Review: Life or Death

isbn9780751552898Michael Robotham’s new novel, Life or Death, opens with a letter addressed to the reader, introducing the book as ‘a story that I’ve nurtured and turned over in my mind for more than twenty years — ever since I read a newspaper account of a man who had served a long prison sentence, but escaped the say before he was due to be released. Why? I asked myself.’

Robotham says it took him years to imagine an answer, ‘and even longer before I felt I had the skills to tell the story properly'; it is ten years since his first novel was published.

This background serves to explain why, Robotham writes, ‘I’m so excited about Life or Death…it’s the book I was meant to write’ (emphasis in original).

It’s a risky gambit, building up the reader’s expectations like this, and some may be inclined to approach Life or Death with a you’re-gonna-have-to-work-hard-to-impress-me attitude as a result. But as a writer, I’m encouraged by Robotham’s admission that this book he was meant to write was a long time coming, and that he had to hone his skills as a writer before he could do it justice.

As it is, Life or Death delivers on all Robotham’s promises, and I defy anyone reading this book to remain unmoved for long. A love story, crime thriller and morality tale rolled into one, Life or Death combines skilful plotting and unrelenting suspense, with characters real enough to make you cry. Really. In public.

Audie Palmer has spent a decade in prison for the armed robbery of an armoured vehicle in which four people died, including two gang members. Hospitalised with a gunshot wound to the head, Audie survived against the odds. But the seven million dollars stolen in the robbery was never recovered and a result, for ten years, Audie has been threatened and assaulted by fellow inmates, prison guards and criminal gangs, all wanting to know where the money is. When Audie escapes from prison the day before he is due to be released, everyone assumes he’s gone after the money. But the reason why he runs turns out to be far more complex, to do with a promise he made more than a decade earlier.

Audie is a wonderful creation. On the one hand, intriguing and charismatic — ‘like Yoda, Buddha and the Gladiator all rolled into one’, as his prison buddy Moss Webster puts it — on the other, it is Audie’s humanity that gives the novel its emotional punch.

The pace is unrelenting, the twists unpredictable. But what really made this book outstanding for me is the way it wraps a big picture morality tale about corruption, retribution and justice around a moving love story — actually, more than one love story, if you count the friendship between Audie and Moss.

Both epic and intimate, I was reminded of the novels of Dennis Lehane. And I could imagine Clint Eastwood directing the film version of Life or Death – ideally with Ryan Gosling playing Audie.

This is deeply satisfying crime fiction from a writer at the top of his game. But be warned: the ending may well make you cry, too.

Life or Death by Michael Robotham (2014), published by Hachette Australia, is released today.

I’ll be talking with Michael about Life or Death at the Bendigo Writers Festival at midday on 10 August 2014. See here for details.


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Videos: Alexander McCall Smith

Photo: Helen Morgan

Photo: Helen Morgan

The Wheeler Centre has released the video of my immensely enjoyable interview with Alexander McCall Smith. For your viewing pleasure, the link is here.



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Just One Look, That’s All it Took*


Readers of this blog will know I’m a big fan of Margot Kinberg’s wonderful blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Margot’s latest post, on adoption in crime fiction, makes fascinating reading. Fraud in overseas adoption was the subject of my second novel, The Half-Child, which gets a mention in this post. If you can think of crime novels in which adoption plays a role, other than those mentioned by Margot, feel free to add them in the comments section. Enjoy!

Originally posted on Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...:

Rose1Not long ago, I read an interesting post from D.S. Nelson about things that it’s best not to say to pregnant women. The post is both witty and spot-on – well-written and well worth a read. And it inspired me to think about the issue from a different perspective: the adoptive family. Adoptive mothers don’t get the pointed remarks about cravings and the well-meant advice about childbirth that pregnant mothers do. But people still have points of view about it. Trust me. And I’ll get to some of the things it’s best not to say to an adoptive parent later in this post.

Adoption hasn’t always been regarded as positively as it is now. In Agatha Christie’s short story Dead Man’s Mirror for instance, we are introduced to the Chevenix-Gore family. It’s an old, proud and distinguished family, and no-one is more conscious of that than the present patriarch Gervase…

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Festival: Bendigo Writers Festival 2014

CGB3061-BWF-Social-Media-facebook-cover-image-v1_1_web_imageI’m thrilled to be part of the Bendigo Writers Festival for the second year running. I had a great time at the festival in 2013, and I’m rapt to be coming back for more.
I’ll be appearing at two events on the program:

Toughest Genre
Sat 9 August 2014, 3.45PM-4.45 PM
Three very different crime writers – Michael Robotham, Garry Disher and Angela Savage – line up before Steve Kendall to interrogate a tricky subject: what makes a good crime novel? Hard-boiled or cosy, caper or courtroom…just how should it all proceed?
Bendigo Bank Theatre, 50 View St, Bendigo
Information and tickets here.

Spotlight on Life and Death
Sun 10 August, 2014, 12.00PM
The maters of adrenalin-writing, Michael Robotham, talks with Angela Savage about his new page-turner, Life or Death.
The Hub (Festival bookshop, Bendigo Bank Theatre). Free event.

For the first time, too, Bendigo Writers Festival will host the announcement of the shortlist for the Australian Crime Writers Association Ned Kelly Awards, which is taking place on Sat 8 August at 5.00-6.30PM.

My partner, Andrew Nette, is also appearing at the festival, on a panel on Sunday 10 August from 3.00-4.00PM entitled Is Game of Thrones Any Good? Yes, someone is actually paying him to join panelists Lawrie Zion and Jane Sullivan to talk with Richard Speed about one of his favourite TV shows. Nice work if you can get it.

And seeing as how we’re both on the program, we’re bringing Miss Eight and making a weekend of it.

The full BWF program is here and looks amazing. The venues in the city’s historical and cultural precinct are stunning, and warm hospitality of the festival team is guarantee to banish the winter blues.

Hope to see you there!


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Paint the Town READ: 20th AIDS Conference


I’m thrilled to have been invited by Melbourne Library Service to be part of ‘Paint the Town READ, a cultural program to coincide with Melbourne’s hosting of the 20th International AIDS Conference.

From Sunday 20 July to Friday 25 July at venues throughout the City Of Melbourne, authors, comedians, storytellers and poets will be Painting the Town Read with stories of discrimination followed by a Q&A session. The idea is to delve into the language of story, which address discrimination in all its manifestations and attempt to give dignity to what is often inhumane experience.

This initiative brings together multiple passions and interests of mine: before I became a published author of crime fiction set in Thailand, I spent over six years in the 1990s working on HIV/AIDS prevention programs for the Australian Red Cross that covered Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and southern China. I later headed up Family Planning Australia’s International Program, working mostly in the South Pacific.

Not the usual author talk, I will be reading scenes from my novels dealing with issues of social justice, perception and discrimination, followed by Q&A.

Tuesday 22 July, 12pm to 12.45pm
Melbourne Recital Centre, Foyer
31 Sturt St, Southbank

Free event – book here. All welcome.

See here for more information, or contact Justine at City Library 9658 9500.



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Review: What Came Before

What Came Before“My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.”

So opens Anna George’s debut novel, What Came Before. The story is narrated alternatively by David, Elle — his wife of less than two years — and Elle’s friend/producer/sister-in-law Mira. In the first glimpse we have of her,

“Elle Nolan is on her laundry’s cool tiles. She is also on the ceiling, where she’s feeling gloriously light, as if she is a balloon. Floating and hyper-alert, she is unafraid. And calm…
So this is death.” (p.16)

A subtitle poses the question, ‘How could love go so wrong?’  and the novel unfolds as an attempt to answer that burning question.

The issue of women being killed by their partners or exes is all too familiar, affecting people from all walks of life. According to a recent article by Hannah Piterman, “In Australia, a woman is murdered every week at the hands of her partner or ex.” The characters in What Came Before are strikingly upper middle class: Elle, an educated and financially independent woman, and Dave, a wealthy, deeply unhappy lawyer. As Dave puts it,

Lawyers could be split into three groups: the minority of believers who loved legal practice; the agnostic majority who stayed…because they didn’t know what else to do; and the lucky ones, the atheists, who left because they had another calling. (p.10)

Dave is part of the agnostic majority; Elle is an atheist, who has left the law to pursue a career as a filmmaker. Dave admires Elle for it and is threatened by her in equal measure. It only feeds his feelings of inadequacy when she encourages him to quit a job that makes him miserable in order to nurture his own artistic talents.

Elle has her reasons for being drawn to Dave. But his escalating emotional abuse erodes her self-confidence and skews her judgment, so that when the emotional abuse turns physical, Elle hesitates to leave. When she does manage to walk away, she allows herself to be talked into taking him back again and again.

The view of Elle and Dave’s relationship is so intimate, it would be almost too painful to watch, if not for George’s appealing prose. She richly evokes the Melbourne setting, contrasting the semi-industrial west where both Elle and Mira live, with the affluent bayside suburb of Brighton where David lives in a “too big and mostly empty” mansion.

References to infamous industrial accidents — the Westgate Bridge collapse, the Coote Island toxic chemical explosion — add to the menacing atmosphere surrounding Elle,  allow the author to draw what is for me stunning comparison between Elle’s environment and her circumstances:

In the river’s brown mist she could make out the so-called island and its tank of horrors. The island rose out of the water like an indisputable truth… Studying the beautiful, desolate landscape, she felt the magnitude of the compromise inherent in it as if it had been her own. Quite simply, it was too volatile and too close, as David had been, for too long. (p.217)

There are also references throughout the novel to well-known cases of women killed by their husbands — the Julie Ramage case, for example — and to men who have killed their children in order to punish their ex-wives. This ensures that the narrative, though centering on one relationship, speaks to universal themes, anchoring fiction in tragic reality.

The ending contains a twist that didn’t really work for me; I’ll be curious to see what other reviewers make of it. And I found Elle somewhat like a character from one of her own romantic comedies at times, at times lacking depth.

All the same, What Came Before is a highly readable and important book, which I suspect will resonate for many readers. George herself says she wrote the novel in part to make sense of her own experience — an attempt to understand “how a financially independent and childless woman can be in a relationship with an emotionally abusive man; and not get out at the first sign of trouble.”

With What Came Before, Anna George join the ranks of Australian writers like Wendy James and Honey Brown, who lift a lid on the violence of everyday life, pioneering a type of ‘suburban noir’ that is absorbing, disturbing and all the more powerful for being utterly believable.

What Came Before by Anna George (2014) is published by Viking/Penguin Books.

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Awesome Authors: Timothy Hallinan

Today I welcome to the blog Philip Coggan, himself a writer with a passion for Southeast Asia, and Tim Hallinan, whose “Poke” Rafferty series of crime novels is set in Thailand. I’ve just read his stunning novel Queen of Patpong and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Philip’s interview with Tim follows.

HallinanPicTim Hallinan (his excellent Blog Cabin here) began his career as a writer in the 1990s with the distinctly noir Simeon Grist series. In 2007 he began a second series, set in Bangkok and featuring “rough-travel” writer Philip (“Poke”) Rafferty and his attempts to cobble together a family comprising a former go-go dancer and a precocious street urchin named Miaow. In 2011 he returned to the Los Angeles setting for third series starring Junior Bender, the best private detective a mobster could have. The second Junior, Little Elvises, has just been nominated for the Shamus Award as Best Private Eye Novel of 2013.

Herbie’s Game, the fourth in the Junior Bender series, will be appearing in mid-July, to be followed in November by For the Dead, the sixth Poke Rafftery.

  1. Tim, can you tell us a little about Herbie’s Game?

HERBIE’S GAME is the fourth in my series of books about Junior Bender, a first-rate Los Angeles burglar who moonlights (when forced to) as a private eye for crooks.  He’s been the smartest guy in the room for most of his life, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the thugs in his (anti)social circle, and when one of them becomes the victim of a crime or a threat, they know they’re not going to get a sympathetic, gee-we’d-better-solve-this-tout-suite reaction from the cops, so they turn instead to Junior. What this usually means that he’s in danger of being killed by the culprit if it looks like he might succeed, on one hand, and–on the other hand–in danger of being killed by his client if he fails.  So in addition to solving the crime, Junior has to pay a lot of attention to staying alive.

HerbieIn HERBIE’S GAME, a continuing character, a sort of executive crook named Wattles, finds his office burglarized one fine morning, and the only thing missing is a piece of paper on which he unwisely wrote the names of the crooks in a chain he was using to pass along to a hitman the name of the victim and the payment.  The chain guarantees that the hitman has no idea who hired him and it also builds an ideal defence case for Wattles because if things go awry, all the prosecution witnesses will be convicted felons, and as one character says, defence lawyers have a word for such trials: they call them acquittals.  Wattles thinks Junior might have committed the burglary, but Junior knows immediately that the thief was his mentor, the legendary Herbie Mott, who took Junior under his wing when Junior was only seventeen and became a surrogate father to the budding burglar.  And then Herbie shows up dead, with no stolen piece of paper in sight, and Junior knows that he has to follow the names in the chain to get to Herbie’s murderer.  As he does, he begins to find that Herbie may have been a very different kind of man that Junior thought he was, and Junior has to ask himself how much of the life he’s living — a life that frequently leaves him feeling unsatisfied and adrift — is his own invention, and how much of it is just Herbie’s game.  Sorry to rattle on at such length.

  1. Herbie’s Game is a very funny book, and the humour derives mostly from the characters. In fact I get the impression that you enjoy writing bad guys more than good guys. What is it about crooks that excites your imagination?

They have a special energy. They don’t have to be politically correct, or even polite.  They can say whatever they want. They can go from A to D without bothering with B and C. Best of all they have highly personal and idiosyncratic moral codes, which they frequently invent on the fly.  In my non-Junior books, I usually have to work to keep the bad guys and gals from taking over.  I decided to deal with that issue by writing a series that’s essentially all crooks, and writing them makes me very, very happy.

Another thing I like about writing the Juniors is that, for all of us, whatever we’re doing makes sense to us. I think much of what the characters in these books do, sometimes on a daily basis, skirts the fuzzy edge of insanity, and part of what makes their characters so much fun to write are the internal justifications and accommodations they’ve made in order to accept the things they do.  But when the tide goes out and they’re old, like Dressler or Burt the Gut, what’s left is just a normal person, usually not very happy.

  1. You also have an amazing rapport with female characters – I’m thinking Dolly’s adolescent beginnings in the movie game in The Fame Thief, Rose’s journey from village beauty to Bangkok bargirl, and the daughters of Junior and Poke. 

I have no explanation for that.  Until three Rafferty books ago — BREATHING WATER, I think — I’d never written two women alone in a room.  I was afraid to — how did I know what women talked about when no men were around?  But then, for QUEEN OF PATPONG, I was stuck writing huge section of the book — 40,000 words or something – that was all women, and women at a very intimate juncture in their lives.  Having been forced into the sex trade, they were trying to find a way to lead their new lives while keeping their hearts and spirits intact and learning to divorce sex from emotion and intimacy.  And the story and characters just came in huge bolts, like yardage.  Geraldine Page, who knew all there was to know about acting, said, “When the character uses you, that’s when you know you’re really cooking. You know you’re in complete control, yet you get the feeling that you’re not doing it.  You don’t completely understand it, and you don’t have to.”

It feels since QUEEN like I’m writing women all the time, and it’s great because it’s opened up a whole range of stories I couldn’t have written otherwise. And as for Miaow, she’s always been the easiest character in the series because she always, always has an agenda.  And I can’t say much of anything about THE FAME THIEF — that whole book arrived by air mail.  I just wrote as fast as I could to keep up.

  1. Your second book this year is For The Dead, the sixth in the Bangkok-based Poke Rafferty series. Can you tell us something about this?

DeadWell, speaking of Miaow, FOR THE DEAD is largely Miaow’s book.  On the thriller side it’s a story about police corruption, power, and murder on a grand scale, but on the emotional side it’s about what happens to a 13-year-old girl who’s created a new identity to impress the snotty kids in her fancy school when every lie she’s told is suddenly exposed and she loses even the boy she was falling in love with and–she thinks–the security of the home Poke and Rose made for her.  It is, to put as benign a face on it as possible, a major growth experience.  Things also change forever, over the course of the book, for Poke and Rose. (I will say with some astonishment, since the book almost killed me, that it’s getting some of the best early reviews of my life.)

  1. It seems to me that each adventure in the Poke series centres around Poke’s attempts to create a family in the midst of a world which is essentially malignant. Poke wins every battle, though only just, and with each victory his private world of love and family is strengthened. What’s your own take on the world of the Poke series?

You’re spot on. I think of it as a series about three people who have unexpectedly been given a second or third chance at a kind of life they thought they could never have.  It’s almost an accident that the family is so central.  When I wrote the very first book, I wanted to make it clear from the beginning that this was not a me-love-you-long-time book in which beautiful brown women fall helplessly and inexplicably in love with uninteresting white males. So in our first glance at Poke ever he’s holding his daughter’s hand and following his wife as they go grocery shopping.  And then Miaow takes off after Superman and the center of the book’s interest shifts to that apartment.  I had to fight to keep the thriller moving forward.  If I have my way I’ll write the series until Miaow moves out, at 19 or so, leaving Poke and Rose behind.  One of things I like best about the Pokes is that in the middle of the city of instant gratification you’ve got three people clinging for all they’re worth to the middle-class ideal of a functioning, loyal family.

  1.  Both the LA and the Bangkok series seem to me to be extremely visual and filmable. Who do you see playing Junior – Johnny Depp? How about Poke – give Owen Wilson a try on that?

Boy, you got me.  The Pokes were bought for cable although the experiment failed, and the Juniors have been optioned a couple of times.  I’m hampered in my attempt to answer this question by the fact that I watch almost nothing.  Poke is part Filipino, so someone with some Asian blood would seem to be called for.  Keanu Reeves looks interestingly battered in the fascinating documentary he directed about the transition from film to video.  There’s an actor attached to Junior right now, and while I can’t say who it is (in case it falls through) he’s no one who would come immediately to your mind.  I think he’s got to project intelligence; someone once suggested Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and when I saw him, I thought he’d be great.

  1. With two books out this year, what’s next? I understand you’re working on a return of the main character from your very first series, Simeon Grist, in what sounds like a very novel scenario. Any news on that?

The seventh Simeon, PULPED, has been finished for more than a year but so it’s far unsatisfactory to me, although I think about 80% of it works.  What happens is that Simeon has been banished to a kind of limbo that’s reserved for the heroes of unsuccessful crime series.  When the last unsold copy of the final book in the series is pulped to make paper for a new (and presumably better) book, pop, the character finds himself stranded, possibly forever, in the environment his/her author created as the primary setting, in a kind of gerrymandered neighborhood where everyone else is also the hero/heroine of discontinued crime series.  This is kind of a shock to begin with because fictional characters don’t know they’re not real until they’re suddenly in limbo, severed from the real world. The only connection with the world in which we live is when someone down here opens one of the books in the series, at which point Simeon (or the hero of whatever book it is) can look up, so to speak, through the page at the person who’s reading it.  He’s doing just that when someone kills the reader.  He doesn’t have enough readers to take this lightly, so he has to find a way down there and find out whodunnit.  That gives me a chance to write a lot of (to me) very funny and quite difficult scenes between a real person and a fictional one, including a love affair.  If I had a month I could (and eventually will) rewrite the first 25%, which is where the problems are.

So this July, HERBIE’S GAME comes out, and in November it’s FOR THE DEAD.  At the moment I’m writing the seventh Poke, THE HOT COUNTRIES, and the fifth Junior, KING MAYBE.  God willing, they’ll both be good.

  1. I think it was Dorothy Parker who said something to the effect that she hated writing but loved having written – meaning, I guess, that writing is hard work. P.G. Wodehouse in contrast brought out slightly more books than he had years in his life. Are you a Parker or a Wodehouse?

Writing is very hard work and enormous fun at the same time.  There are days when I’d rather be a lab rat than write, and there are days when writing is the only thing in the world that matters to me.  I hate to do it and I love to do it and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

  1. Every day we see articles about the demise of traditional bookstores and publishers in the face of Amazon and Kindle, and even warnings about the death of books. Joe Konrath, of course, feels that books and writers will bet along very well without publishers and booksellers. You yourself brought out Junior as a self-published ebook series before switching back to traditional publishing. Where do you see the future heading?

I’m no prophet, although I think the growth of online commerce of all kinds is inevitable, barring some absolutely horrific systemic security breach that drives people back to the stores.  But where you buy the book or what format you buy it in–both those things are just delivery systems for the text.  And I think that text is alive and well and will continue to thrive as long as people want to tell and read (or hear) stories.

See also Andrew Nette’s 2011 interview with Timothy Hallinan on Pulpcurry.
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