Book Review: Shatter by Michael Robotham

From page one, Shatter (2008) is in the mind of a disturbed and vengeful psychopath and it’s not long before we see the outcomes of his thinking. Professor Joseph O’Loughlin, coming to terms with Parkinson’s disease, finishes teaching a class in behavioural psychology at Bath University. Discussing the lesson with his boss the men are approached by police with a request that Joe’s boss deftly sidesteps. From here, Joe is dropped into something that will be terrifying for him, and I suggest, for some readers.

A woman in her forties, naked except for a pair of red Jimmy Choo shoes, holds a mobile phone to her ear, about to jump to her death from a bridge. Joe tries unsuccessfully to talk her off. It transpires that the woman has a sixteen-year-old daughter, Darcy, who turns up at the at O’Loughlin household a couple of days later. Darcy does her best to convince Joe that her mother wouldn’t have committed suicide – for one thing, she was terrified of heights, and another, Darcy knew her mother wouldn’t leave her alone.

As Joe tries to find the reason for Christine’s death, the police are sceptical that there’s anything more in the case than suicide. Joe ropes in a retired Detective who once suspected Joe of murdering a patient, but it seems the two men have put that behind them. Former DI Vincent Ruiz, is a necessary character in this book, not just for the humour Robotham injects into the story (the two men have become friends) but Joe takes on an investigatory role as he searches for the truth behind the mother’s death.

About Ruiz, Joe says, “Men who take too much care of themselves and their clothes can appear vain and over-ambitious but Ruiz had long ago stopped caring about what other people thought about him. He was like a big dark vague piece of furniture, smelling of tobacco and wet tweed.”

I thought to myself, ‘ah – Peter Temple lives on in another guise.’ (Temple, an Australian Rockstar of crime writing caused many people heart-felt sorrow when he died this year, and if that wasn’t bad enough, with an uncompleted manuscript).

And before people ‘get up in arms’ and complain about a psychologist becoming a policeman and the need to suspend disbelief, this is not a police procedural story. It’s a psychological thriller. Joe’s skills as a psychologist are to the fore but he does need some help. All protagonists need help, regardless of genre.

As is always the way with crime thrillers, things get progressively worse before they get better. While Joe applies his innate understanding of humans and communication skills to help others, at home, he is like the plumber whose house is full of leaking taps. He has a sense that his marriage is not what it should be, but at the same time, lacks the insight that his dedication to helping others might come at a cost.

Shatter (the title speaks to the theme of shattered minds, including the antagonist’s) is a taut, powerful psychological thriller that meets all the expectations of the genre and is brilliantly written – a style that appealed to me with descriptive power that captured place and time. “It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, late September, and outside it’s raining so hard that cows are floating down rivers and birds are resting on their bloated bodies.”

“I go to the bar, where half a dozen flushed and lumpy regulars fill the stools ….
I nod. They nod back. This passes as a long conversation in this part of Somerset.”

Robotham has crafted a story with a flawed character immersed in a plot that in equal parts, is both chilling and powerful. This is number 3 in the Joe O’Loughlin series, so I’ll be going back in time and in catch up mode before I read his latest acclaimed work. Highly-recommended.

QC says author too observant of lawyers

It was a fantastic time at the book launch of the printed copy of Presumed Guilty in Scorpio Bookshop , Christchurch, on a Winter’s Thursday night.

Nigel Hampton QC, an icon of the New Zealand bar, and the South Island’s most eminent and tenacious criminal lawyer for decades, was there to launch my 4th book. And while they weren’t able to be present, I went to the launch fortified with best wishes from Nigel’s colleagues ‘in silk’, local QCs, Pip Hall and Chris McVeigh.

The assembled  jury came from many walks of life: an employment lawyer, a journalist and editor with Fairfax media, a literary editor, a corporate manager, consultants, a nurse, several administrators, an ex prison inspector, a current court officer, a librarian, an HR manager, general managers, a doctor and others from the health system, a couple of accountants, a social worker, people in retail, an interior designer and at least one student, although all had been students of life. Such a jury was the ideal assembly to invest their time in a mystery, and invest, they did.

Nigel Hampton opened his remarks with, “I’ve known Mark over a goodly number of years – mostly when he was a court registrar. It is evident to me now, having read this legal thriller of his, that the registrar’s role was nowhere busy enough – he has obviously spent too much time, far too much time, listening to and observing lawyers, witnesses and judges, how they comport and conduct themselves, how they act and react. Because it is the fruits of those observations which are on display, so well, in his fourth novel, a murder mystery.”

Later, on this same theme, he said, “Mark has set down a convincing replication of the ‘bitchy’, if not malicious, gossip so loved by courtroom lawyers, when not in court – and in the second part of the book, Mark captures the poisonous sotto voce comments stilettoed from one opposing lawyer to another when in court.”

At one point, and I’ve no doubt it’s his common trial tactic to present as a fair and reasonable advocate, Nigel, presented the negative. He said, “It is only a small ‘but’ Mark, none of those conversations and exchanges are quite profane enough to portray accuracy. We lawyers are a foul mouthed lot.’

To which there can be only one answer – sometimes reality is the victim of editing.

Picking up exhibit A, Nigel read a number of passages from the book, one of which he deliberately chose as a ‘tease’ and invited those attending the launch to see “just how much of a teaser I’ve made it.” He went on to describe Presumed Guilty as a book set in and around the environs of courts and a story that plays out “with all its unexpected twists and its suspenseful turns, especially as the pace picks up in the second half of the book leading to its explosive denouement.”

He concluded his address to an attentive jury, an erudite assembly and one much larger than the accustomed dozen, with a truism of trial lawyers. “A trial lawyer’s own belief (of her client’s innocence or guilt) is irrelevant; it is, always will be, an impediment to the lawyer’s role.”

And then , great craftsman and orator that he is, Nigel Hampton QC moved from advocate to judicial officer (he was once Chief Justice of Tonga) and left his attentive jury with compelling questions for their deliberation.

“But then this is the tale. And, was it an impediment here? Is he guilty or not? Is he found guilty, or not? A very different question. And who, in this tale, is truely innocent?”

Many thanks to the good guys at Scorpio for helping me make this possible and to those who gave up the comfort of warm homes to come out and offer their support.

By the way, the Cab Sav with which Nigel is toasting the book, is called The Pugilist. Those who know of his career as an advocate,  will know how fitting that is!


Consultant tells RNZ it’s their CEO’s fault

Here’s an extract of my interview today with RNZ’s internal magazine’ Soundbytes‘.


“I’m the HR Consultant who turned to crime and it’s all the fault of RNZ CEO Paul Thompson. One winter’s night in his Karori home in 2008, we were talking crime books, who our favourite authors were at the time. I clearly remember him saying that Stephen King always started with a question that began with “what if…” which led to other questions. He asked me what my starting ‘what if’ question would be if I wrote a story. I came up with, “what if someone emerged decades after a man was hanged for murder and took revenge on the surviving jurors from that old case.” That was how my story Best Served Cold was developed. I came up with that because I’d worked in courts for many years, helping run criminal jury trials in Christchurch, long before I got into HR Management.

Working with RNZ and the leadership and HR teams has been terrific. Yes, it’s got in the way of writing, but sadly, writing doesn’t pay the bills, at least not yet! One of the things I enjoy most about working at RNZ, and it was the same when I consulted to Fairfax, was working with people who were passionate about their craft. It’s like a calling for them and it’s really important to me to be able to help leaders build and maintain the right environments for those folk.

And a wee plug if I may – it was great to see Presumed Guilty on the shelves of Whitcoulls in Lambton Quay.”

Book show host loves Presumed Guilty

It was great to be on Terry Toner’s, Radio Southland Book show program. He interviewed me on a range of topics from how I came to write the book, the setting and characters, the potholes of self publishing, editing and NZ crime writers. I’ll say here, what I said on his show: NZ writers are as good as any in the world and well worth a read.

Check out the discussion here and please share with others you think might be interested. The interview starts 3 minutes in.


Standing Room Only at RNZ


On Sunday I talked with Lynn Freeman at RNZ about courtroom drama in a high-stakes trial, the pressures evident on counsel and the dark side of the world people don’t  typically encounter.

We also discuss how Presumed Guilty is a story that weaves together the powerful forces of the judiciary, the media and the nefarious input of government officials who try and influence Sasha Stace QC and the outcome of the trial.  Enjoy the a sample of the book read on the show and the chat that follows here.


Mark McGinn talks to Booklovers

Presumed Guilty – Winning gilt edged reviews

Not only long-listed for the 2017 NZ Ngaio Marsh Crime Awards, Presumed Guilty is seen as unique in New Zealand in that it’s a genuine legal thriller with powerful characters in and out of the courtroom.

Link to buy:

My mistress of seven years

It’s our summer holiday season. I’m in my writing cave at home and can smell the mouth-watering aroma of a banana loaf baking in the oven. The delicious smell  of the fat and sugar alchemy wafts  down the hallway and serves as a distraction to the rain falling steadily as it did for most of the night. It’s falling over the whole of New Zealand. To be fair, we’ve had lots of warm, even hot weather, and this water is needed. The green leaves are relaxing again, grateful for my wife’s work in quenching their thirst every day but appreciative of the long New Year drink, much like I do!

I’m in a reflective mood. It’s coming up to seven years since I started writing fiction. That’s barely a blip compared to some. It may not even register on the Richter scale we’ve all become so familiar with in what’s known as the Shaky Isles. In that time I’ve published three books and a short story, have another (Presumed Guilty) that I’m shopping around literary agents in New York and London and I’m about a third of the way through a new project that both excites and frustrates me. But my best writing seems to do that these days.

Time wise, if I round the numbers up, seven years is close to twelve percent of my life. Again, not much compared to some. But it’s a lot in this household. I think I’m falling back on the, “for better or for worse” part of our vows. As anyone who puts time into a genuine writing pursuit knows, it is an insular process. I think, from my wife’s point of view, she sees I have this invisible mistress floating around the house like a ghost, a mistress that’s not always benign, either. After she read my first book (Best Served Cold) she famously said to others, ‘I didn’t know I’d married a sick fuck.’ One scene!  It was only one short torture scene!! Still, in sickness and in health.

So why do I do it? The challenge is enormous but the simplest explanation is that I do it to entertain. I want to share the escapism I claim for myself. I know I can tell a yarn and thanks to so many people, over those seven years, I know I’ve got better at that.

Part of today’s post is acknowledging, not just my wife, to whom I could dedicate every book, but the help I’ve had along the way. At the top of that list is my editor, Anna Rogers. I’ve previously written about Anna here.

Then there’s this guy – Shawn Coyne.  He hasn’t replaced the work Anna does for me but he helps me make her job easier (if that’s possible). The Story Grid is essentially a compliation of his free blogs at Over a twenty-five year career as an editor, publisher, agent, manager and writer, Shawn has been part of more than 350 books, 97 of which have become national best sellers and books that he has edited or published, have sold over fifteen million copies. This guy knows something about writing! He can tell you not only what needs fixing, but how to fix it. No one teaches editing at the global story level or the microscopic level – not Harvard, not Random House.

story grid

Shawn’s taught me that editing and story analysis are not goodies attached to the end of artful story telling, they are at the heart and soul of story telling. While his techniques and tools are fascinating, (the foolscap method – getting the story on one page and the story grid spreadheet – tracking every scene) I’ve had huge help from his forensic analysis of the “story form” and the five commandments of every scene.

Another great craft book I read in 2015 was this one, actually written for screenplay writers but it’s equally applicable to novel writers.

Power of trans

Dara Marks’s book is a great companion to The Story Grid, in that it reinforces so much of what Shawn Coyne refers to as the “internal content genre”, essentially how the main character changes over the life of the external plot. Marks lays a great foundation for the transformational arc of the main character and then shows us how to construct it. She demonstrates how plot, character, and theme need to move in unity throughout a storyline. In essence, Marks provides clear information about what is required at every stage in a story in order to complete the arc and fulfill a natural dramatic structure.

In his foreward to Story Trumps Structure written by Steven James,  (quite a different take on the two books above) Donald Maas says, “Master the ceiling fan principle and you will have a foundation for novel writing that will save you years of trial and error.” With regard to creating tension in a story, Maas says, “ Steven smashes through the fog and reduces all disagreements to rubble. What for many novelists is intuitive, he makes concrete.”

story stumps

James says that if we are courageous enough to ditch formulas and templates and instead, step into the heart of the narrrative, we can become better storytellers. He has a great line that explains the ceiling fan principle where a boy tried to jump off a bed further than  his cousin and got caught in the fan and thrown against the wall. It was an entertaining account from which the principle articulated is, “you do not have a story until something goes wrong”. So to uncover the plot of your story, don’t ask what should happen, but what should go wrong. To uncover the meaning of your story, don’t ask what the theme is, but rather, what is discovered. Characters making choices to resolve tension  – that’s your plot.

I have a bunch of other writing craft references as this photo shows.


And I’m still managing to read other crime and thriller stories some of which I’ve reviewed. Somehow, I still find time to earn an income but just now, I am submitting to temptation. My wife has beaten my mistress. Banana loaf calls.

Happy reading in 2016.

Warm regards


Paris Terror: Part of a master plot

The resolution in a crime story more often than not bolsters our hope that justice will ultimately prevail. Crime stories are about entertainment and escapism. But the real world never leaves us and the real world continues to challenge our belief that justice will prevail.


Where is there ever justice for the victims and their loved ones in non-fiction terror? Fuelled by a callous disregard for the value of human life, the latest strike is another against the Western World and the people in Paris in particular.  It’s another in a long catalogue of terror tactics designed to indiscriminately kill and maim. We focus on the horrible event, as it should. And the horrible event passes. Very much like the authorities who  ‘close the stable door after the horse has bolted’ in their increased military and police presence. It looks good, it appeases, but it will never be enough because it cannot be permanent. More and more of these destructive acts are developing throughout the world and will continue.

We shouldn’t be blind to the non-fiction plot. Osama bin Laden is dead, possible Jihadi John. These antagonists will always be replaced by others because the master plot is to polarize the warring factions. They want the West to abhor the Middle East, to provoke overreaction and retaliation against innocent Muslims. In turn, alienated Muslims will counteract and join extremists.

Like the great plots of fiction, this master plot of reality has endured and will continue. If social and traditional media is any indicator, Islamophobia in the West is on the rise. In Europe for example, the radical anti-Muslim right wing is gaining political strength. Prejudice and hate will continue to drive the European narrative.

In light of such a horrible terror attack in Paris, we want to do something because we feel such a sense of loss, pain, and powerlessness. What can we do? It is hard not to become a monster to defeat a monster. That difficulty is part of the great plot. At the moment, terrorists are winning the war against peace and using psychology to their advantage. There is no easy answer but this is a war that won’t be won with prejudice, lies and propaganda and making villains of Muslims. We need to write a creative counterplot. Does the West have this ingenuity? Time will tell.

Up there with the best psychological thrillers.

What’s worse than running over your neighbor’s dog? If you read The Devil’s Wire by Deborah Rogers, you’ll find out! There are surprises aplenty in this rollicking read and you might at the end, look carefully at what you really know about those closest to you. Are they who they really seem?


There’s a small cast of characters in this book but they’re all beautifully drawn by Rogers. Blunt South African antagonist, Lenise Jameson, is a bit of a favourite of mine. She provides endless suffering for protagonist Jennifer, seemingly for the careless killing of her dog who’d somehow gotten on to the road on a dark night at the very time Jennifer was concerned about not having an accident. Jennifer had been trying to rescue a loose mandarin from under foot.

But empathy for the life situation of both women is not difficult. Guilt ridden Jennifer’s relationship with needy husband Hank, is at best, running aground, and at worst, revealing a nightmare. Their only child, 12 year old McKenzie, has hateful rages towards her mother, largely it seems, due to Jennifer’s ignorance of what has been going on in the family home. Rogers is clever in showing us Jennifer’s psychology throughout e.g. sentences that paint a picture of a frantic and unsettled mind.

Meanwhile, Lenise with an adult son who does her no credit, is bereaved by the loss of her beloved pooch and soon finds herself on hard times. Early in the story Lenise is set up by an immoral rival to be fired from her real estate job. But her inability to sustain any meaningful relationship with a human being is not only down to a clumsy penchant for unsolicited advice. Her biggest flaw, one she is blind to, is her obsession about McKenzie, the daughter she wanted and never had. The more she wants that type of love and affection, the more she acts to prevent it.

Jennifer and Lenise, so different in their own way, become an unholy and dangerous alliance. They drive a carefully crafted and twisting plot that will have you on edge wondering how they get out of a horrible mess of their own creation.

When you take the characters, the plot and the liberally infused shades of dark humor, you’ll likely be wondering when you’ll be treated to more of the fine writing craft of Deborah Rogers.

© 2019 Mark McGinn

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