Doors (and Windows) Blowing Off

(This review of Adrian McKinty’s latest crime novel, ‘I Hear the Sirens in the Street’ published by Serpent’s Tail originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 6, 2013).

According to Ian Rankin’s blurb for ‘I Hear the Sirens in the Street’, this crime novel ‘blew’ his ‘doors off’. To which I might add, ‘and it rattled my windows too’.  Given the context, Northern Ireland in the 1980s, the explosive metaphors are apt.

 Adrian McKinty has a way with words. Try this selection of bons mots from the first twelve pages: entropic, simulacrum, ostinato, glissando, dissonance and kakistocracy.  I had to look that last one up. It means  ‘government by the worst of men’.  I am now deeply indebted to McKinty for introducing this useful noun into my repertoire.  I intend to use it on a daily basis as the occasion demands.

 Now sample some of McKinty’s cultural references from Chapter One, bearing in mind the period setting: Chopin, Saint-Saens, Arvo Pärt, Paul Weller, The Bay City Rollers, Jackson Pollock, Dallas the TV series, The Outlaw of Gor and Willy Loman (the salesman who ‘died’ in Arthur Miller’s play) – or rather think  ‘Willy Lomanesque’ since with a deft suffix, McKinty turns a character into an adjective.  Inventiveness is part of the McKinty repertoire too.

 While the eclectic vocabulary and the cultural allusions are diverting in themselves, they are there in the service of a plot, and it’s not a bad one at that.   Detective Inspector Sean Duffy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Detective Constable McCrabbin have been called to a deserted factory where an overzealous, superannuated security guard opens fire on them despite their protestations:

 ‘We’re the police!!’

‘The what?’

‘The police!’

‘I’ll call the police!’

‘We are the police!

‘You are?’

 Note, McKinty has an ear for dialogue.

 Duffy and McCrabbin are tracking a blood trail, as reported by the nightwatchman, which leads them to dumpster containing a suitcase into which the torso of a well-preserved man in his 60s has been stuffed.

 As the security guard dry heaves behind them, the two professionals conduct their initial assessment of the corpse with the cool detachment of those only too familiar with dismembered bodies. But then this is bomb-blasted Northern Ireland, several years into a civil war.  The shops and cafes are boarded up, the parks and playgrounds are vandalised while ‘bored ragamuffin children of the type you often saw in Pulitzer-Prize-winning books of photography’ are sitting ‘glumly on the wall over the railway lines waiting to drop objects down onto the Belfast train’.  Forget the Pulizer-Prize winning photographer, McKinty has the ability to capture an image in words which say it all.

 Duffy’s daily routine is a grim one. Coffee and a quick check under his BMW for any ‘mercury tilt’ explosives before he heads off on the job of identifying the torso in the suitcase:  a task which is repeatedly diverted by other emergencies including, for  example, a ‘half hearted sort of riot’ on a depressed housing estate fuelled by petrol-filled milk bottles. It’s hard to get things done in the midst of an on-going battle.

 Throughout it all, Duffy keeps his cool – and for the most part, his sense of humour. Despite the shenanigans of civil war, this is a funny book which benefits from a knowledge of recent history. Take the fictional Duffy’s visit to the ‘real’ American DeLorean car factory in West Belfast based on convenient waste ground. The fact that John DeLorean went bankrupt in 1982 casts an ironic glow over an encounter which ends with Duffy seducing his secretary armed with a few nifty Starsky and Hutch moves and a bowl of spaghetti carbonara. 

 I Hear the Sirens in the Streets concludes with a teaser for the next in the series, And in the Morning I’ll be Gone.  Expect more doors to be effectively blown off.


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The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott

(This review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 2013)

Three historical crime books down, and Robert Gott has changed tack. The period is still the 1940s, but Gott’s series character, the would-be Shakespearian actor and wanna-be private eye, William Powers, is no longer mis-directing the action. Gone too is much of the sly humour which bubbled up in the gaps between the Powers self-aggrandising lines and the reader’s recognition of just what a twit he was.

The Holiday Murders started out as William Powers adventure, but following the advice of his publisher, Gott was encouraged to blow off the froth and treat the topic of murder more seriously. This meant abandoning the first person voice of a nitwit narrator, and opting instead for a more sober tone and a range of different perspectives.

And so we are introduced to Inspector Titus Lambert, head of the newly formed Homicide Unit, who is called out on Christmas Eve to what appears to be a particularly gruesome murder suicide. One man is nailed to the floor and the other dead in the bathroom of a palatial family home in East Melbourne. Titus is not entirely adverse to taking the call: he’s not that keen on Christmas or the prospect of listening to a new radio serial on 3UZ with his wife.

Already at the scene is Sergeant Joe Sable whose nagging self-doubt and Jewish ancestry soon become critical to a story which will encompass the anti-semitic undercurrents in the Australia First party and its fascist sympathisers. To illustrate the tenor of the times, Gott makes strategic use of references to, and quotations from, The Publicist, The Paper Loyal to Australia First which was indeed a real publication.

Following Sulari Gentill’s recent historical crime novel Paving the New Road which also dealt with pro-fascist movements in Australia around the time of World War II, it is tempting to speculate that Australian crime fiction, like a great deal of recent Scandinavian crime fiction, might be looking in the rear view mirror of a guilty past as the nation tries to come to terms with unsettling racist tendencies in the present. Would that as a crime fiction wave the Australian turn might be both so successful, especially since there is a prominent role for a smart female character – the redoubtable policewoman, Helen Lord, a modern woman if ever there was one.

Helen likes being a policewoman despite the fact that she is not allowed to wear a uniform and has to put up with rather a lot from the men with whom she works who see her as a novelty, ‘useful to them only occasionally in dealing with hysterical tarts and with wives who’d been beaten up by their hopeless, drunken husbands’. Joe thinks Helen looks a bit like Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Both are therefore very happy to go undercover as a clumsy couple of skaters on the Galciarium: an ice rink constructed on what is now the site of Southgate.

Lest this sound like too much spiffing fun, there’s a serial killer at work whose fascist sympathies are simply a cover for his pathological desire to hurt and maim. Joe has to get close, but a lot of innocent people are going to get badly hurt in the process.

What works best in The Holiday Murders are the characters and their nicely judged relationships. Titus, Joe and Helen are keepers. More please Mr Gott.


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Gone Girl – the crime book of the year?

(This review was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in July last year.  However, I’ve noted how many people have included it in their ‘best’ crime fiction lists of 2012 and thought I would include my review here after the book had just been published in Australia).

Gone Girl might be THE crime fiction book of the year. It’s already gone to Number One in the Amazon Top Twenty, suggesting someone else out there has noticed.  Be warned though, it may not be good for your health. I started it early morning in a hospital waiting room, eventually staggering across the finishing line one-eyed at 1 a.m. after a cataract op. This is book that resists anaesthesia.

Genrewise, Gone Girl is a hard to pin down:  part psycho-thriller, part literary tour de force, but is it really crime? There is a murder and there are two detectives, one rangy and thin ‘with a face that tapered severely into a dribble of a chin’; and the other ‘surprisingly ugly’ with ‘long lank hair the colour of a dust bunny’. But these characters hardly figure once they’ve been nailed in Flynn’s merciless prose. It’s what’s going on between the two main protagonists that commands the focus.  Labels soon become irrelevant.

Part One, ‘Boy Loses Girl’, opens with the handsome and affable Nick Dunne describing his wife Amy on ‘the day of’ her disappearance.  Blood on the kitchen floor and a deranged living room suggest Amy has been ‘snatched’ after a violent struggle from their McMansion.  It’s a soulless house they both hate on an estate of similar half-empty mausoleums post US mortgage meltdown in North Carthage, Missouri:  the kind of Mid Western town which doesn’t feature in the movies.  It’s where Nick grew up, where his twin sister and senile father still reside, and it’s hell on earth for the urbane Amy.

Nick wants us to like him, and he’s a likeable kind of guy with a canny way with words.   Not surprising since (like author Flynn herself), Nick was once a popular entertainment reviewer for a New York magazine ‘back in the days when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world’ he observes wryly post redundancy.

New York is where Nick met Amy whose diary entries recording their first encounter and blissful, wacky marriage interleave Nick’s account of her disappearance and the aftermath.  Amy wants us to like her too.  And again, what’s not to like. Amy is as beautiful as Nick is handsome, just as witty, and very rich, thanks to a series of books by her psychologist parents about a ‘fictional’ little girl called Amazing Amy who somehow always manages to do one better than the real Amy, if that were possible.

Beautiful Amy and handsome Nick would seem to be a perfectly matched pair. But this is where Flynn gets dark and dirty, since both are also consummate liars with dark secrets they are keeping from each other and the reader.   So when Amy disappears and Nick is suspected of her murder (it’s always the husband, right?), it’s game on. Prepare to be well and truly hornswoggled.

Flynn has suggested that one of her inspirations was Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf, a play by Edward Albee about power games in a toxic marriage performed on film by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor who ripped into each other with such gusto it was hard to watch.  Gone Girl ups the ante in the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ stakes ‘til we really don’t know who or what to believe.

None of what has gone before will quite prepare you for the most outrageous conclusion to any crime or other fiction I have ever encountered.  This is genre-busting work by a writer who clearly knows the rules but doesn’t want to play by them. Bravo.

Gone Girl,  Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 399

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Jo Nesbo, The Bat and Terra Nullius

For both Harry Hole and Craig Gisto, the protagonists of Norwegian Jo Nesbo and American James Patterson’s crime novels set in Australia, it all begins in the international arrivals hall of Sydney airport where so many first impressions are formed.

While Harry Hole (pronounced Hool-leh in Norwegian but mispronounced Holy by every Australian he meets), is greeted with a cheery ‘How are ya mate’ by a fiercely egalitarian female passport official, Gisto is there to meet a ‘beautiful’ American woman in his Ferrari 458 Spider which he drives out of the airport and onto the ‘sun-drenched freeway’ to the city. This is about as much local colour as we get in Private Oz, presumably courtesy of co-author Michael White, former UK popstar and now Australian resident.

Bar the street addresses, Private Oz is a book which could be set anywhere in the fantasy world of private detectives driving fast cars, underworld crime, vicious Triad gangs and a crazed serial killer targeting ‘yummy mummys’.

The Bat was Nesbo’s first crime novel, the character of Harry Hole apparently conceived during the long-haul flight to Australia. On arrival, Nesbo did some exploring and then bunkered down in a hotel room, writing a frenetic 18 hours a day accompanied by a volume of indigenous myths and legends discovered in the museum bookshop.

The result was Flaggermusmannen (literally The Batman) first published in 1997 which won a number of awards, including the Scandinavian Glass Key for Best Nordic Crime Novel of the Year. It’s therefore just a tad puzzling why it has taken so long for The Bat to be translated into English. Perhaps the publishers didn’t want to take a punt on an Australian setting for a Scandinavian crime novel? And it is all about the setting.

Nesbo describes Australia with the clear-sighted precision of the jet-lagged tourist for whom everything is both strange and disorienting. Hole is in Australia to investigate the death of a young Norwegian woman who has been found raped and strangled at The Gap. His guide is an indigenous detective called Andrew who takes the precaution of wearing a suit before steering Harry towards lunch at Doyle’s on Watson’s Bay where he begins to educate Harry on the politics of race in Australia. As Andrew tells him: ‘If you’re aboriginal the chances of ending up in prison are twenty-six times greater than for any other Australian. Chew on that, Harry Holy’.

Chew on it Harry does, as he encounters other indigenous characters, all of whom regale him with their myths, including that of the Narahdarn, the Bat, the aboriginal symbol of death. Harry’s steep learning curve continues as he encounters the concept of Terra Nullius on a journey which will take him from the red lamps and black mascara of Kings Cross into the flamboyant drag scene that is Oxford Street and back to the future that is Nimbin by way of the agricultural showgrounds of Lithgow and Jim Chivers travelling boxing troupe.

What we also get, and which will be of interest to those who have followed the subsequent adventures of Harry Hole, is more about Harry’s backstory: his always doomed love affairs, and the incipient alcoholism which overtakes him about half way through, precipitating a shift from the relatively up-beat and sunny into the depths of Nordic gloom which dominate the later books.

The Bat is not a great crime novel but it is an interesting one, providing a vivid snapshot of Australia at the time, with all that a snapshot captures and leaves out.

As for Private Oz, on the very last page there is a ‘signed’ letter from James Patterson describing his ‘proud’ support of the National Literacy Trust in the UK which is ‘dedicated to delivering exciting initiatives to encourage people to read and to help raise literacy levels’. With its short chapters (some of only one page – some stretching to three), its staccato style and telegraphic prose, I rapidly came to the conclusion that this is a book written for people who don’t read much, and as such, is highly successful.

It moves fast, there are four simultaneous plots and a plethora of briefly sketched characters. Here’s Gisto describing his right hand woman, Mary Clarke, who usually dresses Tomb Raider style in a sleeveless tee shirt and cargo pants ‘She’s a big muscly girl but has the reaction time of Usain Bolt off the blocks’, or his ‘tech guru’ Darlene in a red cocktail dress ‘that accentuated her incredible curves’. And there you have it: action, violence and spectacle. Private Oz is a blockbuster movie of a book.

This review was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald (December 29, 2012)

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Yarn-bombing and other Misdemeanours

[I review crime fiction for The Sydney Morning Herald. My editor has kindly given me permission to repost these here – in their original form, I might add. This one appeared on Saturday February 25, 2012]

Yearning for a virtual vacation? What about contemporary Byron Bay from the perspective of a diabetic freelance journalist or the former Kingdom of Laos circa 1978 with a septuagenarian coroner?

In Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerilla Knitters’ Institute, Maggie Groff has sly fun at the expense of ’Bonking Bay’: a place that hardly needs more tourists in the all too solid flesh clogging up the byways. And yet who would not be attracted to a town ‘already full of industrial-grade lunatics’, as it is described on the first page, albeit by someone who doesn’t live there.

Scout has a sister called Harper, a Russian Blue cat called Chairman Meow, a boyfriend on extended tour in Afghanistan for Reuters, and the hots for a local cop called Rafe. She is also a fully paid up member of the Guerilla Knitters’ Institute whose activities involve enlivening public spaces with unlikely knitted artworks.. Given our local post office has what looks like a knitted teacosy adorning the nearby junction box, I’m inclined to think ‘yarnbombing’ is about to go viral on the Eastern seaboard.

Apart from the adventures of the guerilla knitters, there are two other plot lines on the go. The first involves the arrival of a suspicious (is there any other kind) American cult headed by the kind of dodgy sexual predator any right-thinking woman would spot a mile off. But then right-thinking women are hardly ever the victims of such enterprises as Scout discovers as she goes undercover to get the lowdown on her story.

The second involves Scout’s sister Harper (onomastic codes courtesy of Miss Lee), who needs assistance sorting out some nasty bullying at the posh coeducational school where she teaches gymnastics.

It’s all a bit chick-litty, Janet Evanovichy and perilously close to cute – but fun, especially the knitting.

Also fun, in the South Asian tradition of Shamini Flint’s clever Inspector Singh series, or Nury Vittachi’s Feng Shui detective, is Colin Cotterill’s Slash and Burn which had me googling Laos to find out more about this extraordinary country – the economy of which now depends on tourism of the more embodied kind.

This is the eighth book in what has been a successful and critically acclaimed series for British born, Australian citizen, Cotterill, who lives in Thailand where he writes, cartoons and is involved in child protection.

The book opens in 1968 as a stoned American helicopter pilot flying a secret mission over Laos finds himself heading for a collision with the earth. Cut to ten years later and Dr Siri Paiboun and his wife, Madame Daeng (she of the luscious noodles), are contemplating the bloated body of the retired American Major leading their expedition to recover afore-mentioned pilot’s remains. It’s not a pretty sight – the Major’s lipstick is too red and his lingerie too tight. Cut to five weeks earlier and the back story.

Cotterill’s complicated time line obliges the reader to keep up, but the effort is well worth it. Dr Siri and his astute Laotian fellow travelers eventually emerge as ascerbic wits as they exchange plaisantries via an interpreter with an American delegation who understands neither their culture nor their language.

Inevitably, the reader is positioned on the side of Siri and Co., as they wend their way North across a countryside littered with unexploded cluster bombs: relics of the American/Vietnamese conflict during which Laos as the neutral intermediary, was more heavily bombed than anywhere else. Cotterill doesn’t labour the politics, but his comedy is always to the point.

Take the intellectual Siri whose efforts to understand the Americans involve reading Henry James in French. This exercise is soon abandoned when Siri decides that James appears to have learned his craft writing radio scripts for Thai soap operas. Not just an astute coroner, Siri may also be a keen literary critic.

He is also an unconvincing member of the ruling communist party who believes in the spirit world and the essential goodness of all human beings, with the exception of those in power. This is just as well since the spirit world proves to be an unlikely ally when dealing with corruption at the top. If you haven’t already, put Laos and Dr Siri high on your itinerary.

The books:

Slash and Burn
By Colin Cotterill
Quercus, pp. 374 $24.99
Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerilla Knitters’ Institute
By Maggie Groff
Macmillan, $24.99

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