The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey – 2022

Set on a remote Central Otago sheep station, The Axeman’s Carnival is a dark tale of violence and cruelty. The story unfolds in a menacing way – with the reader knowing bad things are coming and wishing they could get the potential victims out of danger. You know the version of the story you are reading is the true one – there is a totally reliable narrator, a magpie called Tama.

Tama, short for Tamagotchi, falls out of his nest as a young fledgling. Marnie picks him up and takes him home, much to the annoyance of her husband Rob. Marnie makes a home for Tama, who proves to have a facility for languages. And the stage is set. Set for a story not just about the casual cruelty of routine farming practices, pest control, and keeping wild animals as pets – but the appalling blokeish expectations of the rural male. “The power of these men! You wouldn’t want to get on their bad side, that’s for sure.”

Rob, a champion axeman, is anxious about the upcoming annual competition, and is struggling with the sheep station during drought and at a time of plummeting demand. Their house is disintegrating, and their marriage endangered by Rob’s irrational jealousy – and not just of Tama, of any guy around – his love is one of ownership. “All our debt – sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe”, Rob blames his situation on anyone but himself, and he’s not one to take advice. Advice is readily available from Marnie’s sister Ange and her husband Nick, who run a successful cherry operation on the next property.

Ange and Nick also see the marketing potential in Tama – which finally gets Rob’s attention. Tama is doubtful when told, but an online marketing expert flies down from Auckland, and Whammo! “Everywhere. All over the world. I’m a meme, I’m a gif. I’m trending. I’m an influencer” – enter the nasty violence that grows in online communities, and those whose animals-rights ideologies drive them to action – often creating the very hurt they intend to liberate animals from.

The plotting of The Axeman’s Carnival leads to a startling climax, prefigured in the text: “So, I suppose that everything that happened afterwards was my fault”; “Perhaps I should have questioned it. I don’t suppose it matters now.” Like Tama, who dreams of living alone with Marnie, the reader wants the best for her. She is struggling with having had a miscarriage, and is fiercely loyal to Rob, which is sinister behaviour that no one around Marnie sees through. You find out what has happened to Marnie, and you get glimpses of her in happier times, when she chats with Ange or they practice their musical piece for the carnival.

Tama is surrounded by voices, those around him, those on the television, those of dead relatives, and those still alive. He is torn between his love for Marnie and the comforts of her home, and his own family and being free to be a magpie. His comments are constant, random, inappropriate, usually apposite, and very funny. His knowledge of the world outside of the farm is gleaned from the lurid cop shows Rob likes, and when flying over the local town he is puzzled not to see “traffic backed up all the way to Sunset”.

The Axeman’s Carnival is disturbing, but despite it’s dark and serious themes, it is funny and engaging. You really care about what is happening, or rather what is going to happen, which makes it a gripping read. Quite genius really.

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The Doctor’s Wife by Fiona Sussman – 2022

Tibbie, Carmen, and Austin have been friends for years. Tibbie and Austin partnered up, and when Carmen married Stan, he eventually blended into the group. Then Carmen and Stan had twin boys, who Austin and Tibbie dote on. The four are a unit, having the odd tiff, but solid. Then malignant cells, a forgotten cell phone, and an obsessive young man in the neighbourhood, smash open the façade of civility – exposing what churns beneath.

A body is found in the water at Browns Bay, Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland – is it there through accident, suicide, or murder? The more we find out about the people in the wide circle around the victim, more and more motives and suspects are revealed. Tibbie and Austin are well-off, she comes from a wealthy family and works voluntarily for various charities, he is a popular general practitioner. Carmen, Stan, and the boys just get by, he is a tutor at an arts centre, she a freelance writer.

I was glad I knew absolutely nothing about the story as I read, not having even read the blurb on the back cover. I guessed the first two mysteries – whose was the body that was discovered? What was behind some emerging aberrant behaviour of one of the characters? But they were like the edges of a jigsaw puzzle, and I became gripped with wanting to understand the picture that was emerging. And that picture was full of complex and damaged characters.

The curiosity is raised that awful events in childhood can result in life-long damage, hidden fears, and insecurities – or they can lead to a determination to steer a steady path. The two detectives on the case, Bandara and Stark, both have tragedies in their histories. And now they both feel excluded from their peers – but one has become empathetic, while the other behaves in a way that attracts the slur “ice queen”.

The Doctor’s Wife deals with the trauma of losing a loved one, either through death or through illness-induced alterations to their character, and the stress of caring for the chronically ill. Eliot, a lifelong patient of Austin’s, and the only son of solo mum Andrea, has diabetes, is a whiz with numbers, is conscientious to a fault, and has the unguarded manner of a child. There are those who think if Eliot were to die it would be a release for his mother, a point of view his mother would in no way understand.

And when suspects line up, and one of them is going to die soon anyway, there are others who can’t help but think if the terminal patient took the fall, wouldn’t that get everyone else off the hook, and not make much difference to them? Things spin further and further out of control for the affected families, and they start seriously falling apart. And then there are the children: having to deal with their family disintegrating, and the cruel business of navigating school when rumours are rife.

The Doctor’s Wife is well plotted, leading to a cathartic reveal, which once again shows the complexity of human nature – with the perpetrator appalled at the enormity of what they have done. The mystery is solved, some characters are going to be able to continue, others not. The natural tragedies and the crimes have passed and taken their toll. The reader is left with a lovely bit of hope, and the knowledge that Fiona Sussman is a great #YeahNoir author, and a great observer of human nature.

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The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave – 2022

A small mistake leads to two people lying dead and their eleven-year-old son in a coma. The investigation eventually dwindles with the only suspect having a strong alibi, one provided by the cops who were arresting him the other end of town at the time. Years pass, the boy’s sister visits the boy regularly, desperately hopeful, his doctor considers “Most people who get shot in the head don’t live to tell the tale, and those that do don’t get to tell it well”. Then in the ninth year, the boy wakes up, and for those nine years he has been far from unconscious …

Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent is at a crime scene identical to those of a notorious Christchurch serial killer, who is still on the loose – is this his work, or that of a copycat? Kent is leaning towards the latter when she is told to follow up on a coma patient who has woken up after nine years; he might have crucial information about the violent crime that left him comatose. Kent knows the case and one of the detectives who worked it, Theodore Tate. She decides to visit Tate to see what information was left out of the official reports.

Theodore Tate is no longer on the force; he is working as liaison between the police and a TV company who do crime re-enactments. The hope is that viewers might have information that will help investigations. He remembers the young boy James and his sister Hazel, and the suspect he and his partner Carl Schroder were not able to pursue. He is keen to help, but neither Kent nor her boss want him actively involved, which in no way stops Tate getting actively involved. James’ doctor Wolfgang McCoy then tells them how unique James is.

James Garrett was an imaginative young boy with an eidetic memory and a desire to be a writer. He wakes from his coma in a twenty-year-old body, but his memories of the world are as an eleven-year-old boy. However, he also has memories of growing up alongside his parents and his sister in Coma World, a world he created for himself, and to which he returns when things get too hard. McCoy quickly realises that in James’ Coma World memories are details and dates that coincide with the real world, including information about a possible murder. And when Kent and Tate investigate, they discover there may be another serial killer at large.

The Pain Tourist is a roller coaster ride through the crime-ridden Christchurch readers have come to look forward to in Cleave’s Christchurch novels. Any walk in the woods may be over shallow graves, any walk through a house might be over horrors under the floorboards. The roads are potholed, many areas being redeveloped, some buildings “have new licks of paint, some have more exhaust fumes soaked into the brick, most have lichen and bird crap caked onto the windowsills”. It’s often raining, it’s always bleak. It is populated with characters from Cleave’s previous books, with still others mentioned in passing, making readers familiar with his works feel uneasily right at home.

All the main characters have persisting trauma, yet they battle on to do the right thing, which when on the knife edge of events could fall either side of the law.  Tate: “it bothers him that she thinks this is what the right thing is. And yet here they are”. The reader gets to see the inner world that James retreats to, the shock of the real world being always ‘nine years later’, the out-of-phase experience of his first going back to the family house. His sister Hazel is a great creation; she feels guilt about being the survivor of that horrific night, she is bright, kind, and staunch. And she has a keen moral sense, discussing McCoy’s plans to write a book about James and his Coma World in terms of the possible effects on James, and those in grief who might seek him out, not just of the loads of money they will probably make.

And then there are the villains: there are those wanting to make sure James doesn’t get to tell the cops what he might remember, there are the megalomaniacs, the cruel, the psychopaths. And the ones who just turn up to crime scenes with binoculars and coffee to see the show, or who tune into TV re-enactments or podcasts to relive the thrill of danger from a safe place – the pain tourists. And then there are those tourists who take trophies, those who graffiti their support for monsters who have gotten away with their crimes. Those who are jealous of the notorious, and who may decide to act, to claim their own time in the spotlight.

The plotting of The Pain Tourist is remarkable, the reader’s heart thumps every time there is a knock at a door, every time a phone isn’t answered because it is on mute, or the owner decides not to answer. The three parallel stories are brilliantly woven together, with everyone falling under suspicion and sleight-of- hand writing leading the reader down blind allies. And there is terrible sadness too: the weight of having lost a loved one, the guilt of having survived, the inability to help someone you love who can’t handle events and who retreats into themselves. Even the bad guys have their burdens: “it’s been a long night, and one he hasn’t been able to speed up due to having to wait for people to wake up after being drugged.”

Although the novel is full of characters from and references to previous works, it can be read as a standalone. If you want to read an exceptional piece of #YeahNoir, read The Pain Tourist!

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Better the Blood by Michael Bennett – 2022

Detective Senior Sergeant Hana Westerman is an artist, a mother, a gardener, and “the finest police officer”. She is dedicated and focussed and used to pressure. But when she is singled out by the perpetrator of what turns into a series of murders, the pressure is like nothing she, or her Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland police colleagues, have faced before.

Hana knows she is receiving information from the murderer for a reason, but what reason? The information guides her and her young partner, Stan, to two crime scenes. Hana and her team discover the murders are connected to an atrocity that occurred in the 1860s, and that there are more potential victims. She also realises the link between her and the crimes date from a terrible incident she was part of 18 years ago, an incident that led to her cutting ties with her marae and extended whānau.

Hana is deeply affected by the murder investigation; it makes her consider her life and the choices she has made. And developments start to put distance between her and Addison, her 17-year-old activist daughter. Addison has moved back in with her mother; she had been living with Jaye, Hana’s husband and also her boss. Hana is thrilled to have Addison back with her, but the timing couldn’t have been worse, with the investigation taking all of Hana’s time and attention.

What complicates matters is that both Hana and Addison feel sympathy for the murderer, not with his actions but with his cause. He believes he is restoring balance in a country that “had so much to pride itself on, but it also had so much that was and remained just plain wrong, historically and ongoing”. The novel succinctly lays out many of the injustices against Māori: the blatant appropriation of their land. The use of young Māori men as ‘cannon fodder’ in World War II. The similar use of young Māori police recruits more recently, putting them on the front line of breaking up Māori land protests. The Waitangi Tribunal settlements where tribes get 2% of what they deserve. The disproportionate number of Māori men in prison as opposed to the privileged treatment of Pākehā males in court.

Better the Blood asks: “On which side lies evil?” and has all the elements of great mystery thriller writing: It has a strong social justice theme. It has a great sense of place, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland with “its own unique flavour”, and the bush, “he scooped a handful of rainwater from a bowl formed by the thick roots of the rimu and sprinkled it into the opening of the sack, a blessing”. And it has great characters, especially Hana. She is conflicted and stressed. When she feels danger getting closer and closer to those she loves, she finds it harder and harder to maintain clarity. And then she discovers an inner strength that has nothing to do with weapons or stamina.

Better the Blood avoids the simple; multiple voices are presented, there is not one Māori or one Pākehā point of view. Hana’s knowledge of Māori tikanga helps her progress the investigation, and her being in a position to recognise a translation error from Te Reo to English helps her find the suspect. But she is also a cop, and the police in the current investigation are for the most part presented sympathetically, after all “Nobody welcomes a day when you go to work knowing your job might be to end a life”.

Better the Blood is a great piece of #YeahNoir. It is a debut novel, and the promotional material suggests we will be reading more of Hana Westerman, excellent!

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Winter Time by Laurence Fearnley – 2022

Laurence Fearnley transports us to places with her writing, whether it be the rocky coast (Reach 2014), wetlands (The Quiet Spectacular 2016), or, in the case of Winter Time, the Mackenzie Basin, in the centre of the South Island. Her characters are always intriguing, and in Winter Time Roland March is wonderfully drawn. He is back in his hometown of Matariki to carry out the awful business of managing the aftermath of a death – sorting out belongings, deciding on funerals or memorials, deciding what to do with the family home. Eddie, his brother, veered off the road into a canal, and Roland is in shock, “God, he missed Eddie.”

Eddie isn’t the first of the family to go. First their father left, then their mother died after a long illness. Roland stayed with his sister and younger brothers till they were old enough for him to go to Christchurch for a brief stint at university. Then his sister Casey died, then the youngest brother Isaac disappeared, presumed drowned. Roland eventually moved to Sydney, and opened Kernel, a wholefoods shop, with his partner Leon. Eddie stayed in Matariki and witnessed the spread of housing around their once secluded property, the new houses vacant for a large part of the year. He was bitter that his town had become a mecca for tourists: “His home was nothing but a series of photo opportunities.”

In Matariki, Roland rides Eddie’s bike, reconnecting with the town and its surrounds: The freezing winds, the treacherous snow falls, the breath-taking views, and the stunning night skies. “If you stood outside at night, the stars appeared to move, and cross the sky, never still, always shifting, one following the other in a constant migration.” Roland thinks of his family who had disappeared one by one just like the stars. And he regrets the time he didn’t spend with Eddie, the small kindnesses he failed to do for him. And he starts to wonder if his death was indeed an accident. And then Roland becomes the target of online abuse.

There is a sense of menace to Winter Time, the reader becomes uneasy along with Roland. He finds footprints, not his, in the snow around the house. He finds out that Eddie’s culling work for the Department of Conservation included the culling of tahr, and that some hunters thought taking tahr was taking what was rightly theirs. Was that motive enough for murder? Along with the tourists came the demand for property, the family home was now worth a fortune, was that a motive for murder? Even the local cop starts seeming a bit off. Roland even wonders, along with the reader, if the disappeared Isaac will re-appear, isn’t that a usual plot twist? “… it would have been wonderful to see him alive, and standing at the door – even if he did have a gun in his hands”.

Roland befriends an acquaintance of Eddie’s, Bay, whom none of Eddie’s friends have heard of, and whose business is renovating old houses. He also meets Mrs Linden down the road, a bossy woman who knew his parents, who hated his mother, and for whom Eddie would do chores. When Roland returns to Sydney, Leon is not very sympathetic to his helplessness regarding the online trolling. Their relationship is becoming quite strained. Roland wants Kernel to be a solid healthy wholefoods shop, Leon wants to expand and take advantage of the growing market for health supplements and remedies such as, in Roland’s terms, “the latest 5G immunity face serum”. Roland can’t seem to express the clarity he feels concerning what he thinks is right, and he is shocked to hear versions of what others think of him.

Roland travels back to Matariki when the family house has been broken into, and again when the online attacks escalate. He is both at home and a stranger in Matariki, he never did fit in as a child or growing up. He recalls his childhood when the horrors of the cold were shared with Eddie, and sort of fun. He recalls with amazement an incident where the three boys scuttled their father’s boat rather than face his anger. He finds traces of Eddie’s life he was completely unaware of. Roland feels unmoored, he bikes through a formless fog hardly knowing where he is going. He stands in the useless shower trying to thaw out, the cold shower curtain stuck to his back. Roland doesn’t recognise when he is in the presence of nasty bitterness, or when he is being genuinely helped.

The reader, and Roland, do find out what is happening eventually, but that isn’t really the heart of the book. At one point I thought it would end without any resolution, and I would have been fine with that, there are enough clues that the reader could choose from several scenarios. However, the resolution does allow Roland a bizarre act born of relief. What made Winter Time so compelling for me was the atmosphere, the landscape, the uncertainty, and Roland’s adriftness. Highly recommended.

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Back Home in Derry by David McGill – 2022

Dan Delaney’s first adventure was as a young cop placed on assignment on Somes Island in 1935 (The death ray debacle, 2015). Since then, we have read of him in incidents every decade. In Back home in Derry, it is the mid-1990s, Dan is nearing 80, and he is reluctantly travelling around Ireland with Jas, his wife. Dan would rather be at home in New Zealand, safe with his family around him. The story starts in small rural villages in Ireland, and unfolds in Dublin, Belfast, and the walled Londonderry.

Dan’s world is closing in; he struggles to see through his graduated lenses, he hears through the squeal of his hearing aids, or the roar of his tinnitus, and he finds most of what is going on around him a puzzle. Dan and Jas’ spend some quiet days when there is an incident with their car, and they hire a “gypsy caravan” (from a village where Roma are not “permitted within village boundaries”). Jas takes photos of the countryside flowers as they amble along, Dan wishes he was at home, thinking “he had nothing in common with the place his ancestors fled”. Dan is increasingly living in his past, having nightmares, and worrying. One evening in a village pub they listen to a local band singing songs of rebellion. Dan finds himself inexplicably in tears when they sing the Bobby Sands poem, Back home in Derry.

After these “idyllically uneventful days”, Dan and Jas are dramatically embroiled in violence in Dublin. As their daughter, Ali, might have been the target, Dan and Jas are keen to work out who is behind the attack. A delicate job during the shaky ceasefire recently agreed between sectarian factions. Ali is a forensic linguistics expert and was meeting them in Dublin to help Jas research the genealogy of Dan’s Irish forebears. In the violent attack, her life is saved by a man called Jack McBride, who Dan is alarmed to discover is related to an old nemesis from Somes Island. Jas and Dan reconnect with the tear-inducing singer from the village pub, and things start to get very complicated. What is clear is that whether grudges are held for decades or for hundreds of years, they can still be the cause of violence and mayhem. And in Ireland those grudges are often held across religious divides.

Jas is a devout Catholic, and Dan becomes more and more irritated at her subservience to a Western-movie-loving priest they encounter, and strangely also to Jack’s wealthy English uncle. However, being ex-law enforcement, Jas and Dan are both suspicious of the local police, specifically the helpful Detective Inspector Gerry Murphy – who ends up being able to continue his investigation over the border in Northern Island due to agency cooperation during the ceasefire. Incidents pile on and adding to the tension is the nearing of the marching season in Derry. Dan and Jas run into an Ian Paisley rally on the way to the airport to pick up their other daughter, Maria. Jas manages to get some interesting photographs of people attending the rally – further complications.

Maria, a hyperactive human rights lawyer with the United Nations, arrives with Max, a journalist, in tow. Max has a prodigious appetite for alcohol when not working on a story, and an equally prodigious number of contacts, which enable him to source information on goings on and related police investigations. The plot proceeds with a possible kidnapping, a definite kidnapping, most of the characters getting trapped underground, and various explosions and threats of explosions. And despite all the chaos Jas and her daughters manage to fit in some sight-seeing and hitting the shops. Needless to say, Dan isn’t so sanguine, “he once again wished he had never come here”, and as old horrors come back to haunt him in the present, he realises how much of his past he has kept hidden from his wife and grown-up children.

The plotting of Back home in Derry is helped by a preface that sets up the motivation for two of the characters. The book has impetus, and although I did get a bit confused in places, McGill manages to keep the various strands of the story moving, and to finally resolve the mysteries. The book is full of allusions to 1990s popular culture, sometimes with too much exposition. But the various and varied characters work well, and mirror the political situation nicely, with some having to tiptoe around others for fear of causing offence. The uneasy relationship between Jas and Dan works too, as at its base they are a solid team.

Dan is, as always, a troublesome character. If you have read the Dan Delaney novels, you can’t help but think of the lovely young man who started the series. But this Dan has lived a long and difficult life. He has old attitudes, is slightly condescending towards Jas, and describes people in quite offensive ways. I found Back home in Derry a good final outing for Dan. He travels a long way in the novel, surprising himself as well as the reader with the possibility of future peace and reconciliation. And he finally claims a political position, although he will probably continue believing: “Bloody politics … another word for abdicating personal responsibility”. If you haven’t read the Dan Delaney books, give them a go.

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Poor People With Money by Dominic Hoey – 2022

Monday Wooldridge is talking to her little brother, Eddy, who disappeared and never returned 15 years ago. She tells him about her life since he left. Their father decided to depart, their mother sort of did too. Monday became a fighter: “Fighting was the only thing I was ever good at”. She fights for money, to hurt other people to vent her anger, to hurt herself to numb her guilt. It isn’t a pretty story. The reader constantly wonders if it would have been a different story had Eddy been a part of it.

Poor People With Money is in three sections. In the first section Monday manages a bar in Auckland, and she fights. She takes on a roommate, JJ. JJ “understood what the universe was made of, but used to act like leaving the house was climbing Everest”. He is a recluse, spending most of his time on his computer, researching the science of ghosts. Monday doesn’t co-exist with rich people; people like her and JJ live in a parallel dimension from “people with so much money it was like a disability”.

When Monday needs more money than she can raise at the bar and from fighting, she comes up with a scheme and drags a reluctant JJ in as an accomplice. Things go well, things don’t go so well. “Everyone believes things will be as they are forever. The good and the bad. As if time is a rock pool rather than a fucking tidal wave”. When events get beyond Monday fighting her way out, she and JJ take off.

The second section of Poor People With Money is set in the tiny village that was once home for JJ. A place “where time moved slow and nobody gave a fuck about anything except what they loved”. Monday and JJ move into a shack on the property of JJ’s dad Tahi, his partner Frances, JJ’s sister Hope and his half-sister Aroha. Hope wants to be the next Parris Goebel. Aroha has visions of the future. Monday keeps finding out she hasn’t yet witnessed the deepest level of poverty.

“We never talked about you, Eddy. Dad wasn’t that kind of man, Mum was never awake, and I kept myself busy with violence.” Monday can never really relax, it’s hard to know who to trust, she’d trust Eddy, but he’s long gone. You know people better once they’ve gone “So much easier to figure someone out when they’re standing still in your memories”. A small mistake increases the sense of impending doom: “Black clouds were rolling in. I lay on my back for a while watching them spread over the blue sky, like blood over lino”.

The third section of the novel has growing momentum as Monday’s story plays out. The telling is tense and cruel, but you can’t help but root for Monday. There is a clarity to the writing that doesn’t allow judgement, the characters are just what they are, because of who they are and their histories. The reader wonders how different they might have been in a different timeline, but is also acutely aware that their lives are the only one they’ve got: “Being smart without opportunity is fucking cruel”.

When an extreme storm hits the village, it destroys homes of those with money as well as of those without. The reader feels everyone is locked into their roles, and escape is managed by a very few. Poor People With Money is a stark and compelling read. It deals with social inequality and the blurry line between right and wrong, and touches on the effects of land disputes, pollution, and climate change on rural communities. But mostly it’s about Monday Wooldridge, and I could happily have carried on reading and reading, until things turned out right for her and she could relax for a bit. Highly recommended.

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Miracle by Jennifer Lane – 2022

Miracle Jamieson is negotiating being a teenager in small town Boorunga. She worries about her freckles, pines after her first love, Oli, and puts up with the school bullies. She obeys her cohort’s random rules: “For Year 9 girls, eating at school was even less cool than wearing a jumper”. She finds her dad embarrassing, and her mum hopeless. Things are pretty stink really, but Miracle has no idea how much worse things are going to get!

Miracle was born in the throes of a massive earthquake that caused her brother Julian chronic trauma. She is concerned about an upcoming school debate: the massive earthquake caused Boorunga’s curse V Boorunga was the site of the earthquake because it is cursed. If she caused the quake that caused the curse, she might be responsible for the alarming number of “weird deaths” occurring in Boorunga.  

She is worried about the debate and the deaths, but then Miracle’s father, Jim, is taken away under suspicion of having beaten a boy into a coma. The weight of another source of guilt is almost too much for Miracle to bear. When Jim lost his postie job it was sort of Miracle’s fault that he ended up working at Compassionate Cremations, where the beating occurred. The business had moved into town when Miller’s Funerals suddenly shut down, which raised questions about why, and the link between the crematorium and the rising death rate.

Miracle is a staunch young woman. She is determined to exonerate her father. Her family have become pariahs, and she longs to regain her friends. She fiercely protects her unstable mum and her strange, uncanny, beautiful brother. She thinks the only people on her side are her aunt’s family, but they just want to keep Miracle safe, and she won’t solve anything by being kept safe. She comes up with a series of suspects to clear her father, and she discovers alarming things about people she knows. She is full of ideas, but most go nowhere, and Miracle rapidly finds she “needed a plan D”. But her persistence won’t allow her to give up.

As with her first novel, All Our Secrets, in Miracle, Jennifer Lane gives us great mystery storytelling from the point of view of a young woman. Gracie was 11 in All Our Secrets, Miracle is 14. It is a great device for an unreliable narrator, unreliable not due to pathology or ill intent, just because of the personal intensity with which many young people view the world: Taking all the blame, dealing with raw emotions, freely expressing prejudices, lying with ease, feeling responsible for those around them: “She might see that I wasn’t as mental as the rest of my family”.

The characters in Miracle are vivid. At the denouement I had come to know Miracle so well that I was really concerned for her safety. Her family are complex and interesting, her friends are living through their own stresses, and Sergeant Nick is a quite unexpected take. Even the woman across the road gets a fleeting backstory. Miracle discovers there are some whose lives are “a whole new level of hell”. And along with Miracle, the reader comes to re-evaluate events in the novel. Some people are misunderstood, some worse than you might ever imagine, and many just ordinary, damaged, but kind people.

I really enjoyed reading Miracle. It is suitable for adult or young adult readers.   

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The Slow Roll by Simon Lendrum – 2022

Roy O’Malley is a professional Auckland gambler, with a weakness for a sob-story. When a distraught father asks him to find his missing 15-year-old daughter, Sefina, O’Malley agrees. The case gets a little more complicated than O’Malley first thought, and he and his girlfriend, Claire, are wondering what he has got himself into. Then they hear that the body of one of O’Malley’s acquaintances “has been found on the outskirts of the business district”. O’Malley’s professional life and his amateur sleuthing come together, and things get a lot more than a little complicated.

O’Malley has a tragic backstory and has spent time in Paremoremo Prison. This has provided him with empathy for those at the mercy of toxic masculinity. And it has also given him allies in strange places, as well as access to a slightly untrusting but still hanging-in-there cop, Senior Sergeant Keith Buxton. Buxton believes somewhere inside O’Malley is a decent human being trying to get out. O’Malley also has connections with an ex-Paremoremo prison mate, Jimmy Tua, head of one of the Auckland gangs. And now he has sort of settled down, he’s got Claire, a bartender midway through a psychology PhD.

Claire is a more than competent partner. She’s smart, tough and perceptive. The latter is an asset, as O’Malley is not a great judge of character, the reader is satisfyingly ahead of him regarding some of his bad calls. O’Malley is playing a part and Claire understands he is a bit of a liability. She puts up with him calling her “baby” and “babe”, despite sending any bar client who would dare to “the back of the line”. She calls him “babe” too, as she knows he has night terrors, and almost every time he goes out on a “project”, she ends up tending his wounds. But then he does do all the cooking.

O’Malley doesn’t listen to jazz, but he knows he should, as he reads crime novels and watches crime shows on TV. The Slow Roll has all the stock elements of literary and screen thrillers – two mysteries that end up related, an amateur sleuth who falls under the suspicion of the cops, allies with smarts in computing, insights into the criminal underworld, a cop frustrated that the amateur is getting the jump on the professionals. O’Malley’s self-effacing attitude towards Claire is reminiscent of the Andy Carpenter novels, but The Slow Roll is much more hard-edged. There are slick fight scenes and heart-stopping thrills. What I really liked was Tua’s tour-de-force explanation of the movements and laundering of illegal gains, inclusive of an extraordinary array of people.

As with all good thrillers, it is character and setting that carries the plot. Damaged O’Malley, staunch Claire, Tua and his henchmen, Chatbox and Manu, are all great characters. There are blurred lines around right and wrong – O’Malley doesn’t do all his gambling at Sky City. Goodies and baddies are relative terms. And there are conspiracies that go right up to the Beehive. We go from luxury suites at Sky City, to O’Malley’s swanky Viaduct Basin apartment, to illegal gambling houses and remote properties where nefarious meetings are taking place.

And there are mysteries to be solved: Sefina has stumbled into some sort of bad business – but what? The dead man saw something he shouldn’t have – but what? When O’Malley has an encounter with a car driving aggressively against him on the highway, he isn’t surprised – he has a choice of options of who might be out to get him. The slow roll of the title is a gambling term for a player taking too long to reveal an extremely strong hand in poker. The manoeuvre plays a role in the story, but O’Malley is also juggling when to tell the cops what he has found out – too soon and people, including himself, will be in danger – too late and he might be heading back to Paremoremo.

The Slow Roll is a great debut novel, and I am sure we will be reading more of O’Malley and Claire.

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Boy Fallen by Chris Gill – 2022

Brooke Palmer flies down from Auckland to visit her West Coast hometown, Taonga. Far from the ‘treasure’ suggested by the name, Taonga holds bitter memories for Brooke – it is where her 15-year-old brother, Jack, was murdered 19 years before. Brooke and her family are still traumatised by their loss, and Brooke still hates the man serving out his sentence for her brother’s murder. She has returned because Evan, the son of her best friend, has been found dead – it appears he is another young man murdered in Taonga.

Brooke is now a detective in Auckland, and although she is back for her friend Lana, she agrees to help Christchurch Detective Tane Collins find out what happened to Evan, and why. Boy Fallen is a police procedural, but from the point of view of an incredibly invested cop who finds it hard to put aside her personal feelings when investigating. Interspersed are episodes from Evan’s point of view – the first an intrusion in the text, but then a tense addition to the narrative, mirroring what the police are discovering about Evan’s life, and the incidents leading to his death.

To Brooke’s surprise there is no shortage of suspects for Evan’s murder; Evan had been surrounded by a variety of people who had reasons to want him gone. She knows Taonga is not immune to the divide between rich and poor evident elsewhere in Aotearoa; her brother had suffered the jealousy and resentment from the less well-off in town. And like Jack, Evan had been bullied at school. He had been planning on getting away, but when things looked like he might find happiness in Taonga, other forms of prejudice descended, even from those who should have been supporting him.

Boy Fallen is an incredibly atmospheric read. The cold and rain of the West Coast shroud the tragic community, the frequent drives to Christchurch lead to disturbing prison visits and unsatisfactory interviews, and then back to the grief and hostility of Taonga. Collins is dealing with his own family problems, and neither he nor Brooke have time out from the relentless drive to find Evan’s killer. Brooke promises Lana they’ll solve the case before Brooke goes back to Auckland, a promise that weighs heavily on her mind.

The characters are in turns awful, misunderstood, flawed, sympathetic, and puzzling. And many go terribly astray. The reader witnesses Evan’s world spinning out of control, to a place where he can’t see a way out – until it’s too late. The homing in on various subjects, coupled with seeing Evan’s experience with them, leads to a nerve-wracking read. And when the culprit is finally revealed it throws a whole different perspective on the narrative. Brooke and the reader revisit everything they have known about the causes of the violent goings-on in Taonga. Boy Fallen is a sad read, it is about how difficult teenage years can be, both for youth and their caregivers. It is about how the human desire to fit in can ironically lead to greater isolation. And how prejudice can go both ways. A great and moving piece of #YeahNoir

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