Monday, April 27, 2009

Review: A Beautiful Place to Die

Author: Malla Nunn
Publisher: Pan Macmillan (Aust)
This edition published 2008
ISBN: 9781405038775
399 pages

South Africa in 1952 is not a comfortable place to live. Apartheid laws have been introduced just a few years earlier and the National Party are tightening their stranglehold on the country with their vision of what South Africa should be. The security forces are being granted more powers and are exercising them freely.

When an Afrikaner police officer is murdered in the small town of Jakob’s Rest, Detective Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate. The dead man Willem Pretorious is from a prominent family in the district . As an English South African, Cooper is regarded with hostility and suspicion. Cooper’s task is made more difficult and dangerous when the Security Branch decides to take over the case. They have no interest in finding out who was responsible for Pretorious’ death; certainly not if the killer is white. They just want to link the murder to the Communist party and they don’t care how they go about it.

Cooper is out of place in South Africa. He is a man of principle who doesn’t see skin colour and hates the apartheid laws; an attitude that endangers his life as the sons of Pretorious attempt to take the law into their own hands assisted by the Security Branch.

A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE is a book that paints a vivid picture of life under apartheid in the early 1950s. And that picture isn’t pretty. Suspicion and hatred, fear and paranoia are never far from the surface and racially motivated violence ever-present. One wrong move; a look in the wrong direction can cost a life.

The author, Malla Nunn manages to infuse the book with with a strong sense of what it must have been like to live under racial segregation laws without sacrificing plot. As crime fiction it works beautifully. As a commentary of the time it pulls no punches and spares no feelings in portraying supporters of Apartheid as arrogant with a sense of entitlement that they were born to rule. A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE is impressive on every level, particularly more so when you realise this is Nunn’s first novel. I can’t wait to read more.

Malla Nunn was born in Swaziland, Southern Africa, and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. She is a filmmaker with three award-winning films to her credit and is currently at work on her second novel.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Review: THE CORONER - M. R. Hall

Publisher: Pan Macmillan (Aust)
This edition published: March, 2009
ISBN: 9780230709843
422 pages

Jenny Cooper is recovering from a bitter divorce. Her husband has custody of their teenage son and Jenny suffered a breakdown. For fifteen years she worked as a lawyer in family court; a job that was emotionally and physically draining. When she is offered the position of coroner for the Severn Vale, she jumps at the chance. A job where she can remain detached and not become emotionally involved is just what she needs.

On her first day, Jenny discovers that her predecessor, who died suddenly of a heart attack, seems to have been less than diligent in two cases. There is a teenage girl dead of an apparent overdose and a fourteen-year-old boy who appears to have hanged himself in a juvenile detention centre. No one seems to have bothered to dig deeper. The pathologist’s report is so brief as to be almost negligent. The boy’s mother insists her warnings to the authorities about her son’s state of mind were all ignored. When Jenny decides to re-open the inquest she is met with hostility and aggression from many quarters. Are they just trying to cover-up that they didn’t do a thorough job or are there more sinister motives?

How do you find books to read? For many, it’s the tried and true. Authors you’ve enjoyed in the past. For those of us active in online reading groups, new authors are frequently discovered by word of mouth. It isn’t very often that a new author comes my way about whom I know nothing at all. Usually if they are good, there is a buzz about them. People start talking about the book they’ve just read and others pick up on it. I hadn’t heard a word about M.R. Hall’s, THE CORONER so I had no real expectations that this was anything other than just another run-of-the-mill crime novel. You know the type of thing. You read it and a couple of weeks later you’ve forgotten most of the plot. I am happy to admit that this time my expectations were entirely wrong.

THE CORONER is an impressive debut novel. Hall’s portrayal of Jenny; a middle-aged woman struggling with life and career is engaging. She is a very flawed individual who makes mistakes but you can’t help but be on her side. The book is long: 420 pages, but there is enough substance and pace in the plot to sustain that length. There is also some social commentary. Some of the comments about the privatisation of detention centres leave the reader in little doubt about the author’s feelings on the subject.

If, like me, you haven’t heard of M.R. Hall before, don’t let that put you off. Do try it. I read THE CORONER in just two afternoons. I couldn’t put it down. I just had to know what was going to happen next. I can’t think of a higher recommendation than that.

MR Hall is a screenwriter and producer and former criminal barrister, a profession he left due to a constitutional inability to prosecute. The Coroner is his first novel. Educated at Hereford Cathedral School and Worcester College, Oxford, he lives in the Wye Valley in Monmouthshire with his wife, journalist Patricia Carswell, and two sons.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: GREASING THE PINATA - Tim Maleeny

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
This edition published: 2008
ISBN: 9781590585665
334 pages

Cape Weathers is a P.I. He is hired by the daughter of a former senator to find both her father and her wayward brother who have both gone missing. Cape doesn’t really want to take the case; he has no time for politicians, former or otherwise. But he can never resist a pretty face.

Along with his companion Sally, a Hong Kong Triad trained martial arts expert, Cape journeys to Mexico where the body of the Senator is found eaten by a alligator at a golf course. Now that really is putting the hazard into water hazard.

While investigating what happened to the senator our hero manages to be kidnapped, alienate the local police, become entangled with drug dealers, and steal from the mafia. Not exactly a quiet day at the office.

The author, Tim Maleeny has chosen to go down the wise-cracking PI route and it does serve him pretty well. What doesn’t is a plot that is a little too long on action and short on depth. There are only so many times Cape can fall into the hands of the bad guys and be rescued by Sally before it begins to become a little stale.
GREASING THE PINATA does have some genuinely humourous moments, However, the fight scenes and action sequences overshadow them. My opinion is coloured because I’m not really an action fan. It’s fine on the movie screen, but for the most part I find it tedious in books.

If you’re looking for a quick pacey read, then GREASING THE PINATA might work for you. If you want something with more substance and credibility you may find yourself disappointed.

Review: CARVED IN BONE Jefferson Bass

Publisher: Harper Collins
This edition published: 2006
ISBN: 9780060759810
343 pages

On the campus of the University of Tennessee there is a research facility that is unique. It is surrounded by a high fence to keep out the public. The faculty of the university prefer not to park near the fence. When the wind blows in the wrong direction they can smell the research. The facility is the University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility, better known as The Body Farm. This facility researches body decay. This is the setting for Jefferson Bass’ first novel, CARVED IN BONE.

Bill Brockton is a senior anthropologist at The Body farm. He divides his time between lecturing and consulting with law enforcement and legal agencies. Bill is in the field testing the theory behind the stabbing of a murder victim when he is approached by a Deputy Sheriff from Cooke County. They have found a body in a cave and they want help. Brockton readily agrees and finds himself in a remote Appalachian Mountains community confronted with hillbilly characters deeply distrustful of both outsiders and the law. The Sheriff isn’t very co-operative either.

Jefferson Bass is the nom de plume for two writers: Jon Jefferson, a journalist, writer and documentary film maker and Dr Bill Bass, the founder of the Body Farm. Bass’ expert knowledge of his subject shines through in every page. Have you ever wondered how bones are de-fleshed* for examination? Bass will tell you in detail. You will either find it macabre, grisly and deeply unsettling or macabre, grisly and totally fascinating. I happily admit to falling into the latter category.
Forensic based crime fiction has become very popular in recent years. CARVED IN BONE is a worthy entrant in this sub-genre. Not only is it chock full of scientific details of forensic anthropology in easily understandable terms, it is also one terrific yarn. The characters have depth and the setting is so well described it is easy to visualise.

I loved the book and found myself reading aloud passages that describe some of the forensic procedures, much to the chagrin of some of my family.

If you’ve read similar books in the past and have found them wanting in some areas, give CARVED IN BONE a try. With the immensely likeable but flawed Dr Bill Brockton and his associates, CARVED IN BONE puts authors like Cornwell and Reichs in the shade. I enjoyed the book so much I have taken steps to get hold of their second Brockton novel, FLESH AND BONE.

Jefferson Bass has an official website, where you can not only find the other books in the series, but also the individual works of both authors and a tour of The Body Farm.

*For the record. To de-flesh bones, you boil them, adding a dash of bleach (to help mask the smell) and a liberal sprinkle of Adolf’s Meat Tenderizer to speed up the process.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Interview with Michael Stanley author(s) of A CARRION DEATH

 A Deadly Trade cover

I was lucky enough to interview one half of the team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip who created Detective “Kubu” in A CARRION DEATH and the soon-to-be-released A DEADLY TRADE

Michael Stanley, welcome and thank you for your time.
Co-writing a novel is not very common. How did that come about?

Stan and I met in Johannesburg about 25 years ago, but we became good friends in Minneapolis where Stan was working and I spent time on sabbatical from my university in Johannesburg. We shared a love of Africa’s wild areas. Stan is a pilot and we took several fly-in trips into such parts. The premise for the “perfect” murder was that you can completely destroy a body by feeding it to hyenas – no body, no case. I once saw a pack of twelve hyenas convert a small wildebeest to nothing but horns and upper skull in one night. We needed a setting which was wild and isolated yet not part of a controlled area such as a national park. Botswana still has many areas like that. We chatted about writing a novel together over many years – while we were writing academic and non-fiction works jointly with other people.

How about writing as a team? How does that work? Do you each have set tasks or is it a process of to-ing and fro-ing and refining?

It’s very much the latter. When we started, it seemed a natural thing to do and we just worked it out as we went along. Now we’ve developed a team strategy which we think works quite well. Upfront, we work out a map of the plot, a synopsis, and the timelines. We try to get together to do that, and it takes a considerable amount of time. After that, it seems there are usually areas where one of us has a particular interest or a mental picture of what’s going to happen. He’ll write a first draft, and that is the starting point for multiple iterations. This phase we do by email interspersed with long internet telephone conversations. Eventually we go through each section independently to make sure it’s smooth, stylistically coherent, and that the characters’ behaviors are consistent from one place to another. Perhaps surprisingly it seems to work! People tell us they can’t discern any changes of style as they read.

Did you find that also?

I found the writing totally seamless. In fact, I didn't become aware until after finishing the book that it actually had two authors and I was surprised to learn that. I read a book written by two authors the other year and I did notice one or two tiny inconsistencies. One was a dog described as having a stumpy tail and in a subsequent chapter the dog's tail is swishing. I found none at all in A Carrion Death. Then again if a book grabs you sufficiently into its world, you are totally immersed and don't spend any time looking for anything like that.

Ah, I missed the swishing tail! We’ve had our examples. When Kubu landed at the farmhouse and told the pilot to keep the helicopter going, we had a piece about the dead stillness of the desert. One proof reader commented dryly: “Quiet Chopper!”

Let's talk about A CARRION DEATH. Where did you find Detective Kubu? He's a very gentle man, was that a conscious decision you made?

Kubu is very interesting to us. He wasn’t even meant to be the protagonist. That was going to be the ecologist – Bongani. But we obviously needed the police involved, and someone had to investigate. Kubu just clambered into his Land Rover and set off singing into the Kalahari. He wasn’t planned; he just developed along what seemed a natural path for him. And he firmly shouldered Bongani out of the lead role! One of our reviewers has suggested that he has developed much more in the second novel. He is gentle but, like his namesake, he can become dangerous...

When you wrote A CARRION DEATH did you envisage it would become a series?

We loved Kubu, and we discovered that others – such as our agent and people we persuaded to read drafts of the book – loved him too. So much seemed to be behind and ahead of him, it seemed we needed to explore it more fully. Our publisher agreed, giving us a contract for two Kubu books at the outset. We’re now busy on the third. In some ways it’s a darker book exploring the fault line between different population groups in Botswana – specifically the issue of the Bushman people. But it’s still a murder mystery, and Kubu – and, we hope, the reader – is kept guessing!

I found two titles for your next book. “A Deadly Trade” and “The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu” Is there a reason for that?

Actually, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu was our original title, and Harper Collins liked it. Headline in the UK felt it sounded too like a McCall Smith book, perhaps too ‘cozy’. So after a few hundred attempts we came up with one everyone liked. But Harper was adamant that they wanted to go with the old title. So there it is...

Can you tell us about the plot for your next book a A DEADLY TRADE?

Kubu has the lead role of course, although out of his usual environment. The scene is a small tourist camp set in the lush riverine forest along the border between Botswana and Namibia, packed with elephants and bird life. The camp is called Jackalberry after the huge lush trees of that name which grow in the area. One morning the guests wake up to discover one of their number viciously murdered and two others missing. The murdered man's name is Goodluck Tinubu, and it turns out that he has "died" before - in the Rhodesian war twenty years before. (Hence the US title for the book.) Kubu has a new sidekick up on the Linyanti - a tall, thin man who is finding his feet in the CID. He learns from Kubu and stands on his own two feet. When he's on dry land that is... Of course Mabaku is around and he also has problems of his own.

Joy plays a much bigger role when the baddies have a go at Kubu. She has to do some sleuthing of her own. There are the guests at the camp, who aren't as innocent as they seem, the camp owner and her sidekick, the cook at the camp with a tame go-away bird, and a lady shop owner in Gaborone with eclectic selling habits, some nasties operating from Zimbabwe... No wonder
the book got long!

Placing the camp was not easy. Much of the area is national park, and some of it is quite open rather than the way we described it. We have some very knowledgeable friends who guide trips in Botswana - Peter and Salome. When they read the setting, they immediately said they knew the spot. Salome took us there. After a long, rough trip for several days off the beaten track in
an open Land Rover, we saw that they had been correct. The river worked its way lazily between reeded banks, birds were in abundance, as were crocodiles and hippos. We were stunned by how closely it resembled the imaginary location of our camp.
"Well," I said, trying to be clever, "yes, okay, but where are the Jackalberry trees?" Salome looked pained. "You're standing under one," she commented,pointing to a gorgeous, lush Example spreading above us...

Over the past year or so there seems to have been an upsurge of crime novels set in Africa. Do you think this is pure coincidence or does the success of writers like Alexander McCall Smith act as a spur for other writers to do something similar?
Are there many African crime writers emerging (as opposed to those who set their books there)? I read Deon Meyer's DEVIL'S PEAK earlier in the year and loved the depth of his writing. Are African crime writers finding their voice do you think? Are there any you've read and enjoyed?.

The question about African writers is a very good one. I think the answer is: yes, definitely. I think Deon Meyer is an excellent crime writer (an opinion shared by Michael Connelly by the way). ( He actually wrote the book in Afrikaans where it had another title.) I think that the resurgence of good mystery fiction writing in South Africa has come from the relief of getting past the Apartheid and past-Apartheid era where any “serious” writer had to address those issues. Last month a collection of mystery stories by 17 SA writers (including Michael Stanley) was published by Macmillan under the title “Bad Company”. The stories range from urban slum crime to rural Botswana. It’s a who’s who of SA crime writers (and good reading to boot!) Unfortunately I doubt it is available in Australia. You’d need to order from an internet bookstore like

Having said that, I believe that there was a surge of interest in novels set outside the US (within the US) around 9/11 for a variety of reasons that we could only speculate on. We had good offers from two publishers there and interest from a third when our agent offered A Carrion Death.

Do you read much crime fiction yourselves and if so who are your favourites

Finally, yes, both Stan and I read a lot of crime fiction and try to follow all our SA colleagues as well as a variety of other writers. My first choice is John Le Carre. But we’re pretty catholic. William Kent Kruger, Fred Vargas, Larsen, PD James, Louise Penny. I’d put Deon Meyer in that company too!

You can keep up with the doings of Detective Kubu and his creators at Detective Kubu's website at

A DEADLY TRADE is due to be published in Australia and the U.K. in May, 2009. The authors will be visiting Australia very soon, so keep an eye out for them. I for one am looking foward to reading A DEADLY TRADE. Review to come.

The authors hard at work in the Chobe area.

Sunday Salon: Review: THE BAD POLICEMAN

by Helen Hodgman
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: : 18650843502

How do you describe a book that doesn’t fit? How do you say this is a book where nothing momentous happens, yet it does? How do you describe a tragedy that is as funny as it is tragic? How do you nail jelly to a wall?

Constable Blainey is a uniformed police officer stationed in a town 100 kilometres West of Sydney (i.e. The Blue Mountains). He is divorced, lives alone and isn’t close to his only (grown up) son. Blainey is a poet in his spare time. He has had a small book of verse published, but he’s a bit self-conscious about that. He regards his partner, Steve as his only real friend.

THE BAD POLICEMAN is Blainey’s own inner dialogue with himself. The people he meets, the things he witnesses, decisions he makes all pile on top of each other to bring him to where we meet him in the book. He sees corruption around him, both small and large. He debates with himself which he can act on and which he can’t. This leads to even more inner turmoil. We see Blainey as he sees himself, stripped bare of all pretence or facade. What Blainey sees in himself he doesn’t like. A number of things happen that effect his life which leads him to a crisis point.
Blainey takes us through his days from his own point of view. At times his thoughts are confused and confusing; almost stream of consciousness. The book is many things, often funny, sometimes heartbreakingly tragic but it is never dull. THE BAD POLICEMAN poses the obvious question. Is Blainey a bad policeman, a bad man, both or neither? The reader must make up their own mind.

At just 173 pages THE BAD POLICEMAN isn’t a long book, but what it lacks in length it sure makes up for in substance. I found it

SUNDAY SALON: When you read a knock-your-socks-off book.

It doesn't happen very often, but when it does; WOWEE. One of those unexpected books. You have it sitting there. Perhaps you don't even know how you came to have it. What brought you to buy/borrow this book? There are other books pressing, ones by authors you know you always enjoy,the ever-growing pile of review books, but this little book by the author you have never heard of sits, waiting patiently.

It's not a thick book, so you decide, what the heck. It's due back next week so why not dip into it to see what it was that called to you in the first place.

And there is it. You're hit between the eyes. This little book has something. Something you can't describe. But it gets you where you live. It knocks your socks off.

I've just finished reading one such book. It's an obscure little offering by an author previously unknown to me. It's called THE BAD POLICEMAN by Helen Hodgman.

Isn't it a joy when you find an unexpected treasure like this. What was your most recent knock-your-socks-off book? Please share.
(review to follow)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Addendum to Bait.

Nick Brownlee informs me that the follow-up to Bait, entitled BURN is due out in the UK late June and that he is currently working on a 3rd in the series, MACHETE.

Something to look forward to.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

SUNDAY SALON: Review BAIT - Nick Brownlee

Publisher: Piatkus, 2009
ISBN: 9780749940591

As a boy, George Malewe had gutted thousands of fish for the white men who came to catch game off the coast of Mombasa. But, as he plunged the blade of his favourite teak-handled filleting knife into the soft underbelly and eased it upwards through the stomach wall with a smooth, practised sawing movement, it struck him that he had never before gutted a white man.

With an opening paragraph like that you know you’re not going to be in for a quiet comfort read.

Jake Moore is an ex-Flying squad police officer. After being badly wounded in London he gave it all up and used his compensation money to buy into a tourist fishing partnership in Mombasa, Kenya. Things aren’t going to well though. The recent political unrest and violence in Kenya has impacted on the tourist trade, especially at the lower end of the market.

The boat of another fishing boat captain blows up at sea resulting in the loss of lives of both the captain and its bait boy; the brother of Jake’s own bait boy. The body of a violent, petty street criminal is then found washed up on shore. Something nasty is obviously going on, but that’s not unusual in a country with as much corruption as Kenya. Jake figures it’s none of his business. That changes when he is approached by Detective Jouma who is probably one of the few genuinely honest police officers in Mombasa. Jake’s old copper instincts can’t resist the challenge and he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that is far darker and spreads so much further than Jake ever anticipated.

BAIT is the first novel by Nick Brownlee and it’s a ripper of a debut novel. Take one honest detective with a dash of street gangster, vigorously beat in a plenty of psychotic South African ex-army officer with a penchant for inflicting slow, violent death and add the beautiful daughter of a murder victim and you have a recipe for a grab-you-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck thrill ride that will leave you wanting more.

Nick Brownlee is a former journalist who now runs a small news and feature agency in Cumbria, England. On the success of Bait, Nick has been commissioned to write three more Jake and Jouma novels and I’ll be eagerly awaiting each one.

Nick Brownlee’s official website is

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sunday Salon: Review- ARCTIC CHILL by Arnaldur Indridason

Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribbb
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 9781846550652
344 Pages

On a cold January day the Reykjavik police are called to the scene of a crime. A nine year old boy of Asian descent lies dead; frozen to the ground in a pool of his own blood. He has been stabbed in the stomach. The boy’s Thai mother and his fifteen- year-old half brother are both devastated by his death. Has racism reared its ugly head and caused the death of this young innocent?

It is up to Inspector Erlendur and his team, Elinborg and Sirgurdur Oli to find out who would want to kill a little boy in such a brutal fashion. They all hope that racism hasn’t reared its ugly head and been the reason for the death of this young innocent.

What is it about Northern European countries that is churning out so many fine crime writers? Is it the long cold winters that keeps people indoors and fires their imagination? Or is there something darker in their souls? Whatever it is, add Iceland to the list of countries producing top-flight writers.

In ARCTIC CHILL, Indridason was written a very solid police procedural indeed. But he has done much more than that. He also explores the issues of immigration and racism. Indridason also strikes a nice balance between the work of the detectives and their lives outside of their work. In particular, the reader learns more about Erlendur and his childhood which helps explain more about the man.

I do admit to some initial confusion with the names. Why are Erlendur and Elinborg just referred to by single names (I’m assuming surnames) and why is Sirgurdur Oli always given two names? The same thing arises with Erlendur’s children. If anyone knows the answer I’d be interested to know. It’d save me considerable googling time. I’m afraid I can offer no prizes other than the inner glow of satisfaction you’d get from enlightening me and my grateful thanks. So if that floats your boat, feel free.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Review: THE KILLING HANDS by P. D. Martin

FBI profiler Sophie Anderson has settled into her job in Los Angeles. She has established a name for herself and made contacts. Her latest case is something new to her. It looks as though the victim has had his throat ripped out but exactly how is a mystery. The man is identified as a member of the infamous Yakuza who has been presumed dead these past fifteen years.
Sophie finds herself working with a new set of people: a task force consisting of a number of law enforcement agencies who specialise in gang-related crime. But it is believed that there is an informer within the task force so Sophie has to tread very carefully. This latest case will not only pose a threat to Sophie’s life, but it will pit her against one of the most ruthless and calculated killers she has encountered.

THE KILLING HANDS doesn’t quite have the pace and suspense of P.D. Martin’s previous books. Because Sophie is working with a gang task-force, it is necessary for the author to give the reader an overview of the structure and remit of the various agencies that investigate gang-related crime in L.A. This does slow down the plot a little. However, Martin’s usual thorough research and attention to detail do make for informative reading.

In THE KILLING HANDS we meet Sophie’s parents who visit her and there is an interesting development in her private life as well. But we will have to wait for the next book to discover where that will take her. By doing this Martin has deftly avoided one of the biggest pitfalls of a series; a character who never moves on from where they started in book one.
P.D. Martin has become one of my favourite Australian crime fiction writers and THE KILLING HANDS has done nothing to change my opinion.