The Scene of the Crime by Steve Braunias – 2015


Scene of the Crime

There is an inevitable melange of fiction and reality that arises from piecing together ‘what happened’ in a crime: “a trial is always going to take on the literary form of an unreliable memoir”.

Steve Braunias’ The scene of the crime explores this theme using a number of high profile crime cases – and it has been shortlisted for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel: Best Non Fiction. 


Braunias is a columnist and journalist and has written numerous non-fiction books on a wide range of topics.  The cases he writes about in The scene of the crime are mostly New Zealand cases and mostly those that New Zealand readers will remember – Mark Lundy, Antonie Dixon, Clint Rickards.  Braunias’ concerns with the Mark Lundy trial and re-trial thread through the book, and make for compelling and disturbing reading.  I daresay many readers will have opinions on the guilt or otherwise of the accused, and many, like me, will have been swayed when forming those opinions by body language or thoughts of how people ‘should’ behave.  Braunias exposes this as common, shallow and potentially damaging.

Just think of the immediate collapse into certainty a verdict delivers – newsreaders don’t have to say ‘alleged’ any more, those of us who ‘just knew’ feel our intuitions justified, a plethora of alternative versions of events evaporate.  But life is often not that clear cut – and Braunias presents the disturbing possibility that the convictions of some people arise from jurors just accepting the one ‘story’ that most appeals, given their being part of a community that has already adopted a common opinion.

The book is generally quite critical of crime reporting for its role in the forming of thisNgaio ‘common opinion’, but there is one captivating section devoted to his admiration for the writer of the Police notebook, a column in the Timaru Herald: “Every crime, a sentence; every sentence, a little masterpiece of brevity and accuracy, at once banal and surreal.”  He was so taken with the entries he compiled some into a poem and sent it to Bill Manhire for his consideration!

Braunias’ writing draws mainly from the courtroom – as he sits and witnesses the “sheer ordinariness” of New Zealand criminal court proceedings – but it is also based on his research, and interviews with various parties to the different cases.  It is an impartial telling but also very human: he sympathises, he criticises, he worries.

The book is awash with victims – inside and outside of the court and on both sides of the cases.  Braunias speaks movingly about the families of those accused: “They are surplus to the court’s requirements. They are reduced to bystanders. They have nothing to hold on to, and they float away, like kites, always in sight, but always hovering just out of reach.”  And he also talks of those, like himself, unrelated to the cases but who choose to attend court day after day to watch the system play out. Like Mary who commuted from Auckland to Wellington to attend the Lundy re-trial: “… because she couldn’t bear to miss a second. ‘I just find the whole thing,’ she said, ‘so deeply moving.’”

The scene of the crime is amusing at times but is a serious book, it is a book about how society deals with crime, how it attempts to tidy away the messiness of events into an understandable narrative, so people can feel safe and gain that figment: Closure.  Braunias reminds us that the stories we choose are not just cautionary tales, not works to make a moral point, but stories that conceal real people, people who continue to grieve, to serve their sentences, to walk free … An exceptionally good read.

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The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy – 2017

Martha and Laurie have a totally solid family, with firmly entwined DNA – they each hidden roomcarried the other’s children, all from the same sperm donor.  They love each other and flowing water surrounds them; their property is in the fens, there is a stream running through it, the ocean is a short drive away and two of the children are competitive swimmers.  Martha is taking on more of the household responsibilities because Laurie’s career has taken off, but she is sort of OK with that – except for feeling she might like to have something of her own she doesn’t have to share – like meeting with her birth daughter’s new dance teacher, who wants to practice his life coach skills.  Laurie decides to keep a small secret of her own too, a hidden room she finds in their house.  So the solid family starts to develop minute cracks, not enough to be a problem really – except there are much bigger secrets in Laurie’s past.  Secrets to do with the dry American desert community that obtained her as a child, for a purpose, and to which she returned a few years after being rescued from it as a small girl.  As the book unfolds, the power of the desert starts creeping into the moist security of the family, making larger cracks that are harder to ignore.  And Laurie’s purpose once more starts to play out.  The hidden room begins like the story of a family in the throes of change, as children grow up and parents start thinking of the next stage in their lives.  But it slowly turns into a tale of psychological suspense.  Even in as entwined a family as that of Martha and Laurie’s, the differences play out – the DNA connection between biological mother and child as opposed to the familial relationship between birth mother and child, the woman who feels basically safe and the one who has never really experienced safety.  There are hidden rooms everywhere, in the family home, in the fens, in the desert, and inside the characters.  And horrifically the strongest imperative appears to be the insidious power that men have over women.  The hidden room is a deeply disturbing book, and one that I pondered over long after I had finished reading it.

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A Killer Harvest by Paul Cleave – 2017

Killer HarvestA Killer Harvest reprises The Hands of Orlac idea that body parts transplanted onto a new host will carry the evil intent of the donors – as donors in historic horror are most likely to come from the criminal classes.  Cleave has wrapped this in the current pseudoscience of cellular memory.  He has also updated the classic source of the harvested organs (criminals) by having some of his central police and medical characters in on a scheme to harvest organs for the greater good, by the summary execution of suspects.  Central to the plot is young Joshua Logan.  Joshua has been blind from birth, he also lost both parents when he was quite young so he was fostered by an aunt and uncle.  His ‘dad’ is a detective and when he is killed on the job Joshua is devastated and sees it as another episode in his cursed life.  But there is a potential miracle in this particular episode, as his father has arranged that in the case of his death a brilliant ophthalmologist will transplant his eyes into Joshua, allowing the boy to see for the first time.  Unfortunately, the father’s death occurred during one of the executions planned by Joshua’s father and his partner Ben Kirk.  Ben carried out the killing and so it is not only Joshua’s dad having his eyes removed the day Joshua gets new eyes, the murderer is too.  Even more unfortunately the executed-without-trial murderer also had a partner, Vincent Archer, and Vincent makes up a list of people he can kill to make Ben very very sorry he killed Vincent’s mate.  In a nice touch Cleave has Vincent leave Ben’s cat off the list, but his ex-partner’s son is way near the top.  So poor cursed Joshua not only has his new eyes to cope with and the bullies at his new school, but he also has a very nasty man trying to kill him.  There is a theme through the novel of Joshua’s favourite books – vampires and zombies – books where creatures unsuccessfully struggle against their true natures.  And A Killer Harvest certainly leans to the view that evil is carried out not by choice but as a result of who you are, or whose parts you may have received under anaesthetic.  It is creepy and extremely well plotted, you may guess some of the twists but I bet you don’t guess them all.  It is compelling reading and yet another great Kiwi thriller from Paul Cleave.

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Deception Island by Brynn Kelly – 2016

9780373789641.inddDeception Island won the 2017 KORU Published Romance Book of the Year Award, and deservedly so.  It is a Romance novel; a large part of it deals with two people on a tropical island, they should hate each other but between them sexual tension sizzles, and they frequently have to plunge into the lagoon to cool off, and hide parts of their bodies that are betraying lustful urges.  The two characters are evenly matched and it is all good fun and deliciously played out.  But this book is also a thriller, and a really interesting one.  The woman on the island has been kidnapped by the man.  She (Kelly) has been body doubling for an heiress who is supposed to be sailing solo around the world, keeping the socialite’s fans entranced via a low-resolution web-cam.  She is actually an ex-con with an abusive background and no time at all for men.  The guy (Rafe) kidnaps her for ransom in order to free his son from the clutches of an old boy-soldier comrade (Gabriel), who is threatening to recruit the boy in the same vicious way the two of them were when they fled their war-torn homes.  Rafe is a damaged man who has no time at all for anyone – except for his son.  The story blasts through the expected resolution of the two lost souls on the island to a sequence of events on a second island, where Kelly is given more texture to Rafe’s background and ends up fighting for her life, not knowing if she is in danger from just one of the ex-boy-soldiers or from them both.  When she accuses Gabriel of being an animal he responds: “No, my dear. I am human, and that is far worse.”  The book has themes of child abuse (both in war and in the home), people trafficking, and most of all whether abuse can take away a person’s capacity for love.  It is a high adrenaline read with a feisty female lead and I really enjoyed it.

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Fletcher of the Bounty by Graeme Lay – 2017

FletcheroftheBountyI really enjoyed Lay’s James Cook trilogy, from the first installment which adores Cook, through to the final depiction of a man gone mad.  I picked up Fletcher of the Bounty expecting a combination of the two – adoring of Christian and a depiction of an insane Bligh – needless to say my history of the events comes from various movies!  Lay’s portrayal is much more complex, following Christian from a youth whose prospects are thwarted by the fall of his family, through to his failed attempts at creating a Pacific utopia.  And Bligh from a fair leader with an honorable history, through to an insecure man conscious of his humble origins; a lonely and isolated man.  At the beginning, I was a bit distracted by cousin John seemingly introducing Christian as his nephew, and Christian being offered a job where he will “mess as an officer” and then his causing a kafuffle because “you’re just a gunner, and gunners don’t eat with officers.”  But I was soon absorbed in the unfolding of the tale, and horrified by the choices made and intentions expressed on the basis of roaring hormones, and the consequential abuse of any exotic woman.  It really is an appalling tale of a far from noble enterprise.  And Fletcher, although feeling guilty over the business of slavery that underpins his voyage to the Pacific, is certainly not pure in many of his intentions.  And his reasons for mutiny are nothing to be proud of when looked at through the lens of today’s sensibilities.  The point is made that any success that the Pitcairn settlement enjoyed was totally due to the women taken to the island.  Fletcher of the Bounty is a tale of how a life can become something so different from the one imagined in youth or in one’s yearnings – perhaps it is intentional that Lay has a fictional encounter between Fletcher Christian and William Wordsworth when they were both youths – Wordsworth growing up to realise the mess we make of our potentially perfect worlds: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.”  This book is not a pleasant read, but it is an interesting one – and one that brings another chapter of our not too glowing history to life.


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Catching the Last Tram by Susan Holt – 2017

What a charming book!  Catching the last tram is a romance that follows the usual Catching the last tramromantic arc – but not at all in a usual way.  Beth is a librarian who has moved into a new part of town, she is lonely and on the lookout for a fella – her last few relationships having not ended well.  Beth finds a likely prospect on her commuter tram, but her fixation on behaving in a way that will give her the best chance of pursuing a relationship, means she misses some very odd details about the tram and its regulars.  The reader is suspicious from the outset, which leads to a fun read as you try to work out exactly what might be going on.  Beth’s world is modern, but the style of writing is slightly not – until the cell phones came out I was thinking we were possibly in the 1950s, and the processes at Beth’s Library seem a bit dated as well – all of which added to the mystery.  I don’t want to give anything away, as the enjoyment of the book is in not knowing, but it gets pretty darn scary in a number of places.  Holt includes the theme of the evils of bullying, and the value of friendship, and a quite tongue in cheek reference to an environment where money trumps true love.  I still had a few questions at the end, but nothing that got in the way of this being a delightful read.

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The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington – 2017

the earth cries outRuth is a young girl, living with her family on her grandparent’s apple orchard in Nelson, when a terrible accident tears her family apart.  Ironically it also keeps her family together, as her parents were talking divorce before the accident, but afterwards her father decides they should take their grief to Irian Jaya.  He intends for them to work on community development programmes – building a hospital, introducing rabbit breeding and avocado growing, handing out health pamphlets.  Little Ruth packs up – armed with A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of New Guinea and The Swiss Family Robinson, gifts from her grandfather “Thus armed, he could send me anywhere.”  The novel is the story of Ruth’s time in the small mountain village of Yuvut.  Set in the 1990s, the civil unrest and uneasy mix of peoples in the village echoes Ruth’s inner turmoil:  Wracked with childhood guilt about what part she may have played in the accident that took the life of her little sister, and feeling apart from her unhappy parents, she laments: “In Yuvut you would try to guess who was on whose side, but there seemed to be too many sides and no one was ever on yours”.  The small and large cruelties inflicted by people on people, by people on animals, by  people on nature, and the suffering of people at the mercy of nature – these are all described; when Ruth is in a plane looking down at what appears  to be pristine forest, she can imagine the enormous devastation man has caused to the environment and “I imagined, too, the tinier forms of life, the dancing birds of paradise, the spirits waiting at the edge of things for their time to come, waiting for the water to get low enough in the swamps and expose all of Papua’s hidden secrets: its bodies of planes, of people.”  The book also deals with the difficulties of translation; the tenuous connections between those who don’t speak the same language, or who must rely on a third person to interpret.  At one point these connections are likened to Papuan rope bridges – “The ropes sometimes broke.  But people kept crossing them anyway.”  There are inserted sections throughout the book that are named for various plants, all of them relating to the horrors that have played out in Papua.  These inserted stories are from different years and perspectives – most seemingly gathered from a later time when Ruth is working with refugees – from one of them: “We’re all just sitting with our toes dipped in that dark water and the only thing separating mad from not mad is how far we let ourselves slip in.”  The Earth Cries Out is a sad book, but I found it really compelling, and Ruth a wonderful character.


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