writing crime with ellie marney at mwf

(Shameless self-promotion ahead)

Hey you! You there, with a teenager as an accessory! Perhaps you would like to come to the MWF event I’m chairing with excellent YA crime author Ellie Marney, author of the Every series and the first books I steer customers towards when they say, “I’m looking for a book for my teenager who likes mysteries…”

It’s part of the midweek schools program, but if you know a schoolkid who’d be interested (well, presumably a whole class of kids unless you feel okay about skipping class for a writers festival – which I think I do), then check it out here! Even if not, you should still all read Ellie’s books.

(Incidentally I’m also chairing these two events as well, and they’re all in a row so you really should just take the morning off and go to all of them, then head to The Tea Salon afterwards like I will to collapse into a puddle of French Earl Grey in frilly-wallpapered surrounds.)

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.

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?

tony cavanaugh, kingdom of the strong

Darian Richards is a lost man. A man he has hunted for years has vanished again, presumably overseas. His lover is gone. The Noosa river, the one bank of water that affords him peace, is not doing its job. Early retirement is looking like it is not for him. But then: a visitor to the cabin he has retreated to. Victorian Police Commissioner Copeland Walsh—nicknamed Copland for his dedication—asking for his help. He needs to retire, and be replaced. But his replacement, Nick Racine, has a cloud over his past, involving an unresolved death of an eighteen-year-old woman in 1990. The case needs closing, and Richards—no longer part of Melbourne’s police politics—is the one for the job. Of course, Darian says yes. To Copland, the man who made Darian into the police officer he is today—decent and dedicated to justice beyond everything else—he always will. And after summoning Queensland Senior Constable Maria Chastain and Isosceles, his nothing-can-stop-him tech whiz, Darian will find out what happened to Isobel Vine: for the outgoing and incoming commissioners; for Isobel’s father, still fighting every day to prove his daughter did not kill herself; and for his own sanity.

Cavanaugh’s writing is tight as a clenched fist, and this book is late-night tension, knife-edge danger, pulsating anxiety in your fingers when you turn the page. For every moment that slips out of realism—when Darian’s best friend and Maria’s lover, the slightly criminal yet perpetually honest Casey Lack stumbles around on the page, or when Isosceles manipulates the internet so effortlessly—you are more than paid back in Darian’s dogged pursuit of Isobel’s last few hours, spent in the company of far too many bad people. Do you know what reaction I never have when I read crime books? Unlike every Pixar movie, they don’t make me cry. Often I’m repulsed and horrified and appalled, frequently swimming through a mire of emotions about the bad things people do. Sometimes, there is enough distance between a victim and a reader that when someone in the pages cracks a joke, I can laugh at it—or maybe no one is dead, and everything is a little lighter. All these things have their place. But I can’t remember the last time I cried in a crime book, and I cried in this, for Isobel. I was horrified, too, of course. The world is not always a lovely place. This fictional world, though, is almost a tangible one. Melbourne is a vivid map in this book, but not the kind you’d pass to tourists: everywhere Darian travels, he remembers which crimes he was solving there, the streets of Melbourne hiding a bloodthirsty history. Lygon Street gets a mention, but don’t expect to be flattered by it. Kingdom of the Strong is devastating; gather your strength and read it.

interview: steve p vincent

I recently had the good fortune to interview tremendously likeable author Steve P Vincent, who happily answered my questions despite being quite the international jet-setter at the moment. Thanks a bunch, Steve! (I particularly like the way that his author picture makes it look like he’s reading this while you are.)

The intensity of your battle scenes are quite vivid – have you had any real world experience with weapons or taking over countries?

Does paintball count? Or reading lots of Clancy? Or video games?

I’ve fired a shotgun a few times, but can’t say I’ve done much in the way of armed combat. Luckily, I have a few people I can tap on the shoulder to answer stupid questions. One of them, Aussie techno-thriller supremo Nathan M Farrugia, knows everything there is to know, and kindly looks at things when I ask. He’s also a cheap drunk.

I adored how many tough women there were in this. Was populating the book with ladies a conscious decision?

I had a chat about this with a couple of other authors over the weekend, actually. Though I try to have at least one prominent, female viewpoint character in each of my books, I think the key is to write good characters. I’d love to see a time, in a few years from now, where we didn’t have to think about this, but with so many authors writing and representing females so poorly, we need to talk about it.

Half of the population is female, more than half of my readers are women – it’s not that hard. The key is not defaulting certain character achetypes to certain genders: helpless female, tough male. I try to write good characters that are interesting, and one of the ways to do that is to throw these boring, stale thriller cliches on their head.

I love all of my characters, in their own way, but I do have a special place in my heart for Michelle Dominique from The Foundation. In many ways, she’s the best villain I could write – male or female. One and Mariposa from State of Emergency kept it up, I think. The third Jack Emery book has fewer characters (at this stage), but there’s a kick-arse MI5 agent named Amy Fowler who is muchos fun.

What came first: the political science degree chicken or the political fiction writing egg?

The chicken. I had the degree in the bag years before I put down a single word of fiction.

What is your writing process? Do you write in silence, or have anything in the background? If so, does it change according to the scene you’re writing?

My process is evolving. I wrote The Foundation totally free range and with no plan, which is why it took 3 years and I junked 60,000 words along the way. State of Emergency was a little more planned, and my sanity benefited. I write at night and on weekends and try to get at least 1,000 words down per day. I’m a proponent of the ‘10k Day’ and there’s often a whisky sitting next to me.

The one constant is that it’s never silent when I’m writing. I live in a pretty small apartment, so I write in front of the TV with my wife next to me. Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to bag a study of some description, but for now I have to make do with Outlander in the background. The only time I get shirty about noise is on the last couple of editing passes on a manuscript.

What benefits do you think Jack’s Australian background has in his character? From my point of view, apart from making him immediately appealing to me personally for patriotic reasons, I enjoyed the much more human lens he gives us to see this environment through, like his unfamiliarity with guns, as most Australians would have.

Purely selfishly, it makes him easier for me to write. But I also like the different perspective he lets me offer on US politics and global events. There’s so many giants of American thriller writing in this business, I felt like I needed to do something a little different. I wanted Jack to have a different perspecitve, and I wanted him to be an ‘everyman’ – not a ripped, sharpshooting action hero.

The gun thing is funny. It’s only now, in book 3, that I’m starting to realise I wrote myself into a giant straightjacket by making Jack so fragile. He’s a journalist, pretty unfit and doesn’t really know how to fight or shoot. This limits the sort of sticky situations I can drop him into, or at least makes me work harder to get him out of them. Luckily he has some badarse friends.

Is Jack Emery going to overthrow Tony Abbott in book three?

Nope! As much as he’d probably like to, he’s got bigger fish to fry than ol’ Tony. The third book, Nations Divided, tackles the toughest scenario yet: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. I finished the draft the other day, and it’s a lot of fun. It’ll be out in December if all goes to plan. After that Jack is going to take a holiday for a little while, because I’ve got something else bubbling away.