Māwake Crime Review

Kia ora and haere mai; hello and welcome to the third edition of Māwake Crime Review, a new initiative here at Crimespree Magazine in 2018. Each issue I’ll be featuring great crime writers and crime novels from beyond the borders of North America and Europe. For those who missed the first edition, Māwake is a word from the Māori language (the indigenous people of my home country, New Zealand) which translates to ‘south-east sea breeze’. 

In this column we’re harnessing that breeze, so to speak: highlighting terrific tales ‘blown in’ for crime-loving readers from the southern and eastern continents: Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific).

I hope over the course of this series I’ll encourage you to try some new authors you may not have heard of, to step into new places alongside new characters. Each edition of Māwake Crime Review will include an interview with one or two crime writers, and reviews of three or four books. Future columns may be themed in various ways, or focused on a particular region, but for this installment I’m once again sharing the love, covering all four continents.

Since this is still something relatively new, I’d love to hear your feedback or suggestions. Feel free to email the Crimespree editors or get in touch and heckle me on Twitter. 

But for now, let’s kick off with award-hoarding Australian crime writer Emma Viskic, whose tales starring deaf private eye Caleb Zelic are earning her global attention and accolades. 

Solving crimes in silence

EMMA VISKIC AND HER AWARD-WINNING AUSSIE TALES

What inspired you to write your debut novel RESURRECTION BAY, and what draws you to crime writing and the darker edge of storytelling in general?

I write because I’m fascinated by people and crime fiction has a unique ability to illuminate and examine human behaviour. Many of my favourite works have a crime element to them, even if they wouldn’t sit in the crime section of the bookstore – Macbeth, LOLITA, WOLF HALL.  

I set out to write RESURRECTION BAY because I couldn’t get Caleb out of my head. The seeds of his character have been growing since I was a child. Some of the inspiration came from a profoundly deaf girl I went to primary school with, but a lot of it came from my paternal grandparents who were Croatian immigrants. Baba and Dida didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Croatian. Their isolation and our inability to communicate loomed pretty large in my life and those themes have been seeping into my writing all my life. 

When did you know that Caleb Zelic was going to be a series character rather than a one-off, and what makes him such an interesting character for you as a writer that you’ve brought him back in AND FIRE CAME DOWN and future books? 

I set out to write a short series. Even though I knew Caleb well by the time I’d finished writing Resurrection Bay I knew there was more to uncover. Caleb views the world very differently from me and I’m fascinated by the way he thinks.

Caleb is an unusual protagonist in crime writing, a deaf private eye. how did he evolve as a character from inspiration through the research and writing process? What extra research did you need to do to authentically convey the life and perspective of such a character? 

I began researching by reading blogs and memoirs, then spoke to people in the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. I did an online lipreading course and walked around with earplugs in my ears, managing to misunderstand pretty much everyone I came across. The biggest undertaking was learning Australian sign language (Auslan). I began by enrolling in a short course and then went on to study it at TAFE. I learnt a lot that didn’t directly make it into the novels but it all informed them. Hemmingway’s iceberg theory really makes sense to me in terms of how much you need to know and how much you need to show.

 What do you most enjoy about writing the Caleb Zelic books? 

I love crafting the banter and delving into the deeper themes, but one of the unexpected joys has been the positive side of writing a deaf character. Caleb notices things most hearing people would miss, which is a huge boon for him as a detective, but also for me. I’ve become far more observant through writing his character. I’m not at all visual, and used to approach writing through dialogue, but I notice a lot more now– the space around me, the light, people’s expressions and body language. It’s been a great learning experience.

What have you learned as an author over the writing of your books so far, and how has the experience of writing your second and third-in-progress Caleb books been different to your experience writing your debut RESURRECTION BAY? 

I’ve learnt to trust my instincts a lot more, particularly with plotting. I don’t pre-plot, but start with a few scenes in mind, which act as sign posts. I then have to work out the most interesting way of getting from one sign post to the next. It takes me in lots of wonderfully unexpected directions, but it’s very time consuming. I tried to streamline the process when I was writing my second novel, but gave up because it felt forced. 

Given that you have a ‘disabled’ protagonist in your novels, have you felt any extra pressure or concerns about how you depict Caleb and how readers may respond to him? If so, how have you dealt with that? What advice would you give to other authors about writing ‘minority’ character whose experiences they don’t personally share?

Absolutely. It’s nerve wracking to write outside your own experiences, and it should be. I think if you’re blasé about it, you’re not thinking deeply enough.  It’s important for writers to explore characters who come from different backgrounds to them, but there are dangers and responsibilities that go with it. 

For writers considering it, I’d say to ask yourself why. If it’s for a cheap hook or tick-a-box diversity, don’t do it. If it’s a subject you’re deeply drawn to and have a connection with, then start working. Make sure you know your facts, examine your own prejudices and assumptions and are willing to take criticism for the final result. 

RESURRECTION BAY swept several major crime awards in Australia in 2016, and has now become a double-finalist in the prestigious CWA Daggers following its northern hemisphere release. What has it been like getting that critical response to your debut novel – going from something you’re working on alone to having it ‘out there’, and then seeing the response locally and internationally? 

I’m really stunned. RESURRECTION BAY slips between the cracks of a few styles  – it’s plot-driven but character-focused, a thriller with literary elements. I thought people would just throw their hands up at it. That people have liked it is quite overwhelming and extremely heartening.

There seems to be a recent surge in antipodean crime writing, both in terms of the numbers of local authors in Australia and New Zealand, and the international attention that is getting paid to tales from that part of the world. How does it feel to be part of the ‘Southern Cross Crime’ wave, and what are your thoughts on its rise, and the breadth and depth of crime writing from your part of the world? 

I’m really excited by the current wave of Australian and New Zealand crime writing. Partly because I get to read it, but also because one of the best ways of improving your own skills is to be surrounded by people creating outstanding work. That there’s such a flourishing scene in large part due to the efforts of organisations like the Australian Crime Writers Association and Sisters in Crime, and to the writers that came before us. We’re all standing on the shoulders of writers like Peter Temple, Peter Corris, Marele Day and Dorothy Porter. 

At a time when as humans we seem to consume information in smaller and smaller chunks (Twitter, clickbait articles on the internet, using social media to curate our news intake, etc), what are your thoughts about the importance of reading books, and the place of books and authors in the changing global landscape?

Reading books creates empathy, and we need that more than ever in these days of polarised opinions and divisiveness. Despite their rumoured demise, books seem to be here to stay, but the role of authors is changing. We have to balance the need for publicity and social media with the need for quiet space for ideas to grow. 

Which other Australian crime writers do you enjoy reading and would recommend to overseas readers to try? 

This list could be endless but here are ten books/writers for starters: 

Sulari Gentill’s CROSSING THE LINES and her Rowland Sinclair Mysteries;

Sarah Schmidt’s gothic SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE; 

everything by Peter Temple; 

JM Green’s witty Stella Hardy series; 

Shane Maloney’s Murray Whelan books; 

Iain Ryan’s taut and vicious THE STUDENT;

Paul Howarth’s western, ONLY KILLERS AND THIEVES;

Aoife Clifford’s SECOND SIGHT;

Jane Harper’s THE DRY. 

I’m also really looking forward to Cath Ferla’s second novel, which will be out next year and sounds like it’s going to be a ripper.


REVIEWS

AFRICA

EASY MOTION TOURIST by Leye Adenle (Cassava Republic Press, 2016)

Nigerian author Leye Adenle introduces himself in style with this cracking debut. Fresh, fascinating, and fast-paced, it grabs readers by the wrist and hauls us deep into the teeming capital city of Lagos in all its glories and ghastliness. It’s cinematic, violent, alluring. 

British online journo Guy Collins is in town to cover the Nigerian elections but gets more than he bargained for when he witnesses the killing of a prostitute outside a fancy nightclub that caters to foreign tourists and wealthy clientele. Trying to cover the story, he’s labelled a suspect and hauled to jail by local cops. (They’ve no interest in such a story spreading and are mainly concerned with any impact on tourism in their pricey part of the city). 

Guy’s rescued from the ugly realities of a Nigerian police cell by Amaka Mbadiwe, lawyer and self-appointed saviour of Lagotian sex workers. Amaka is looking to expose powerful and corrupt men, and recruits Guy to help her investigate those she suspects of murder. The odd-couple tag-team sinks into the reeking underbelly of Lagos, full of corrupt police and politicians and merciless gangs who profit from their trade in flesh, both living and dead. With danger in all directions, Guy and Amaka also have to wrestle with a growing attraction.

A vivid murder mystery taking place in a city rife with inequality, Adenle’s debut is full of marvellous characters, from the main cast to memorable cameos. Amaka is a revelation. Readers are offered varying perspectives in a novel that throbs with life. And death. 

 

ASIA

THE GOOD SON by You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim (Penguin, 2018)

As of this past summer, English-speaking readers finally have a chance to experience the atmospheric and provocative storytelling of award-winning South Korean crime writer You-Jeong Jeong, with THE GOOD SON her first novel to be translated into English (she’d already been translated into several other languages).

A young man who has suffered from seizures and a mysterious ailment throughout his life wakes in a bloodied haze, only to discover his mother’s razor-slashed body at the bottom of the stairs of the house they share near the Incheon waterfront outside of Seoul. He has snatched memories of his mother calling his name the night before: but did she want his help, or his mercy? Realizing a call to the police would mean instant arrest, he spends the following days cleaning up, fending off his family’s calls, and trying to work out just what happened. He was once the good son, but is he now a killer? Who can he trust? 

Yeong (and Kim’s translation) takes readers on a confronting ride into mental illness, twisted family relationships, and the unclear realm of memory vs reality. 

Guided by the first-person narration of an unreliable, tormented young man, readers are plunged into a harrowing tale that builds in an elegant and disturbing way. We slowly uncover the truth, via the young man’s skewed perspective, with plenty of secrets and horrors being revealed. A creepy psychological thriller from a master storyteller.

 

LATIN AMERICA

AMERICAN VISA by Juan de Recacoechea, translated by Adrian Althoff (Akashic Books, 2007)

La Paz native Juan de Recacoechea passed away aged 81 last year. Among his legacy: he founded Bolivia’s first-ever television channel and penned nine novels, including this picaresque literary noir. AMERICAN VISA won Bolivia’s National Book Prize in 1994, was made into a film a decade later, and was the bestselling Bolivian novel of any kind over a 20-year period. Fortunately for us, it’s also a rare Bolivian book to be translated into English. 

Mario Alvarez is an illusion: dressed in a custom-made suit and with box-ticking documents, puffed-up resume and bank statements in hand, he looks a likely candidate to get the visa he needs so he can redeem the plane ticket to Miami sent to him by his son. But really he’s an achingly desperate, unemployed school teacher from rural Bolivia who’s trying to bluff his way out of the country. Scared by the thoroughness of consular staff who want to verify his impressive but fake documents, he turns to a ‘fixer’ who’ll get him the visa for $800. 

But where will a near-broke Mario get such a fortune? Inspired by his love of hardboiled detective fiction and propelled by despair and desperation, Mario embarks on a series of bizarre adventures while concocting a plot to come up with the money. Along the way he drifts past an array of unique and unforgettable characters. AMERICAN VISA is an unusual novel, a blend of mid-century noir, existentialism, and farce. Juan de Recacoechea reputedly wrote it as “an antidote” to the growing wave of Latin American magic realism. Job done. 

 

Ali Karim and Craig Sisterson

Craig Sisterson (who is looming behind Ali Karim) is a former attorney who lives in London and writes features for magazines and newspapers in several countries. A lifelong fan of crime fiction, in recent years he’s interviewed more than 200 authors, chaired crime writing events on three continents, and been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards

(Australia), McIvanney Prize (Scotland), and Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson