Review: Fifty Fifty by James Patterson and Candice Fox

9780143783107.jpgCrimson Lake — published earlier this year — remains one of the best crime novels of 2017. It boasted — (well, still does, even if you’re reading this in 2021, so why am I using past tense?) — Candice Fox’s signature style, edge and humour that made her one of my Must-Read Authors, surpassing the brilliant Bennett / Archer trilogy. And though I was disappointed with her inaugural collaboration with James Patterson in 2016’s Never Never — it read like a diluted pastiche — I remained hopeful its follow-up, Fifty Fifty would be less Patterson-like, and more Fox-y. And I’m delighted to report: it’s a huge step up. Nowhere near the genius of Crimson Lake, but a solid page-turner, with a climax that promises another sequel, with greater stakes.

Never in doubt was Harriet Blue’s potential as a great lead for a long-running series.  Tough-as-nails, a more than capable brawler, with a never-say-die attitude and a thirst for justice. Damaged, too, as the best protagonists are; emotionally warped from a youth spent drifting between various Child Services homes, sometimes with her brother, sometimes not; her mother a drunken, broken, ethereal presence. Trouble is, in both Never Never and Fifty Fifty, she’s never really given the chance to assure readers of her investigatory prowess. Both novels suffer from a nasty knack of shunting Blue into precarious situations, solving cases not through smarts, but because of happenstance; bumbling into danger, or becoming the target of the overarching villain. This builds suspense, sure; nerve-shredding moments when her life — or someone else’s — is on the line; but makes me question her actual, y’know, detective skills.

In Fifty Fifty, the detecting is left to Sydney Detectives Tox Barnes and Edwardnever-never.jpg Whittacker, who — following Harriet’s reassignment — are determined to uncover the true identity of the Georges River Killer. Harriet’s brother, Sam stands accused of the brutal murders of three young students, but she is adamant he’s not the killer, despite both siblings sharing a penchant for aggressive outbursts. Harriet would be there with them, on the frontlines, but one such act of aggression — punching Sam’s prosecutor in the face — has forced her out of the spotlight, to the outback town of Last Chance Valley, to investigate an unknown suspect’s plan to massacre the entire town, alongside Federal Agent Elliot Kash and local cop Victoria Snale.

These parallel investigations are suitably intriguing, Patterson and Fox handling dual cases with professional dexterity. The result isn’t exactly memorable, but with its short, sharp chapters and rapid-fire plotting, readers will race to the cliff-hanger conclusion. You’ll see hints of Fox’s trademark strengths, paled by the Patterson effect; characters who deserve fleshing out reduced to caricatures for the sake of expediency; my eyes nearly rolled out of their sockets when Kash and Harriet wrestle — actually wrestle! — for control of the investigation. But James Patterson’s fans are legion, and Fifty Fifty is certain to sate readers of a particular brand of storytelling.

ISBN: 9780143783107
Format: Paperback
Pages: 416
Imprint: Century Australia
Publisher: Random House Australia
Publish Date: 31-Jul-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

 

The Best Books of 2017 – So Far!

Best Books of 2017 - so Far!

A graphic novel, a brilliant retelling of a Shakespeare play, a standout second novel from the 2015 Miles Franklin winner Sofie Laguna, a couple of mile-a-minute page-turners, and a brilliant debut literary crime novel from a fresh Australian voice; these, and more, are my picks for the books that have already made 2017 a stellar year for reading. And we’re only halfway through it!

Continue reading “The Best Books of 2017 – So Far!”

Review: Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

crimson-lakeAustralian crime fiction is experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to a handful of fresh female voices. Jane Harper’s The Dry was 2016’s darling and rightfully so — I called it “the year’s best achievement on the Australian crime writing scene” in my review, and named it my Book of the Year — and in 2015 I was absolutely blown away by Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay: “stripped-down and raw, and packs one helluva punch.” And then, of course, there’s Candice Fox, who has carved out a distinctive square on the map of contemporary crime writing with her Bennett / Archer trilogy (Hades, Eden and Fall), and  who ranks as one of my absolute favourite authors. Perhaps it’s too early to predict 2017’s Aussie crime fiction blockbuster, but one thing is for certain: Candice Fox’s Crimson Lake will feature in the conversation.

Crimson Lake introduces former Sydney-based police detective Ted Conkaffey, who was accused, but not convicted, of abducting a 13-year-old girl. But the accusation is enough. To his wife, his peers, and the general public, a lack of conviction isn’t proof of innocence, just evidence of a lack of proof. Ted is an outcast. The life he had is over, and so he flees Sydney to Cairns: specifically the steamy, croc-infested wetlands of Crimson Lake. There he meets Amanda Pharrell — an accused and convicted murderer now operating as a private detective — and partners with her to investigate the disappearance of local author Jake Scully.

Veteran Fox readers will notice some thematic similarities between Crimson Lake and her Bennett / Archer trilogy. She is the absolute master of the enigmatic protagonist: characters with deep, dark secrets, who readers will follow and support, but with occasional hesitancy; because what if the worst is true? What if we’re  actually cheering on a killer in Amanda Pharrell? And Ted — our narrator — what if he’s hiding the truth from us? What if he is guilty of abducting the girl, and leading readers astray? We’re never quite certain — not totally — until the novel’s very end of how trustworthy and reliable Ted and Amanda are, which makes Crimson Lake incredibly compelling and propulsive.

Candice Fox’s prodigious ability to keep coming up with unforgettable characters elevates Crimson Lake beyond the standard police procedurals that proliferate the genre. Oh sure, Ted and Amanda’s investigation into Jake Scully’s disappearance is effectively handled — plenty of twists and red-herrings, and a heart-stopping climax to satisfy plot-focused readers — but it’s their uneasy comradeship, and their secrets which threaten to bubble to the surface, that make the novel a blast. It boasts Fox’s signature style, edge and humour to delight established fans, and will surely win new ones, too.

One of the best Australian crime writers just levelled up. If you haven’t jumped on the Candice Fox bandwagon, now’s the time. Crimson Lake will be one of 2017’s best crime novels, and Candice Fox has quickly established herself as one of our finest talents operating in the genre. That’s not hyperbole. It’s fact. Read Crimson Lake — you’ll see.

ISBN: 9780143781905
Format: Paperback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Bantam
Publisher: Transworld Publishers (Division of Random House Australia)
Publish Date: 30-Jan-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Never Never by James Patterson & Candice Fox

Never NeverCandice Fox is one of Australia’s best and most innovative crime writers, so when her collaboration with multi-million copy bestseller James Patterson was announced, I was wary, simply because I couldn’t imagine their distinct styles coalescing. Patterson and his co-authors write fairly conventional thrillers, stripped to the bare essentials to ensure Patterson’s trademark rocket-fast pace. They’re fine-tuned, well-oiled machines, and provide plenty of readers precisely what they want. What has appealed to me about Fox’s work, however, is the complexity of her heroes and villains; her ability to find equilibrium between plot and characterization; and her willingness to explore dark societal underbellies, and portray violence realistically, without ever relying on sheer gratuity for shock value. My concern with Never Never was that the Patterson trappings – which I respect, and do not disparage – would dilute the traits I most admire her work for.

Never Never begins shortly after the events of the ‘Bookshot’ Black and Blue – though readers who’ve not read that novella needn’t worry, as that was quite evidently an interlude, with little resonance on this full-length story. Harriet Blue – a detective working sex crimes – has just learned her brother her brother has been arrested for a series of brutal murders around Sydney. Her superiors want her out of the city immediately to avoid the inevitable media attention, so Harry is dispatched to Western Australia, to work a missing persons case deep in the outback. Three people have vanished from the Bandya Mine, and it’s her job to track them down and bring in the perpetrator.

Harriet Blue has the makings of a great lead for a long-running series. She’s tough-as-nails, a capable brawler, and has that never-say-die attitude integral to a resonant protagonist. Presumably she’s an intelligent woman, too – though you wouldn’t know it based on her choices here, or the bumbling nature in which she runs her investigation. Harriet is purely reactionary, and continuously falls into perilous scenarios, never once being granted the opportunity to showcase her street smarts. This means there are plenty of rousing set pieces that’ll get readers’ hearts pounding, but not once does it feel like she’s cognizant of her situation. It’s impossible to delve into specifics without giving away spoilers, but Never Never is essentially Harriet stumbling headfirst into trouble before the ultimate villain reveals himself. If I’m ever attacked by a group of thugs, I’d want Harriet Blue in my corner. If confronting a cryptic crossword, I’m not so sure.

Events in Never Never are contrived. There’s very little organic about its development. It all feels very rote. Readers looking for a purely orthodox thriller will be sated, but those who’ve lapped up Candice Fox’s previous books, or indeed 2016’s landmark Australian crime novel by Jane Harper, The Dry, mightn’t feel the same. Sure, there’re some thrills, and some kick-arse moments for Harriet; but where’s the spark?

My thanks to Random House Australia for providing a review copy.

ISBN: 9781925324938
Format: Paperback
Pages: 368
Imprint: Century Australia
Publisher: Random House Australia
Publish Date: 15-Aug-2016
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: James Patterson Bookshots – Black & Blue by Candice Fox

Black and BlueIn high school I devoured James Patterson’s Alex Cross books, but a long time has passed since those days, and his style – short, choppy chapters with an extreme focus on plot rather than character – no longer resonates with me. It’s like he’s got the framework of a brilliant novel, but rather than fill it, he leaves his novel emancipated, stripped down, raw. It’s not for me – but obviously fits the bill for millions of other readers, so hey, I guess this is a case of accepting I’m the outlier. I grabbed a copy of Black & Blue purely for the Candice Fox factor. On the one hand, I want to support the work of a local author whom I greatly admire; on the other, I will admit, I just wanted to see how Patterson’s influence would impact her storytelling.

Black & Blue is one of the first entries in Patterson’s Bookshots series, dubbed as “the ultimate form of storytelling, and introduces Sydney detective Harriet Blue, who will star as the lead in a full-length novel this August, Never Never. The plot is simple – a young woman has washed up on a river bank, and Blue believes she’s another victim of Sydney’s worst serial killers in decades – the Georges River Killer. She investigates the murder alongside Tate Barnes, a despised, nomadic detective, whose methods are questionable, and whose past is black as pitch. Not that Blue is completely on the side of the angels, as demonstrated by her brutal takedown of an accused assailant under the cover of darkness early on in the novel.

There’s no question Black & Blue provides an hour of fast-paced entertainment – but there’s nothing here that’ll live long in readers’ memories. The plot is fairly rote, amped up by Patterson’s short chapters and constant perspective-shifts, from Blue, to the killer, to her superior officer. Speaking of, Harriett Blue and her supporting cast have potential, but it’s not properly explored here: it all feels very much like a tease, which I suppose is all I suppose it was meant to be. Still, as the ultimate form of storytelling, I was left feeling a tad indifferent. Black & Blue is a solid little thrill-ride, but if I had a say in the matter, I’d have voted for a solo Candice Fox novella instead. She is an author who has demonstrated a willingness to bend the tropes of the genre. Here she is playing very much by the rules, and the book lacks her trademark flair. That said, hopefully readers who enjoy Black & Blue will sample Hades, Eden and Fall.  It’ll blow their minds.

ISBN: 9781786530165
Format: Paperback (188mm x 129mm x mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: BookShots
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 2-Jun-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Fall by Candice Fox

FallWith her first two novels Candice Fox carved a distinctive square on the map of contemporary crime writing. Taut with suspense, well-oiled plot mechanics, explosive bursts of violence, and chockfull of surreal, yet somehow relatable characters comprised of a plethora of doubts, anxieties, and hidden darkness, Hades and Eden made it abundantly clear: Fox is an enormously skilful writer, and unquestionably Australia’s hottest talent operating in the genre today. Now comes Fall; polished and primed, it is a stylish, explosively tense thriller. Somehow, Fox has upped her game. This is, quite simply, crime writing of the highest order.

Fall is a culmination of plot threads from Hades and Eden, but new readers needn’t worry: Fox dexterously feeds the essential backstory, in a nuanced fashion that won’t leave veterans bemused. Detective Frank Bennett is still struggling to cope with the knowledge that his partner in the Homicide Department, Eden Archer, moonlights as a serial killer. Her targets might be society’s underbelly, but no matter how you look at it, it boils down to cold blooded murder. Thankfully there is work to keep Frank distracted, and a new case is quickly thrown into his lap. Someone is targeting Sydney’s beautiful people; nabbing joggers from the city’s premier parks and leaving their bodies for the police to find. Meanwhile, Frank’s girlfriend, Imogen Stone, is closing in on Eden’s true identity, determined to uncover the truth for fame and fortune. But when another damaged soul becomes aware of Imogen’s secret investigation, her plans go awry very quickly, and there is more than just her life on the line.

Candice Fox’s storytelling takes no prisoners. This is a novel fuelled by pure adrenaline and hidden agendas rather than a traditional whodunit in the mould of, say, Michael Connelly. It’s a pyschothriller; Fox digs deep into her character’s psyches, exposing them at their rawest, while propelling them headlong into danger. It’s a novel that has plenty to say about society’s stance on women and beauty, but it doesn’t get bogged down in its messaging. First and foremost, Fall is a thriller, and a fine one at that. Every page crackles with energy; every chapter ends on a note demanding the next page be read.

Fall will most impact those who’ve been with Eden Archer and Frank Bennett since the beginning. Though these characters have only been with us for two preceding novels, their history has weight and meaning, and it is fundamental to the novel’s gut-punch of an ending. That’s not to say the novel is burdened by continuity; far from it. Fall will surely leave even new readers gaping, and screaming at their ceilings, “How can it end like this?!” But for those of us who were there from the start?Damn. It’s wonderful to read a series that feels like it has direction rather than spinning its wheels. No doubt, Candice Fox could’ve produced several whodunits starring her conflicted protagonists, Frank and Eden. No doubt they’d have been good, too. But Fall propels their story to the next level, when its least expected. Just when you think there’s a status quo to become accustomed to, Fox pulls the carpet out from under her readers. And it doesn’t feel cheap – it’s earned.

Relentlessly fast-paced and beautifully structured, readers will bomb through Fall in no time and enjoy every second. If you haven’t read Candice Fox before, jump on the bandwagon now. This feels like her breakthrough book into the mega-sellers.Fall is that good.

ISBN: 9780857987426
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Bantam
Publisher: Transworld Publishers (Division of Random House Australia)
Publish Date: 1-Dec-2015
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Eden by Candice Fox

9780857982568Candice Fox’s Ned Kelly Award-winning novel HADES was a ruthless, addictive page-turner that established Eden Archer as one of crime fiction’s most fearsome anti-heroes. Do-gooder police detective by day, merciless predator by night, the ingeniousness of Eden is our – and indeed her own – inability to predict her next move. Events from her past, which will remain unspoiled here, have deadened her emotions; she’s callous, and incapable of comprehending the thought processes and feelings of those around her. Eden Archer is an alien, and as she commits brazen acts of violence, we’re both disgusted and sorrowful: she didn’t choose this life. The fickle hand of fate decided for her, and she is living with the consequences, while others are dying because of it.

Her partner, Detective Frank Bennett, is the only man who knows the truth about Eden’s past, about her brother Eric, and her father: the feared underworld figure known as Hades. Frank was in a bad state at the end of HADES, and as EDEN begins he’s struggling to cope with the loss, living on a diet of painkillers and alcohol; but Eden’s determined to get him back in the game following the disappearance of three girls. She’s going undercover at a remote farm, the last known location of the three missing persons, and Frank is tasked with being her minder. It’s a fascinating scenario for Eden: her repressed nature makes her an unlikely candidate for undercover work, which necessitates blending into an environment. Witnessing her navigate awkward conversations is pulsating, because there is simply no telling how she’ll respond.

In the meantime, Hades is being haunted by a figure from his past, and has pulled in Frank to discern who is drudging up memories from long ago. The novel weaves a convoluted path, these parallel stories playing out alongside flashbacks to Hades’ past. There’s almost too much going on; too many threads being unraveled at once, never tangling, but threatening to. And as each chapter switches focus to another thread, the narrative loses its thrust. Whereas HADES moved like a bullet train, EDEN has less of a singular focus.

No surprise, a novel of HADES’ class resulted in a sequel, but in doing so, by necessity, Fox has been forced to expose more of Eden’s mentality and back story; in doing so, the character has lost some of her appeal. She is becoming less of a mystery. Perhaps this was always the intended objective of the Bennett/Archer series: the gradual exposé of the enigmatic anti-hero. So long as we don’t have a Moonlighting situation – a romance between the two leads – I’m content with the series’ trajectory. EDEN is another cracking crime novel by a fine Australian talent. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of her first, but it’s still a tier above most of the books shelved beside Fox’s name.