LATE OCTOBER 2023 CRIME READING: New Books by Lee Goldberg, Bryan Brown, Jack Heath, Dave Warner and Dann McDorman
My late October crime reading has been very mixed and contains a couple of books that cleverly stretch the definition of crime fiction.
First up is The Drowning, (Allen & Unwin, 31 October 2023), by iconic Australian actor Bryan Brown.
Brown made a promising start as a crime writer with his gritty collection of short stories, Sweet Jimmy, in 2021. He has now followed it up with the even better The Drowning, which displays the same stripped down, unadorned writing style and a good cast of down-to-earth characters.
The story is set in a small coastal town on the northern coast of New South Wales, and opens with the discovery of the body of a local Indigenous teenager on the beach. The assumption is that the boy went swimming at night and got into trouble. The local police sergeant, Tommy Gallagher, is not so sure, but he has other problems on his mind, including the disappearance of a young European backpacker and the movement of drugs through the town. Meanwhile ex-cop Adrian is helping the local café owner out with a lucrative sideline, but what is his real aim? And in the backblocks outside of town, a bikie gang is gearing up for a large consignment from South America.
Brown smoothly brings these various elements together in an always interesting story that builds to a tense and exciting climax in the local bushland. The inhabitants of the town, and those passing through, are marvellously crafted and very credible, and eschew the usual cliches to be found in crime fiction. The depiction of the rhythm of the local town is also very well done and will be recognisable to anyone familiar with the beaches along the NSW coast.
The story is moderately paced, but always interesting, and Brown keeps the reader engaged until the end. An enjoyable read and one of the most authentically Australian crime novels I have read for some time.
The Drowning is released in Australia on 31 October 2023. It is released in the United States and the United Kingdom at the same time, but only on Kindle. Thanks to the publishers and the Canberra Weekly for an early copy of the book for review.
It is over twenty five years since Dave Warner’s James Elroy inspired Big Bad Blood first appeared. Set in Sydney in 1965 it was an epic crime tale full of grit and blood.
Now Warner has finally released a follow up novel, Summer Of Blood (Fremantle, 3 October 2023), that takes the two detectives from Big Bad Blood, Ray Shearer and John Gordon, and sends them to California during the Summer of Love in 1967.
Gordon and Shearer are sent to America to find a young Australian student, the son of a friend of the Police Minister’s, who has gone missing in San Francisco. It is a time of change on the West Coast of America and the two Australian police officers find themselves in a strange world, as they follow leads through a maze of new music, free love, drugs and hippie counterculture. They soon come to realise, however, that this isn’t just any ordinary missing person investigation and that something very sinister is happening in the Summer of Love.
This is a big bold tale full of vivid images of LA and San Francisco in 1967 and plenty of violence. The story moves at a good pace and there is an enjoyable of intermingling of fictional and real life characters, particularly Janis Joplin. Warner’s portrayal of the good and the bad of 1967 rings true, and Gordon and Shearer are good guides through this turbulent time, even though they are sometimes completely bewildered by what they see.
The story builds to a tough and violent climax and there are a couple of neat codas back in Sydney.
The telling has a strong James Elroy feel to it at times, but there are also some great descriptive passages in Warner’s own unique style, like this depiction of the congested traffic near LA:
“Like bush flies thickening the nearer you got to dead meat, cars coagulating with every click nearer the city’s heart.”
In all, a terrific read.
Summer Of Blood is out in Australia now. It is available on Kindle and Audible in the United States and the United Kingdom (Audible only). Thanks to the publishers and the Canberra Weekly for a copy of the book for review.
As an extra bonus, Summer Of Blood comes with its own Playlist on Spotify and an eponymous single.
Jack Heath’s Kill Your Husbands, (Allen & Unwin, 28 November 2023), is still some time off, but it is well worth keeping your eye out for.
The story is an interesting revitalisation of the old, familiar plot device of taking a group of long term friends and isolating them in a remote rural location with a killer. The friends are compromised of three couples, some of whom have known each other since high school, who rent a luxurious house in the mountains for an unplugged weekend of drinking and bushwalking. No internet, no phones, no stress. On the first night, the topic of partner-swapping comes up. Not everyone is keen, but an agreement is made. The lights will be turned out. The three women will go into the three bedrooms. The three men will each pick a room at random. It won’t be awkward later, because they won’t know who they’ve slept with, or can pretend they don’t. But when the lights come back on, one of the men is dead. No one will admit to being his partner. The phones still don’t work, and now the car key is missing. They are stranded. And the killer is just getting started.
Heath takes this popular plot idea of an isolated group with secrets, and adds his own unique style and some great twists. Alternating between the events of the night and the subsequent police investigation, Kill Your Husbands is a fast moving tale that smoothly glides its way through frequent unexpected turns and some very dark moments. The three couples are nicely limned and the police detective, Senior Constable Kiara Lui, is a marvellous creation, full of uncertainty and astute reasoning.
Heath is very good at creating a creepy atmosphere and the book certainly grips attention from the opening pages and keeps a tight hold until the end. The changing nature of the couples under pressure, and as their secrets are revealed, is well done and the shifting perspective really helps to build the mystery. Kiara’s personal life is also skilfully woven into story, adding its own degree of mystery and suspense. Heath also cleverly keeps the identity of the murder victims secret until the last possible moment.
In all, a first rate thriller that will surprise and delight to the end.
Kill Your Husbands is released in Australia on 28 November 2023 and as an Audible Original only in the United Kingdom on 20 November 2023. Thanks to the publishers and the Canberra Weekly for an early copy of the book for review.
Also providing its own take on a popular mystery trope is West Heart Kill (Raven, $32.99) by Dann McDorman
Much in the mould of Benjamin Stevenson’s recent Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect, West Heart Kill takes the conventions of the crime novel and turns them upside down, as it involves the reader in solving the mystery.
The basic story centres on the classic detective fiction trope of a group of wealthy people trapped in a secluded location. They share a sordid history of grievances and secrets, and eventually the mounting tension results in murder. Fortunately there is a detective on hand to sort through the clues and offer suggestions as to the murderer.
In many ways West Heart Kill is a love letter to the classic mystery, with an abundance of clues, and several ruminations on the history of the genre, from locked room mysteries to the disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926. The author frequently breaks down the fourth wall to directly address and involve the reader, and the ending defies convention in an interesting way.
I suspect that it will not appeal to everyone, but I found the digressions on the history and form of the detective novel interesting, and underneath the gimmickry there is a good mystery plot.
West Heart Kill was released on 24 October 2023. Thanks to the publisher and the Canberra Weekly for an advanced version of the book for review.
Finally, without doubt the most original novel of the books I have read recently is the genre-bending Calico, (Severn House, 7 November 2023), by Lee Goldberg.
Set in Barstow, California, a decaying city in the scorching Mojave desert, the story opens with an unidentified vagrant being struck down by a motorhome. The investigating officer is ex-LAPD detective Beth McDade, who has come to Barstow after a staggering fall from grace. As Beth digs into the case she makes a series of startling discoveries, including a mysterious old skeleton in a shallow grave. With every disturbing clue she uncovers, Beth finds herself confronting her own troubled past and questioning her grip on reality. While in another storyline, set a hundred years ago, a desperate stranger is trying to establish a new life in the struggling mining town of Calico, not far from present day Barstow.
It is hard to go further into the plot without ruining the enjoyment of the various surprises. There are extraordinary elements to the story, but Goldberg keeps it all well grounded with his solid police investigation plot and his flawed and credible characters. Beth McCade is a convincing, engaging creation who is trying to make up for mistakes in her past, while the ‘stranger’ in Calico is also well crafted.
Goldberg skilfully alternates between the two storylines, and both move along at a good pace and maintain a high level of interest throughout. The details of the investigation, and Beth’s other cases, are well handled and the book builds to a neat climax, with a nice final twist.
The less traditional elements of Goldberg’s book are well grounded by the convincing detail of Beth’s investigation, while the historical elements are also nicely limned in believable hues.
In all, a really enjoyable tale that kept me engrossed from beginning to end.
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an advanced copy of the book for review.
So plenty of good reading in the lead up to Christmas.