review: annie hauxwell, a bitter taste

As I mentioned in my Melbourne Writers Festival post, there’s an event on tomorrow morning called Crime Through Time. One of the authors is the wonderful Annie Hauxwell, so it seems a good time to post this review from her June release A Bitter Taste.

Frequently in crime books the gritty reality of those in unfortunate circumstances is considered other: the characters used as people to bribe for information or to be killed off with little remorse. In Hauxwell’s Catherine Berlin series, she takes us into a world not every crime reader is prepared for. Berlin is a fifty-six-year-old mostly-high-functioning heroin addict, attempting somewhat to get clean with methadone to assist her physical and internal scarring, and working with little money after her career as a private investigator was ruined. Now unhappy enough to accept crappy jobs and be paid in booze, she carries on through the heat of a blistering summer until an old acquaintance turns up with a request Berlin—the root cause of her downfall—cannot bring herself to refuse: a missing daughter.

Yet another example of how excellently painted main characters and thrilling but not cheap action can plunge you directly into a world: this was a book I really hated to put down, saying “just another chapter” before bed but secretly reading eight more. With London’s grime on show, and Berlin often more at home bunking down with the homeless, trying to find the girl, than in the bright and untrustworthy world of the authorities, this was a book with enough of the originality I so require in crime reads nowadays, and one that I would recommend heartily.

A version of this review was originally published in Readings Monthly.

opinion: women in boxes.

While I love crime fiction—always have since my days of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, and always will—like any relationship, there are faults. Occasionally I’ll bring them up as topics of discussion, and I’m happy for the opinions of anyone and everyone, though I am obviously always going to be right.

 

One thing that I am most frustrated by in crime fiction is the ridiculous lengths some authors will go to in perpetrating violence against women. Now, most people are reading crime for the mystery, to find out who committed a crime, whether they like to try and figure it out themselves or just let it wash over them. In order for you to care, authors must make the stakes high enough for you to want a resolution. I guess, then, their theory is that the worse the crime, the more you will want the case solved. So authors create the most atrocious of monsters.

However, I think this misses a lot of other points. Readers go into crime fiction because they understand the law and that breaking it has consequences; there are many laws, and they’re mostly in place for the safety of others. Stakes are almost always high in breaking the law; that’s the entire point. Still authors skip some crime—car theft, property theft, tax evasion—to go for the blood and gore and, let’s face it, sexual assault. Too much of crime falls back on the lazy trope of women being held hostage/murdered/raped, while some brave police officer tries to outwit the batshit insane person at the heart of it. This isn’t to say books with this plot are never good—of course some of them are—but I’m sick of reading about it. It’s in the news all the time. This is boring. I’ve read it a thousand times. Try something new.

This was made excruciatingly obvious to me recently when I sat happily with my fresh pile of crime new releases, going through them to pick out the best-looking ones to read (as I barely have time to brush my hair with a kid, let alone read three books a week like I used to.) I decided on Pierre Lamaitre’s Alex, as it had been collecting a lot of hype and I am always happy to feed into such things. It was fine, but I didn’t finish it—I got maybe a third of the way through, but, sick of the chapters and chapters about the titular Alex being stuck naked in a tortuous wooden box suspended from the ceiling, I decided I didn’t want to give it any more of my time and put it down in favour of the next on my list, Koethe Zan’s The Never List. Just imagine my enthusiasm when, far too swiftly, another woman appeared in a wooden box, trapped in a basement. I put it down and took a few days off reading crime altogether. (I think that’s about the time I discovered Candy Crush on my phone and became trapped in a metaphorical box of chocolate-destroying.)

Now, I did finish (and enjoy) The Never List, and the person who requested a look at Alex said I shouldn’t have stopped and that it was a great book, but—seriously—when two books at the same time have this ridiculous and similar torture of women it just makes me so frustrated. (It is also worth noting, however, that from what I read, neither of the boxed women suffered sexual assault alongside the physical torture.)

Another book that took female-based violence to a different level was Australian Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders. Having heard really positive things about him, but never having read anything by him before, I was glad to grab a copy, not knowing it wasn’t quite as light-hearted as his previous books. On the contrary, it was so gruesome that I felt almost physically sick sometimes; he absolutely did not hold back on any graphic violence that his main antagonist committed, and even remembering it right now makes me go a bit pale. I have quite a strong stomach despite the point of this piece, but I don’t remember being this affected since I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The book gets a fairly decent Goodreads score and was well written, but—and here’s the rub—I found it difficult to read past the violence to enjoy the story; I just wanted it to be over. (As I mentioned in a previous review, a fabulous antidote to this book is Maggie Groff’s Good News, Bad News—where the crime is a missing husband returning from the dead.)

This isn’t all to say that there can be no violence against women in books. We make up half of the population, so kill half of us off if you really feel it is necessary. But I, and other readers I’ve spoken to, now avoid a book if it contains the crime of torture or sexual violence against women, because it’s been done, and it happens in reality far too often. If you are a publishable author, you have the skills to haul in a reader’s interest without resorting to these overdone felonies. Every crime has its stakes; raise them with great writing, characters you almost feel next to you, and some original ideas. Go write a book about stealing persimmons from a neighbour’s tree. I promise you I’ll read it.

australian crime author twitter roundup

Gosh, I love Twitter. It totally suits my short attention span, though it tests my inability to use 140 characters when I would usually write an essay. Also, all the coolest people (cough*myselfincluded*cough) are there. Here’s a continuously updated list of said people – and if I’ve missed someone, let me know at readingkills@gmail.com.

Bunty Avieson: @avieson

Tony Cavanaugh: @TonyCavanaugh1

Phil Cleary: @PhilCleary_Ind

Jane Clifton: @missjaneclifton

Matthew Condon: @MatthewCondon2

Adrian d’Hage: @AdriandHage

Kathryn Fox: @KathrynFoxBooks

Annie Hauxwell: @Annie_Hauxwell

Katherine Howell: @KHowell_Author

L A Larkin: @lalarkinauthor

Gabrielle Lord: @GabrielleLord

Zane Lovitt: @ZaneLovitt

P D Martin: @pdmartin1

Geoffrey McGeachin: @GeoffMcGeachin

Adrian McKinty: @adrianmckinty

Tara Moss: @Tara_Moss

Andy Muir: @pandymedia

PM Newton: @pmnewton

Malla Nunn: @MallaNunn

Tony Park: @tonyparkblog

James Phelan: @RealJamesPhelan

Leigh Redhead: @LeighRedhead

Michael Robotham: @michaelrobotham

Angela Savage: @angsavage

Kristen Tranter: @ktranter

Lee Tulloch: @missleetulloch

David Whish-Wilson: @DaveWhishWilson

Sue Williams: @suewill999

Chris Womersley: @WomersleyChris

review: adrian deans, straight jacket

This summer, Adrian Deans’ Sydney teems with cicadas, desire and blood. Arguably, the worst part of the season is Morgen Tanjenz: rich, bored, and with just enough time on his hands to pursue his passion for Life Sculpture. With cash and connections and righteousness at his disposal, he takes it upon himself to very creatively disrupt the lives of those who draw his ire by such enormous criminal acts as talking too loud on a train or taking the job Morgen had coveted.

Acting with a little less subtlety is the Gorge Killer: a serial murderer who sends fingers in the mail. Detective Sergeant Peter Fowler—better known as Blacksnake—is on the hunt and about one bad coffee away from physically exploding with pent-up frustration.

When Morgen says, early on, “I felt my sense of justice becoming engorged—even tumescent, you might say”, it gives a good indication about how unnerving the whole book is. Still, it remains also enormous fun, with Morgen’s machinations utterly, horribly enjoyable in that kind of grim way that makes you worry a bit about your own sanity. He baits perfectly nice people for fun, poses as a Salvo and spends all the earnings on brothels and booze. He is attractive, clever and dreadful: all excellent ingredients for a protagonist. With a blitz of an ending and such originality throughout that you can never pick where it’s going to go next—except badly—Straight Jacket is a quality disturbing read.

fun & crime at the melbourne writers festival

So I have an eighteen-month old daughter named Rocket, which is pretty great (she’s currently asleep so I am currently sincere about that), though having a kid does put a bit of a halt to my usual festival visits. Currently, we’re approaching the tail end of the divine Melbourne Writers Festival, and while I won’t be able to attend any shenanigans this year (sob), here are four events I’ll be keeping Twitter tabs on.

Friday, August 30

10am: The Morning Read, Festival Hub at Beer DeLuxe (free)

It’s early, but if you can crawl your way there with a coffee you’ll be treated to Big Issue books editor Thuy On as she hosts readings by Fiona Capp, Tao Lin, Jane Rawson and Zane Lovitt. Zane wrote The Midnight Promise, one of my favourite books of last year, a noir set of tales of a downtrodden Melbourne private detective. The rest ain’t so bad either.

Saturday, August 31

2:30pm: A Year of Stella, Wheeler Centre Performance Space (tickets $19.50/$21.50)

The Stella Prize was launched a year ago, and this year’s winner was Carrie Tiffany and her work Mateship with Birds. A literary prize for women is a fabulous idea and this should be celebrated heartily and possibly drunkenly.

4pm: The Stolen Picasso, NGV Theatrette at Ian Potter Centre (tickets $19.50/$21.50)

Ned Kelly Award winner Chris Womersley’s newest book, Cairo, is set in 1986 and tunnels into the underground art scene of my beloved Melbourne. He’ll talk literature, art, crime, and stealing Picassos.

Sunday, September 1

10am: Crime Through Time, ACMI Cinema 1 (tickets $19.50/$21.50)

I’ll be at work, sadly, for this amazing-looking event with authors Kerry Greenwood, Shane Maloney and Annie Hauxwell. The program says it best: This criminal triumvirate investigates crime writing through the ages and the traditions and tropes of the trade with literary professor Ken Gelder. I love all these authors and the protagonists they’ve created, and I can’t wait to hear what they had to say.

Haven’t had enough? The Brisbane Writers Festival starts Tuesday, September 3 – and I’ll be posting a list of all the must-see crime events going on there shortly, once I can find a sufficiently wistful font.

review: angela savage, the dying beach

Australian-born Private Investigator Jayne Keeney is enjoying a holiday in Krabi along with her business partner and lover, Rajiv, in the beautiful country she now calls home. Thailand continues to seduce her with guided tours and scenic locations, until she requests another trip with her favourite tour guide, the affable Pla, only to discover that her lifeless body was found floating in a cave that morning. The case is ruled a drowning, but Jayne, ever enmeshed in the lives of others, is suspicious. It’s a hunch that gets some traction when someone else close to Pla is summarily killed, and thus Jayne, another crime protagonist doomed to never enjoy a vacation, rolls up her sleeves and dives into Pla’s past.

The Dying Beach layers a killer’s bloody parallel narrative with a detective novel rich with the Thai way of life, and observations into the environmental effects of tourism and economic progress in a country famed for its natural beauty. She also looks into the attitudes of foreigners who want to fly in and change the world, bringing their own values and expectations to an environment full of cultural differences—something even longtime resident Jayne and Rajiv can be guilty of. Jayne, who, as the best kind of badass heroine, can speak the language and knock about with the best of them, is an endearing character to follow, even when her determination brings about emotional pain she may not be equipped to deal with, and physical danger she may not be able to survive.

 

A version of this review was originally published in Readings Monthly.