CategoryCrime Thriller

Book review: November Road – Lou Berney

Finding the book

I came to Lou Berney’s November Road as a result of Don Winslow’s recommendation. Publishing veteran, Shawn Coyne (who trained me as a Story Grid editor) has worked with Don, an acclaimed writer. All that is to confirm that we can come to read books or writers we’ve never heard of through a circuitous but rewarding route. But having one great writer recommend another, is a sure-fire way to set up a reader to enjoy a genre that they both write in.


For those understanding genre, November Road is a nuanced thriller more than it is a crime story. So don’t think you’ve got a mystery where the core event is the exposure of the criminal. We know who the bad guys are in this story and, arguably, which bad guy heads the table of tyranny. The global value of November Road is Life and Death where the ‘hero’, Frank Guidry, is at the mercy of the villain more than once. Berney makes the love story sub plot work well with the thriller but only Guidry has a true understanding of the stakes at risk in the relationship.

Who’s Frank Guidry

As the story’s protagonist, Frank Guidry, starts out as a bit of a selfish prick wheedling his way into the life of Charlotte Roy and her two girls. In a way, both are on the run, although Charlotte’s choice is a deliberate ‘breakfree’ from her alcoholic husband who is more dependent on her than she is on what little he brings to the family. Frank’s on the run because after JFK’s assassination, he knows things detrimental to his survival. Charlotte and her girls are a useful cover for Frank to buy the time necessary to set up a new life and identity for himself. He has the sense to know that those after him will be looking for a guy on his own. He doesn’t expect to fall in love.

Despite that selfishness and the fact that Frank has a history of using others to get along in life, he has needs that we all identify with – the necessities of life, love and esteem. Berney writes him so well we can all root for him because we know what he wants and what he needs.

Does he change?

On the run across a changing landscape his travels serve as a symbol of his personal change. Even though his physical movement is to ensure survival, his unbidden need is to find a way to be a more human version of himself, something he never thought necessary or possible. In story terms, he begins to understand he has something to offer someone other than himself and something beyond venality. This gives us a third genre – a morality/redemption story. Ironically, it’s that quality of redemption that puts Frank on a collision course greater than those trying to kill him. A course that requires an inevitable ‘best bad choice’ and one that none of us ever want to face.

Who will like this story and why?

To simply classify November Road as historical fiction would be to sell this story short in many ways. It delivers not only a suspenseful, riveting read, but is a powerful and eloquently told story that had me thinking about themes in life that transcend the 1960s period in which it is set: survival, the price of love, self-discovery, the tough decisions in parenting and second chances. For that reason, I believe it appeals to a very broad range of readers. Coping with crime being brought to the page is a requirement for your non crime reader although it’s not overdone. Most of the time, the tension-fuled threat is greater than the reality. Even the most gratuitous act of violence in this story, while a horrific injustice, has an understandable context.

Pick up and read a copy. Amazon link here:

You won’t be disappointed.

Rotorua Noir

The crime festival

This weekend 25 – 27  January 2019, New Zealand will host its first ever crime writers & readers festival in Rotorua.  It’s an event that sold out well before kick off. I’m very excited to be meeting some of my favourite crime writers and hearing about their current projects, having a few laughs and just kick around with great people , some with slightly warped minds and some more warped than others.


Chairing a panel

Craig Sisterson, founder of New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh Crime Awards has asked me to chair the last panel of the festival. It will include the big names below, including New Zealand’s own Paul Cleave, perhaps the most warped mind in NZ.   It’s an  honour and privilege for me to do this. Many thanks to Grant Nicol and Craig, for all the work they’ve put into organising the festival.

The author’s titles in poems

In order of output, here are the first three authors on that panel. They’ve written enough novels for me to put each of their titles into a slightly creepy poem.

Alex Gray – 16 crime stories

As The Riverman counted Five ways to kill a man, he heard a Small weeping, Shadows of sound in the Still dark.

It was The darkest Goodbye when he carved  A pound of flesh from The Stalker, delivering a Glasgow Kiss and a warning to Keep the midnight out.

In Pitch black, he crept to the Swedish girl, The bird that did not sing  whispering, Sleep like the dead, as Only the dead can tell youNever be somewhere else.


Michael Robotham – 13 crime stories

Don’t close your eyes
The other wife said
I know The secrets she keeps.
You think your marriage is Bombproof
But it’s The Wreckage of us all.

Say you’re sorry my love, or, when I’m Lost off The night ferry, you will Bleed for me and she will be Watching  you. Your life will Shatter in a Life or death struggle when you become The suspect in her death.


Paul Cleave – ten crime stories

Trust No one The cleaner thought.

But The Blood Men were Collecting Cooper and they would take him to  The Laughterhouse on Cemetery Lake.

So  Joe Victim knew The killing hour was near and he’d have his Five minutes alone 

Before The killer harvest began.


Kati Hiekkapelto – 3 crime stories

Kati has written three  highly acclaimed novels. Her Anne Fekete series, including The Hummingbird, The Defenceless and The Exiled have been translated into eighteen languages and two were shortlisted for the Petrona Award in the UK. The Defenceless won Best Finnish Crime Novel of the Year, and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Glass Key.

I look forward to reporting back on the festival soon.

Happy reading.






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.

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