Three crime novels from the same publisher all within a month and all well worthy of your attention.

Contributor: Paul Burke

Deity by Matt Wesolowski

Zach Crystal, king of rock, RIP, is the subject of Scott King’s latest podcast investigation; six interview, six perspectives on a life – hero or devil incarnate?

Wesolowski fans will be used to his fear inducing storytelling; haunting, horror tinged, writing that chills the bones. I actually think there’s a little less of that here, but don’t let that put you off, this is nonetheless a scary tale and an even better read. The themes are very dark, deeply disconcerting and so relevant to modern life – the musing on trauma and vulnerability is where the horror lies. Deity is intense and emotionally draining but also thought provoking in its exploration of abuse and toxic celebrity. As with all the six stories novels the truth lies somewhere within the differing accounts of events, the shifts in perspective which illuminate or mask the truth; either way they draw the reader into the moral heartland of the story. Ultimately, the novel taps into readers empathy for the vulnerable and sparks the innate desire for justice for victims, degrees of culpability are less clear to begin with, hidden, as they are, in the shadows. Who dares to open Pandora’s box?

The DEPRAVblog: WTF – why is no one talking about the 2007 Crystal Forest video? What is Zach Crystal hiding?

The video. Two teenage girls; one soaked to the skin, curled up in a ball, cowering against a stone wall, the other filming with her phone. Both are clearly afraid, but of what? They scamper for the shelter of a cave, an inhuman screech is heard in the background. This is Crystal Forest, the 500 acre Scottish estate of rock star, Zach Crystal, this is where Lulu Copeland and Jessica Morton disappear. Much later their bodies will be found. Did Zach have anything to do with this, did anybody else or did two young fans tragically get lost trying to get close to their idol?

Zach Crystal – god, pin-up, icon, legend, hero? Is there a darker side? Can the man be separated from the music in the eyes of his fans? There are allegations about his private life. Zach chooses ‘Special girls’, as young as twelve, to spend time at Crystal Forest. Why does a middle aged guy what to hang around with young girls?

Zach disappeared after the death of his close aid James Dryer, a year later he reappeared announcing a new album and world tour. Then the fire devastates the estate, killing Zach:

‘A tragedy for the world of music.’

Audiences on the radio phone-ins are split, some refer to Zach as a weirdo, others believe he walked on water. Scott King investigates – first up is Ian Julius, folk hero or figure of hate? Ian’s YouTube channel, Monster-Busters, exposes paedophiles by posing as young girls online. Ian says Zach Crystal tried to groom a child on his site but when he published the story both his and Zach’s trial by social media began. Five more voices tell their side story…

Contrary to what newcomers might expect from a story that unfolds episodically Wesolowski generates tonnes of atmosphere and emotional weight this way. Deity explores big themes, from the kangaroo court of trial by media to blind hero worship, from child abuse and enabling perpetrators to the nutty problem of separating art from the artist. This novel encompasses #MeToo, predatory behaviour, the nature of celebrity, the polarisation of cult/tribalism and obsession and fanaticism in a powerful and ingenious blend of contemporary storytelling and social commentary. Wesolowski uses social media, changing language and the idea that we all have a voice, highlighting the good and the bad that comes with that. This is perhaps Wesolowski’s most telling and important novel.

Orenda Books, paperback, ISBN 9781913193485, 18/2/21


Smoke Screen Jørn Horst Lier and Thomas Enger

This second Ramm and Blix crime thriller sees the blogger journalist-detective combo reunited for an intriguing and twisty mystery. Smoke Screen beds in the series, it’s simply consummate crime writing from the new dynamic duo of Scandi-noir. Jørn Lier Horst is one of the finest exponents of the police procedural with his Wisting series and Thomas Enger wrote the brilliant Henning Juul investigative journalist series. When together like this readers are getting elements of the best of both, this is an exciting, knowledgeable and beautifully crafted crime thriller. Smoke Screen arrives with an unforgettable opening scene; explosive, literally, and tinted with poignancy and revelation, although some of that will be turned on its head later in the novel.

New Year’s Day, officer Frankmann is doing his evening rounds and drops a letter in for Christer Storm Isaksen. Inside is a photo of a girl, eight or nine years old, his daughter. All Christer can say is, ‘its her’, they told him she was dead, that’s the reason he’s inside.

Twenty hours earlier. Emma Ramm had a row with her boyfriend, Kasper, she wanted to be at Oslo City Hall for the fireworks display but he didn’t want to go with her, so she went alone. Emma wonders if a copycat of the countdown murderer might be out there tonight. As midnight approaches the countdown ticks off the seconds. Emma is making her way through the crowd when there’s a sudden flash, a bang, then flames and chaos, panic and fear and people running in all directions. Alexander Blix is on scene, he automatically assumes it’s terrorism, he sees a body face down in the water, he dives in, pulls the woman out with the help of his partner. Ramm captures an image of Blix rescuing the woman, a great picture but it brings back a memory. Blix saved Emma nearly twenty years ago, they reconnected over a case last year, now he sometimes shares information with her. Emma was struggling before meeting Blix helped her understand her own troubled past, by turns, she helped him with the burden of saving her but at a cost. Emma takes a call from Anita Grønvold –, (News Norway), wanting photographs of the night. Could this be a copycat?

The bomb was placed in a bin, big enough to kill and maim but not take down the nearby buildings. As she works Emma wonders why Kasper, a Danish journalist, hasn’t tried to ring her. Then she sees the body, it can’t be him, Kasper wasn’t coming to the party. He shouldn’t be here but Emma knows as she approaches the body it’s him, Kasper is dead, why? There are four dead in all and many injured. Most intriguingly the woman Blix pulled from water is Ruth-Kristine Smeplass, mother of Patricia, a two-year old who went missing in 2009. Her condition is critical.

By three a.m. the emergency response has been set up, the Police Security Service take the lead in the investigation. Islamist terrorism is suspected but there’s been trouble in gangland recently so for now all options have to be considered. Blix thinks the explosion might have been targeted and he wants to follow up why Ruth-Kristine Smeplass was there, especially as Danish journalist Kasper, Emma’s boyfriend, was right next to her when it happened. Ruth’s ex-husband Christer Storm Isaksen is in gaol, has been since he killed Patricia’s suspected kidnapper. Blix finds Ruth’s place has been turned over, and Christer reports from inside that’s he’s been sent a picture of his daughter, Patricia is still alive.

As the story begins to unfold a couple of unexpected turns keep the mystery flying. Smoke Screen is a really solid and enjoyable read. Full of local character, telling detail and told with a touch of flair.

Translated by Megan Turney

Orenda Books, paperback ISBN 9781913193560, 21/2/21


Bound by Vanda Symon

Since Vanda Symon introduced detective Sam Shephard of the Dunedin police to the world there’s rarely been a dull moment, from deadly peril to messy office politics and complex family relationships it’s all in Sam’s life. The first three novels; Overkill, Ringmaster and Containment are thoroughly enjoyable mysteries centred on the tenacious young Dunedin policewoman with a complex family background. Sam doesn’t suffers fools gladly and has a healthy distain for macho management bullshit, which mostly means her boss DI Johns, although her reaction of him can work for her or against her. She’s a good instinctive cop with a nose for something wrong but like most of us her private life is way less orderly.

Bound sees Sam pulled in two directions; she believes her boss has got it wrong, (I know who I’d trust). There’s something the investigation is missing but because the details appear to fit a theory that suits the police none of her colleagues are prepared to go with Sam’s instinct. Meanwhile, Sam’s father is dying and even in these circumstances it’s hard to reconcile her differences with her mother, they just don’t see eye to eye on so many things, including Sam’s choice of career and relationships.

Bound is a morally complex novel that explores grief and fear and the limits of what people will do for their loved ones. More than once Symon asks the reader to imagine and weigh what lies behind the devastating decision to kill another human being, there’s more nuance than you might think. What appears to be a blunt and brutal murder, a falling out of thieves, has a far more intriguing motive.

When young Declan Henderson returns from practicing with his band mates the scene he faces at home is horrific. His father John is dead from a shotgun blast to the face, a sickening sight. Declan’s mother, Jill, is unconscious on the floor, tied to a fallen chair. With an admirable presence of mind the boy helps his mother and calls the ambulance. Declan is still lucid when Sam Shephard gets to the scene but he can’t tell her much about what happened and Jill is totally out of it. DI Johns assigns Sam to the victims so she goes with Jill and Declan to the hospital. When Jill is finally able to tell her story it’s clear this was a hit; two men barged into the house, instantly shot her husband in front of her, tied her up and left – no robbery and no assault on her. They wore masks but she’s able to describe their build. So why would someone target John Henderson? Jill hints that his business affairs were a touch shady, not exactly illegal but best not to ask too many questions, she stayed out of his affairs. It’s a start.

As Sam is leaving the hospital she bumps into her sister-in-law, Sheryl, why is she here? It turns out Sam’s father, who has been suffering from cancer, has taken a turn for the worse, this could be the end. Sam is stung, why didn’t they call her when it happened? She has to go to the station, delaying the inevitable confrontation with her mother, but maybe she’s afraid of seeing her father too? DI Johns quips about her getting nothing out of the only witness, Jill, before sending Sam and Smithy to Henderson’s Eros Global offices in Dunedin. It’s a small operation; John, his assistant, Astrid, a blonde bombshell, (affair? motive?), and the manager, Blair Harvey Boyd. Smithy is moody these days, he did get shot and his marriage hit the rocks, maybe it’s understandable but it’s annoying the hell out of Sam. When they arrive Harvey Boyd is shredding company papers, Smithy soon puts a stop to that, they kick him out of the office, piecing documents back together will be an easy job for the tech guys. Eros Global is a nutraceuticals business, Harvey Boyd admits that they log their products as supplements not medicines to avoid pharma-regulations. Sam notices the products have names like Vixen, Thrust, Man-power and her favourite – Defrost.

When they find fingerprints and blood evidence at the crime scene two local gangster are in the frame, the cops are over the moon of course but both claim to have alibis. When another person connected to the case is murdered Sam goes against DI Johns wishes, mounting her own investigation. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

A really strong mystery with a twist that works very nicely. I like that Symon has a concern for the victim in all this. Sam’s life is complicated by her dying father and it’s a situation that really helps the reader understand her character and feel her personal turmoil and grief. The family dynamic and Sam’s dealing with the trauma are brilliantly observed. There’s a final twist in the family affair too. Both the case and the personal issues open up a couple of moral dilemmas for the reader to ponder.

Orenda Books, paperback, ISBN 9781913193522, 4/3/21