Review: The Unbroken Line

Unbroken LineAlex Hammond’s cracking 2013 debut Blood Witness was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book. The Unbroken Line more than delivers on the promise of the first, a taut and intelligent thriller that poses big questions about legality, morality, privilege and justice without sacrificing pace or suspense.

Melbourne lawyer Will Harris is still recovering from injuries sustained at the end of Blood Witness, when he and his lover Eva are attached by masked men in the Burnley Tunnel. Eva is injured and Will is given a clear message to back off. It is a measure of the messiness of his professional life that he’s unsure who’s sending the message. Could it be the Bosnian crime family to whom he is unwillingly indebted?

His problems only increase when he is called before the Legal Commission to answer for his behaviour in relation to what the Commissioner refers to as ‘the grey trade in information that goes on with the justice system’ and a ‘pervasive culture of exploited privilege’. Will’s efforts to establish just how pervasive, not to mention deadly, this culture of exploited privilege is, forms one of the novel’s key plot strands.

Meanwhile, Will’s partner in their fledgling law firm, Chris Miller, seems to be more interested in hanging out with footballers and their pole dancing hangers-on (no pun intended) than he is in shoring up the business. Out of obstinacy as much as anything, Will agrees to look into a case involving the son of a judge, a family friend, who is accused of bullying a classmate to suicide.

Connections among these various plot strands emerge that are surprising, but entirely credible. And while The Unbroken Line might be classified as a legal thriller, it reads more like hard-boiled crime: there’s not a courtroom drama to be found.

Will Harris is a convincing character, someone who believes in legal principles but is not above making moral compromises in order for justice to be served. He is a boxer, both literally and metaphorically, a bare-knuckled fighter — I did wonder at times how much more beating his body could take — and not what you’d call a team player. Whether this changes in the course of the series — the sequel is tantalisingly flagged — remains to be seen.

The sense of place in the novel is vivid, making Melbourne seem like a character in its own right. Hammond’s Melbourne is multicultural and multifaceted, a place that smiles on some and snarls at others. And a set piece involving the Melbourne Cup is sensational!

It’s my pleasure and privilege to be in conversation with Alex Hammond about The Unbroken Line at Readings Carlton on Thurs 16 July. The event is free, but please book here to join in the discussion.

The Unbroken Line (2014) by Alex Hammond is published by Penguin.

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Crime Fest, Adelaide

This weekend will see both me and my partner in crime/life Andrew Nette in Adelaide for SA Writers Centre Inc‘s inaugural Crime Fest.

film-noir-bathroomWe’re part of a great weekend program. Saturday 27 June consists of panels, followed by a Murder Mystery dinner, while Sunday combines masterclasses with short informal talks on our career paths as writers.

On Saturday morning, I’ll be part of Writing Goodies and Baddies, billed as a panel that ‘goes deep inside the criminal mind and body’. I’ll be appearing with my sister in crime Katherine Howell, South Australian thriller writer Diane Hester and forensic psychologist Dr Micheal Proeve, discussing how to get motives right and build believable relationships with Stephen Lord as chair.

In the afternoon, I’m part of a panel called Structure, Pace and Plot, discussing the conventions of crime narratives and how writers bend and play with them, together with journalist, true crime writer and sister in crime Liz Porter, Diane Hester, and former SA Police Deputy Commissioner Neil McKenzie, with Carla Caruso chairing.

On Sunday 28 June, I’ll be giving an informal talk over lunch about my career path as a writer, at 1.50pm.

From 2-5pm, I’m giving a workshop on Creating a Sense of Place in Crime Fiction. This course will demonstrate how to creative an evocative sense of place without sacrificing pace or plot, with reference to specific examples from great crime writers.

Other festival guests include Gabrielle Lord — who is variously referred to as ‘Australia’s first lady of crime fiction’ and ‘Australia’s Queen of crime fiction’ (I must ask which title she prefers!), and Adelaide-based bestselling true crime writer Derek Pedley.

Booking details here.

I’m very excited to be part of the Crime Fest program, and to be visiting Adelaide again after many years.

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Nordic noir lovers: I need your help

Lake MountainOK, here’s the post where I admit to having read very little contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction — or so-called Nordic noir.

While I like to travel to places that are warmer than the one I leave behind, it doesn’t follow that I only read crime fiction from warmer climes. I’ve read Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels set in the former Soviet Union, including one set on a factory ship on the Bering Sea, which still makes me feel cold just thinking about it. I’ve read Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books. I read Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, set in perennially cold and wet Edinburgh, and Annie Hauxwell’s Catherine Berlin novels, which upped the ante by moving from cold and wet London, to freezing cold and snowing Moscow.

But the recent explosion in Northern European crime fiction has left me cold (pun intended) — largely because I have a contrary nature, which makes me less likely to like something because/when it is popular.

However, I’m about to run a workshop on setting in crime fiction, and I feel it would be remiss of me not to include at least one example from the more recent crop of Scandinavian crime fiction. Hence this call for help.

Nordic noir fans, please use the comments section to leave a paragraph or two (at most) that typifies a great example of a depiction of setting in a Scandinavian crime novel. Bonus points if the excerpt also uses setting to shed light on character. Please include the title of the novel and the author’s name.

Whoever nominates the excerpt I choose to use for my workshop will receive a selection of writing exercises designed to help you develop a strong sense of place in your own writing (if this would be useful) and/or my eternal gratitude.


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Ghost Money by Andrew Nette – Redux

GhostMoneyfinalcoverI’m excited to share news that Ghost Money, the stunning debut novel by Australian author Andrew Nette, has recently been re-released by Hong Kong based publisher Crime Wave Press.

Ghost Money, set in Cambodia, was originally published in the US in 2012. This new release by a publisher based in Asia should ensure it reaches a wider audience of readers in the region. And the new cover design is stunning.

Ghost Money was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award for Unpublished Manuscript in 2010. In 2011, Andrew Nette was the recipient of an Unpublished Manuscript Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre and Readings Foundation. In the interests of full disclosure, I should also note that Andrew Nette is my partner of over twenty years. But you don’t have to take my word for how good Ghost Money is.

Award-winning crime writer Garry Disher calls Ghost Money “a winner: fast paced, superbly atmospheric”. Bangkok-based crime writer Christopher G Moore writes that “Ghost Money captures elements of the noir darkness of that unstable, chaotic time of transition during the mid 90s in Cambodia”; while Crime Fiction Lover says “Ghost Money could well be The Third Man of Asian Noir.” Award-winning crime writer David Whish-Wilson describes Ghost Money as “a terrific crime thriller that builds quickly and holds its nerve, right to the final pages.”

Ghost Money is set in Cambodia in 1996 in the dying days of the Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is sent to Bangkok in search of missing businessman Charles Avery, only to stumble on to the corpse of Avery’s partner and a trail leading from Avery’s bloodstained apartment to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Andrew in Cambodia, 1992

Quinlan soon learns he’s not the only one after Avery. As an outsider whose Vietnamese features makes him suspect in Cambodia, Quinlan needs help to stand a chance of getting to Avery before the others do. He teams up with local journalist Heng Sarin, and together they move between the freewheeling capital to the battle scarred western borderlands, where the mysteries of Cambodia’s bloody past are magnified by the political intrigues of the present.

Andrew wrote the first draft of the novel in 2008 when we were living in Phnom Penh. But as he said in an interview during his Unpublished Manuscript Fellowship at The Wheeler Centre, the story had been inside him for more than a decade.

We first visited Cambodia in 1992 when the United Nations was in charge, civil war still raged throughout much of the country and we had the temples of Angkor practically to ourselves. Four years later, Andrew returned for a few months’ stint as a wire service journalist. While he’d always been fascinated by Cambodia, it was his time there in 1996 that sowed the seeds of the story that ultimately became Ghost Money.

As Andrew says, ‘I always thought Cambodia would be an excellent setting for a crime novel. But I also wanted to capture the broken country that was Cambodia in the nineties, to write about those people trapped in the cracks between two periods of history, the choices they made and what they did to survive.’

Bayon 36 Roo face

Andrew in Cambodia, 2008

Even after multiple readings, I remained riveted by the plot and moved by the story. The novel combines the pace of the best thrillers with a depth derived from the author’s intimate knowledge of Cambodian politics and his efforts to understand its history.

While packing no punches in its depiction of Cambodia’s violent past and present, Ghost Money also pays respect to the resilience of its people, notably in the character of the intelligent and empathetic Sarin, whose ambitions are fettered by his lack of political connections.

‘Things happen there that you couldn’t make up if you tried,’ Andrew says of Cambodia.

He has produced a fiction as strange and compelling as the truth that spawned it.

You can pick up the Kindle version of Ghost Money here. A paperback edition will be available in the near future.

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Wherever We’re Together, That’s My Home*

Angela Savage:

I so love it when readers — and Margot Kinberg is one of the best readers around — really ‘get’ my novels. A sense of ‘home’ and what it means to belong in a globalised world are among my central preoccupations as an author. As a white Australian, I come from a beautiful country, and a privileged culture, founded on terrible violence against the Indigenous population. This unease fuels my search for a sense of ‘home’ that is more inclusive, less place-based, more about relationships. And of course, this plays out in my fiction — as Margot so astutely notes in her blog post about perceptions of ‘home’ in crime fiction. Enjoy!

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

Home is  Where You AreA really interesting post from writer and fellow blogger Jan Morrison has got me thinking about how we conceive of ‘home.’ For some people, that word represents a geographical place. Home has to do with the culture, lifestyle, and language of a particular setting. There are also people who think of a building when they think of ‘home.’ Perhaps it’s one they grew up in or had constructed.

For other people, though, it’s less about a physical place than it is about family and the people in one’s life. In those cases, home is wherever loved ones are. I don’t have the data to support this, but my guess is that that conception of home is getting more common as the world gets smaller and more and more people move. Certainly we see it in crime fiction, and have for some time.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford…

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Interview with crime writer Anna Jaquiery

Anna Jaquiery & Angela Savage, Melbourne, May 2015

My recent review of Anna Jacquiery’s new novel Death in the Rainy Season inspired fellow blogger and Asia-phile PJ (Philip) Coggan to read it and, subsequently, to interview Anna by email for his blog. It’s my great pleasure to reproduce Philip’s original post below. The photo (left), taken when I caught up with Anna in Melbourne recently, is my own.


Anna Jaquiery’s Death in the Rainy Season (the link is to her Amazon Kindle page) opens with a break-in in a quiet Phnom Penh street, followed by a murder. The victim of both is Hugo Quercy,  the brilliant and well-regarded head of an NGO called Kids at Risk. He’s also the nephew of the French Interior Minister, who is concerned there may be a scandal attached. The minister wants this settled as quickly and quietly as possible. Fortunately Police Commandant Serge Morel is holidaying in Cambodia, and so the Commandant, much against his wishes, is ordered to “assist” the local police, his task rendered no easier by his Cambodian opposite number’s apparent lack of interest in the case.

Without giving anything away, the list of suspects and motives Morel faces is huge: Quercy has been investigating local pedophiles, who might therefore have wanted to remove him; all is not well between Quercy and his wife; and Quercy has recently branched out into gathering evidence about land-grabbing, which could have earned him enemies in high places (and which would, of course, explain the unwillingness of the Cambodian police to take much interest in the case).  This is Anna’s second novel, following The Lying Down Room, which also featured the melancholic, paper-folding Morel. I asked Anna some questions by email.

  1. Anna, can you tell us a bit about yourself – your life seems to have been quite adventurous. Has it influenced your decision to write about exotic places?

There’s definitely a link there! My mother is French and my father is a Malaysian-Indian. He was a diplomat and we moved around a great deal – every three years or so. I grew up in Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, New Zealand and Russia. After I finished school (in Moscow), I moved to France for my university studies. I’ve worked as a journalist in a few places. We’ve been in Australia for seven years and are actually in the process of moving again, to New Zealand.

  1. Death Rainy SeasonWhat drew you to take Phnom Penh as the setting for Death in the Rainy Season? (I was very struck, incidentally, by the way you made the city real – the details are absolutely spot-on).

Thank you, I’m so glad you think so. I’m no expert on Cambodia. But I’ve always had an interest in its history. I lived in Phnom Penh as a child and we left in the early part of 1975, before the Khmer Rouge entered the city. I was too young to remember any of it, but I grew up with my parents’ nostalgia about the place. I’ve been there a few times and during my last visit two years ago, I made the most of every minute, absorbing what I saw – I walked around Phnom Penh for hours on end – and listening to the stories people told me about their experiences there. Phnom Penh has a special place in my heart and I wanted to bring it to life in my book.

  1. Serge Morel is not quite the conventional noir detective – as Angela Savage pointed out in her review, he drinks in moderation, doesn’t smoke, and is inclined to melancholy. He also has origami for his hobby, surely a fictional first.

It’s true I can’t think of any other detective who does origami in their spare time…! It wasn’t something I planned. As I developed Morel’s character, it eventually came to me that this would be something he’d be good at and would enjoy doing. It seemed to suit his character (as I see him). Origami, it seems to me, requires patience and precision, a predilection for solitude and introspection, as well as a poetic nature.

  1. It’s been said that the elements of story-telling are plot, character, setting and tone (I got the list from Tim Hallinan’s interview with Dana King) – would you agree? How do see them in your own writing?

Character comes first, without a doubt. Simply put, if readers feel invested in the characters in a story, they will want to know what happens next. When I give up on a book it’s usually because the characters seem lifeless or one-dimensional. Setting is also very important to me. P.D James once said it was what came first for her and it’s certainly one of the first things I think about when I start working on a new book. Generally speaking, I tend to start with a premise – a question – and the plot flows from that. Tone, or style, is something you develop over time, by writing and gradually finding your own voice.

  1. I gather you were quite meticulous in getting the pathology of your murder right (the state of poor Hugo’s skull certainly sounded convincing to me!) Death in the Rainy Season also touches on pedophile rings in Cambodia, land-grabbing, and the inner dynamics of the aid industry. Can you tell us a little about your research?

I spend quite a bit of time on research. With Death in the Rainy Season, I did a great deal of reading and talked to people who lived in Cambodia, including locals, academics and aid workers. I visited Phnom Penh and spent several days just walking everywhere, taking things in. I also keep in touch with people who are experts in their fields, whether it’s paper folding, policing or forensics.

  1. Who and what have been influences on your work? What writers do you admire most?

It’s an eclectic list. I have often said that two leading influences are Graham Greene and Anton Chekhov. I enjoy many authors of Indian origin (this may have something to do with my Malaysian-Indian background), including Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, and Jhumpa Lahiri. I admire writers like Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Colm Tóibín. As far as crime fiction goes, I’m a big fan of Denise Mina’s books. Aside from hers, recent crime novels I’ve also loved include Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night and Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home.

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Review: Death in the Rainy Season

Death Rainy SeasonFor a number of reasons, the most significant being the need to focus my reading and writing time on my PhD while also making a living, I made it a rule not to do any unpaid reviewing this year. But a rule is worth nothing unless you break it now and then, and this week I’m making an exception for an exceptional novel.

Death in the Rainy Season is Melbourne-based writer Anna Jaquiery’s follow up to her 2014 debut, The Lying-Down Room. Both novels feature Parisian detective Commandant Serge Morel, whose late mother was Cambodian, and whose French father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. (Jaquiery, herself of French-Malaysian descent, spent time in Cambodia as a child prior to 1975). Where the first novel, set in France, was a slow burner, Death in the Rainy Season, set in Cambodia, sets a cracking pace from the first chapter and doesn’t let up.

Morel is on leave, visiting the Angkor temples of Siem Reap, when Frenchman Hugo Quercy is murdered in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Quercy, the charismatic and outspoken head of a well-respected non-government organisation (NGO), also happens to be the nephew of the French Interior Minister. Morel is dispatched by his boss to join forces with local Police Chief Chey Sarit in investigating Quercy’s death.

Quercy was found brutally beaten to death, in a hotel room that he’s checked into under a false name. He leaves behind a pregnant wife, Florence; close friends Paul and Mariko Arda, who followed him to Cambodia from France; a team of dedicated, if envious staff; and any number of enemies. Sarit is keen to see the case explained as ‘a settling of accounts between barang. Westerners.’ But it emerges that Quercy has been both pursuing foreign paedophiles and investigating forced evictions, which multiples the number of possible motives for his murder, at least as far as Morel is concerned.

There is so much to like about this book. The atmosphere, culture and politics of the Cambodian setting are vividly brought to life. A place where ‘the rain came with a sudden roar’, so heavy it made ‘the world disappear’. Where ‘people could be matter of fact about flesh and blood, but spirits were another matter’. Where activists are shot with impunity and the government is accused of ‘selling the country bit by bit’.

The novel also sheds a revealing light on NGO culture, examining the complex mix of evangelism and ego, altruism and avoidance, that draws people to this line of work. As someone previously immersed in that world, for me Jaquiery’s observations are authentic and insightful.

Morel is a wonderful character, flawed by in ways atypical of crime fiction detectives (he drinks in moderation and has given up smoking). He is reflective, astute, and inclined to melancholy, dealing with the secrets and lies of his own family, as well as Hugo Quercy’s.

Compelling, clever and captivating, Death in the Rainy Season is a deeply satisfying read. Highly recommended.

Published in Australia by PanMacmillan, released April 2015.

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