Scoop Review of Books

Thrilling International Crime

Craig Sisterson takes a look at some recent bestsellers.

New Zealand readers love their crime and thriller fiction. Although we’ve been a little slow to embrace the fantastic, high quality writing now being produced by some of our own local writers, we certainly devour titles from international authors. A quick glance at the weekly bestsellers lists shows that crime and thriller titles not only regularly top the International Adult Fiction bestseller list, but in fact often take up the majority of the Top 10 positions. We love our fictional crime tales, that’s for sure.

In the past few weeks there have been new releases from several of the biggest names on the international crime and thriller writing scene. But which of these five international stars are continuing to produce high quality crime and thriller fiction that is well worth reading, and which are relying more on reputations or past glories?

Here’s a quick round-up.

61 Hours by Lee Child (Random House, 2010)

New Zealanders packed out the six events held around the country when Lee Child toured here last month – local readers loving the chance to get up close to the creator of maverick hero Jack Reacher. As Child said himself, we are “the world capital of Reacher madness” – buying more copies per capita than anywhere else in the world.

After some big city and terrorism-fuelled plots recently, in 61 Hours Child takes Reacher back to his transient roots, on the highways and byways of backcountry America. A skidding bus leaves the wandering ex-military policeman stranded in a blizzard-bashed small town that’s straining at the seams thanks to a federal prison opening nearby. Once Reacher convinces the over-stretched local cops he’s not an out-of-town hitman sent by a ruthless Mexican drug lord to silence an elderly witness, he finds himself roped into protective detail. Battling freezing elements, and rare self-doubts, he turns his attention to the drug-running bikers squatting next to a mysterious stone building on the prairie. But are they the real danger?

Child delivers another taut, exciting thriller. A gripping page-turner that will have readers chattering their teeth in sympathy for the coatless Reacher battling Arctic cold and unseen dangers, while also revealing a bit more about the popular hero – who in effect is a modern day cowboy, a 21st century knight errant or Ronin samurai traipsing from place to place, trying to stop those who put the world to wrongs. Child builds momentum well, slipping in some nice twists and turns, as well as unexpected and rare Reacher self-reflection and details about his military past, to keep everyone guessing on the way to an explosive climax and cliff-hanger ending.

Caught by Harlan Coben (Orion, 2010)

After bringing back popular sports agent-turned-investigator Myron Bolitar in last year’s Long Lost, acclaimed suspense king Harlan Coben (who won the inaugural ITV3 Bestseller Dagger at last year’s Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards in the UK) changes tack with a high-octane standalone thriller this year.

A New Jersey town is rocked when 17-year-old Hayley McWaid, captain of the high school lacrosse team, disappears without a trace. Meanwhile social worker Dan Mercer’s life is turned upside down when he’s outed and publically shamed as a sexual predator on ambitious reporter Wendy Tynes’ nationally-televised news program ‘Caught in the Act’. Even when the evidence against him is tossed out, his old life is gone for good; but that’s the least of his troubles as the town turns on him and his estranged family. Violently. Tynes finds herself questioning her own instincts and the motives of everyone around her, and as she digs deeper to find the truth, all sorts of skeletons start coming out of all sort of closets, in the town and beyond

Coben has built his name on ‘pulse-pounding’ tales where secrets of the past come terrifyingly to bear on the present, and he delivers once more with Caught. Pages will whir, and lights will stay on, as readers are kept up late at night by this cracking thriller. Some may find the plot a little too intricate, with too many characters, issues and aspects brought together – everything from paedophilia to embezzlement to murder to the dangers of social networking websites to underage drinking – but there’s no doubt it’s an exciting and entertaining story that gallops along. And in amongst the mayhem, Coben raises several interesting issues and philosophical questions (though many may be overlooked by readers due to the pace of the story), including ruminations on good intentions with bad outcomes, forgiveness, and redemption.

Unlike James Patterson, Coben is a master at injecting emotion and human turmoil into his pacy plots. For many readers, Caught will be an enjoyably frantic ‘airport’ or weekend read; a rollercoaster ride that has their heart pumping and head spinning. But for those take a breath and look around, there may be even more to see.

Never Look Away by Linwood Barclay (Orion, 2010)

Small town reporter David Harwood’s life is turned big-time upside down when his wife Jan disappears during a family outing to a local theme park. Bad becomes worse when information David gives the police about Jan’s recent depression, combined with other unexplainable events, gets the authorities thinking David might not be a distraught husband, but a man with a murder to hide. Could Jan’s disappearance have something to do with the council corruption David has been investigating? When a body turns up, so are the stakes, and David finds himself in a desperate search for the truth, however horrible that might be.

Barclay first shot to wider attention and fame when his thriller No Time for Goodbye became the biggest-selling book overall in the United Kingdom in 2008. His next two standalone novels (he doesn’t feature recurring characters) clinched his reputation as the master of suburban terror, and with Never Look Away he’s created another chilling page-turner; a superb tale that eschews spies and super-cops and brings thrills and spills much closer to home. Right now there are few better at crafting pulse-pounding storylines centred on seemingly nondescript ‘heroes’. A word of warning: start Never Look Away only when you’ve got time to read it all, because one you’re a few pages in, you might not be able to put it down. A great, engrossing read.

Hell Gate by Linda Fairstein (Little, Brown, 2010)

In Hell Gate, the twelfth instalment in her Alex Cooper series, Fairstein’s heroine (who in many ways comes across as an aspirational version of the author) finds herself investigating a shipwreck that spills illegal immigrants into the frigid waters off Manhattan. At the same time a promising young congressman is caught up in a sex scandal that leads to murder. Alternatively flanked, lead, and pulled along by regular NYPD detective sidekicks Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, Cooper, an Assistant District Attorney, realises a sinister sex trafficking ring may be making power plays in New York City.

In a way, fans of crime drama Special Victims Unit, one of the most popular TV shows on our screens, already know Linda Fairstein – before she became a bestselling author she was the real-life New York ADA who helped set up the famed sex crimes unit – and this gave Fairstein instant credibility (as well as a nice marketing angle) when she turned from prosecuting crimes to writing about them.

Other than her background, Fairstein’s ‘trademark’ has always been her fondness for taking readers on journeys through well-researched, intriguing New York settings sprinkled with fascinating tidbits (largely unbeknownst even to locals), from past and present. But in Hell Gate it feels like she’s relying on such trivia to create and maintain interest, creating a rambling storyline to show off that research. It’s trivia, rather than vivid details bringing the book to life. Unfortunately, readers may feel disengaged, and wishing Fairstein’s plots, characters and dialogue contained a larger measure of that freshness and richness. Because in the end with crime and thriller fiction, quality trumps credibility.

The First Rule by Robert Crais (Orion, 2010)

Like Fairstein, Crais had a helpful background prior to becoming a bestselling crime novelist; he was a successful screenwriter for cop shows like Baretta, Cagney & Lacey and Miami Vice. The First Rule is his thirteenth novel in an award-winning series featuring popular private eye duo Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, but only the second to have the strong-but-silent Pike as the lead.

Pike is pulled into a vicious home invasion turned mass murder; the father, Frank Meyer, was an old mercenary buddy, long ago. Unwilling to accept the police view that his friend must have been corrupt, like other victims of a violent burglary outfit, Pike starts tearing LA apart to find the truth and clear Frank Meyer’s name. And mete out his type of justice on those involved in the brutal slayings. Even when the trail leads to the ferocious Serbian mafia, Pike doesn’t care. Mirrored shades on, red arrow shoulder tattoos facing forward, and with the wise-cracking Cole to call on, Pike plans to take them all down anyway.

Break-neck is probably the phrase that best describes The First Rule. It’s more out-and-out action thriller than Robert Crais’s crime novels with Cole at the centre, but is highly enjoyable nonetheless. In amongst the mayhem as Pike hurtles around LA, readers get a better insight into the enigmatic ex-Marine sniper and ex-cop – and Crais even tosses in a few intriguing curveballs near the end. A fast and fun read from a crime and thriller writing master.


Craig Sisterson is an Auckland-based features writer and book reviewer. He also blogs on crime and thriller fiction news at