This post originally appeared on New Zealand blogger Craig Sisterson’s Crime Watch, on March 2, 2010.
We thank Craig for his kind permission to republish it here.

One of the most difficult things for a reviewer (well, perhaps not for some – but it is for me), is dealing with how to fairly assess and talk about a book that you just don’t think is very good.

That was the case for me when I read TROPIC OF DEATH by Australian author Robert Sims last year. Looking back on 2009, it was one of the most disappointing books of the year for me (along with Chris Carter’s THE CRUCIFIX KILLER, which I have previously discussed here), and I gave it my lowest star grade (2 out of 5) of the 32 books I reviewed for Good Reading magazine between March and December 2009.

I ended up reviewing the crime novel for Good Reading (since Sims is an Australian author, and the story set in Australia), but I didn’t make any efforts to also write other reviews of it for other publications, because I felt somewhat bad about not liking it, and didn’t want to ‘pile on’ by slamming it in several publications. After all, I’m only one opinion, and there are probably several people who enjoyed the book, and either overlooked, or weren’t bothered at all by, the serious flaws that I saw that spoiled what could have been a good tale. Flaws that meant the book, for me, fell below the par mark for good crime fiction.

Before I continue, I should probably disclose that I enjoy reading widely in the crime/mystery/thriller genre. I enjoy classic cosy mysteries, and brutal serial killer tales filled with blood and gore – as long as the story, characters, and writing/storytelling is interesting and of a reasonable standard. So unlike some reviewers, I won’t bash a novel filled with graphic violence and gore in a review, just because I prefer cosy mysteries (nor am I a literary fiction ‘afficionado’ who looks down on crime fiction in general). And I won’t bash a bloodless ‘Malice Domestic’ style story in a review, just because I think it lacks ‘gritty realism’. I try to read each book, and judge it on its own merits, comparing it to similar books.

I don’t expect every crime novel to be as good as the best in the business, and I enjoy reading ‘lighter’ tales just for fun sometimes. For example, as popular as he is, and as much good as he is doing to encourage people (including kids) to read, I wouldn’t consider James Patterson a ‘great’ crime writer, by any stretch – I have rather gone off his books, which have seemed to me to become too formulaic, and too light on character etc, over the years. But I still will read (and quite enjoy) one now and then. It’s good to mix it up, and he can still tell a good, tense (if plot-centric, and ‘light’) tale.

But there’s a difference between that, and tales which may have some of the pieces (perhaps even more interesting pieces than other, better, books), but aren’t particularly well-told. And that was underlined for me when I read TROPIC OF DEATH last year. Especially considering I was in a bit of a ‘purple patch’, reading and reviewing wise – finding the time to enjoy several books that month.

The publisher’s blurb for TROPIC OF DEATH boasts: “In this strikingly written crime novel, Robert Sims takes us on a thrilling journey into the dark mind of yet another disturbing killer.”

TROPIC OF DEATH is Sim’s second book featuring criminal profiler Detective Rita Van Hassel, a Melbourne police version of the FBI ‘mind-hunters’ popularised in various books, movies, and television shows (e.g. Criminal Minds).

Van Hassel finds herself heading to the serene waters and lush rainforest of Whitley, an idyllic resort town in tropical north Queensland – but not on holiday. Instead she’s called in to help local police track down a grisly killer after a severed head found on a beach is followed by the mutilation-murder of Rachel Macarthur, a local environmental activist. It seems that there is plenty of malice and intrigue amongst the picturesque scenery, and Van Hassel finds herself smack in the middle of an investigation complicated by misinformation and interference from an overly-militaristic regime at the gigantic and secretive nearby US defence base. A regime that seems linked to the killings, and an investigation that also brings to light a few ghosts from Van Hassel’s past.

In the words of the publisher: “As the murders continue, the pressure on Rita reaches boiling point, and she must muster all her profiling knowledge and ingenuity to help catch the killer before he strikes again.”

It all sounds good thusfar, eh? Plenty of promise, anyway.

However, overall I found TROPIC OF DEATH to be pretty disappointing. A potentially intriguing setting and storyline – which includes issues such as covert military ops, hackers and surveillance, theology and science, environmental issues, and artificial intelligence – is undone early on by cringe-worthy ‘on the nose’ and expositional dialogue, haphazard plotting and pacing, and cardboard characters that just didn’t grab me.

Perhaps Sims’ hoped readers were already hooked on Van Hassel from his debut – because, for me, she really wasn’t set up well as a hero worth following in the early part of this book. And when Sims attemped to give readers information early on, it was done in a clunky, clumsy way – such as through unnatural, expositional dialogue. There is a lot of tell, and not much show – which would be forgivable if the telling was done in a more unique or fresh, vivid way. Conversations between characters came across as contrived, solely there to (clumsily) convey information to the reader. I actually felt myself cringe, sigh, or roll my eyes at times.

Having said all that, I was still (somewhat) curious about what might happen in the book. So I continued, and to be fair, the final third improves quite a lot – as if Sims belatedly hit his stride. If only he’d gone back and tightened up the rest of the book, and perhaps added some more depth, subtext, and telling details, before publication.

Overall it seems to me the type of book that has tried to tick a few boxes – e.g. unique, potentially interesting setting – check; a few ‘issues’ that could make it bigger than a standard murder mystery – check; stock-standard characters set up for conflict – check; a few grisly, memorable deaths that will stick in publisher/reader minds – check.

But although some of the parts are there, for me TROPIC OF DEATH is like a building with a few good bricks, but some big holes, and not enough plaster (good, interesting, writing) to hold everything together. Of course readers who are perhaps less discerning (am I being too discerning?) may be entertained enough by the interesting bits (which I personally think could have been ‘ramped up’ even more if the writing was better) to not care. They may not see some things as clunky or cliched – things that pulled me out of the story at regular occasions.

Some may even think it’s a good crime novel just because it has a different/unique setting, therefore it is ‘something different’. Or because it brings the FBI-style criminal profiler into a local, Australian, setting, or because it has these ‘background issues’ relating to environmentalism and/or the military industrial complex – so that makes it good, in of itself.

For me, all those things are good, but TROPIC OF DEATH felt like something of a wasted opportunity. It could have been so much more; having those elements, but being better executed, with better writing. But that’s just one man’s opinion.

In the interests of fairness, here are some positive reviews of TROPIC OF DEATH I found on the Internet:

  • At Aussie Book Reviews, Sally Murphy calls the book “an absorbing thriller”, that “with diverse characters and attractive settings, as well as a mixture of intrigue and action… is a tale sure to delight lovers of crime fiction.”
  • Australian Bookseller and Publisher magazine gave it 5 stars and says it has “some fine plotting and pacing, and some deftly-drawn characters, in particular … protagonist, detective Rita Von Hassell… a welcome addition to any crime lover’s bookshelf.”

I couldn’t find any reviews from major newspapers or other publications to link to, I’m afraid.
How do you, as a reviewer, cope with reviewing a book you didn’t particularly enjoy? Am I being too harsh on TROPIC OF DEATH? Would some of the Aussie contingent, or anyone else, like to come in and provide an alternate opinion (if you loved the book)? Thoughts and comments (or tongue-lashings), most welcome.

BLACK ICE, Leah Giarratano

This post originally appeared on New Zealand blogger Craig Sisterson’s Crime Watch, on April 6, 2010.
We thank Craig for his kind permission to republish it here.

So today, I’m looking at BLACK ICE by Leah Giarratano

Downunder, Giarratano is perhaps most known as the host of the Australian spin-off of the New Zealand TV show, Beyond the Darklands, where an expert clinical psychologist delves into the minds and pasts of notorious criminals, trying to find indications of how and why they developed into vicious criminals. As a side note, the host of the original Beyond the Darklands, New Zealand child psychologist Nigel Latta, also wrote a crime novel several years ago; EXECUTION LULLABY.
By Leah Giarratano (Random House, 2009)In BLACK ICE, her third in a series featuring city detective Jill Jackson, Giarratano picks at the scab of Sydney’s murky drugs underbelly; a world where everyone from glamorous A-Listers to addicted streetkids to and vicious gangs, all collide.

The publisher’s blurb states: “Living in a run down flat and making unlikely friends Jill sees first hand what devastation the illegal drugs scene can wreak. Jill’s sister Cassie has a new boyfriend Christian Worthington. Like her, he is one of the beautiful people of Sydney, rich, good looking, great job, great car and seen in all the right places. He is a high flying lawyer doing pro bono work to keep a drug dealer out of gaol. He is also Cassie’s supplier, keeping her supplied with cocaine and ice. When Cassie overdoses and is dumped at the hospital her life begins to spiral out of control. Seren Templeton is just out of Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre. Two years in gaol away from her son for something she didn’t do. And now she is ready to get her revenge on the man responsible. Things start to go awry when these worlds collide and Jill and Cassie meet on opposite sides of the law.”

I really enjoyed this book, and I found myself enjoying it more and more as it went on. I ended up giving it a 4-star rating for a short review I did for Good Reading magazine (I mark reasonably hard – I’ve only ever given two five-star reviews out of 40-50 reviews for them).

I must admit that initially I wasn’t that enamoured with Jackson as a main character – this may have been because I didn’t have the full background on her from the first two books of the series, so some of her behaviour seemed a touch eye-rolling/contrived to me, when it may have seemed more organic and believable if I’d known more about her and her past. But Jackson (and Giarratano’s writing) really grew on me throughout, and by the end of the book I was keen to read another tale centred on the (overly?) ambitious, complex, and flawed detective.

I particularly liked Giarratano’s mix of setting (the gritty urban Australia underbelly), good dialogue, interesting plot, and some unique and memorable characters. BLACK ICE has a real modern, contemporary feel – not just because of the modern lifestyles and drugs involved, but the punchy way in which Giarratano writes, and her fresh evocation of the different layers of Australian drugs culture. Overall Giarratano pens a taut thriller; she excels in bringing the gritty world and her unique characters to life with realism and freshness.

If I have a quibble, it’s that at times at times I could see the psychologist in her coming through a little too much, especially when it came to ‘excusing’ or mitigating the actions of some characters (particularly any female character – whose flaws always seemed to come down to how badly she’d been treated by some man in her past). The consistency of this pulled me out of the story a little at times, as I was left thinking about the author and her approach, rather than being completely and totally involved with the characters and story – you could ‘see the author’s hand’ a little, which isn’t a good thing. However, this was a very minor flaw in an otherwise great read.

The freshness of Giarratano’s writing, her wonderful scene-setting, her unique characters, and her good plotting, will all bring me back for more. A good read for anyone looking for some very modern and contemporary city-set Australian crime fiction.

Have you read any of Leah Giarratano’s work? Does this type of storytelling appeal to you? Thoughts and comments welcome.