVE / MURDER IN THE OFF-SEASON), and there's hints of the sort of controlled mayhem that showed up in EXXXPRESSO). Mostly there's a feel of a potential new series character, and a slight change in direction from the more police procedural / Western Australia based works of recent years.
The strength of RIVER OF SALT is definitely in the idea of a stranger in a strange land, back in the days when communications weren't instant, and people could reinvent themselves to some extent. It's exploring just how far you can go with that idea, and how much of the old you will never go away.
The Coves, David Whish-Wilson
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
All The Tears in China, Sulari Gentill
Shanghai in 1935 is a 20th century Babylon, an expatriate playground where fortunes are made and lost, where East and West collide, and the stakes include life itself.
Into this cultural melting pot, Rowland Sinclair arrives from Sydney to represent his brother at international wool negotiations. The black sheep of the family, Rowland is under strict instructions to commit to nothing - but a brutal murder makes that impossible.
By the time a series reaches book number nine, there are many elements that a reader can expect, and ALL THE TEARS IN CHINA delivers on them with aplomb. Rowly and his band of colleagues are as close as they always were; Milton is still quoting other people's poetry with Rowly providing the attributions; Clyde is still the sensible one; Edna is obsessed with something (this time it's her newly discovered interest in film); Rowly is still quietly in love with Edna (and he will be beaten up by various lurking types with metronome like regularity); and this little band of artistic types will offend powers that be and get themselves into considerable hot water. Local water being so hot this time, that brother Wilfred, still behaving like part stuffed shirt / part worried brother, sends them off to China, ostensibly so Rowly can act as his representative in international wool sale negotiations, removing him from Sydney and the fall out from the goings on in the previous book.
The story lines in this series are increasingly intertwined, with the fictional action set firmly in the real history of Australia, the rise of Communism, Fascism and the lead up to World War II. Because of these interconnections, ALL THE TEARS IN CHINA will give you a feel for the style (which is delightful), for the plotting (which is always cleverly constructed) and for the characters (who are vivid and real), but you may find you're intrigued by the missing connections and back story which means you're in the lucky position of having eight earlier novels to seek out.
The China that Gentill describes in this outing is fascinating and different from the China of current day - this is before Communist control, when tensions with Japan were ever present, there are a lot of White Russian refugees living there, and there's a distinct feeling of colonialist attitudes in some quarters. The trade negotiations that Rowly is there for (with definite instructions from Wilfred not to agree to anything) are the cause of considerable tension with concerns of trading with the Japanese becoming increasingly prevalent. Nothing compared to the problems they encounter when a young White Russian woman is found dead in Rowly's suite, the day after a night of dancing in the hotel, and an arrangement made to meet in the hotel for tea. Needless to say, Rowland is a convenient prime suspect and the gang of friends are strangers in a strange land, trying to save their friend from prison with the help of their newly acquired Chinese servant, an Indian taxi driver and Wilfred's old friend and local solicitor.
The thing with the Rowland Sinclair series is that the required elements ease the manner in which the real history is incorporated into the story. Whilst the friends are gathering in local assistance, searching for the dead woman's brother, and trying to clear Rowly's name you learn snippets about the White Russian's back story, the way that the ex-pat community operated, and the role of trade, commerce, sanctions and political machinations in the mid 1930's. As you'd expect from that time period, the constant rise in profile and bravado of the German Fascists is a gently delivered lesson of history in real danger of repeating itself.
The Rowland Sinclair series is an interesting one. It's gentle and funny in places. It's characters are vivid, it's sense of place and time light and breezy, yet peppered with reminders of where the world was heading. It's predictable enough to feel like a gathering of old friends, and pointed enough to make you wonder whether that sense of history repeating itself isn't a bit more profound than we've realised.
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 Promised Land, Barry Maitland
Brock and Kolla return in an enthralling new mystery from a master of the genre.
Newly promoted Detective Chief Inspector Kathy Kolla investigates a series of brutal murders on Hampstead Heath. Under intense pressure to find answers, she arrests the unlikely figure of John Pettigrew, a failing London publisher who lives alone on the edge of the Heath.
Pettigrew's lawyer calls on recently retired David Brock for advice, and soon, unable to resist the pull of investigation, the old colleagues, Brock and Kolla, are at loggerheads.
THE PROMISED LAND is the 13th Brock and Kolla police procedural from Barry Maitland. The first novel in the series, THE MARX SISTERS, was originally released in 1994, and here we are at the 13th outing, and Maitland is still writing as assured, elegant and entertaining a police procedural series as you'd want. Always with that little quirk that his designer / architect mind obviously identifies with most strongly - choice of location.
This time the location is Hampstead Heath, the case is the investigation of three brutal murders of women, and the quick identification of a suspect who happens to be a publisher who has been handed a possible literary marvel - an unknown novel by one of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century. The added layers are that Kolla is now a DCI heading up this murder investigation squad and Brock is recently retired, struggling to find his way without the job. Which means that when the publisher is charged with all three murders, his lawyer calls on Brock for advice. Nothing too contentious, just listen to the accused's story and provide some advice to his lawyer. Leading to Brock ignoring the warnings from partner Suzanne, the bells ringing in his own mind, overstepping the mark, launching some investigations of his own, upsetting Kolla's case, getting himself a serious belting in the process.
It's always interesting to see how an author progresses the personal lives of his main characters (in this case promotion / retirement based on age alone has to happen at some stage surely), whilst simultaneously keeping everybody in play in subsequent books. Rather than head down the trusted mentor or advisor path straight up with THE PROMISED LAND, Maitland's opted to throw a bit of tension between old colleagues into the pot, add some personal jeopardy for Brock, create and solve some personal problems for them both, and generally mix things up quite nicely. All while keeping the elements of an interesting case approach in the air. Suspect Charles Pettigrew is identified very early on in the piece, as is the fact that he's as unlikely a brutal serial killer as you could get. Add in the mysterious manuscript and connections between the author and Pettigrew's family publishing firm, the connection between the manuscript and one of the victim's, and then include the publishing world's reaction to the rumours. Include a true crime writer digging around in the background, introduce Kolla to the joys of upper management, Brock to the intricacies of family life, add a romantic frisson for Kolla, get the balance of everything spot on, and you've got exactly what you'd expect from as gifted a storyteller as Maitland.
It's been a while since the last Brock & Kolla outing (THE RAVEN'S EYE in 2013 by the looks of it) and this reader has missed them. They are one of the great, solid, reliable, enduring duo's of crime fiction and it's good to see THE PROMISED LAND indicating there is some fuel left in their combined tanks.
Crime Scene Asia : when forensic evidence becomes the silent witness, Liz Porter
Crime Scene Asia : when forensic evidence becomes the silent witness contains 16 cases from Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Hong Kong, and one from Sydney, in which a Singaporean spent eight years in jail for a murder before being acquitted and freed because of forensic evidence - and some terrific work by Sydney barrister David Dalton SC.
The book’s cases include:
There's a quote on the back of this book from Stephen Cordner, Professor of Forensic Pathology, Monash Universay Australia:
"The forensic science and medical evidence in Crime Scene Asia is fascinating in itself, as are the accounts of the police investigations. But what sets it apart is seeing how that evidence is used in court by the prosecution and then challenged, or alternative forensic evidence is introduced by the defence. The reader hears from the experts, but also experiences the lawyers facing each other on a tightrope trading blows... Compelling reading."
From the Bali bombing's, a deadly fire, to a number of murders in Singapore, Malaysia and other locations throughout Asia (and in Australia where the victims and perpetrators where Asian nationals), Liz Porter has assembled a series of analysis pieces about individual cases where forensic investigations played a major part in the resolution, court cases, and ultimate results of a series of violent murders, attacks and crimes. The central premise of the book "when forensic evidence becomes the silent witness" is the entire point, although whether or not readers will consider that relevant in all cases will be up to them. It felt to this reader that there was a hell of a lot of hard slog police work involved in a lot of the cases as well which went somewhat under-commented on, with the Forensic aspects held up almost as the more "sexy" part of investigative efforts.
Because this is a series of individual analysis of cases within similar locations there is also a bit of repetition here with the background of various individuals and forensic methods reiterated in close proximity - probably made more obvious when reading the book from start to finish in one go.
The comment made by Cordner about the forensic battles between prosecutors and defence is spot on however. There was some interesting aspects of interpretation and experts facing off against each other that was quite compelling, and the way the legal system is responding to the increasing use of forensics, analysis, laboratory reports, theories and evidence interpretation is an evolving world all of its own.
Invisible Women, Kylie Fox and Ruth Wykes
When news of a murdered woman hits the headlines in Australia, people sit up and take notice. Unless that woman happens to be a sex worker.
Invisible Women tells the stories of several murdered sex workers – all of whom are somebody’s mother, daughter, wife or sister – whose identities have been erased. Why do we see some lives as less valuable than others, and what price do we all pay for this shocking lack of care? These amazing stories of incredible women are both deeply moving and shocking in their insight and clarity. And definitely way overdue.
Stacked up in every corner of this house are piles of books that I should have read by now, with INVISIBLE WOMEN being one of them. As the sub-heading puts it: "Powerful and Disturbing Stories of Murdered Sex Workers". The tardiness was regretted even more once I finished the book.
A lot of the power behind these stories is down to the sheer numbers. The index lists 65 women's names - murdered or gone missing since 1970 (the book was published in 2016). To put that into perspective, 46 years, 65 women listed. God knows how many more died during that period, how many more since, and how many more will continue to die until we do something about the scourge of violence in our society.
In a lot of cases quite a bit is known about the circumstances in which the women died, there are examples cited where perpetrators have been brought to justice. There are a frightening number that remain unsolved, despite knowing quite a bit of detail about what happened to the victim's, and then there are those that are particularly chilling as little is known and little seems to have been done to resolve. The way that Fox and Wykes, mostly, recount these stories in a matter-of-fact, no frills manner telegraphs respect for these women. Nothing sensationalised, nothing undignified, with an underlying sense of loss.
INVISIBLE WOMEN provides insight on different levels. It's clearly outlining the injustice and unfairness of a society that views some victims as less important, less worthy of efforts to solve the crimes committed against them. It provides remembrance for those victims and has ensured that their names, and their fates aren't forgotten, and are listed in a publicly accessible manner. Hopefully there's also something in some of these stories that has triggered a memory or tweaked a conscience.
Flight Risk, Michael McGuire
Disgraced former pilot Ted Roberts works for a top-secret government organisation set up to investigate terror-related incidents. Sent to Jakarta to find out as much as he can about the pilot of a vanished Garuda flight, he discovers a flight simulator in the pilot's apartment.
When the investigation turns sour, Ted escapes to New York as further disaster strikes.
Another plane disappears from the sky. Then another. Three planes and hundreds of passengers and crew, vanished, without a trace. Panic is widespread and the world is teetering on the brink.
Post 9-11 it's hard to think that there hasn't been speculation about the next shock and awe campaign. I bet nobody thought there'd be an Australian, rough and tumble ex-commercial pilot, come spy at the centre of it all. The theory that Michael McGuire proposes in his thriller FLIGHT RISK is, however, just believable enough to make you feel decidedly twitchy about the possible reality. Right from page one FLIGHT RISK is out of the starter's gate at a hefty clip, moving quickly through the back story of Ted Anderson: disgraced former pilot, widower and estranged father, former a lot of things really; currently an agent of a top-secret Australian government agency, tasked with investigating terror-related incidents, straight into the thick of things when passenger planes start going missing mid flight.
There's heaps of action in FLIGHT RISK, which is odd as there's also a fair bit of time spent sitting in aircraft. Granted one of the planes spends some of that time being forced out of the air by the Indonesian airforce, and to be fair, it's a chance sighting and a gut reaction that sees Anderson switch from an ignominious return flight to Sydney to a high risk flight to Ukraine, only to find himself landing his passenger flight somewhere in Western Africa, right into the middle of preparations for an attack that will make the world really sit up and take notice.
What definitely helps make all this high-risk, high-octane action work is the central character of Ted Anderson. A cynical maverick with a dust-dry sense of humour and deeply entrenched guilt over his personal life screw-ups, he's impulsive, instinctual, tough and wonderfully engaging. All the way through - from the moments of regret over his estrangement from his daughter and his drinking that meant his wife was out looking for him on the night she was killed; and his occasional bafflement that his boss selected him to work in counter-terrorism despite his myriad screw ups in the past - he's an all out action hero in a (much-loved) leather jacket who is vulnerable and prone to a massive headache if belted around the ears often enough. In short, Australian, real, believable. Whilst the plot itself is over the top thriller stuff, and there's a cliff hanger ending that will either intrigue (as it did for this reader) or make others chew the book covers off, there was much to really like in FLIGHT RISK.
Of course you're going to have suspended your disbelief a while before a lone spy happens to observe a cleaner in an airport behaving oddly. You're going to be working on the principle that somewhere up in the sky there are flying command centres with more computer hardware than your average data centre (not so hard to believe really), and that a couple of agents can basically launch into a joint investigation without so much as a "hang on I might have to get clearance on all of this". But then you'll also be called upon to to believe that wiggle room happens if you're the only person in a cabin that manages to grab an oxygen mask, the spy on the spot that happens to be able to fly a plane, and when you're duct taped to a seat, but so what...
FLIGHT RISK is pure adrenaline pumping thriller territory and you're going to be turning pages, sometimes laughing, sometimes cringing, questioning whether you really do need to fly anywhere ever again, and frequently wondering just how much of this could be a real plot.
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.