A difficult reader’s choice

As I mentioned back in May I am a member of  Sisters in Crime Australia and am therefore eligible to vote in the Reader’s Choice category in this year’s Davitt Awards. Never one to take voting duties lightly I was a little overwhelmed by the number of eligible titles. At that time I had read only 6 and a half of the eligible adult fiction titles so how could I possibly make an informed vote? Given I had no chance of reading all the eligible titles in the time available I decided not to fret too much, though did resolve to get my hands on as many of the books in the adult fiction category as I could given the limitations of book-buying budgets and waking hours in which to read.

I have now read 12 of the 25 eligible adult fiction books and to be honest almost all of them would be deserving winners. I have chosen my favourite (by the merest of margins) but I really wouldn’t mind if any of the others that I’ve liked was to win instead. However, my vote has gone to

DEATH MASK by Kathryn Fox: Although I thought the start a bit slow this book has one of the most creative storylines I’ve encountered in ages, focusing on sexual assaults committed by sporting stars. As with all the very best crime fiction it is about much more than the crimes it depicts; examining the psychology of team sports from all angles in a thought-provoking way that is far-removed from how we normally the subject addressed in the media. I thought it topical, non-sensationalist and utterly compelling.

Here are the others I’ve read (in alphabetical order):
  • A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN by Sulari Gentill: A delightful historical mystery set against a fascinating backdrop of social and political turmoil in Australia in the 1930’s. A young man of a wealthy background gets help from his left-wing friends to investigate the murder of his uncle and the book has a great setting, warm-lively characters and the historical setting is interesting (my rating 3.5)
  • COLD JUSTICE by Katherine Howell: The re-opening of the investigation into the death of a teenager 19-years earlier explores the idea of people’s pasts and how they might feel differently about events they witnessed or took part in with the benefit of age and distance. It is brilliantly plotted and full of compelling characters and is the best (to date) of a terrific series (my rating 4.5)
  • DEAD MAN’S CHEST by Kerry Greenwood An intelligent cosy mystery set in 1920’s Australia this book sees private detective Phryne Fisher and her household head to the seaside for a rest. Of course they encounter some mysteries to solve including the bizarre bandit threatening the long-haired ladies of Queenscliff and the sudden disappearance of a servant couple. It’s terrific to see  the latest book in a long running series receive the attention to detail and quality story telling that the first novels received (my rating 3.5)
  • KISS OF DEATH by P.D. Martin The fifth book in this series sees ex-pat Australian FBI Profiler Sophie Anderson helping Los Angeles police with an investigation into a murder that appears to have ritualistic elements that could be associated with a religious cult. This evidence, plus one of the psychic visions that Sophie sometimes has, leads her to look into the world of self-proclaimed vampires. I liked the procedural and investigative aspects of this book but did find the supernatural elements a bit over the top (my rating 3)
  • LET THE DEAD LIE by Malla Nunn: The second book of Nunn’s set in 1950’s South Africa follows the story of Emmanuel Cooper who, under the country’s increasingly draconian apartheid laws has recently been classified non-white and so is unable to work officially for the police anymore. However while undertaking some unofficial surveillance work for his old boss he finds a young boy’s body and is compelled to investigate the case. What I enjoyed most about this book is its depiction of the impact of his changed situation on Emmanuel Cooper which felt very realistic in addition to being heart-breaking (my rating 4)
  • MATTER OF TRUST by Sydney Bauer: Boston-based lawyer David Cavanagh goes home to New Jersey to defend an old friend who is accused of murder. The novel is decently paced but has a bit too much of a tv-script sensibility for me to find 100% engaging. I’d have liked a little more depth to the characters and their motivations (my rating 2.5)
  • NAKED CRUELTY by Colleen McCullough: This is the only one that I’ve read that I would be disappointed to see win as I just don’t think it’s a great example of the crime writing craft. Set in the US in 1969 and involving the investigation of numerous crimes including a series of brutal rapes I found it historically anachronistic and pretentious (my rating 2)
  • THE HALF-CHILD by Angela Savage: (my rating 4): In the mid-90’s Jayne Keeney is an Aussie living in Thailand and working as a private detective. She is asked to investigate the apparent suicide of a young Australian volunteer some months earlier and uncovers several nasty villains in the process. It’s a terrific novel with a great sense of its setting and a very thoughtful and nuanced plot (my rating 4)
  • THE OLD SCHOOL by P.M. Newton: The first (of what I hope is many) book to feature Detective Constable Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly, the book is set in 1992 in western Sydney and involves an investigation into some bones found at a building site. Newton does many things well but, for me, it’s the time and place captured to perfection that I will long remember in this tale that tackles such big issues as the search for identity, the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people and the nature of police corruption. (my rating 4)
  • WATCH THE WORLD BURN by Leah Giarratano: A woman dies from apparent spontaneous combustion at an up scale Sydney restaurant and then other odd, possibly related, events start happening around the city. Detective Jill Jackson is meant to be studying for her Masters Degree but is drawn into the investigation for personal reasons. As always I loved the way Giarratano draws her characters in a very believable and thoughtful way and the story is one that takes several unexpected turns. (my rating 4)
  • VIOLENT EXPOSURE by Katherine Howell: Paramedics are called to a domestic disturbance at the suburban home of Suzanne and Connor Crawford one night only to have the couple explain the incident away as nothing more than a disagreement. The next evening Police and paramedics are again called to the address only this time Suzanne Crawford is dead and her husband is missing. This is a fast-paced book with credible, recognisable characters and a superbly complex plot. (my rating 4.5)
Davitt awards in the categories of best adult crime novel, best young fiction crime book and best true crime book by Australian women writers are chosen by a judging panel. The Reader’s Choice award, voted by members of Sisters in Crime, can go to any of the titles eligible for one of these three categories. All the award winners will be announced in October. For a full list of the eligible titles in all the categories you can see my earlier post on the awards.

As for which book will actually win the award I’ve no idea. I’m notoriously bad at predicting such things and am normally well out of step with the majority, whoever and wherever they may be. All I can say is good luck to all, including those I’ve not had a chance to read yet, and I feel very fortunate as a reader to have been presented with such a terrific range of crime writing by Australian women for my enjoyment and education in just one year!

Review NAKED CRUELTY by Colleen McCullough

Taking place throughout 1968, NAKED CRUELTY is Colleen McCullough’s third novel to feature Police Captain Carmine Delmonico and his team who battle the evil doers of Holloman, Connecticut. The book opens with a brutal rape which the victim, Maggie Drummond, reports to Police although the rapist warns her not to. What soon becomes clear is that Maggie was not the first victim of this rapist, merely the first brave enough to come forward. After publicity it transpires that a number of have been raped in an exclusive suburb. However, even having a string of earlier cases from which to garner evidence, the crime spree is not solved quickly. Part of the reason for that is the Holloman PD is stretched to the limit with damaging vandalism, a high-profile kidnapping and the discovery of a weapons cache at a local high school on their plates at the same time as the vicious rapes.

As with the previous book in this series there are a lot of character and they all seem to be introduced in the first 15 minutes of the audio book. It really is an overwhelming number of people, most of whom seemed to me to be there to serve as example, usually an extreme one, of some social grouping or other and many of them don’t really service the plot at all. There are tokens of all the minorities and then the rich people (who are obscenely rich), the beautiful people (the most beautiful people to walk the earth) and the crazy/quirky people (who are the craziest/quirkiest people ever) and so on. None of them seemed terribly real to me and I didn’t care too much which of them got raped, burgled or killed.

Carmine Delmonico is depicted in the previous book and most of this one as an honest cop with great deductive powers and immense insight into humanity. He is, I think, a kind of nod to Holmes, Poirot and the like. I actually rather like him as a character but towards the end of the story he does something that was certainly immoral if not criminal which I found disappointing. Not because he had a failure, humans do that, but he wasn’t being depicted as a normal human until that point and I don’t think an author can have it both ways. He should have been either an ordinary bloke with ordinary human failings (which should have been demonstrated more than once in 2 books) or a superhuman character who can do no wrong.

The historical setting didn’t ring true either. McCullough does know how to write wonderful historical fiction (her Masters of Rome series is treat) but this was one was filled with an odd assortment of anachronisms including modern nutritional thinking, an entire town (apart from one lone policeman) who showed a depth of understanding of psychology and mental illness that would be forward-thinking today let alone in 1968 and a character closer to Super Nanny (to deal with Carmine’s wife’s child-rearing difficulties) than any real person would have been at that time. When genuine contemporary details were incorporated they appeared to have been randomly inserted without much thought or depth. We got a few mentions of Nixon and a (very) brief mention of the Black Power movement but it felt like name dropping to me and didn’t offer much genuine insight into the social upheaval of the day.

I am a huge fan of Colleen McCullough and her writing (as I wrote about upon reading her second book in this series) but I’m afraid this book just didn’t work for me on many levels at all. I’ve barely scratched the surface as far as the silliness of some of the plot threads and there are a few dozen more characters I could pick apart too. I finished the book this morning and throughout the day have been revising my rating down as I realised just how little of the book I actually liked. Overall I found it superficial and pretentious, with only a few hints of the humour and adventurousness that I enjoyed about its predecessor.

NAKED CRUELTY is one of the books eligible for the 2011 Davitt Awards and is on the longlist for the 2011 Ned Kelly Awards

My rating: 2/5 stars
Publisher: Bolinda audio

ISBN: 9781407905778
Length: 11 hours 31 minutes (9 CDs)
Format: Audio (CD)
Source:borrowed from the library

Too Many Murders, Colleen McCullough

Colleen McCullough has, of late, turned her mind to crime fiction with Too Many Murders being the second of her novels to feature Captain Carmine Delmonico and the police force of Holloman Connecticut. It opens on the 3rd of April 1967. A young student at the small city’s prestigious university is killed in a particularly gruesome way. One nasty murder would be enough to cope with in the relatively crime free city but there are 11 other murders on the same day and the small police force is stretched beyond its limits. Despite the fact that there are a variety of methods used and none of the victims appear to have anything in common Carmine Delmonico begins to suspect that there is a single person responsible for all of the deaths.

To say the book’s plot is complicated is something of an understatement. Between the alarming body count (it keeps growing after that first day) and the seemingly endless twists and turns you do feel the need to have a notebook by your side, especially in the first third of the book. Complicated is what McCullough does well though and it all does resolve itself in a satisfying way. However I’d have to admit that by incorporating so many murders and associated investigations the book has skimped a little on its tackling of the big-picture social and political issues which are intertwined with the story. Things like the women’s liberation movement and the cold war between the US and Russia are present more superficially than I’d expect from McCullough and there are tangential threads that could easily have been omitted in order to address such issues more deeply.

There are some fabulous characters though. Again, perhaps a few less would have enabled us to get to know some of them more deeply, but Carmine Delmonico and his wife, Desdemona, are thoroughly engaging, As the book opens they have yet to agree on a name for their 5 month old baby boy but their gentle arguing about the issue shows they have a quite lovely relationship which is an equal partnership possibly a little ahead of its time. Delmonico is a dedicated cop and caring about his subordinates as well as being a doting husband and father. If anything he’s a bit too perfect, also being extremely intelligent, but I can see him as a bit of an homage to the golden age private investigators like Hercule Poirot (I’ve been to see McCullough speak twice and on both occasions she has talked of her love for a good whodunnit). There’s a fabulous female ‘civilian’ working with the police called Delia Carstairs (who is eventually deputised and is instrumental in solving the case) and a cast of other intriguing heroes, villains and bit players.

I managed to keep track of this tale in the well-narrated audio version but due to the complexity of the tale I wouldn’t recommend it for audio book novices. Any way you read it though I would highly recommend this romp of a yarn with its larger than life characters and absurdly complicated story full of criminal masterminds, cold war espionage and heroic investigators.It’s not McCullough’s best writing but even her average is pretty darned good.

My rating 4/5, Narrator: Bill Ten Eyck, Publisher: Bolinda Publishing [2009]; ISBN: N/A (downloaded from audible); Length: 13hrs 4mins;