Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent – 2023

Sally Diamond lives on the outskirts of the village of Carricksheedy, Ireland. Peter Geary is living in Rotorua, Aotearoa New Zealand. Sally is in her 40s, she has been living with her father since her mother died when Sally was eighteen. Her father has kept her quite isolated, due to her being “socially deficient”. Peter was 14 when he and his father arrived in Rotorua, his father keeps him isolated for his own good, telling Peter it was because of his rare health condition: “Dad obviously had a kind heart.”

Sally doesn’t like engaging with others, often feigning deafness during her brief trips into the village. It is only when her father dies that the extent of her disconnect with the world becomes apparent. Sally knew that her parents were not her real parents, but after her father’s death she, and the reader, learn of her unconscionable origins. She receives support as well as death threats – “Hell is where you belong” – from the community. The support comes mainly from those who themselves experience prejudice and bigotry.

We read of Peter as a child in Ireland, and his disturbing interactions with “the ghost” in the locked room next to the one he is often confined to. We read with horror the behaviours he picks up from his father – due to his isolation he has no other role models. When he fled Ireland with his father, Peter did start to wonder about his situation, and when in Rotorua he openly questions his father’s misogyny and racial prejudice. However, there is a fair amount of wilful ignorance about Peter, he only finds agency when he discovers just how deceived he has been.

It is hard to write a review of Strange Sally Diamond and not give away any of the ‘reveals’ of the plot – and that would be unforgivable as it is such a gripping experience to read the book without knowing anything about it. As you read, a complex story unfolds. A story of abuse spawning abuse, of men controlling women and children with physical abuse, mental abuse, and drugs, of the awful plight of young children and young women, of unimaginable cruelty. It is also the story of extraordinary patience and kindness.

As enthralling as the plot is, it is the characters that move the story. As you read, it is hard to tell who is attentive to Sally because they are kind and who because they are psychotic. Who is Mark who appears suddenly with an almost unhealthy interest in Sally’s past? And who sends her Toby the teddy bear? And why does she have such a strong reaction to the bear? The character of Sally Diamond is a brilliant creation, with her idiosyncrasies making her both endearing and downright terrifying.

The arc of Sally’s story reminds me of that of Charlie in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon. As she progresses, she is funny: “Honestly, between therapy and yoga and learning to caress myself, I’ve enough on my plate.” She starts to flourish: “I liked the faint crinkly lines that came from the corners of my eyes when I smiled at myself. I was beautiful”. She starts to despair: “I finally had someone who was mine. I loved him, I wanted to protect him and keep him to myself. I couldn’t have known what he was capable of.”

Peter’s progression is in a minor key and raises questions about whether a person can be created solely by their experiences. Where do extremely bad, and exceptionally good, abilities come from? Peter is relatable but reprehensible. He is raised to think he is special, and he leans into his privilege while knowing right from wrong: “all three of them came out to play, both in my nightmares and in my waking hours … I could have saved them all.” He has that astonishing ability to assume what someone wants and be amazed when they are not grateful when he provides it, “‘I love you,’ I said as I locked the door behind me.”

There is a section in Strange Sally Diamond when the twists stop, when all is explained and when stories match up, almost – the reader knows when self-interest enters the re-telling of events. It is a puzzling time as you read this section, as though a time bomb is about to go off. There is comfort in thinking all the events are explainable, all originating from specific circumstances. And then the tragic tale picks up again, and the reader wonders once more if that is true – are the characters’ histories really a satisfactory explanation for their behaviour?

Strange Sally Diamond is a great disturbing read that haunts you long after you finish reading. It is sad and awful but also manages to be funny, and the author has some fun with a couple of the surnames in the text. There is a good sense of place in Ireland, London, and in Aotearoa New Zealand, and as the story spans many decades, there is a sense of time as well, with the Covid 19 pandemic featuring towards the end.

Part of the horror of Strange Sally Diamond comes from the duration of the various crimes. They are not crimes of passion; they are a way of life for the perpetrators: “The need for connection could never be satisfied by strangers”. The ending of the novel is exceptional, answering the question of nature versus nurture in a creepy way, by way of a piano and Toby the teddy bear!

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A Respectable Veneer by Rachel Doré – 2023

“When she and Edie had stepped out of the railway station, she’d stepped into a different country. Palmerston North seemed an innocent, shallow place.” Ruby has fled Auckland with her ten-year-old daughter, hoping to start afresh. But with little money and only the clothes they are wearing, Palmerston North proves to be not so innocent, and the horrors of Ruby’s past not so easy to escape.

A respectable veneer is a portrait not just of a desperate woman and those she meets, but also of a time and place – 1950s New Zealand. With World War Two a recent memory, and causing ongoing trauma, the characters are a mixture of those who are optimistic and those who are despairing. There are those making a new start, and new plans, and those who are bitter over the loss of a loved one, or of lost opportunities, of necessarily abandoned future lives.

Ruby is a damaged woman, having grown up in fear, having had a child in a far from loving environment, having had to escape abuse where she should have received comfort. When she did find a place, in Freemans Bay, Auckland, she knew it wasn’t ideal, and that some would see her choices as reprehensible, but she had no idea how bad things would get. And for a while she had the friendship of a woman called Angel. In the end it had been Angel who helped her and Edie escape. When Ruby arrives in Palmerston North, she is traumatised, brittle and sharp-tongued, and she doesn’t trust a soul.

Having been victimised since she was a child, Ruby is not surprised by lecherous possible employers, or bitter judgmental women. She eventually grows to like some individuals, but knowing her circumstances could bring trouble to them, she can be quite cruel towards them. She is attracted to the Bon Brush man, Douglas, and to the hat-shaper, Janice. She is in awe of Madame, a stylish Albanian refugee with a sad history, and she has a sparring relationship with Frank, Douglas’ friend. And of course, she has rambunctious Edie, but: “As much as she loved her daughter, there were times…”

As the plot unfolds, Ruby ends up “holding onto each day with her fingernails”. The anxiety and concerns of all the characters, are seen against the backdrop of a society trying to rid itself of war. There is the ‘New Look’ fashion: “her smart blue coat, which fitted at the waist, flared from the hip and swung as she walked”. There are the movies with their glamorous stars, and an excuse to openly cry. And there are the jazzy expressions, not quite as coarse as those left behind by the American servicemen, but “Crikey dick!”

Just as Ruby arrived in Palmerston North wanting to think she had left the bad things of Auckland behind, servicemen arrived back from the war wanting to think they had left the horrors of war behind. You were a “commie” if you didn’t stand for the Queen in the cinema. The men had served their time and wanted things their way; “No one would take the word of a woman.” There is a head-in-the-sand attitude that “These things don’t happen here”. Not an environment in which anyone out of the ordinary can thrive.

Ruby is a great character, quite unpleasant in many ways, yet very sympathetic. She is trying so hard to fabricate a life for herself and Edie, just as she is constantly making clothes for them – things to make them appear they belong. Her friendship with Douglas and Frank is fragile; Frank has been physically injured during the war, both he and Douglas psychologically. Douglas stammers whenever he is putting on a front, which is most of the time, which infuriates Ruby, and the reader; “It took an effort not to despise him for it”. Wrapped up in his own sad situation, Douglas is so naïve about the dangerous place society can be for a single woman with a child.

As her past catches up with her, things close in around Ruby. The danger she has put herself and those she loves in, and seeing news of what happened to Angel back in Auckland, hits Ruby like a brick and she starts falling apart, “everything seemed scrambled”. As the tension builds, she becomes even more quick to anger, taking out her anxiety on all, including Edie. Then you remember Ruby is just a young woman who has never had anyone to look after her, something she craves. And she is not alone; all the characters want to find someone to blame for the tragedy that unfolds.

A respectable veneer is a great historical novel with a thriller element. A respectable veneer might be what Ruby is wanting, but the clever ending suggests that that it is what the whole of New Zealand took on after the war – most New Zealanders wanting to enjoy the post-war peace, rather than remember what that peace had cost, or acknowledge those left by the wayside. A great debut novel.

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Expectant by Vanda Symon – 2023

When an atrocious murder of a pregnant woman is committed in Dunedin, Detective Sam Shephard’s boss wants her off the investigation – he doesn’t believe “because of your own advanced state of pregnancy, that you would be able to remain objective and emotionally detached from this case.” But Sam is not having a bar of it, it’s not that she can’t remain objective or detached, but because subjective and attached is how Sam does her best work.

Expectant deals with the most inhuman and the most human of crimes, those that involve babies. The book scans every case and scenario, from Minnie Dean in the 1800s, convicted of infanticide, through the various cases of new-born infants being stolen. They are taken from hospitals, cars, prams. Sometimes taken by desperate women who have lost children, or by those who can’t conceive or carry a baby to term. And then there are the darker motives, those taken for money, for exploitation, for medical purposes.

And the novel doesn’t shy away from Aotearoa / New Zealand having “some of the worst statistics in the world when it came to the domestic abuse of children”. Sam, who will give birth in just over three weeks, must confront these realities. But her condition, with the odd Braxton Hicks contraction, her frequent need of the loo, and the constant attacks of the munchies, spurs Sam on to find the culprit and their motive. Time is always of the essence in solving crimes, and Sam has her own deadline looming: “This week coming is my last one at work.”

Sam Shephard is one of my favourite crime-solving characters – she is outspoken, clumsy, off-side with many of her colleagues and most of her superiors, but she is caring and empathetic and doesn’t ignore her gut instincts. There are lovely moments in the book, such as when she is talking to the brave young man who, along with his tagging gang, found the dying woman – and who chose to stay with her as she died rather than scarpering with his mates. And when she sits with a young woman and her mother, the young woman having ended up being of interest to the police for doing something terrible, because she had been scared and feeling totally alone.

Sam is a fearless detective, and she is also funny – getting her baby bump wedged between stools and needing to be rescued (“Jesus, Sam, you’re a goon”), having a love/hate but mainly love relationship with her Mum, bantering with her best friend Maggie and partner Paul. Although Sam is a strong character, others are not completely eclipsed – even her unborn child demands attention, already displaying a temperament, much to the annoyance of Sam’s cat. One of the stars of Expectant is Dunedin. The spring flowers, the funky eateries, the oddly shaped streets, and the banks that even added all together couldn’t scrape up a million dollars in cash for a ransom. And the text is so familiar, with its use of Kiwi slang: “It wasn’t a ‘Dunner stunner’ day”, “the dungier the car the better”.

Sam’s respect for the victims and empathy with the perpetrators is compelling – she imagines the emptiness felt by the bereaved and those who have had people taken – the vacuums left by the loss of people, and by the loss of a feeling of safety. The neighbours who no longer know each other or care about each other, who might dob each other in if someone suddenly is seen with a baby, or who might do so in an act of petty revenge.

Contrasted with this lack of information about those near us are the dangers of social media, where it is easy to glean personal information about strangers, and the risk of official electronic records that can be manipulated and inappropriately accessed. Sam’s investment in the case given her pregnancy is a great device, not only on the emotional side, but the practical too – her knowing what it is to be a pregnant woman going through the health system. Sam might be a cipher in the health system, but she refuses to be one in the police system, and the reader feels her outrage when one of her bosses tells her off for contaminating a crime scene – when not to do so would have been an act of cruelty.

“This investigation was starting to feel like a juggling act in which, every few seconds, someone tossed in a new ball” – the plotting of Expectant is lively and intriguing. There is one of those lovely moments when you realise a possible outcome before the protagonist, and you must read about them moving into danger with no way to tell them! And in the final resolution, Sam must make the most amazing choice, a plot turn that would only work with a character as human and complex as Sam. Expectant can be read as a stand-alone, or first go back and read Overkill, The Ringmaster, Containment, and Bound – you won’t regret it!

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Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton – 2023

Birnam Wood starts with mellifluous prose revealing the motivations, attitudes, and self-doubts of three characters who started the gardening co-op that gives the novel its name. Birnam Wood was Mira Bunting’s idea, using unused land to grow vegetables, sometimes without the owners’ permission – some of the produce being donated “to the needy”. Shelley Noakes has always been Mira’s 2IC, and she is getting a bit tired of it. Tony Gallo left the co-op soon after it started five years ago, and has now returned, just as changes are afoot. Changes that will significantly alter Birnam Wood, affect all the characters, and turn this literary novel into an eco-thriller.

An encounter between Mira and billionaire Robert Lemoine triggers these changes. They meet when Mira is scouting out private land adjacent to the alpine beech forest of Korowai National Park. An earthquake has blocked the main pass into the area, killing five people, and thwarting the landowner’s plans to subdivide. Mira is excited at the prospect of setting up an illicit operation there – after all, Owen Darvish, the landowner, was about to be knighted for his contributions to conservation, surely he couldn’t object if he found out – they were an eco-collective after all. But as she is leaving, she encounters Robert, and, like Macbeth on the blasted heath, the fates of all are changed.

Birnam Wood explores hypocrisy through all forms of human action, whether that be political, commercial, or environmental. The motives of businesses launching green programmes, those of young women entering into arrangements with older rich men, those of the ultra-rich who are planning bolt holes in remote locations, are all exposed through the storytelling. Robert is charming and generous, but surely one of the “Crypto-fascist dirty tricksters”? His technology is helping the critically endangered Fairy terns in Northland, but it is also being used for less benign purposes.

Mira is walking the thin line between compromise and sell-out. Owen wants to retire in peace with his knighthood, ignoring his wife Jill’s concerns about his new business arrangements – the land is his through marriage, Jill’s family has owned the land for generations. Tony sees through everyone’s deception but his own – he is on a mission to expose wrongdoing, while dreaming “he saw himself on stage, at a podium, collecting an award”, and when he stumbles onto something so much worse than he had imagined “I am going to be so fucking famous.” Robert has a way with IT, and not much concern with other people’s privacy, but his wealth can be used for so many good purposes …

The plotting of Birnam Wood is like dynamite with a long fuse – a slow burn leading to a massive explosion. The Shakespearean allusion of the title is carried throughout the novel, with guilt-ridden women, unexpected coincidences, choruses of doom, themes of deceit and fate, and a bloody denouement. It is set in 2017, pre-pandemic, pre- the catastrophic results of anthropogenic climate change occurring in Aotearoa as I write this review, and it feels the more prescient as a result. Even the name Lemoine resonated for me – it is the name of the IT engineer who was stood down from Google last year for claiming the chatbot he had helped develop had become sentient and was in need of protection.

Birnam Wood has no innocent characters, except perhaps the endangered Fairy terns in Northland, or the few remaining Orange-fronted parakeets who live in Korowai National Park. And readers are implicit in the crimes too, for being consumers, for being pragmatic, for writing book reviews while parts of the North Island are disaster zones, for using their cell phones. To understand the cell phone connection, read Birnam Wood – you’ll feel part of those who’d “known that he was bad from the start. And still they’d courted his business. Still they’d courted his approval, his respect. Still they’d courted him.” A tour de force literary eco-thriller!

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Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders – 2022

The General Grant was sailing to Britain from Melbourne in 1866, carrying a large quantity of gold, and miners who had had enough of the fields. Among them was a young newly married couple: Joseph from the gold fields, working as an able seaman, and Mary, who had been working as a hotel maid in Melbourne when they met. Everything was new and exciting for Mary, and she was full of hope. And then the General Grant wrecked on the cliffs of the Auckland Islands far to the South of Aotearoa / New Zealand. The vessel was crushed into a cave and eventually sank – all but a “collection of fifteen wrecked souls to be counted” were lost.

Mary and Joseph are two of the fifteen. Mary, the only surviving woman, is the narrator of the story. One of my favourite novels is The Bright Side of My Condition by Charlotte Randall, based on an historical incident where four escaped convicts were left on one of the Snares Islands. Such stories are told in a crucible of extreme hardship. Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant has the same intense character presentation as Randall’s novel, and it has the added elements of a woman amongst the survivors, and the gold that weighs them down – gold that has value “not for what it could buy, but for what it had cost”.

Mary and Joseph’s relationship on the islands is fraught with suspicion and guilt, and eventually “My husband had lost the habit of talking to me.” Could Joseph have done more to save others? If Mary had acted differently would more have survived? She had been working as a ship stewardess, helping some of the passengers with child-care during the voyage, and she was beginning to think she would soon have a child of her own. Why had she not held onto the child she had become particularly fond of? If she had, might the child have been saved?

Mary is, as are many of the others, haunted by those she saw drown. There are two candidates for who should lead the group and keep them occupied. The obvious choice is Mr Brown, the first mate, but he is not coping well with the situation, particularly tragic for him. James Teer is a strong Irishman, a natural leader. Teer and the others vow to protect Mary, and he gets all the men to introduce themselves. It is a civilised beginning, but there is a woman and there is gold, and among them are those who had swum passed drowning children to get to the lifeboat.

The reader gets to know the individuals in the group (there is a handy list of names and occupations at the beginning of the book). There are the charming, the pathetic, the hideous, the heart-rending, the noble. Mary must balance keeping the men distant with keeping them loyal to her, and there is always a hand creeping on to her leg at night. She is excluded from any decision making or storytelling, she is viewed as different, women are bad luck at sea, women should be able to sew and heal, women are a temptation, however “We aren’t nearly such good men without a woman’s company.”

Mary is not without agency, she exerts herself when necessary, breaking up fights, staring down charging seals. And she puzzles that she is drawn to another in whom “There was appeal in the sheer bulk of him.” She copes with the hunger, the cold, the disgusting food, the loose teeth, the loose bowels, the bad breath. It is a nightmare and within it is the significance of objects, a bottle, a box made for her, a whistle, her handkerchief that causes a fight. She is almost lost. She holds onto the hope that a ship will find them and carry them away.

Most of the fighting is over gold. “They were draining energy they didn’t have over sunken gold they couldn’t eat.” Many wanted to go back to try and recover what had been lost to the sea, for some it was gold, for others dead bodies. But they had no bearing to point to “where the ship lay in a cave with her bones and gold”. Some of the fifteen don’t make it, and those that do have a way to go to ease back into the world. The survivors must adjust to the company of others “I think, … now that we are back in the world again, that you should call me ‘Mrs Jewell’”.

Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant is an imagining of what might have happened on the islands based on the reports of three of the shipwrecked men. It is vivid and visceral, with the best and worst of the human character on display. Mary Jewell is a wonderful rendering of a woman in extraordinary circumstances. And somewhere under the water in one of the hundreds of caves in the cliffs along the coast of the Auckland Islands, the bodies and the gold still lie …  

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Paper Cage by Tom Baragwanath – 2022

Lorraine Henry is living in Masterton with a dicky hip and the memories she shared with her husband Frank, a cop who died through misadventure on the job. She works as a file clerk at the local police station, and she sneaks rent money to her niece, Sheena. Lorraine and Sheena’s mum were Pākehā sisters who married into Māori families. Lorraine took Sheena in when her parents died in an accident, and Sheena and her son Bradley are now Lorraine’s only family.

The community Lorraine lives in is not flash, and when peaceful “Some might call it peace, but that’s not it. It’s more like something lying in wait”. Ads for rental accommodation are for garage space, “ family of four max”. The Mongrel Mob is a clear presence, and Bradley’s dad, Keith, is a big man in the gang. Lorraine has struck up an unexpected friendship with a recently arrived neighbour, Patty. She and Patty often share a meal, a gin or three, and some telly of an evening.

The current worrying case at the station is a missing child, a young girl. And when a second child goes missing, this time a young boy, a detective comes over from Wellington to help the local cops investigate. Lorraine is being kept well away from the centre of the investigation, her colleagues seeing her as aligned with the ‘bad’ community. There’s also a suggestion she’s only kept her job through pity for what happened to Frank. But Detective Hayes from over the hill, “Dressed like a stork that’s fallen through a wardrobe”, soon realises the asset Lorraine is, with her knowledge of the local police files alongside her ties in the community.

When a third child goes missing, and all three of the kids’ families have either direct or indirect gang connections, the local cops jump to conclusions. And the ‘us-and-them’ shutters fall into place, hindering the investigation. Lorraine and Hayes start working together, trying to negotiate a way forward. Lorraine is used to such negotiations, as well as being seen as suspect by her colleagues, she is also viewed as an outsider by the community, due both to her being Pākehā and her working for the cops.

Lorraine hangs between two worlds; she compares Tangi she has experienced to the quick modest funeral organised for her sister; she automatically notices when Patty first enters her house without taking off her shoes. She knows Hayes is using her to get information from the community, just as Moko, one of Keith’s gang members, wants her to use her influence with the police: “You just keep them on track”.

Lorraine is intent on finding the kids. And she knows Keith and his boys want that too, despite what the local cops are saying. She hates the meth culture that accompanies Keith and his cohort, including Sheena – and she would prefer that Keith keep away. But she also knows Keith as a gifted gardener, just as Frank had been. And she knows how gentle he can be with Bradley. As things unroll, she is taken aback by the kindnesses shown to her by Moko.

Lorraine and Hayes manage to get some leads, and despite the local station trying to keep her away from the investigation, she persists and ends up in the most awful situations. Paper Cage is an extraordinarily tense read, there is a nail-biting sequence at the end of a long forestry track, and a similarly harrowing sequence on a remote farm: “Anyway, hell doesn’t have to be a big place, or hot. No reason it couldn’t be a shed out past Martinborough”.

The novel starts and ends in rain and the reader is totally immersed in the environment, and in the lives of the characters. The plotting is great, with the reader finding out crucial information ahead of Lorraine, adding a further layer of poignancy to her situation. And Lorraine, Aunty Lo, is the real heart of the novel. She is staunch despite all the unkindness around her. She has suffered great loss, yet still lives for others.

Lorraine’s efforts to find the kids are unswerving, kids with “the absolute halo of joy holding them, their glee not yet checked by rules and preferences and us-and-them eyes”. Somehow Lorraine manages to keep her world from spinning apart – the pressure she is under is brilliantly shown in an outburst in a supermarket carpark. And the resolution of the mystery is extraordinary, the reader being as gob-smacked as Lorraine, “Sometimes we know so little”. A great #YeahNoir novel.

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In Her Blood by Nikki Crutchley – 2022

Hotels are great thriller/mystery/horror settings – lots of corridors with lots of rooms, lots of creaky staircases, lots of people passing through over many years leaving stories and ghosts, and lots of places to hide bodies! In Her Blood uses this to great effect. Jac Morgan ends up staying at the Gilmore Hotel in Everly, a small town near the Waitomo Caves. She has reluctantly returned to her hometown in response to a text from her father saying her sister, Charlie, is missing and that no-one seems to care.

Jac runs into Iris Gilmore when fleeing the town campground, her arrival there coinciding with the discovery of a body in the river. The Gilmore has not been a working hotel since it was used as a hospital for servicemen during and immediately after World War Two, but Iris commandeers Jac into helping clean it for the annual Gilmore Hotel Open Day. At the hotel, Jac discovers that her sister isn’t the only young woman to have disappeared in Everly.

Twenty years ago, the Gilmore Hotel was home to sisters Paige and Lisa, both musicians with promise, but each receiving quite different treatment from their mother, Iris. Iris was a domineering woman with long-held sorrow – and a fixation with room 12A. When Jac meets her, Iris is still domineering, but starting to lose her grip, and living half in a fantasy world regarding her long-disappeared daughter, Paige. Her remaining daughter, Lisa, has recently come home to care for her mother.

Jac spends more time in the hotel than she would like, busy with her cleaning work, but she is still determined to investigate Charlie’s disappearance. She is not welcomed back to Everly, as she left under deep suspicion. The local cop is not eager to put any effort into finding Charlie. Charlie had been living with her drunkard aggressive father in a caravan at the campground, and she was cursed with “a surname that was synonymous with tragedy and gossip”, there is evidence that she might have just had enough of Everly and left – but Jac isn’t convinced.

When Paige disappeared from the Gilmore Hotel twenty years ago, there was evidence then that she too might have left of her own free will. But the police investigated Paige’s case thoroughly, and the townsfolk helped with the search, including Nathan, a young gardener at the hotel. Nathan is still working at the hotel twenty years later, and he has a close bond with Iris. Despite the lack of official interest in Charlie’s case, Jac finds clues and suspects galore for who might have abducted Charlie. The story is told from the points of view of Jac, Charlie and Lisa, and is set in the present and twenty years ago – allowing the reader to solve the mystery multiple times, and still be wondering who the culprit is!

In Her Blood makes the most of the gothic elements of an old and crumbling hotel, which has long been the source of ghost stories for the local children – many scenes are candle-lit, or dimly lit, people are often seen emerging from shadows, strange sounds are heard behind walls, people are locked in dark rooms. The plotting is an emerging reveal, with tension added by the up-coming Open Day – as the anniversary of Paige’s disappearance, it is an obvious impending denouement. All the main protagonists are damaged in some way, holding grudges, being terrified of fire, being overly possessive, or desperate for affection or approval. Jac reflects on her own history and her waste-of-space father, and she worriesLike father, like daughter”.

The depiction of abduction is dark and creepy – having to wear someone else’s clothes and underwear, emerging from a stupor to find your ears have been pierced. There is appalling treatment of children through the novel, by parents dealing with their own demons. And there are the intense bonds between siblings, the bitterness when one decides to leave the other, the guilt of the one who manages to get away.

Each of the main characters punches through their demons, the woman terrified of fire sees it as her escape, the one who throws her all at mollifying her continuous threat ends up turning into that threat, and the woman who starts thinking the world is full of people who have seriously lost their way, realises she is the only one who can find “their way out, a new beginning”. In Her Blood is intriguing, horrific, creepy, and a gripping read – as skeletons, literally and figuratively, gradually emerge from the crumbling hotel. Another excellent piece of #YeahNoir.

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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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