NEW 2023 AUSTRALIAN CRIME FICTION BY BENJAMIN STEVENSON and CHRIS HAMMER
2023 has seen a wealth of good crime fiction being released by Australian authors and now there are two more stellar titles to add to your reading list.
Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone was the wittiest and most original crime novel I read last year, and, in my view, was the pick of the Australian crime novels released in 2022. It was a clever and very funny novel, that played enjoyable homage to the classic British murder mystery in a very unique way.
Now Stevenson has brought back the central character from that novel, Ernest Cunningham, in a new novel featuring a locked room murder mystery set on board a train.
In Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect, (Penguin, 17 October 2023), Cunningham has been invited by the Australian Mystery Writers’ Society to join a crime festival on board the Ghan, the famous train that travels between Darwin and Adelaide. Also on the train are five other authors covering the spectrum of crime fiction, including “three popular crime writers, whose novels covered the genres of forensic procedural, psychological thriller, and legal drama”, as well as a literary author and a very popular Scottish writer. Cunningham is there as the debut, non-fiction author, having written a reasonably popular account of the events from Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone. He is also trying to write that difficult second book, and is hoping that inspiration will strike while he is on the train. Fortunately he is in luck when somebody on the train is murdered during the night, and Cunningham, using his trusty rules of crime fiction, sets out to solve the crime, and hopefully write a new bestseller.
To go into more detail about the plot would do the book a disservice, as there are plenty of twists and turns, unexpected developments and a good deal of humour. After a slowish start, the book moves at a good pace and Stevenson delights in Cunningham’s wry comments on crime writing and authors, and his astute reflections on the publishing industry.
As with the first book, Cunningham frequently talks directly to the reader as he outlines the possible suspects and rates their likelihood of having committed the murder:
“This may feel unusually candid for a narrator in a detective story. I say all this because, believe it or not, mystery novels are a team sport. Some authors, the bad ones, work against the reader. But we are a team, and in order to play fair, you need to see what I see. I want you to succeed in figuring it out, just as I have.”
There is an abundance of witty comments and a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, as Cunningham navigates his way through the machinations of egoistic authors and tries to identify the murderer before they can strike again. This even leads him, and an author colleague, to conduct an impromptu inspection of the corpse for clues:
He currently had … ‘s left shoe and sock off, and was fiddling with his toes. Whether we’d passed from autopsy into fetish, I wasn’t quite sure. …. had died from (poison), not a rusty nail.”
At the core of the book, however, is a good mystery plot, and the various surprises will keep ardent crime fans happy as they try to separate the real clues from the red herrings. Some of the twists are easy to guess, but the rest are well hidden and the book builds to a tense and very unexpected conclusion. I guessed some of it, but the identity of the killer eluded me and the last page surprise came as a shock. As with all good murder mysteries, the ‘whodunnit’ elements are underpinned by fairly placed clues, and clever sleights of hand, and ably supported by a good cast of characters.
In all, I really enjoyed Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect. Maybe not as much as the first book, but the amusing reflections on authors and writing more than made up for the slight sense of deva ju. Once again, Stevenson has produced one of the best Australian crime novels of the year.
Thanks to the Canberra Weekly and the publishers for an advanced copy of the book. Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect will be released in Australia on 17 October 2023. It is not released in the United Kingdom or the United States, until early 2024, although it is available on Audible in the USA from 17 October 2023.
The significance of front cover blurbs by fellow authors, plays an important part in Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect, and it is therefore a little amusing to find a blurb by Benjamin Stevenson on the front cover of Chris Hammer’s new book The Seven (Allen & Unwin, 3 October 2023): “It would be unfair to say Chris Hammer is at the top of the crime writing game. Chris Hammer IS the game.”
The Seven is Chris’ sixth crime novel and brings back his popular pairing of Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic and Detective Constable Nell Buchanan, who operate out of the rural homicide team based at Dubbo. This time around they are called in to investigate the discovery of a body in a canal in the country town of Yuwonderie, which lies at the centre of the fictional Yuwonderie Irrigation Area. The town is the result of a major private irrigation project that brought the water of the Murrumbidgee River to a previously arid landscape in the 1920s. In the process the scheme generated huge wealth for the seven founding families known colloquially as The Seven.
The body in the canal is that of the local accountant, Athol Hasluck, who is a minor member of The Seven. As Lucic and Nell investigate, they become tangled in local and state politics, corruption, scams and an unsolved killing from 1994.
As with his previous book, The Tilt, Hammer tells the story through three distinct timelines. The first, starting in 1913, is a series of letters from Bessie, a young part-Aboriginal woman sent to work for the Titchfields, a family that will be one of the key players in the formation of the irrigation scheme and The Seven. The second, set in 1993/94, is the story of Davis Heartwood, the young heir apparent to one of the families, who is doing research into the establishment of the town and the role of The Seven. While in the present, Lucic and Nell struggle to untangle the web of family and small connections and the relevance of the earlier murder, while dodging the attention of a determined killer.
As the narrative switches between the three gradually merging timelines, Hammer delivers some good surprises and creates an interesting historical narrative of the local area. Each of the timelines are convincing and credible, and Hammer accurately portrays the feel of the very different historical periods. Despite its length, the book mainly moves along at a good pace, and the final hundred pages, or so, make for compelling and surprising reading. Keeping track of the various members of The Seven down the years, and their links to the various crimes, requires some concentration, but it is well worth the effort.
As with his previous books, Hammer creates a strong sense of place, which is once more based around the availability and importance of water for rural Australian communities. With his well-trained journalist’s eye, he quickly paints a scene and effortlessly imparts a wealth of background information on a range of topics from the intricacies of water trading, to historical research, to speculative water creation methods and political slush funds.
The characterisations are astute, well developed and subtly drawn and give a good depth to the story. The central pairing of Lucic and Buchanan continue to develop as characters, with the focus this time around on the flawed, but determined, Lucic.
Overall, The Seven is an impressive and enjoyable crime novel. The historical detail is fascinating and the plotting has real substance to it. There are also some good twists that I did not see coming.
The Seven is released in Australia on 3 October 2023. It is released in the United Kingdom on 4 January 2024 under the title of Cover The Bones (although it is available on Kindle from 3 October 2023). It is also available on Kindle in the United States on 3 October 2023.