Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: FOX HUNTER

FOX HUNTER by Zoe Sharp (Pegasus Books, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Special forces soldier-turned-bodyguard Charlotte “Charlie” Fox can never forget the men who put a brutal end to her military career, but a long time ago she vowed she would not go looking for them. Now she doesn’t have a choice.

Her boss Sean Meyer is missing in Iraq, where one of those men was working as a private security contractor. When the man’s butchered body is discovered, Charlie fears that Sean may be pursuing a twisted vendetta on her behalf.

Charlie’s “close protection” agency in New York needs this dealt with—fast and quiet—before everything they’ve worked for goes to ruins. They send Charlie to the Middle East with very specific instructions: Find Sean Meyer and stop him—by whatever means necessary.

From the searing heat of the Iraqi desert to the snow-capped mountains of Eastern Europe, Zoe Sharp takes readers on a helter-skelter, action-packed ride with this latest instalment in her exciting series featuring Charlie Fox. It's been four years since the last Charlie Fox adventure, but Sharp brings her back with a vengeance, delivering a real corker of a tale for long-time fans and new readers alike.

FOX HUNTER is the twelfth book in Sharp's long-running series, which began back in 2001, and manages to be a great standalone read as well as progressing various character arcs from throughout the previous books. The spectre of Charlie's ignominious exit from the British Army has hung over her journey as a close-protection specialist, and really comes to the forefront in FOX HUNTER as she's forced to confront her ugly and traumatic past. Face to face, in some cases, at last.

There's a heck of a lot to like about FOX HUNTER. There's action aplenty, and a great sense of place. I could feel the heat shimmering off the pages when Charlie was roaring around Kuwait and Iraq, trying to track down her mentor and former lover Sean Meyer, while dealing with betrayals, ambushes, and various groups scrabbling to gain any advantage in the ongoing war zone.

Charlie Fox is a terrific character; strong, capable, principled, with an ugly past that damaged her before she healed herself. She's often been compared to Jack Reacher by reviewers, and Lee Child himself has even said 'if Jack Reacher was a woman, he'd be Charlie Fox'. I'd certainly recommend the series, and this book, to fans of Reacher who are looking for 'similar but different' books to enjoy, but I do think it's doing Charlie Fox a little bit of a disservice to just think of her as a female spin on Reacher. She is her own woman, a unique and intriguing character on many levels.

Just how healed Charlie Fox may or may not be is put to the acid test in FOX HUNTER, as she's forced to confront the events of the past, and the men who were in control of those events. And her.

There's a great sense of adventure in this book, it's a kind of rollicking chase story that reminds me a little of a James Bond movie or those classic 1960s-1970s British adventure-thrillers, just with a modern feel and spin. Charlie Fox goes careening around Iraq and Kuwait, then further afield, in her hunt for both Sean Meyer, and whatever and whoever Sean may be hunting himself. But does she really know what is going on? Just how much did that head wound change Meyer's personality?

Action-packed, adrenalin-filled, but with plenty of depth and thoughtfulness in among the explosions, gun battles, and hand-to-hand combat too. A very good read.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features and reviews for a wide range of magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 mystery writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, and on national radio and top podcasts. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson



Saturday, September 30, 2017

Review: THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

THE SCENE OF THE CRIME by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Twelve extraordinary tales of crime and punishment. A court is a chamber of questions. Who, when, why, what happened and exactly how - these are issues of psychology and the soul, they're general to the human condition, with its infinite capacity to cause pain.

A brutal murder of a wife and daughter ... A meth-fuelled Samurai sword attack ... A banker tangled in a hit-and-run scandal ... A top cop accused of rape ... A murder in the Outback ... A beloved entertainer's fall from grace ... 

... these and other extraordinary cases become more than just courtroom dramas and sensational headlines. They become a window onto another world - the one where things go badly wrong, where once invisible lives become horrifyingly visible, where the strangeness just beneath the surface is revealed.

The brutal and the banal mix in this fascinating collection of real-life crime stories from one of New Zealand's finest storytellers. Braunias is an award-hoarding journalist, though really more of a Swiss Army Knife of non-fiction writing, able to adroitly turn his pen and wit to all manner of forms and subjects. From punchy columns to longform features to books, Braunias has focused his keen and oft-sardonic eye on everything from small-town life to a passion for birds to political satire to a Herculean quest to eat his way through 55 food joints on a single stretch of a busy Auckland road.

With THE SCENE OF THE CRIME, Braunias returns to his roots, in a way, as he was assigned court reporting duties as a young scribe for a small-town newspaper on New Zealand's wild West Coast.

In the introduction to this collection of true crime stories, Braunias says that he has been attracted to sitting in a courtroom and witnessing the peculiar power of trials for many years:
"I've loved it and I've hated it, and I could seldom tear myself away. All reporting is the accumulation of minor details, and nothing is too minor in a courtroom devoted to a case of murder. There is such an obsessive quality to trials. There is no such thing as courtroom drama, and the idea that a trial is a kind of theatre is facile. It's far more powerful than that. It's a production of sorrow and paperwork, a clean realism usually conducted in a collegial manner, in dark-panelled rooms with set hours of business. The orderliness is almost a parody of the savage moments it seeks to understand."

In THE SCENE OF THE CRIME, Braunias takes readers behind the scenes, and beyond the media headlines and soundbites, of a dozen different cases he's covered. These include notorious cases and highly publicised trials involving Mark Lundy, Rolf Harris, Tony Dixon, Louise Nicholas, and others (the Lundy murders get four chapters, each offering different insights on a still-puzzling case).

It's a remarkable collection. Whether you're familiar with the cases or not (or have read the original stories Braunias published in various major New Zealand newspapers and magazines, now extensively reworked for this collection), Braunias offers something fresh here as he shows us the people caught up in ghastly deeds: perpetrators, victims, law enforcement, and their families. .

He captures the madness, badness, and oddness swirling about some of our most infamous crimes and non-crimes. He revels in tiny details that bring these true events to vivid life, creates a page-turning narrative drive, and prods readers to (re)consider what these moments say about the national psyche. THE SCENE OF THE CRIME covers brutal acts, but it's not dire or exploitative. There are moments of humour, of lightness and reflection. In his inimitable style, Braunias entertains and informs.

Among taking a deeper, more nuanced look at high-profile cases, I also really enjoyed the chapters covering lesser-known or remembered crimes. There's a fascinating chapter on a 1960s mass shooting that led to the creation of the Armed Offenders Squad (New Zealand's equivalent to SWAT), where Braunias talks to surviving policemen, family members, and the daughter of the 'madman' killer.

This is thoughtful, and thought-provoking, true crime writing.

Delivered in bite-sized chunks that you can devour in linear fashion or haphazard order, Braunias made me a glutton; I swallowed the entire degustation in a single evening.

Highly recommended.


Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, appeared onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, and on national radio and popular podcasts. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: MURDER IN MONTEGO BAY

MURDER IN MONTEGO BAY by Paula Lennon (Jacaranda, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Privileged Chinese-Jamaican brothers Lester and Carter Chin Ellis have enjoyed a sheltered life as the heirs to the iced desserts empire Chinchillerz. One fateful night, following a fiery encounter with local law enforcement the brothers are taken to Pelican Walk Police Station, where Lester is detained for drunk driving, while Carter is released without charge. When Carter is shot dead within minutes of leaving the station his murder throws the police force into crisis mode.

Discredited Detective Raythan Preddy is put in charge of the murder case and is forced to accept the assistance of Detective Sean Harris, a Scottish lawman seconded to Jamaica. With his superiors watching his every move and the Chin Ellis family interfering with the investigation, Preddy is determined to catch the killer and save his career.

There's a lot to like about this debut crime novel, and overall I enjoyed what was a fast-paced and exciting read. Lennon takes readers to an exotic location, a tropical island 'paradise', and delivers a dark tale with plenty of grit and corruption, belying the 'smiley-faced' Jamaican stereotype. .

Detective Preddy is a proud Jamaican with a stain or two to his name, thanks to a high profile bust that went horribly wrong. He's unsure of his position within the police, but not unsure of his own skills as an investigator. So he struggles when an outsider who's been seconded to his team from overseas, Scottish Detective Sean Harris, seems to be favoured by the local bosses. Is this typical island inferiority, believing that someone from abroad must naturally be better trained or more skilled at their job? Particularly a white man? As far as the ganja-drinking Preddy is concerned, this is his patch and he knows better about catching local criminals than anyone else, whatever the bosses think.

That belief is put to the test with a tricky case, when one of the heirs to the popular Chinchillerz empire is gunned down shortly after being released by the Jamaican police. On the same night Carter Chin Ellis is murdered, his brother Lester is assaulted while in police custody. It's a media nightmare for the local cops, which sees the already tropical temperatures raised several notches. Questions swirl about their competence, even whispers of corruption, as Preddy and his under-funded colleagues try to track down who is responsible. Harris provides an intriguing foil, the foreigner who might be more, or less, than he seems. Is he a political stooge? Or a hard-working investigator who just has different methods to the proud Preddy, and is happy to voice his disagreement at times?

Overall, I enjoyed MURDER IN MONTEGO BAY, and I'd definitely read more from Lennon, if she keeps up with the crime writing. I particularly liked her evocation of the Jamaican setting, which more than just being an 'exotic location', she brought to life in a number of ways, from local customs and lifestyles, to the environment and range of people who populate the Caribbean island. I felt like I was there, alongside Preddy and Harris. At times I thought the local patois might have been a little overdone, pulling me out of the story - but that may have been because I wasn't quite fully drawn into Preddy as the main hero. I was observing (and enjoying) his adventures and efforts, rather than fully empathising or being sucked into the unfolding story without question. I was a little conscious that I was reading a story - an interesting a pretty well-told one, nevertheless - rather than 'living it'.

Having said that, I think that Preddy and Harris could grow into really interesting series characters, if Lennon were to continue their adventures (or Preddy's alone). There's an unusual and interesting dynamic between them, quite believable and multi-layered. Two proud men trying to do their best, with good intentions, but not quite clicking, so grating on each other and providing plenty of drama.

A good debut that shows plenty of promise, a gritty tale set against a vibrant backdrop.


Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, appeared onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: AUKATI

AUKATI by Michalia Arathimos (Makaro Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

“There was Polly’s tokotoko on the ground. Carved and polished, with its eel head, the snout inlaid with pāua. Alexia picked it up and cracked it across the cop’s shoulders. She raised it again and hit and hit. She would stop this.” Alexia is a law student escaping the Greek family that stifles her, and Isaiah is a young Māori returning home to find the family he’s lost. Cut loose from their own cultures, they have volunteered to help Isaiah’s Taranaki iwi get rid of the fracking that’s devastating their land and water.

The deeper Alexia and Isaiah go into the fight, the closer they get to understanding the different worlds they inhabit. But when a protest march becomes violent a boundary is crossed, and they need to decide where they stand and fast. It’s clear the police have been tipped off, and the activists gathered at the marae suspect they’re being watched or, worse, there is an informant in the group. Can Alexia and Isaiah be trusted? And more – can they trust themselves?

What I loved about this book was its uncompromising life-like messiness; things don’t go as planned, there are long periods in the doldrums, sex is sometimes not that great, something happens and suddenly one of the characters finds himself in a world he doesn’t understand: “he’d fallen out of the kind of story he knew and into a new one entirely”.

Regardless of the specifics of this book, we can all relate to its underlying themes of hopelessness and confusion in turbulent times, and in the face of bland authority.  It might even seem dystopic at times, until one recalls the 2007 police raids carried out under the Terrorism Suppression Act, or the fact that our Deputy Prime Minister recently said some New Zealanders have fewer human rights than others.

Autaki means border or boundary – and the story is that of protest against the forced alienation of tribal land, and the subsequent abuse of that land.  A group of protesters travels to a Māori community to help the fight against a fracking operation.  The operation is on ancestral land that was taken from the tribe long ago – the tribe is already disinherited – but the current land use is endangering the water, land and crops of the community, and the stability of the whole region.  The boundary of the title is geographic, but also cultural, gender, class …

The protesters are a jumbled lot – some very experienced, some with Police records, some new to protest, some suspected of being undercover Police, and all totally conflicted about not only the scope of the protest (environmental, historical?) but also about the nature and extent of the protest (legal, direct action?).

Woven between the endless meetings and re-drawings of plans are the stories of what becomes a temporary community.  The underpinning story for the newcomers is revolution; there are open relationships, railing at current injustices, wanting to blow stuff up, wanting to save the world.  The story for the inhabitants is one of a continuation of the degradation of their land, the annoyance at non-Māori speaking on their behalf but them having to push non-Māori in front of the media so their concerns are not seen as ‘just’ indigenous, the fear of doing anything that will once again bring reprisals that will traumatise their children, make further inroads into their lives, possibly even kill them.

The book is framed around two main characters.  Isaiah is part Māori and returning to his home marae – he finds there are expectations of his role there, which he struggles with, as he has grown up in the city and doesn’t speak Te Reo.  Haunted by the lack of knowledge of his own past, and the fate of his father, Isaiah is transformed through the novel.  Alexia is a law student about to sit her bar exams, she is fleeing from her Greek family’s expectations of her moving in with her grandmother after the death of her grandad.  She looks a little bit Māori and is forced to sing a waiata when the outsiders are welcomed onto the marae – Pokarekare ana is the only one she knows.  She is an outsider who is gradually accepted, and who realises how much she has changed when late in the novel she observes her fellow protesters outside a court:

“… with their tino rangatiratanga placards, and the activists with their patches, with Polly, Te Kahurangi, Matiu and Rangi, for whom the city was nothing and their poisoned corner of land everything.  During her placement she would have studied them curiously, possibly taking notes on behalf of a senior lawyer … She would have mentioned them in passing to her friends: the case that gripped the nation, etc.  But they would have remained cut-outs.”

Alexia also experiences synaesthesia – in her case seeing music as colours.  The ebbing and flowing of her synaesthetic experiences run almost like a barometer through the novel – echoing the intensity of Alexis’ feeling and the changes to the land.  The colours sometimes emerge for her from the sounds of the bush, linking her to the stories of the local patupaiarehe, fairy-like beings who can protect you as well as lead you astray.  So fitting, as the hopelessness and confusion of the novel stems in large part from uncertainty around whom the characters can trust, or what they can have faith in.  A challenging read but I loved it.



Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: THE PLEA

THE PLEA by Steve Cavanagh (Orion, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Fraud. Blackmail. Murder. It's all in a day's work for Eddie Flynn. For years, major New York law firm Harland & Sinton has operated a massive global fraud. The FBI are on to them, but they need witnesses to secure their case. When a major client of the firm, David Child, is arrested for murder, the FBI ask con-artist-turned-lawyer Eddie Flynn to secure Child as his client and force him to testify against the firm.

Eddie's not a man to be forced into representing a guilty client, but the FBI have incriminating files on Eddie's wife, Christine, and if Eddie won't play ball, she'll pay the price.

When Eddie meets David Child he knows Child is innocent, despite the overwhelming evidence against him. With the FBI putting pressure on him to secure the plea, Eddie must find a way to prove Child's innocence while keeping his wife out of danger - not just from the FBI, but from the firm itself. 

Irish human rights lawyer Steve Cavanagh hit the ground running with his terrific debut, The Defence, which introduced hustler and conman turned criminal lawyer Eddie Flynn.

That novel had a pedal-to-the-metal opening with Flynn getting abducted by the Russian mob and having a bomb strapped to his back, with orders to find a way to get it into a New York courthouse to prevent a star witness testifying in a big trial. Cavanagh's sophomore novel has a similarly action-packed opening, as Flynn endures an OK Corral-esque shootout in a prestigious law firm.

If you wanted a Hollywood style tagline, try: "Scott Turow meets Lee Child".

Cavanagh cements his status as a terrific new voice in legal thriller writing with this sequel; his blend of courtroom twists and high-stakes action shakes up standard tropes and has real freshness.

In The Plea, Flynn finds himself at another dangerous crossroads when he is pressured by the FBI to convince David Child, a man charged with murder, to hire him, in order to arm-twist the accused into taking a deal in order to help bring down prestigious New York law firm Harland & Sinton. The Feds claim the firm has been operating a massive global fraud, which is about to boil over.

The catches are many. 

David Child is a major client of Harland & Sinton, who have their hooks in him and are unlikely to let go, as he could threaten their plans. The FBI hoists a sword of Damocles above Flynn’s wife Christine, on staff at the firm, who signed documents as a naïve young attorney that could put her in prison. Then there’s the fact that Flynn starts to believe that Child might be innocent of the murder. 

But the FBI still wants Child to plead guilty, and is happy to strong-arm Flynn. 


Cavanagh has a real talent for escalating tension, and Eddie Flynn is a terrific creation well worth following. There are shades of Michael Connelly's Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer) in his engaging, likable hustler persona, while Flynn is also a unique character all of this own. 

The Plea is a propulsive read that'll have you soldered to your seat, pages whirring throughout. 


Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, appeared onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Review: TESS

TESS by Kirsten McDougall (VUP, 2017)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Tess is on the run when she’s picked up from the side of the road by lonely middle-aged father Lewis Rose. With reluctance, she’s drawn into his family troubles and comes to know a life she never had. 

Set in Masterton at the turn of the millennium, Tess is a gothic love story about the ties that bind and tear a family apart.

A middle-aged man with a rifle in his car decides to pick up a young woman on the highway. He is just wanting to help; she is about the same age as his estranged daughter. The young woman sees accepting the lift as a failure of spirit, she has a blade concealed in one of her rings, she is running from something and wants to be totally self-reliant. But shortly after being dropped off in the man’s home town she is harassed by local thugs and the man once again comes to her rescue.

The man, Lewis, and the woman, Tess, end up cohabiting, innocently – but when a middle-aged man cohabits with a woman the same age as his own daughter there is inevitable tension, and suspicions from others.

We learn of Tess’ unusual background; that she was abandoned by her drug addicted mother to the care of her loving earth-mother grandmother, that she is now fleeing from a series of violent incidents, which are revealed gradually.  And Lewis is a man in mourning; his wife died in horrific circumstances, he is estranged from his daughter, Jean, his mother is living with advanced dementia in a rest-home, and Jean’s twin brother is in residential care.

We learn that Tess is a drifter because she has a ‘gift’, and whether that really is a gift that helps those she meets, or whether it is a curse that leaves chaos in her wake is the central issue of this book.

The book starts off in a slow and considered way, with a measured revealing of the characters and their histories, but when Jean arrives at her father’s house the novel alters, the pace picks up and we are soon at a fast denouement.

The different story lines are inventive and the characters of Lewis, Jean and Tess are engaging. But the change of pace left the length of the novel a disappointment for me – it ended up reading like a too long short story rather than a novel – and I really wanted to spend longer finding out more about these intriguing people.

Maybe Tess will wander into someone else’s world and I will get another chance?  Tess is well worth a read.



Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here

Monday, September 4, 2017

Review: AMPLIFY

AMPLIFY by Mark Hollands (2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Music promoter Billy Lime is in trouble. The tour of rock legends, The Pagan Virtue, is the biggest in music history. Their concerts in Australia should be a career highlight if Billy can keep the warring musicians off the drugs, out of the bars and on the stage.

When lead singer Jet Kelly is poisoned, Billy's world starts to crumble. Motorcycle gang the White Sharks has stashed $100 million of cocaine inside the band equipment bound for Sydney, and the cops mark Billy as a killer and drug runner. How will Billy Lime keep the show on the road ...

This was a very pleasant surprise; a rip-roaring debut full of vivid characters and happenings that was a very enjoyable read; unique, interesting, and action-packed. Amplify takes us backstage into the world of rock music and events promotion, and is pretty sex, drugs and rock'n'roll in style.

It's not a perfect book by any means - there are occasional moments which are a little cheesy or over-written, veering 'airport thriller' in nature, but Amplify is just a lot of fun, a compelling page-turner. I actually read this last year, and did a 'mini-review' at the time. It was one of my favourite finds of 2016, a real gem, thanks to its unique setting and viewpoint, and tense, entertaining storyline.

Amplify is peppered with plenty of nasty, dark deeds, but maintains a fun, almost light-hearted vibe throughout. Almost a bit tongue-in-cheek, like an Oceans 11 or Guy Ritchie-style movie.

Caper-esque and full of crazy characters, humour and high-stakes action. It would have been easy for the set-up and setting to fall into cliche, but I thought debutant Hollands did a terrific job balancing plot, character, and setting - throwing in some unique touches and depth, without slowing the pace.

Music promoter Billy Lime lives a sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll life. He's no wallflower; he drives a bright lime green sports car, and has associates that span all sorts of spectrums, from bikers to money managers to rock stars. The rock industry can be big business, and plenty of people want a piece.

Lime's plans are thrown into disarray thanks to tax investigations and the lead singer of an aging band whose upcoming tour is going to rake in the dough getting poisoned. Under pressure on several fronts, Lime is forced to hustle to work out what's the heck has been going on, and how he can keep his head above water. A can of worms opened - or even Pandora's Box.

One heads-up: this is set in a realistic version of the rock'n'roll world, covering everything from the corporatisation of artists to the dingy backstage hook-ups and hotel parties. It also delves into biker gang life and other quite masculine areas of the world. There's misogyny and unlikable characters, people treating women carelessly or badly, amongst plenty of partying, fun and engaging personalities. For some readers this might not be a setting they enjoy or approve of, although I thought it read quite authentic. There are several strong female characters that balance out the airhead groupies and biker molls, including managers and more who help Lime and hold things together.

Overall, an exciting debut in a fascinating setting that provides tension, action, and laughs.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 crime writers, appeared onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio and popular podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Review: THE DRY

THE DRY by Jane Harper (Flatiron Books, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain, well...

When Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, he is loath to confront the people who rejected him twenty years earlier. But when his investigative skills are called on, the facts of the Hadler case start to make him doubt this murder-suicide charge.

And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds start bleeding into fresh ones. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret... A secret Falk thought long-buried... A secret which Luke's death starts to bring to the surface.

If there was an X-Factor for crime debutants, then Jane Harper would get a standing ovation and cries of ‘you’ve just got something special’ from ecstatic judges. And we’d all definitely want to see more.

Harper’s remarkable debut, set in the parched rural landscape of Australia, combines exquisite slow-build storytelling with a terrific sense of place and richly drawn characters that provoke a range of emotions in the reader.

Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns to his drought-stricken hometown Kiewarra for the funeral of a childhood friend. Luke Hadler seems to have broken under the strain, shooting his wife and son, then himself. It’s a shocking event, even in a community that faces life and death choices every day. Falk’s visit is meant to be fleeting – he has no desire to linger in a place he and his father fled twenty years before after accusations swirled following the suspicious drowning of a young woman.

But as Falk and a local detective begin to doubt the murder-suicide scenario, he stays, only to find that his digging into this latest tragedy unearths secrets from the past, from a time when Luke provided him with an alibi. With townsfolk who still harbour plenty of unpleasant beliefs, and a community struggling to survive in a tinder-dry landscape, Falk must tread a tightrope as he lights a match to seek the truth.

The Dry is a tale of a man versus the environment, a town, and his own past. Beautifully written, Harper teases us with trickles before we grab the bottle to gulp our way to an exciting finish.

Note: this review was first published in Mystery Scene. This weekend, THE DRY won yet another award, the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel. 

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features and reviews for a wide range of magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed almost 200 mystery writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, and on national radio and top podcasts. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can find him on Twitter: @craigsisterson