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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Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens – 2022

Jacqui and Scott live with their son Axle down from Upland Rd, Kelburn, Wellington. They are both civil servants, she in Police Headquarters, he across the road in the Ministry of Health. Axle has moved from single-sex Wellington College due to being bullied, and he is cautiously making friends at coed Wellington High. Down from Upland is their deeply disturbing story told in three parts.

Their story is one of manipulation: of spouses, of employees, of colleagues, of friends, of children. Jacqui and Scott have a highly considered relationship, sex for them appears to be sympatric masturbation, and they pride themselves on calmly discussing everything at scheduled meetings. They are taken aback at their son calling them boomers – they are millennials. When Jacqui decides to take up her friend Kaye’s offer to take over her young lover while Kaye and her husband move to Turkey, she and Scott agree to open their marriage.

Axle is extremely careful with his school mates in his new environment, eager to fit in after his experiences in his old school. He likes his new friends; they are a sensible and sensitive lot. However, the one thing the kids are not careful with is alcohol, and in good kiwi tradition they tend to binge drinking. Many a gross hour is spent trying to get drunk on low-alcohol beer, which has been supplied in bulk by Scott, whose work at the Ministry is in sensible drinking communication.

The story progresses through various conversations, some of them excruciating, mostly those involving Scott. When meeting with Jacqui about Axle, actions are usually slated to him, and his talks with his son are clumsy, rambling and embarrassing. Scott meets with Linnea, a colleague from work, and thence with Justin from HR. Scott is hopeless at manipulation but a sucker for being manipulated. Jacqui meets with Joᾶo, Kaye’s young friend, and with Rothman, a colleague from her work, who may or may not be hitting on her.

The background to the conversations is an almost Kafkaesque depiction of the civil service. And the broader background is that of the climate crisis. Policy wonks celebrate in the streets like Armistice Day when it is announced the public sector will be carbon neutral by 2025. In Police HQ Rothman ropes Jacqui into a bizarre scheme to get the New Zealand Police meeting the carbon-neutral deadline, a scheme to rival his whacky one to improve the optics on police statistics. Across the road the Respiratory Health Unit is facing a reversal of fortune, seeing the end of the alcohol and addiction stranglehold on funding with the zero carbon targets: “Booze. Alcohol. You’re on the bench.”

There is a general feeling of “There are changes coming and we can either be part of them or end up like the Australians”, alongside the hope that the government will lose the next election. “God, think of MOD! Their whole job is flying planes and blowing things up!” There is a lot of climate activism at Axle’s school, but the students know you only become an activist if you have rich, influential parents. Jacqui is reading a book about Antarctica at a glacial pace throughout the novel, and the reader wonders how much smaller the continent will be by the time she finishes.

The characters are so well, or so awfully, depicted. Scott is quease-making, even for Jacqui: “Her husband might have been overly anxious, but at least he was human”, and she is downright mean to him – when Scott shares a predicament with her, her response: “I’m not saying it’s hilarious. Or even fun. It sounds horrible. I mean fine, it’s up to you but… yeah sorry… it is a little amusing. From a wife’s perspective.” She is super manipulative but quick to take umbrage when others apply the same tactics to her.

Justin is awful, ruthlessly incisive, and has a wink that haunts. Rothman is flat out bonkers – and is rapidly being promoted. Axle is a ray of hope, often appearing to be the only adult in the family, or even in his friends’ families – there is a disturbing interaction between him and very wealthy Ron, the father of Michella, a school mate. But Axle is moving towards activism, both personal and social, in his newly found milieu.

And then there’s Joᾶo. Joᾶo is on a working holiday. He is aghast at the Kiwi drinking culture, the explicit racism, the way relationships are strategised and implemented. And he takes an ephemeral path to just enjoy things as much as he can before moving on – and if that means doing his own manipulating, that seems to be how things are done around here. It is a relief when Joᾶo and Axle have a sane conversation.

Down from Upland is an uncomfortable read that you can’t put down, there is a touch of rubbernecking in reading it – like watching a slow-motion crash. It is the sort of book you hope is total exaggeration, but you fear might be a slice of life. Highly recommended.

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Notorious by Olivia Hayfield – 2022

Should Emma Snow persist with Rowan Bosworth, a dark and troubled Heathcliff, living a reclusive life on the Yorkshire moors? Or should she stay with Henry Theodore, a clean-cut Bingley, “a fully signed up member of the rich and powerful”. Her sensible side wonders if she should marry Henry, but she has been infatuated with Rowan since she was a young girl. Emma can’t help but feel that if she could just get through to him, he could well turn out to be a Darcy.

Notorious comfortably references literary heartthrobs, and is a great romantic read. It is the third in Hayfield’s series of reimagining Tudor history in modern settings – first there was Wife after Wife, reinventing Henry VIII, then there was Sister to Sister, with Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary Tudor. Notorious looks at Richard III and the mystery of the princes in the tower. When Emma’s young brothers Elfred and River go missing, Emma investigates and Notorious becomes a murder mystery, with more than a dash of Austen and Brontë.

Emma, Rowan, and Henry are all writers. Emma’s first encounter with Rowan is when he is a wunderkind whose re-write of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so spectacular Emma’s father Teddy, a famous actor, performs in it. Emma, a girl at the time, goes with her family to the performance, and is entranced by Rowan. She is interested in writing and decides to enter journalism. When Emma meets Henry, through a family connection, he is writing for the Lancaster Post. She gets a job on a London paper, focusing on environmental issues, then moves up to Yorkshire where Henry has become the editor of a paper owned by his mother.

Linking all three aspects of the plot, romance, history, and mystery, is biased and sensationalist media reporting, and how destructive that can be. Emma is the daughter of celebrity royalty – as well as her father being a star of stage and screen, her mother Belle is a rock star. Emma has grown up in a scandalous household, always under the media spotlight. When her two brothers go missing from the school where Rowan is a teacher, it is front page news, and Rowan is quickly judged guilty by the media, and by Henry. Rowan is driven into seclusion, and Emma into a determination to prove his innocence.

Henry is the type most people warm to immediately, he is fair, handsome, charming, speaks ‘well’, and is connected. Rowan is more difficult, he is dark and handsome, but taciturn, writes on bleak themes, and is the type people love only once they have taken the time to get to know him. Emma has a challenge ahead. Just as the public has judged Richard III guilty, armed by learning history through Shakespeare, many people are swayed by the newspaper reports, biased by the personal vendettas of reporters, editors, newspaper owners, and high-profile interviewees. Another struggle for Emma is continuing her environmental agenda in the country. Henry’s mother is a daunting presence with a “formidable spy network”, and she is a supporter of blood sports.

Notorious talks about privilege, with those in power feeling they have rights over and above the hoi polloi, and those with extreme privilege feeling they have rights over and above almost everyone. Even sweet Henry has a dark streak of jealousy, and he is delicately patronising and controlling. Emma however is determined, and the characters in the novel and their historical parallels, are shown through their relationships to Emma. A lovely irony, as she is struggling to be seen as herself, not the daughter of celebrities or the girlfriend of a society catch, “She wanted to be more than this”.

Being part of the entwined society of the rich and famous, while a burden in one way, also opens doors for Emma. She has access to family members who have inside knowledge of what has been going on behind the headlines – and finds out things affecting her personal situation along the way. She is a good central character, and there is a rich supporting cast, given details such as Rowan’s handwriting style, Henry’s fanatical neatness, Belle’s sanguine approach to her relationship with Teddy, and her grief over her sons.

The history behind the story is filled in by a list of characters and their historical counterparts at the beginning of the book and a précis of the history of Richard III at the end. There are delightful references throughout the narrative too; when the boys go to school they are separated, one in the White Tower, the other in the Red Tower. Red and white roses pop up throughout the plot. There are many references to Richard III, such as Emma and Henry spending a luxurious night out in a castle once owned by “Crookback”.

There are plenty of suspects for the boys’ disappearance, so the book works as a murder mystery. There is a lovely connection between Emma, Rowan, and nature, with foxes and owls playing both a literal and figurative role. The heart of the novel is the romance, there is a wonderful frisson when Emma first introduces Henry to Rowan at an awards ceremony, Henry who is a descendent of Henry VIII, and Rowan receiving an award for a psychological thriller written under the pseudonym R. P. King. Just as Hilary Mantel raised questions about the negative view of Thomas Cromwell, Olivia Hayfield has done a good job of making Richard III a heartthrob!

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Waking the Tiger by Mark Wightman – 2021

Set in hot and humid Singapore in the 1930s, Waking the tiger is a murder mystery that stalks around the colonialism and rising fascism of the era, and it also introduces a great new fictional detective: Inspector Maximo Betancourt.

Betancourt is working in the Special Investigations Department of the Marine Branch, after losing his job in the Singapore CID due to being distracted by the disappearance of Anna, his wife. In his new position he deals with mundane problems on the Singapore waterfront, most often relating to contraband. And Betancourt is not above retaining some of the seizures to facilitate his network of informers.

In the last six months there have also been protests at the docks – an embargo on shipping certain goods to Japan, those that might help the Imperial Army’s designs on Asia, has led to Chinese dockworkers protesting any trade with their homeland’s enemies. Betancourt is dealing with one such protest when a woman’s body is discovered on the wharf, she had been laid out as though “for some bizarre shamanistic ritual” and is holding a fragment of yellow parchment. Betancourt flips into CID mode and the investigation is afoot.

Betancourt is appalled at the dismissal of the woman’s death by officials and traders, who want to ignore it as the suicide of just another karayuki-san, Japanese sex worker – despite the facts that there is no evidence that was her trade, or that she committed suicide. And even if they were right “Whatever she may have done for a living, she’d been someone. A daughter, perhaps a sister, a friend”. He persists despite being warned off and uncovers links to one of Singapore’s most prestigious trading houses, to Japanese gangs who support the Japanese military agenda, and to people much closer to Betancourt’s circle.

Betancourt’s family was from Malacca, but he considers Singapore as his home. Given his non-European appearance he must put up with the racism of those who just happen to live in Singapore to build their fortunes, and who see themselves as superior to any non-whites. The disappearance of Anna has opened a rift between Betancourt and his in-laws, the Cléments, a trading family. His daughter, Lucia, is living with her grandparents and starting to blame Betancourt for her mother’s disappearance as Anna’s parents do, and as does Betancourt himself.

Another problem Betancourt has is a growing number of unpaid bills, and he finds himself in danger of losing his daughter completely. However, he is not without friends. He frequents the stables of a horse-trainer, Allenby. He remains in touch with Anna’s friend Marjorie. His ethnicity gives him access to many of the places, and much of the information, that would be off-limits to a British police detective. And he finds a new and intriguing ally in pathologist Dr Evelyn Trevose.  

Dr Trevose shows Betancourt the magnificent tiger tattoo that graces the victim’s body, and how the wounds resemble painted tiger stripes, and she becomes involved in the investigation. One of the many things I liked about Waking the tiger is the agency given to the women in the story. Like Betancourt himself, they lack supreme privilege but not determination. There are some great characters that move the plot along, Evelyn Trevose and Marjorie, Betancourt’s Aunt Theresa, Daisy the walking Wikipedia, Ruby the manager of the Blue Nightingale, and Mei one of the club’s hostesses.

The fascinating, and horrifying, history of the times is well researched – I for one would never have put Oswald Mosley and Gandhi together in a paragraph! The plotting is solid, and the mystery is satisfyingly solved. Betancourt’s network of supporters, his relationships with Lucia and Dr Trevose, and the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, all foreshadow more Max Betancourt mysteries to come!

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Polaroid Nights by Lizzie Harwood – 2021

The Auckland hospo scene in the mid 1990’s – late nights in smoke-clogged cocktail bars after shifts are done, drinking high-end high-alcohol drinks, trying to save enough tips from the night’s work to pay the rent. Betty Asphalt often fails at the latter, and she is in danger of losing her place in the flat she shares with Faith and Alabama. She would not miss Laverne the cat pissing in her room, but she would miss Alabama, her best friend. Also, there is a serial killer on the loose – so best to stick with the familiar.

Truman, an ex, and still very significant to Betty, turns up out of nowhere when she is out on the town one night with Alabama, and ends up in her bed – but not in a good way – and nothing is familiar or sane ever again. Betty and Alabama continue their frenzied existence, Betty an extremely competent waitress at a swanky restaurant, Alabama working in a bar and singing one night a week. Faith takes off to get over the shock that Betty woke up to – leaving Betty and Alabama to ride out the trauma and sort out Laverne.

Two cops are assigned to find out who left Truman in Betty’s bed, a man and a woman, neither of whom seem all that trustworthy. In fact, nobody seems trustworthy – Betty’s world is comprised of bar staff, bouncers, cooks, hospo managers, and dodgy taxi drivers. One taxi driver in particular is acting oddly – but then Betty did hurl in his cab. Even Faith seems a bit suspicious, as does the owner of the house where they flat – who suddenly races back from Australia. As Betty’s memories are coming back like developing polaroids, she and Alabama decide they themselves need to investigate what happened that Truman night.

Betty’s world is hyper, events coming into and out of focus. Every time things start coming clear, another drink seems in order – the reader recognises she is experiencing PTSD, and she has found out that the serial killer targeting women has visited their flat, and he has yet to be caught. As part of the amateur sleuths’ scattergun approach, they visit their old flat, after which it goes up in flames. The attention Betty and Alabama attract from the police unnerves associates who are covering up their own crimes, some of which are on an amazing scale.

Betty and Alabama both have colourful backstories, Betty was orphaned at fifteen, and Alabama is the product of hippie-era free love, with her having two siblings, all three half-sisters to each other. Their colourful mother is still around and plays a part in the story. This background adds credibility to the behaviour of the women, as does the fact that all men are a potential risk to women – and always have been. Reference is made to real cases (disguised) where trusted men become nightmares. The reader fears for Betty but applauds her stubborn refusal to be cowered, even when she suffers physically. Even when the police say the cases are solved, she refuses to believe it. She trusts Laverne’s cat-messages, and Alabama, and that is about it.

Polaroid nights is a hectic and colourful read, you can taste the alcohol, smell the cigarette smoke, feel the grit under rigid contact lenses. You do not want Betty or Alabama to come to harm, and you often change your mind about who may be guilty, or even how many perps there are. There is resolution at the end, but for me that wasn’t the crux of the novel – it was the dangers that surround Betty and Alabama, making them vulnerable but also as strong as steel. After all “sometimes men do these things and you never get the why out of them”. A great read.

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The Darkest Sin by D.V. Bishop – 2022

“After all, how much trouble could a convent full of nuns be?” Cesare Aldo, an officer of Florence’s criminal court, is at first dismissive in his approach to the women of Santa Maria Magdalena. However, he soon realises they are varied, complex, and far from compliant. The victim’s body is cold but swamped in still-wet blood, there has been a theft of vestments, one of the nuns appears to have stigmata, and one in the convent might be a murderer.   

The Darkest Sin is the second outing for Aldo, and those familiar with his first, City of Vengeance, will recognise many of the characters, including stinking, cruel, and treacherous early 1500s Florence. Carlo Strocchi, Aldo’s subordinate in the Otto court, is back – unlike the streetwise Aldo, Strocchi is “an honest son of the Tuscan countryside”, and we catch up with him taking his new wife, Tomasia, to meet his mother in his rural home village Pont a Signa.

Aldo’s love interest, Saul, is also back, and Aldo must try and bridge the estrangement from the end of the last novel, not least because he needs Saul’s medical help in his convent case. Meo Cerchi, Aldo’s fellow officer and enemy, who we also met in the last book, has been missing for some months. And there are new characters, like the delightful Isabella Goudi. Isabella is a day student at the convent, she is connected to Aldo, and she ends up helping with the investigation while she is seeking refuge in Santa Maria Magdalena.

Meanwhile Strocchi discovers a belt buckle in Pont a Signa that could be a clue to Cerchi’s fate, a clue that could provide Strocchi with an opportunity to advance in the Otto, and an opportunity for Aldo’s life to be ruined. The two cases run in parallel, both unearthing secrets that have led to death. On the one hand the reader knows what has transpired and the intrigue is how far Strocchi will get in his investigation. Will he follow his strict moral compass, or will he listen to his wife’s suggestion of shades of grey: “Tomasia would make an excellent officer, if the court ever allowed women such roles.”

On the other hand, in the convent, the reader is given plenty of clues and plenty of suspects. Apart from the mysteries, The Darkest Sin is enlivened by the conflicts of the time. There is the power struggle between the Church and the State (in the form of rich traders) – Aldo discovers there is a link between the victim and the Dominican friar Savonarola, who only a few decades earlier had ordered the bonfire of the vanities. The misogynist treatment of convents by the Church is covered, “the reputation of women rose and fell at the mercy of men, and that was doubly true within the Church”.

Aldo knows all too well the eagerness of the Church and State to exert power over private bodies – his lifestyle puts him in constant danger. The Church also exerts power over women’s minds. Aldo berates himself for his initial prejudicial behaviour towards the Abbess, “Too many men rushed to display their own wisdom rather than letting a woman reveal what she knew”. There is also division within the convent between those who want to serve the wider society and those who want to be enclosed to contemplate God. The Darkest Sin depicts that wider society, where women often seek refuge in convents from abusive relationships, or from the desires of families to use them as trade to improve the status of their houses.

The action of The Darkest Sin takes place during Holy Week, providing a time-limit on finding the solutions to both the mysteries. The plotting is good, and the reader is given plans of the convent, a cast of senior nuns and novices, and the occasional piece of evidence, such as a confession and testimony. The characters are compelling, the nuns all unique, and the community dynamics in the convent add layer upon layer of intrigue. Aldo and Strocchi dealing with their separate quandaries are well drawn. There is a pulling together of elements at the end, although readers of the Cesare Aldo mysteries know “Survival was enough of a triumph in Florence some days.” An excellent murder mystery, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Remember Me by Charity Norman – 2022

Emily Kirkland never felt close to her father, Dr Felix Kirkland. So, when his neighbour calls her from Aotearoa to say her father is struggling on his own and can she return to help, she thinks it would be “easier to talk to him when he’s dead.” However, as she has no pressing commitments in London, she decides to give her father three weeks. As her time with him stretches out, she learns things about him, and the disappearance of the neighbour’s daughter Leah, that leads to her “becoming very, very afraid of the truth”.

Dr Leah Parata disappeared shortly before Emily headed overseas to explore the world. Leah was a brilliant scientist and lecturer. Her research focus was the beneficial effects of 1080 use in the Ruahine Ranges. One day she headed into the bush near the town of Tawanui for research, and she never came out. Her brother Ira, Emily’s childhood best friend, and his mother, Raewyn, never got over the loss of Leah, their shock made worse by Manu, Leah and Ira’s father, having died after a long debilitating illness only two years before the disappearance.

Emily is used to being the one left out or left behind. Her family moved to Aotearoa from Leeds when she was six. When Emily turned eighteen, her mother, Lillian, returned to Yorkshire. The father of her son Nathan “ran like a hare” when hearing of the pregnancy. Her older twin siblings, Eddie and Carmen, were always remote, ganging up on her. They now live successful lives in Auckland and seem to only have inheritance-related concerns about their father. Emily is now forty-seven, back on the family homestead, and her father is disappearing in front of her eyes. Emily is initially shocked to enter his life – finding notes and messages throughout the house reminding him how to use equipment, reminding him of his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.   

Felix’s moods are erratic, ranging from pleasant to distressing to violent. The disarray is even more shocking as “Felix Kirkland, was the most precise, orderly individual that ever walked this earth”. Emily catches glimpses of her father that are a revelation – episodes of her childhood, within which she has always felt lacking, are re-shaped when she hears his recollections. Amidst the confusion of Felix’s life, with his losing his memories and losing his words, are flashes of his old professional self – he diagnoses and treats Emily’s sore neck with kind attention. They spend quality time together, tending the roses, playing chess, and then Felix gives Emily a letter with instructions to open it once he has died, and he starts saying things that Emily wishes she had not heard.

Remember me is a mystery – what happened to Dr Leah Parata? Could she have been murdered – are anti-1080 sentiments strong enough that someone might kill a 1080 defender? Why did many people report seeing Leah with bruises? What is under the built-in wardrobe, with the dog “whining and scrabbling on the floor in there”? And there are more general mysteries – “Where do people go?” Where was the Felix Emily remembers gradually going, while his physically fit body was still there in front of her? Where did Manu go all those months his family were caring for his wasting body? Leah walked along a road that suddenly transitions into the thick bush where she disappeared, at what point do the people you know disappear? Those people whose memories you hold for years, and who turn out to be not like that at all. Emily’s world is like the permafrost she tells her father about – thawing to reveal prehistoric creatures.

“I’d scarcely known my father when he was at the top of his game, let along now that he was turning into someone else.” If Felix is changing, does he still get to make life decisions? There is consideration of agency. If there is a test to detect the possibility of your having a degenerative genetic disease, do you take it? If you have access to information that can seriously affect others, do you share it? Emily is swamped with sudden responsibility, and she thinks of her cohort: “Most of us are just masquerading as adults, aren’t we? All those forty- and fifty- and sixty- somethings, just a pack of school kids in disguise.”

Remember me is meticulously plotted and sympathetically written, you accompany Emily as she re-traverses her memories and tries to reconstruct what has happened in the past. The reader is given clues, and lots of information, some cleverly provided via a documentary crew revisiting Leah’s disappearance. The novel is cram packed with vivid characters you get to care about. There are some sad moments and some warm moments. There are even funny moments when Emily works on her latest project illustrating a children’s book. There is plenty of tension as the mystery unfolds, and it has the most exquisite ending, which I read through tears. Remember me is a stunning book!

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Exit .45 by Ben Sanders – 2022

Marshall Grade is living in New York, passing his time solving really hard Jackson Pollock jigsaw puzzles, when an old buddy from his Brooklyn South, NYPD days, Ray Vialoux, asks to meet him. Ray is deep in gambling debt, and his family are being threatened. Grade knows “Data has a gravity. There’d be a point where he’d learned too much, and couldn’t just walk away from the problem.”

Grade doesn’t get a chance to walk away before Vialoux is lying dead at his feet, shot through the window of the Italian restaurant where they had met. The cop assigned to the shooting, Detective Floyd Nevins, warns Grade that he’s got his pronouns mixed up – it’s not “I’m” or “we’re” responsible for finding out why Vialoux was shot – “Here’s a radical idea. Why don’t you leave me to do my job?” But Grade disagrees and starts to investigate. Although it’s true he does seem to get his pronouns confused – a “him” he tracks down ends up being a “her”, adding another layer of interest to the mystery.

Jordan Mora is from Aotearoa, an ex-PI who has worked with Vialoux. Mora, like Grade, knows that if a guy owes you money, you’re never going to get it if he’s dead – there is more behind the shooting than a gambling debt. Grade is attracted to Mora, and he also has a history with Hannah, Vialoux’s wife. His personal relationships make the case difficult to navigate, as he struggles to see “the divide between the pertinent and the personal.”

It is Grade’s specific take on the case that makes Exit .45 such a good read. We know he has OCD from previous novels, and his condition has heightened to engineering-level geometry. He is crystal clear about what’s happened and his role in it: “… the story is about me, isn’t it? I was right there at the beginning.” He is confused when others seem to put other considerations first: “Vialoux’s dead. I mentioned that, right?” Another source of puzzlement is the people he bumps into who have asked others to do jobs, but who feel disconnected from the consequences.  

Grade has an unusual view of justice, for him it’s not one-size-fits-all, it’s case-by-case, and he has no problem administering it when required: “He was wired for unilateralism, single-mindedness.” Any progress on the case seems to unearth more mysteries, and it isn’t long before he has triggered the interest of Deputy Inspector Loretta Flynn of the NYPD. He is sort of helping the police yet sort of their prime suspect: “But it was a strange experience to be standing here, moving easily through small talk and all the while knowing that a SWAT team might kick down his door.”

In the frame for being connected to Vialoux’s murder are a drug lord with a missing wife and an Italian mob boss. And closer to home there are pieces of the puzzle that don’t quite fit. Is Hannah’s daughter Emma acting suspiciously or just being a teenager? Is the grieving couple who witnessed a suspect for the murder what they seem? Their daughter, Emma’s friend, has committed suicide, and Vialoux was looking into bullying as a possible reason.

Exit .45 – a way out of New York or a wound from a bulletis a great read with clues scattered throughout and engaging characters. I thought the end was too abrupt until the ramifications sank in – the pieces keep falling into place after you finish reading. And there is Sanders’ lovely noirish prose: “he thought he could bend the bars of honesty a little, slip through to the other side of the mystery.” #YeahNoir!

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Slow Down, You’re Here by Brannavan Gnanalingam – 2022

Auckland in the time of Covid, and the lockdowns have made work even more precarious than usual for Vishal and Kavita. Vishal has been driving taxis since he lost his marketing job a few years back, he works evening-into-night shifts so he can be with their two young children, Aarani and Bhavan, while Kavita works as an accounts clerk. Ashwin, their friend of many years, is an engineer in a company riding the boom of post-earthquake building assessments, but he is not fulfilled in his job, due to systemic, casual, racism.

All three are working below their capabilities and are feeling despondent, being subjected daily to disrespect. Vishal having to put up with abuse from fares. Kavita having to deal with lazy executives trying to claim what they are not due. Ashwin knowing a less-experienced, trendy white guy will soon overtake him in the office hierarchy. Vishal and Kavita see each other in passing, and, as Kavita takes on most of the childcare and all the cooking and cleaning, their relationship is deteriorating. Kavita has started privately communicating with Ashwin, whom she has had a crush on for years.

When Ashwin suggests Kavita join him for a break on Waiheke Island, she is very tempted. Vishal will be on his days off, so can mind the kids, and if she is away longer than that, he can make other childcare arrangements. Kavita and Ashwin find that prejudice is as at home on Waiheke as in Auckland, they are used to it, but it still irks. Ashwin has booked the accommodation under the more neutral sounding Ash. Kavita finds it hard to keep quiet during an ersatz yoga class: “Repeat after me, ‘Ommmmmm’.” At a restaurant they end up sparring about the layers upon layers of discrimination that exist: “Our second chance is built on an opportunity that was taken from someone else.”

“How she was putting everything at risk, just for a few days” – Slow down, you’re here could be the not-unusual story of a woman taking a brief time to reflect on her choices and their consequences. It is a nuanced piece. The story told in turns from the points of view of Kavita and Ashwin. You read of their insecurities, their hopes, their misunderstandings. Kavita has a nightmare where her body is being reconstructed from other bodies, “they only had an old white woman for the thighs.” Ashwin monitors his comments so as not to come across as overbearing. They both try to reproduce what their relationship would have been like had it happened many years ago.  

But meanwhile, while Kavita and Ashwin are making choices and wondering if they are the right ones, there is a situation evolving back in Auckland, where those Kavita has left behind have few choices, and where events are overtaking them: “Why was everyone disappearing?” asks Aarani. Things are being pared back to the basics – eating, shitting, sleeping. An illegal visit from a landlord evokes a complex flourish of emotions in the reader. You want to intervene and help in the story. These sections are a worrying read. In this review I have only discussed the elements of the story that appear in the back-cover blurb, as the incredible apprehension the book excites is from having no idea what is going to happen.

There are those who make choices that have consequences, and there are those with virtually no agency who do the very, very best they can. As the novel comes to an end, the reader is repeatedly unsure whether Kavita will go home or not, and either way wonders what the rest of her life will be like. On so many levels an exceptional novel.

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Entanglement by Bryan Walpert – 2021

Paul is at a writers’ retreat in 2019, writing pieces in response to prompts, pieces from his life, from the stories he used to tell his daughter. Paul remembers episodes from 2011, in reverse chronological order, it is the year he got to know Anise, the woman he would marry. In no particular year, Paul is disoriented: “Was memory loss expected? Maybe you have forgotten you expected it, or will expect it.” He can’t remember his name. He has a photograph of Anise and his young daughter, whose name also escapes him.

Paul met Anise at the Centre for Time at the University of Sydney, where she was a philosopher of science. He was a writer wanting to know everything about time for a work in progress – seemingly dealing with the same subject as his first novel – his guilt over his twin brother being injured when they were young boys. The physicists at the centre are generous, if not slightly condescending, when explaining aspects of quantum physics and differing theories of time.

Paul is attentive and fascinated by the theories, but he is becoming more interested in Anise. Famous thought experiments start affecting his views of his relationships. Anise and his far away brother affect each other despite their never having met. Anise is behind the bedroom door being in any number of possible moods, until Paul opens the door, and her moods collapse into the mood she is in. Paul and Daniel, the twin brothers, one of whom goes away for such a short time, then finds the other irreparably damaged when they reunite.

Is Paul a time traveller trying to correct his mistakes? Or is he in a state of dissociative fugue due to the trauma of the loss of his daughter and his guilt over his brother? After all, we are all travelling through time, or maybe creating time as we link discrete events together, we are all time travellers. There are lovely musings such as what does vintage mean when you have travelled backwards. And nice dialogue: “I said, I suppose that rules out time travel. Why, she asked, is there somewhere you need to be?”

Paul is in a hospital café in Baltimore, the same hospital his brother was taken to, and where he and his parents sat at a table, when he looks up – “In the reflection you see a ragged man, possibly homeless, alone at a table for four.” The reflection is himself, he is bedraggled, maybe time travel does that to a body, or is it just jet lag? For all the fine theories of time there is always the mundane moment of experience. Paul writes of meeting a physicist for lunch, “He grapples with questions about, for example, the philosophical ramifications of relativity, yet he must still grapple with syrup and tables whose legs are for some reason not aligned”.

I initially found the dialogue in the Anise episodic memories unconvincing, and the writers’ retreat essays contrived. But then I realised everything was told deeply from the perspective of one actor – Paul, and I became emerged in his trauma. The sections dealing with the loss of his daughter are finely done, for example, his cleaning the house after neither he nor Anise had been capable of doing so for ages. His finding the vacuum bag “Half full of things that had been attached to his daughter”, and turning the vacuum on and off, and again on and off, to release some traces of her. He looks at the photograph of his family, remembers the click of taking it, the click that “marked the present made past, now present again”.

Entanglement is like Einstein’s relativity train; different readers will perceive different things. For me the novel is about guilt and grief, those instances that form you and make you who you will be, but “You hope that does not mean who you must always be”. The instinctive move away, the casual words spoken to a person when you don’t know they will be your last, the awful things said between people in the throes of grief. There are models of time: presentism, possibilism, eternalism, and then there is the task of navigating existence – “That is the problem with looking always to the future, always ahead. There are so many ways to avoid the present, to slip away from it.” I found Entanglement a touching read, and was a bit surprised by the upbeat ending, until I realised it was another thought experiment collapsed into an episode on a page.

Entanglement is short-listed for the 2022 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.

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