Review: Treasure & Dirt by Chris Hammer

 

Title: Treasure & Dirt

Author: Chris Hammer

Published: 28th September 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Though there are loose links to his bestselling Martin Scarsdale series (Scrublands, Silver, Trust) Treasure & Dirt is a standalone crime procedural from Australian author Chris Hammer.

“Maybe this is it. The sky is too big, the land is too big. Too many places for secrets.”

When the body of Jonas McGee is found crucified at the bottom of his opal mine in Finnegan’s Gap, Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lucic is sent to the remote town in north western New South Wales to investigate. Paired with Detective Constable Narelle Buchanan, who served the town in uniform, it seems prudent to first consider the rule of proximity placing a handful of suspects in the frame, but it’s not long before the suspect pool widens as their investigation exposes old grudges, new rivalries, and buried secrets.

“The body is stinking, leaking, a horrible parody of Christ.”

Taking place over a period of about a week, Hammer develops an intricate but coherent plot in Treasure & Dirt. Lucic’s murder investigation starts with McGee’s neighbouring claim owner and his son with whom McGee shares a tragic past, the dead miner’s former offsider, and an unidentified team of ‘ratters’, men who steal opals from unattended mines, as suspects, but rapidly expands to assess if a desperate daughter, members of a local religious cult, or a pair of warring billionaires, may have played a part in the man’s demise. The story twists and turns as Lucic and Nell try to reconcile the past with the present to solve the murder, and make sense of the additional crimes they uncover.

“This isn’t an opportunity, he realises, this is a test.”

Lucic is a methodical investigator, inclined to follow every possible lead to its end. He presents as an introvert, self contained and thoughtful, but also determined and dependable. With his partner, Detective Inspector Morris Montifore, under investigation by Professional Standards, and his own vulnerabilities due to a gambling habit, Lucic feels the weight of the case, and its implications for his own career.

Similarly Nell, an inexperienced but ambitious investigator, is determined to prove her worth, a goal that may be made difficult by her history in Finnegan’s Gap. I liked Nell a lot, as a police officer she is smart with good instincts, though her personal life would suggest otherwise.

“It’s not your average town. Too many men, not enough women. Too much grog, too many crims, too much opal lust. Too bloody hot.”

Hammer deftly captures the starkness of the outback landscape, scarred and barren, seared by the relentless heat, beset by flies. Finnegan’s Gap is a hardscrabble town, slowly dying as opal finds become rarer, its population increasingly made up of an antisocial element. We are introduced to a handful of rough country old-timers and some eccentric characters, however I noticed a lack of racial diversity amongst the cast.

“Time we went to town. Time we started to set things right.”

Skilfully evoking a sense of place, offering realistic characters, and an intriguing storyline, Treasure & Dirt is a brilliant, engrossing read.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

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Review: The River Mouth by Karen Herbert

 

Title: The River Mouth

Author: Karen Herbert

Published: 1st October 2021, Fremantle Press

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Fremantle Press

 

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

In Karen Herbert’s accomplished crime fiction debut, The River Mouth, a mother resumes her search for answers to the unsolved murder of her teenage son when the decade old case is reopened in the wake of the death of her best friend.

Sandra Davies is stunned when the police advise her that not only has the body of her best friend, Barbara Russell, been found in the Pilbara desert, but that routine tests discovered Barbara’s DNA matched a sample taken from the under the fingernails of her late son. Darren was shot dead by an unknown assailant while swimming in the river with friends ten years earlier, but what possible motive could explain Barbara killing a fifteen year old boy?

As Sandra tries to make sense of this unexpected development, convinced Barbara is blameless, Herbert unravels the past from the perspective of Barbara’s son, and Darren’s best friend, Colin. Darren is a high-spirited teenager, full of teenage bravado, with a sharp tongue, while Colin is more reserved and thoughtful. When Darren is not helping out his dad, a successful cray fisherman, the boys spend much of their time together, at school and on weekends, often joined by Tim, and occasionally Amy. While they occasionally cause mischief, and push against their parents’ rules, the group are fairly typical teenagers. I thought Herberts characterisation of the teens was realistic, and felt that she deftly captured their dialogue, attitudes and behaviours.

It becomes clear as the story unfolds that the insular Western Australian costal community in which Sandra lives harbours more than one secret that could have led to Darren’s murder, and Herbert uses these red herrings to good effect. The novel is well paced, with the suspense managed effectively across both timelines. Though the ambiguous circumstances of Barbara’s passing remains an irritant to me, I think the mystery of Darren’s death is satisfactorily resolved, even if the aftermath is somewhat non-traditional.

The River Mouth is an impressive debut, and a fine addition to the growing oeuvre of rural Australian crime fiction.

++++++++

Available from Fremantle Press

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Review: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

 

Title: The Man Who Died Twice {The Thursday Murder Club #2}

Author: Richard Osman

Published: 16th September 2021, Viking UK

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Penguin UK/Netgalley

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Richard Osman’s debut, The Thursday Murder Club, was an absolute delight, as is this sequel, The Man Who Died Twice.

Set in a luxury retirement village in the south-east region of England, the septuagenarian members of the Thursday Murder Club, – Elizabeth, a former MI5 intelligence operative; Ibrahim, a mostly retired psychiatrist; Ron, once a union boss, who enjoys playing devil’s advocate; and Joyce, a former nurse; find themselves in the midst of another caper when Elizabeth is contacted by an ex-colleague, pleading for her help.

Osman gives us a more complex mystery in The Man Who Died Twice which includes £20 million pounds worth of stolen diamonds, a double cross, a drug dealer, an international money launderer, and a teenage thug. Unfolding at a lively pace, I really enjoyed how the main mystery plot developed, finding it exciting and entertaining. I also appreciated the skillful way in which the various threads of the story are drawn together to create a very satisfying conclusion.

I was again charmed by the personalities of the Thursday Murder Club foursome as they inveigled, manipulated, coerced, and traded favours in their race to find the missing diamonds, solve two murders, and avenge Ibrahim. I particularly enjoyed the role Joyce played in this novel, Elizabeth may be the brains of the group, but underestimating Joyce is a mistake, even if she can’t knit. I was also happy to see local police officers, PC Donna de Freitas, and DCI Chris Hudson (who is now dating Donna’s Mum) as well as the enigmatic Bogdan, return.

Witty, clever and lively, The Man Who Died Twice is an entertaining read. I’m cheered to know a third instalment is in the works.

+++++++

Available from Penguin UK

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Review: Sweet Jimmy by Bryan Brown

 

Title: Sweet Jimmy

Author: Bryan Brown

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

You’ve probably seen Australian actor Bryan Brown on the big screen, perhaps in Hollywood blockbusters like F/X, Cocktail, Gorillas in the Mist, Breaker Morant, or in any of the other dozen movies he has made an appearance in, particularly if you are of a certain age. Sweet Jimmy, an entertaining collection of crime fiction short stories, is his first foray into publishing.

Primarily set within the streets of suburban Sydney, Brown’s stories combine humour, violence, and pathos. There are seven in all, and include an angry father seeking the man responsible for his daughter’s death, a thief who steals more than he bargains for, a cop investigating a serial killer, and a man hunting for the woman that betrayed him. Vengeance, betrayal, redemption, and survival are common themes, exposing men pushed to their limits. There was actually not a single tale I didn’t find engaging.

I’m not sure Sweet Jimmy would translate well to an international audience, but for me there was a definite sense of cultural familiarity. I feel Brown captures an aspect of the elusive essence of the Australian character particularly well, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn some of the characters and events are inspired by real people Brown has known.

The writing strongly reminds me of the late Robert G Barrett’s work, it’s spare but still expressive, and perhaps more importantly, honest. The audio version of of the book is narrated by Brown himself, which I think would be a real treat with his distinctive voice.

Sweet Jimmy is colourful, bold, and cheeky collection of suburban Aussie noir stories.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

 

Title: The Housemate

Author: Sarah Bailey

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Housemate is a standalone crime novel from Australian author Sarah Bailey, best known for her popular series featuring Detective Gemma Woodstock.

When the body of a woman is found on a property in rural Victoria, interest is revived in a decade old mystery. Olive Groves was a junior reporter when the ‘Housemate Homicide’ – where a dispute among three young housemates led to the murder of one and the disappearance of another – occurred, and now rumour suggests that the missing woman has resurfaced. Given her familiarity with the case, Oli is eager to investigate further, but annoyed when her editor insists she works with a young podcaster, Cooper Ng.

In what is a well-conceived and interesting plot, Oli, aided by Cooper, digs into what really happened between the housemates on the night of the murder, and slowly uncovers a cabal whose elite members are willing to kill to keep their secrets. While I found the complex mystery intriguing, I did feel the pace of the first two thirds or so of the novel was quite slow, with much of the tension and action being confined to near the end.

Oli is an intuitive, driven investigative journalist, her methods to unearth the story are sometimes uncomfortable, but I appreciated her determination to uncover the truth. I liked how Bailey explored the tension between old and new media through the relationship between Oli and Cooper.

Oli’s personal life is a bit of a mess though, and becomes more complicated when elements of the Housemate case forces her to face some difficult truths about her relationship, and herself. I wasn’t always sympathetic to her issues, but I thought she was a well-realised, complex character.

With its cleverly plotted, absorbing mystery, The Housemate is compelling crime fiction.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

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Review: Cutters End by Margaret Hickey

 

Title: Cutters End

Author: Margaret Hickey

Published: 17th August 2021, Bantam Australia 

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

When public pressure results in a thirty-two year old case being reopened, Acting Inspector Mark Ariti is recalled from long service leave and tasked with reinvestigating the death of Michael Denby on a lonely stretch of the Stuart Highway. Discovered by his fire damaged car with burns and a broken leg, the original finding was one of accidental death, and there is no real expectation Ariti will learn anything new after all this time. Re-interviewing witnesses certainly seems to be a dead end, but Ariti along with Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur, stationed at Cutters End, stumble upon some information that paints the dead man in a new light and changes the direction of the investigation.

Though touted as a thriller, I feel Cutters End is better described as a police procedural. The prologue introduces some suspense with a harrowing scene, but there’s no real sense of urgency related to what may have really happened to Denby during the novel given he has been dead for several decades. There is an intriguing mystery though that unravels at a measured pace as Ariti and Kaur piece together disparate pieces of information and the reopened investigation prompts questions about a range of other suspected historical crimes.

I’d say a key theme examined by Hickey in Cutters End is the difference between the application of law and the administration of justice, particularly in regards to the poor response of police and courts to crimes against women, especially those involving sexual assault and domestic violence. This issue has relevance both in the present, as Ariti’s wife prosecutes an abusive husband, and the past, as Mark and Jagdeep learn about its secrets.

I’m not sure how I feel about Mark Ariti to be honest. Seemingly in the midst of a midlife crisis, with a failing marriage, an apathetic attitude towards his children, and shallow concerns about ageing, I felt he was quite a morose, self involved character. He is a dedicated investigator though, which I admired, and to be fair, he surprised me somewhat in the end.

Offering a well crafted mystery that takes place in an atmospheric rural Australian setting, Cutters End is a solid crime fiction debut from Margaret Hickey.

++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia

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Review: The Attack by Catherine Jinks

 

Title: The Attack

Author: Catherine Jinks

Published: 31st August 2021, Text Publishing

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Text Publishing

 

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

“I took one look at him and it all came flooding back. Otford. Joyce. The lies. The police. I’d fled to a deserted island, but I couldn’t seem to escape Aaron Rooney.”


Robyn Ayres is the caretaker of Finch Island /Buangan Pa, a former leper lazaret, repurposed for the use of campers and organised groups. The basic facilities and lack of phone/wifi service dull the island’s appeal to holidaymakers, but Vetnet, a boot camp for troubled teen boys run by ex military officers, are one of the island’s few regular bookings. When Shaun and his staff arrive with the latest group of delinquent recruits, Robyn is shocked to realise she recognises one of the boys. He is ten years older than the last time she saw him, and using a different name, but she is sure it is Aaron Rooney, who indirectly led to her self-imposed exile on the island. The knowledge leaves Robyn on edge and her anxiety worsens as she is targeted by a series of malicious pranks.

The story of The Attack unfolds over over two timelines, Robyn’s past as a kindergarten teacher in a small town caught between two warring families locked in a custody battle, shows why the sudden appearance of a now sixteen year old Aaron is so destabilising.

There is tension as Robyn wonders if Darren/Aaron remembers her, which builds with a series of worrying incidents, among them rubbish dumped on her bed, deliberately broken plumbing, and a kitchen fire. Robyn considers Aaron the most likely suspect, but there are fourteen other troubled teens on the island who might think that harassing Robyn would force the VetNet operators to send them home.

Though the pace for much of the book is quite restrained, there is a definite sense of anticipation that develops in both timelines. Everything comes to a head in the last quarter of the novel where Jinks provides a thrilling, action-packed climax as Robyn is forced to confront the past.

I really enjoyed The Attack for its original premise, interesting setting (inspired by Queensland’s Peel Island) and characterisation. This is a well written, absorbing and satisfying thriller.

++++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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Review: Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

 

Title: Once There Were Wolves

Author: Charlotte McConaghy

Published: 3rd August 2021, Hamish Hamilton

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

“Not long ago, not in the grand scheme of things, this forest was not small and sparse but strong and bursting with life. Lush with rowan trees, aspen, birch, juniper and oak, it stretched itself across a vast swathe of land, coloring Scotland’s now-bare hills, providing food and shelter to all manner of untamed thing.

And within these roots and trunks and canopies, there ran wolves.”

In Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy, biologist Inti Flynn is leading a controversial rewilding project to reintroduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands. The scheme has proved to be of great environmental benefit in other countries but Inti and her team are struggling to overcome the local farmers fears of decimated livestock. As the wolves begin to make themselves at home in the forest, Inti surprises herself by becoming involved with the local police chief, but when a man goes missing in the woods, she finds everything is at risk.

There are many themes at play in Once There Were Wolves, while it has a strong environmental focus, examining rewilding and the conflicts between ecological and agricultural concerns, it also explores issues including domestic violence, trauma, trust and empathy with a raw honesty. There is also mystery that surrounds not just the fate of the missing man, but also Inti’s sister, Aggie.

The timeline shifts between the past and present, giving the reader glimpses of Inti and Aggie’s life before their arrival in Scotland, including a childhood shared between their Australian mother, a homicide detective, and their American father, a logger turned reclusive environmentalist. The sisters close relationship (it’s never exactly clear if they are twins but I suspect so) continues into adulthood. In the present, Aggie has accompanied Inti to Scotland, but it’s clear Aggie, whom remains hidden in their rented home, is experiencing the effects of severe trauma.

“I had always known there was something different about me, but that was the day I first recognized it to be dangerous. It was also the day, as I stumbled out of the shed into a long violet dusk, that I looked to the trees’ edge and saw my first wolf, and it saw me.”

Inti is a complex character with a rare condition known as ‘mirror touch synesthesia’, this means that she ‘feels’ any touch that she observes, whether that be a gentle stroke of an arm, or the pain of a brutal blow. This trait could have come off as a contrivance but McConaghy uses it judiciously and the effect is haunting. Though Inti is often abrasive and a poor decision maker, I found her passion, anger and hope to be compelling.

I’ve never given much thought to wolves to be honest, and I was surprised to find myself invested in the fates of the fourteen relocated animals. McConaghy’s descriptions of the wolves, their behaviours and their contribution to environmental health are affecting and fascinating. Though no such project exists in Scotland, McConaghy makes an eloquent case for it.

Lyrical, moving and profound, Once There Were Wolves is a stunning novel.

+++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia 

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Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

 

Title: Billy Summers

Author: Stephen King

Published: 3rd August 2021, Hodder & Staughton

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Hachette

 

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

“He’s thinking of all the movies he’s seen about robbers who are planning one last job. If noir is a genre, then ‘one last job’ is a sub-genre. In those movies, the last job always goes bad.”

Billy Summers is a killer read from Stephen King, a crime thriller featuring a surprisingly likeable assassin.

 

(More to come…)

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Deep by Kyle Perry

 

Title: The Deep

Author: Kyle Perry

Published: 2nd July 2021, Penguin Books Australia

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Penguin Australia

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

“Black wind at morning, sailors take warning. Black wind at night, death is in sight.”

On the southern coast of Tasmania, the Dempsey family empire in Shacktown has been built not only on their monopoly of abalone fishing licenses but on their illicit drug importation business. Davy Dempsey has been the head of the family operations since his older brother, Jesse and his wife and son, vanished seven years ago, but when Jesse’s son, Forest, washes up on the beach, exhibiting signs of physical and emotional trauma, the Dempsey’s are thrown into crisis. Sensing vulnerability, a fearsome rival makes a move while family loyalties are tested and unraveling secrets threaten to swamp them all.

Kyle Perry’s second novel, The Deep, plunges readers into a turbulent, gritty, atmospheric story of betrayal, corruption, loyalty and redemption. It offers more than one mystery and several stunning twists as the members of the Dempsey family take sides in a battle for the business, and their lives. Issues such as morality, masculinity, family violence, the drug trade, and addiction are explored through a fairly large cast of characters.

The tale unfolds primarily from the perspectives of Mackerel (Mackenzie) Dempsey, the younger brother of Jesse and Davy, and the black sheep of the family; the Dempsey brothers uncle, Ahab Dempsey, who despises the drug business; and the now teenage Forest Dempsey. The Dempsey family speak of a curse that plagues their men – great success will be followed by a spectacular fall – but it’s hardly a surprise given the dangerous businesses the Dempsey’s are in, not to mention their disturbingly dysfunctional family dynamic. Perry’s characters are complex, and mostly deeply flawed, some irredeemably so, such as the Dempsey matriarch Ivy, and her two eldest sons.

I didn’t find The Deep to be as compelling as The Bluffs if I am honest, it was a little slow to start and I was probably close to halfway through the novel before I was fully invested, but from that point on, I was reluctant to put it down.

++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia 

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