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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Both Feet in Paradise by Andy Southall – 2021

A woman is waiting at Auckland International Airport for her parents to arrive. She thinks of them impatiently: “Dad off on his walks, and Mum busy with her cousins, her friends, her legions of family.” Adam is on an island somewhere in the Pacific, desperate to get home – his younger daughter, Naomi, is very sick, and he longs to be with her, but things keep obstructing his departure. Eve looks back on her life and her relationships. She is the daughter of a missionary to Samoa who never went back to England. Eve never wanted, and still doesn’t want, to leave the place of her birth, but she determines she must help Adam leave her island – her paradise.

Both Feet in Paradise is an extraordinarily powerful portrait of a man, Adam. His story is told in four sections, with the second and last told from Adam’s point of view. These parts are reminiscent of Ishiguro’s superb The Unconsoled, with the reader struggling to decipher what is going on as the protagonist’s world starts to make less and less sense. Adam remembers the Sagrada Familia in Paris, and he wonders if it was lira he and his wife used as currency there; warped memories of Parisian trips are frequent through the narrative. As are periods of panic as Adam remembers his younger daughter’s illness – her bleeding nose having been the first warning sign.

Adam has nightmare visions of another man usurping him as husband to Ruth, as father to Naomi and his elder daughter, Natalie. Time is Adam’s enemy; when he misses his flight, he scrambles to make new arrangements. But there doesn’t seem to be a working airport on the island. He remembers the general details of many international trips, but not the specifics of how he got to this island. He knows he has visited many countries, but his passport is blank. He starts losing all evidence of his planned flight, documents that would help him re-book. He sees a stranger behind a doorway: “an older man, unshaven, with a scuffed black Nike cap wedged on his head” – it is his reflection.

Everything is alien and unknown to Adam, but also oddly familiar. There are many people who appear helpful, but don’t help. And then he meets Eve – Adam’s temptress, his bully, his only friend. She is ominous, overly familiar, very presuming. When Adam’s credit cards start being declined, she is his saviour. He confides in her; he is an entomologist studying the local butterflies, he urgently needs to get home. He needs to phone his wife to explain why he wasn’t on the plane when she was waiting at the airport, but whenever he gets through it is someone else on the line – always the same person – “I think the world’s gone mad.”

The third section of Both Feet in Paradise is Eve’s story. Her tale is one of powerlessness but contentment. She visited Aotearoa to train as a nurse, and once home she never wanted to leave again. She was manipulated by someone, and the result was a daughter, Naomi. An engineer working on a dam enters her life, and takes her to New Zealand, to Paris. He is good with Naomi, but repeatedly puts her in danger. A nosebleed is an indication that one misadventure is potentially life threatening. Eve lives with the traditional stories of the island, one of which is of Sina who befriends a young eel, who grows and relentlessly pursues her. But Eve is afa Igilisi – as well as the traditional stories, she also understands the “humourless pālagi logic”.

Eve is fascinated by Tusitala Robert Louis Stevenson, a pālagi who visited Samoa and never left. When Eve’s daughter Naomi and her partner Rob visit, they have problems leaving. Her father never left. And of course, there’s Adam. Where do people belong? Where is home? When our lives move on, through choice or trauma, how accurate are our memories? “I’ve never been good with numbers.” Many of Adam’s memories circle around the circumstances of key events in his life – meeting Ruth, Naomi’s birth. Tusitala is a word for storyteller, and Both Feet in Paradise considers where stories come from, and how we can become lost in them.

The descriptions of Samoa are at once peaceful and beautiful, and dark and menacing. There are waterfalls and lush flora, but also the feral dogs that snap and threaten once you leave the town environs – “Why are they so aggressive?”. The imagery of the Garden of Eden helps the warping reality – Eve initially appearing as a seductive temptress, “Don’t worry. We’ll work something out.” Her taking Adam to her favourite places on the island. Him taking her to his butterfly grove – where she is bitten by a ‘snake’. Adam’s situation is one that many novels have attempted to deal with, and for me it is one of the most moving and convincing portrayals: “Yet sadly, no longer am I a part of my own life. Somehow I’ve become lost. No matter how hard I try, I can’t return.” A poignant and haunting book.

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To Kill a Conman by Kevin Berry – 2021

Stuart Baker might not want to work for money, but he certainly puts his all into running his multiple cons. They range from extortion to giving less to beggars than he takes from them, and they cover every type of scam in between. His biggest worry is remembering to park his Lamborghini where his impoverished ex-wife can’t see it, that is until he hacks PI Danny Ashford’s credit card. That is probably the moment things turn south for Stuart Baker.

Danny runs Quake City Investigations out of his flat in the still shaky alternate history Christchurch. It’s not just the streets and buildings that are crumbling – the cops are hopeless, and the banks are as dishonest as the many criminals who consider Quake City their patch. Danny can’t afford his rent, or the payment for the new car he needs after his last one was trashed. He acquires an Audi from a dealer, knowing better than to grill him about the car’s provenance.

When lawyer Julie arrives at the agency, wanting Danny to recover the money a fraudster has conned from her, he gladly takes the case. And the coincidences start piling up. Danny discovers he and Julie have been ripped off by the same guy. The Audi used to belong to a thief who Stuart engaged to steal some valuable software. And when Danny acts on behalf of his new neighbour, Chelsea, an exotic dancer at 88 Club, warning her boss to stop harassing her, more connections fall into place.

All is going well with the investigation until Danny ends up at the police station being interviewed – there has been a murder and Danny is the prime suspect. Fortunately for Danny, Julie turns out to be a criminal lawyer and she stops Danny being arrested, if only so he can keep working on getting her money back. Deepa Banwait, a journalist, and crime-busting partner of Danny’s is happy to help, for a story. And Chelsea is generous in letting Danny and his cat Torquemada hang out at her place to avoid the police – and the increasingly rent-needy landlady.

Pressure is mounting – Danny needs to solve not only the confidence crimes but also a murder, and he must do so in time to pay the rent, pay off the car, and avoid getting sent to prison. And both Julie and Chelsea are starting to act very oddly. Then there is another murder, and once again the clues point to Danny. Danny has no trust in the police, he knows he must prove himself innocent. And he must resolve the cons so all the victims get what they deserve, as the Financial Crimes Unit will skim some of the money, and the victims will end up with nothing.

Despite the police only having Danny in their sights for the murders, there is a growing number of other suspects. There’s the bank teller who has worked out where Stuart’s money comes from, his struggling ex-wife who has twin boys to support, a woman whose strip club started failing when 88 Club opened down the street, and the owner of the ripped off software company, who just happens to be a star kickboxer who has the wherewithal to trace extorting phone calls.

To Kill a Conman continues the Quake City Investigations series. Readers who enjoy the cartoonish settings won’t be disappointed, we still have the Richter Mail, Crumblo Street, Ricketyton, etc. Apart from the police interview transcripts, the narrative is first person Danny, and there are other noir tropes: the attractive woman arriving at the down and out PI’s offices needing help, the constant rain, the PI being played … There are enough clues for the reader to work out whodunnit – you will be guessing to the end – and there is the added interest in how Danny will sort out his financial woes, and those of the other victims of Stuart Baker.

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The Final Call by Jen Shieff – 2021

Carmel is approaching her 40th birthday. She is noticing the odd wrinkle, and she occasionally feels unattractive. She is torn between her job at the Grand Palais – and her relationship with Rita, the madam – and the possibility of going into a legitimate business and a romantic relationship, with Istvan, the barman and handyman at the brothel. But a gruesome murder, threatening phone calls, a wayward nephew, and a minx who seems intent on supplanting her, give Carmel plenty of other things to worry about.

Carmel is from a Catholic family whose mother died impecunious when her children were young. Carmel and her sister Tess both work at the brothel. Maxine, the youngest daughter, owns and works at a furriers. Jonathan the younger brother is a lawyer and is struggling with coming out as gay, even though his family and colleagues have known for a long time. The other brother, Felix, is a Catholic priest. Relationships range from close to virtually estranged, but there is a get together for Maxine’s birthday – and an unexpected announcement.

Carmel’s mother had not been poor as her children thought, and as the youngest child is now turning 35, there is a large inheritance to be divided between the siblings. Apart from a strange interaction between Jonathan and Tess, and an outburst from Maxine’s teenage son Gabriel, the birthday drinks are not too confrontational. Maxine is excited, as she has booked to go on a scenic flight for her birthday. And the surprise windfall will make Carmel’s decision about buying a hotel with Istvan simpler. But the next morning the discovery of a violent murder throws everything into disarray.     

Carmel is desperate to know who committed the murder and why “… if there was no reason, the silence would last forever, the dead person floating in Bardo without a guide, never finding rest”. She is relieved that Inspector Allan Maynard is given the case, as he has history and a good relationship with Rita and Carmel. But there are so many suspects – Jonathan is still acting strangely, Gabriel is turning into a loose cannon, some of the high-class clients of the brothel might have motive, especially the mysterious Simon Peterson. And there is Carmel’s ex-husband Mike, a bit of a creep who is turning up everywhere.

Carmel even starts to wonder about one of her long-term clients and friends, a priest who enjoys re-experiencing God’s forgiveness by frequently transgressing. And her nephew is a worry – Gabriel is teetering on a knife edge between teenage hormones and mental instability. He is prone to Pentecostal enthusiasm and spouts bible quotes – especially ones aimed at shaming Carmel and Tess. And then there’s Maria. Maria is a young woman who used to run the hotel that Carmel is in the process of buying. She moves into the Grand Palais and quickly starts to usurp Carmel – in style, in behaviour, and in Rita’s bed.

Readers of Shieff’s previous books: The vanishing act and The gentlemen’s club, will recognise many of the characters in The final call. And they will also recognise the mix of historical detail (the Erebus disaster, the wrongful conviction of Arthur Allan Thomas) and good old Golden Age style crime – there are even family gatherings complete with policeman. There are lots of 1979 cultural references, and maybe a bit too much detail of clothes and accessories – although they do provide flamboyance to the cast. And strongly present in the novel is the unfairness of the laws of the day.

Carmel is “a woman’s woman”, despite herself she is bewitched by Maria. She loves Rita, but knows no woman could replace Rita’s true love, the deceased Glenys. There are no laws against women such as Carmel, but there are laws against men such as Jonathan – men “Scuttling into their own home with their heads down, keeping the blinds drawn, all the time worrying about what the neighbours might say.” And there are laws against sex workers – when the police go to search the brothel, there is a great scramble to hide the money stored in cases under the beds.

Maynard detains then releases a number of suspects, but still there are threatening phone calls and letters, warning Carmel she will be the next victim. She finds out Maxine also received a warning letter, and that both Jonathan and Felix have been attacked: “What on earth is going on? Are we cursed?” But the crime is eventually solved, and in a satisfying way. Carmel makes her decisions about her professional and personal life, and is clearly still going to be calling the shots in her relationship with Istfan. The final call is an atmospheric murder mystery with fascinating characters and a great setting.  

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The Leonard Girls by Deborah Challinor – 2022

It’s 1969, Joanne Leonard is at university, playing in a folk trio, a member of the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM), and fiercely opposed to the war in Vietnam. Jo’s sister, Rowie, is an army nurse passionate and excited about her up-coming tour to Vietnam, where she will be caring for young Kiwis and Australians stationed there. One of those young men is their distant cousin, Sam Apanui, doing his job as a New Zealand soldier in Vietnam. It is a job he took to avoid ending up working the freezing works like his brothers, but it is still a job he is proud of. The Vietnam War will change all their points of view, and all their lives.

When Sam takes a brief trip home to visit his seriously injured Dad in hospital, he meets Jo again, who sings folk songs at the father’s bedside “If Sam had had a hammer, he would have put it through Jo’s guitar.” They are attracted to each other despite their opposing views, which over coffee they can’t seem to avoid: “I didn’t sign up to kill people. That’s not why people join the army.”

Sam returns to duty and much of the The Leonard girls is set in the steamy heat, ubiquitous dust, and squelchy mud of Vietnam. But this is not the surreal nightmare of the Vietnam of American popular culture – the human ear garlands and the drug induced manias – that is carefully disposed of early in the novel. This is the Vietnam War as experienced by the ANZAC troops. Not seen through drug glazed eyes, but with eyes that try to rationalise the real horrors they witness.

Aotearoa in the 1960s was probably no more racist or misogynist than it is today, but these prejudices were more blatant, and more generally accepted. Rowie is soon disillusioned with Vietnam, and she is trying to find a way to endure her year of service. She falls into racist thinking, even trotting out the persistent “they don’t value human life as much as we do” trope when talking about the Vietnamese. She comes face to face with the boys whose bodies have been maimed by the war, and she finds few people with whom she can share her shock.

Unlike Rowie, Sam has Eddie, his mate from childhood, to confide in. Even though in charge of separate groups of soldiers, they share a tent and spend all their time together. They also share their thoughts on the war, their fellow-soldiers, and Sam’s deepening feelings for Jo, with whom he has taken up a long-distance relationship. He is pleased when he hears she has left the folk trio, Grafton Road Players, and that she has joined another band, Dark Horse.

Jo’s university studies have taken a back seat while she pursues her singing. She has gotten off-side with other members of the PYM, being able to separate the political decisions behind New Zealand’s participation in the war and the young men at the front – something the other members don’t seem able to do. And her growing affection for Sam, with a dollop of fate, sees her join Dark Horse, a group headed to Vietnam to entertain the ANZACs.

When Jo reunites with Rowie in Vietnam, she is shocked at the change in her sister, who she always thought of as the perfect one in the family. Rowie is smoking and drinking, she has suffered a personal tragedy “love and lust always burn much, much hotter in a war zone”. Rowie now recognises that every death is a “ripple in a pond” of sorrow. She is finding it hard to manage the cognitive dissonance of her experiences and her task: “Nurses provide professional care and the comfort of a well-made bed, a soothing voice and reassuring encouragement.”

Rowie has visited a nearby orphanage, full of babies and children left by women who have been raped by foreign troops, or who have fallen pregnant while working as prostitutes. And she witnesses the mysterious birth deformities of many of the babies – but refuses to believe the head of the orphanage, Sister Theresa’s, belief that they were caused by American defoliants. But Rowie is starting have her doubts about everything. She doesn’t understand those who enjoy the work at the army base “It’s weird. I think being close to death, living on the edge like this all the time, makes some people think they are really alive.”

Jo certainly feels the immediate threat of death during one genuinely scary drive from the main base Nui Dat, where Sam is stationed, to Vung Tau, where Rowie’s hospital is. She also experiences the difference from the ANZAC bases when visiting the U.S. Military Base at Long Binh. It is a tiny encapsulation of the U.S. – racial tension among the troops, and the excitement and dangers brought by free market enterprise. Jo’s stint in Vietnam is hot and confusing, both for her and Sam. He thinks about life on the road for members of a band “in which you tolerated meagre pay, endless travel, and unstable personal relationships. He nearly smiled as he realised he’d just summed up being in the army.”

The novel considers the moral ambiguity of war, how in the thick of conflict, the right course of action is not always the safest one. Sam does a 180 on his view of his job: “it aptly described what they were: hunters and killers of men.” The Leonard girls doesn’t shy from the toll that the war has on the characters, both physically and mentally. And it backgrounds the story of the war with men trying to deal with serious trauma back home – Sam’s dad with his multiple workplace injuries, and Jo and Rowie’s father who lost an arm in the 2nd World War.

The book is full of the 1960s – Mum deodorant, beehive hairdos, smoking on commercial flights, Indian restaurants unknown in New Zealand. And the lingo – “what a dag”, “grouse”. In the text te reo words not having macrons. The Leonard girls is the fourth and final installment of Challinor’s The restless years series. Through the book are characters and family lines we know from previous books. At the end, a cycle is played out that nicely finishes the Vietnam arc. Then there is the Epilogue, which fills in some details and furthers the stories of characters we have just read about, but also refers to situations outside the scope of the book, but which either finish off plot lines running through the series, or maybe are set ups for a further series.

Being part of a series means we don’t get to explore some of the aspects of the story a reader might want to, such as the Agent Orange atrocities. Challinor manages this by an Author Note, which gives the reader copious information about the Vietnam War and aspects of it touched on in the story. The Leonard girls can be read as a stand-alone or as the conclusion to a series. Whichever way you read it, it is a moving and very human-scale consideration of the moral complexities of war.

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