melissa ginsburg, sunset city (& non-professional protagonists)

Recently I read and loved Sunset City, the grim, Houston-set tale of twenty-two-year-old Charlotte, whose best friend was brutally murdered in a hotel. While the two were intense childhood friends, she hasn’t seen Danielle in a while, after their lives skewed apart due to adulthood and drugs and the wrong type of friends. But recently she and Danielle had made contact, but then, before they could repair their damaged bonds, Danielle is killed. Charlotte searches for the truth, but she’s no detective (though there is one, and he’s mostly there to be attractive). The book does tie up neatly, but it’s not due to any real, deliberate investigation, as much as Charlotte trying to connect with those who Danielle now loved, and getting ridiculously high and endlessly drunk and having some don’t-read-these-parts-on-public-transport sex.

Sunset City is not a style I’m used to, seeing as such a vast amount of crime writing involves alcoholic, bitterly single police officers who sidestep the law gently but with lots of swearing. There are books where the protagonists aren’t professional detectives in any capacity, but have other training that helps, a field of expertise in medical or science backgrounds. The only real talent Charlotte has here – not that I’m implying she’s stupid, more just unfocused – is that she will throw herself into situations with abandon, and they carry her where she needs to be. It seems like lazy storytelling, but the story itself is a heady read, like a literary trip in the most psychedelic of senses. It’s tight, taut, breathless writing, and I enjoyed it. I felt for the character, her broken past, her unsure future, even as I found her lifestyle totally incompatible with my worldview. (Sure, let’s drink a mountain of booze and then get in your car and go drive around with a stranger, why not?)

I do find non-professional main characters, in general, to be an enjoyable foray into how we everyday folk would deal with any kind of criminal situation. You can’t just strut up to the relatives of the victim and ask questions – but you can try. Doors won’t open for you, so you find another way. Sometimes you stumble into answers. Sometimes they stumble into you. And it turns out that it can work–but you’ve really gotta have everything else down pat first: your immersive writing; your dark, neon landscape; your relatable (or at least readable) characters.

Do you prefer your main characters to have investigative expertise on their side? Or does it not matter to you? I can’t say for sure that I do have a preference – I think a lot of my favourite novels still do involve actual detectives – but I’d love to know your thoughts.

j m green, good money

Look, I was never not going to like a book about a Victorian protagonist with the same surname as me, especially after hearing all of my crime-book pals bang on about it. I had high hopes and they were met with aplomb by this fun/funny/gritty/alarming/everything-good read.

Social worker and the cynically good-natured Stella Hardy is called to a client’s house early one morning by a family in mourning over the death of teenager Adut Chol. She does all she can to ease their grief, until a discussion with the dead boy’s brother Mabor leads to a discovery that stops her in her tracks—her home address in Adut’s notebooks. Stella knows this can only mean he knows about the one thing she can’t forgive herself for, and one she never forgets. As she tries to find out how much Adut knew, her friendly new neighbour goes missing, her errant brother returns to insinuate himself in her life, a handsome artist asks for her number, Mabor makes some godawful friends and the next thing she knows she is being escorted by limousine to luxurious apartments to chat with high-profile business moguls with connections to shifty mining practices. All of this without her old pal, cop Phuong Nguyen, to help her out—unless they both decide to let go of the past and take hold of the future with a touch of make-up breaking-and-entering.

Stella is wonderfully likeable—determined but as easily sidetracked as the rest of us, be it by the internet (guilty) or handsome artists (also guilty). She is sometimes hopeful and sometimes bitter about the world, her friends, and her family; as an outsider everywhere, she is full of scathing remarks about people but willing to be called out on it. This is a powerhouse debut, full of excitement, jokes, brutality and scenic flights over Australia’s dangerous red centre, the bad use of good money, and the good use of bad money. In an unusual turn of events, I did figure out one villain really early on–usually I’m happy to be blissfully stupid about who’s who and leave my little grey cells to have a bit of a rest–but that absolutely did not stop the enjoyment of reading this. I can’t wait for a sequel.

alecia simmonds, wild man

On a strange dark night in April 2012, at a peaceful gathering at a remote property in New South Wales, Evan Johnson was shot by police while threatening people with a crossbow. While this is the story we hear in the news, Alecia Simmonds was willing to search further into the truth of the story: how Evan came to be there, what happened that night and—most importantly—what we can learn from the tale of a desperately ill man meeting a premature end at the hands of the state.

For readers at the story, and so many at the scene of the tragedy and afterwards, they meet Evan only at his worst. And so the book begins with the story of his death and, in the coronial inquiry, details the witness statements from those at the scene; these have such a raw intensity that you fear, ridiculously, that he might kill everyone as he threatened and escape, even after knowing the facts outlined at the start. We follow her train of thought as she has it: who is to blame and why? Is it his environment, upbringing, drugs, mental health, the police? All of the above? It’s a search deep into the heart of cases that frustrate us and then leave us for the next news item, but are something telling and relevant in these times of unmitigated police violence here and overseas, deaths in custody, and the lack of proper care for those suffering from mental illnesses.

The inquiry and Alecia’s research take us into a world we ignore: how a case comes together, how information is accessed, how to create a real person out of their ghost, and how necessary all that is. And, of course, how much your average person hearing news stories does not have the opportunity—or the knowledge—to discover it. Wild Man is a smart, emotionally devastating and compelling piece of journalism that holds your hand as it leads you into the story of Evan’s death and lets it go just as you need to think hard about how Australia, as a country, is so desperate to love and romanticise a larrikin that when one steps beyond the bounds, we are helpless in the face of it.

andrew nette, ghost money

Early on in Ghost Money, I highlighted this line, hoping it would summarise the entire book: “He was probably just a drunk with a knack for a good story, but he spoke fluent Thai and had amassed local knowledge and contacts that had proved useful.” I’m still unsure on the “drunk” part, but Nette has and shares a broad familiarity of Cambodia’s political climate in 1996, and absolutely has a knack for a good story in this, the tale of a former police officer turned private investigator after his professional career ends in literal and gruesome flames. Vietnamese-Australian Max Quinlan is sent by wealthy Australian Madeleine Avery to track down her not-entirely-trustworthy brother Charles in Thailand, where things take an immediately bloodthirsty turn and Quinlan finds information that traces Avery to Cambodia. There, in a place still raw from the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s reign over the country, he follows the arrows that point to Avery, leans on every contact, revels in the country’s misty beauty and dense sadness, and is in perilous danger at virtually every moment.

Andrew Nette is a reviewer and lover of all things pulp—see Pulp Curry for numerous excellent examples—and his expansive knowledge of such things makes for a story that has every beat in the right place. Dead bodies, villains, guns, gems, scenes from a boxing fight, blazing infernos, last-minute reprieves—it’s a cinematic experience, visually arresting the whole way through, from city to shacks to jungle and any tiki bar inbetween. But he anchors this in a real world, where the dames are humans instead of one-liners on endless legs, and the villains can be as damaged by Cambodia’s history as the heroes are. Max himself is both well-drawn enough to be a character you want to spend time with, yet is skilfully held back somewhat—an immersive written experience that makes you feel, despite the third-person narrative, as if you are Max: I was surprised at myself when he reacted in ways I wouldn’t, so engaged I was in his life.

As someone who suffers from fight fatigue in literature and movies (I’m looking at you, Marvel movies), I loved the final denouement and its accompanying tension—don’t read this in a doctor’s surgery when you’re about to get your blood pressure taken—and not knowing who might end up shot, dead, or worse by the end. If anything, I could have done with more of the nights leading up to the moment, with Quinlan and his reliable and relatable cohort Sarin as they survive through what may be their last nights on earth. I’m still more pleased to be left wanting more than rolling my eyes at a laboured ending and pushing books (or in this case my alarmingly expensive tablet) off my bed in a sulk (which I have been known to do).

You can and probably should get Ghost Money here. If you find some literal ghost money on your doorstep, you should probably run.

emma viskic, resurrection bay

While I love a solely plot-driven book as much as I love a blustery action movie (i.e. a LOT), a book that has characters of real depth and diversity, like Resurrection Bay, is quite simply a pleasure to read. And having diversity in a book’s characters is, quite, honestly, a relief: it shows awareness of the world around us, one that is not full of much-loved cookie-cutter crime staples but actual humans. Here, we follow a profoundly deaf main character, his 57-year old female ex-cop detective partner, his Koori ex-wife and her extended family, a selection of good-to-partly-good and bad-to-monstrously-bad cops and trails and friends and passers-by, all of them involved in a case that beats down your door and knocks you out cold from page one, when Caleb Zelic responds to a friend’s alarming message only to find him torn to shreds. Caleb and Gary have been friends since they were children, tearing up Resurrection Bay as rowdy kids, before Gary became a cop and Caleb a detective of a different kind. So when the police seem determined not to follow any leads, Caleb knows he must hunt his friend’s killer himself, no matter where that search may lead.

And it leads, inevitably, to him bunkering down in his ex-wife’s house, a relationship ruined by personal tragedy and stubbornness, but one he still treasures. Kat and he have unfinished business, but whether they can tie their loose ends together before Gary’s killers slice them apart is another thing. There are breathless scenes of tension—when your main character cannot hear, what happens when you’re fighting for your life in the sand and you can’t hear what the other person is yelling at you?—and times when I was guiltily desperate to skip ahead just to make sure the people I loved were going to make it through okay. And in the capable signing hands of Viskic—a Ned Kelly short story award winner—you never know what’s around the corner, in the very best kind of way. Sometimes you don’t realise how used to the status quo you have become until something new comes along and shakes you out of it. Resurrection Bay is that kind of book. While of course I love a book about a slightly drunk white man aged 30-50 solving a case involving a bunch of other white dudes as much as the next crime lover, unless you’re reading your books in a Fortune 500 office, that doesn’t really reflect the everyday world around you. And while many books buck that trend, Resurrection Bay uses diversity like a superpower, a clenched fist in the nose of those politicians determined to keep Australia a dull cut-and-paste of colonialism. And for that, I thank Viskic endlessly.

alex hammond, the unbroken line

Defence lawyer Will Harris has barely recovered from being hospitalised after going rogue in his first book, Blood Witness, when he and his lover Eva are attacked and threatened by strangers who tell him: “Back off.” Will, who doesn’t enjoy danger as much as it enjoys him, would oblige, if he knew what he was supposed to back off from: he’s already busy fighting a complaint accusing him of some suspicious activity he’s not entirely innocent of, and grappling with his newly minted law firm, a business partner who is never around, and defence cases he’d prefer to avoid. Now, of course, he’s got something else on his plate—finding out who assaulted them and caused Eva to flee from Will and the violence that surrounds him.

If you’ve ever wondered how it feels to be a defence lawyer, read this and wonder no longer: if it’s half as complicated and tense as this book, we should all just stick to being armchair lawyers, even if the pay isn’t as good. Will’s exhausting day-to-day life of interviews and solving murky problems into crystal-clear defences and juggling any kind of private life is something else – and obviously fictionalised enough to be interesting (Will is a media darling post his adventures in the Ned-Kelly-shortlisted Blood Witness, after all), while retaining enough paperwork out of the ears to be realistic, if not slightly depressing for trees. This is one for Melbourne locals – as Will gallivants around town from east to west and north to south, getting into crashes in the Burnley Tunnel and going for drinks in bars as familiar as the one you were in just last weekend, it’s a heady tale of local intrigue that spans contemporary Melbourne and a grim part of Australia’s history. I often take notes on my phone when I’m reading, to help me remember good lines (or make up my own! Like this one just now.) I wrote moral quandary on its own, because idea infuses every page of the book. Will is a serious man who tries to do good in a career and a world that seems desperate to stop him. And he’s not some shining white knight, here to save everyone from his ethically stabled high horse—he twists himself in knots that can’t be untangled without assistance. The legal world is one soaked in privilege, with all the good and evil that come with it, and Will, with his family ties to the industry, is part of the problem. What can he overcome to prove himself, and what lines will he refuse to break?