TagMark McGinn

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: https://www.amazon.com/November-Road-Novel-Lou-Berney/dp/0062874756

You won’t be disappointed.

Rousing Rotorua Noir

A festival with the X factor.

The kiwi no 8 fencing wire and oily rag didn’t get in the way of Rotorua Noir delivering a well- planned and staged event, the first of its type in New Zealand, (Kia Ora Grant Nicol and Craig Sisterson). It was a huge success and our international author guests were excited to support us. From the hugely popular creative writing classes delivered by NZ’s modern-day Queen of Crime, to the fantastic welcome on

Paul Cleave’s comedic attempt at asking questions

Te Papaiouru Marae, to the panels and interviews where authors talked about their writing lives and their books, to the literary quiz on Saturday night to the Haere Ra/farewell on Sunday, this event had the X factor.

Many of the attending authors had been to a lot of similar events around the world but all concluded this one at Rotorua was special for them. Perhaps because it was limited to eighty people (sold out 3 months before the day) perhaps it was the tenth anniversary of the Ngaio Marsh crime awards, perhaps it was because people were able to meet up or reconnect with Craig Sisterson – founder of New Zealand’s crime award, or talk to other writers they admired, or the willingness of people to generously share their time. Perhaps it was all of those reasons, and more, that made the event special. To quote from Denis the erudite legal luminary in the great movie The Castle, ‘There’s no one section. It’s just the vibe of the thing.’

International author panel

I was given the honour of chairing the last panel, a panel of international best-selling crime authors: Alex Gray, Michael Robothom, Paul Cleave and Kati Hekkapelto.

Paul Cleave, Michael Robotham,Alex Gray, Kati Hekkapelto and Mark McGinn

Naturally, I’d done a bit of prep for this, but I had a bit of an “all is lost moment” when I realised that with all the panels and interviews before me, a lot of the material I intended to use had been discussed. And because those events had been well attended, more of the same may not have been a fitting finale. I had to quickly rethink my approach.


Authors put on trial

After introducing myself I told the audience I wanted to involve them differently -they would be a jury and the four accused with me on stage faced two criminal counts. First, they were charged with the wilful infliction of psychological torture of readers, causing said readers to disassociate from their normal world of reality. Second, they were charged with the prolonged and unreasonable detention of readers, holding them in suspense before allowing cathartic release.

I continued my opening address for the prosecution to alert them that they were not the only people to be accused of these crimes and that at an appropriate time, His Honour Justice Sisterson would try the co-offending publishers at a later date. I acknowledged that in respect of the normal order of trial events, this one was unusual in that they’d already heard character evidence given for three of the accused. About that evidence, I said, ‘You may well think that the witness Jackie Collins on behalf of Gray and Hekkapelto and the witness JP Pomare on behalf of Robotham were sincere in the praise and encouraging testimonies of the accused. But I submit they were naive and misguided as will be demonstrated when the accused answer my questions.’

I administered an oath to the collective accused that they would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I proceeded to cross examine each of them, drawing out the following behaviours, all of which they had admitted to on different occasions to give credibility to the charges:

Some confessions from the witness box

Alex Gray – when she was a former Scotland employee of the Department of Health and Social Services, Alex helped (in her words) “wide boys, chancers, and parents who drank their kids’ school uniform money.” She admitted this and the fact she was scoping for writing material and victim hunting. After 16 books she was clearly the ringleader of this gang of writing reprobates.


Michael Robothom – admitted trying to muscle in on an IRA money launderer but claimed he was only doing his job at the time, as a journalist. He admitted it was unusual for a journo to be abducted by men in balaclavas, and dumped at an airport and instructed to go home. Robotham also admitted consorting with a convicted murderer and at the time, one of Australia’s most wanted men. His plea in mitigation was that he identified the man to police and gave evidence against him. He was unable to say whether Joe O’Loughlin, the protagonist in a series of JO’L books had forgiven him for inflicting him Parkinson’s Disease.

Paul Cleave – claimed not to remember his past due to writing a character with Alzheimer’s Disease. His book Trust No One featured a crime writer struggling with the disease trying to determine whether he’d committed crimes or just written about them). And although Cleave confessed to being a cat lover, he identified Santa Claus as a drug addict who shot himself up with heroin, killed his elves, and shredded them in a machine that made toys out of them. In his defence, he claimed to be 15 years-old when he wrote that.

Kati Hiekkapelto

Kati Hiekkapelto – from Finland, worked the jury for sympathy, repeatedly asking for an interpreter. But she could not deny attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, proceeding to a public sauna dressed only in a towel and studded belt and disguised with a beard. She objected to my characterisation that the hair was false but admitted to testing her punk lyrics on fifty sweaty, naked men and women at the time. She confessed to occasionally searching the inside of her car for serial killers.

The verdict

I warned the jury not to be swayed by Grey’s Scottish accent and her grandmotherly persona, that she could be considered the ring-leader of the group, and after writing 16 books admitted to working on another. I concluded with asking the jury to find all the accused guilty of being seriously good crime writers and to deliver their verdict accordingly. They did so without even retiring to the jury room.

Craig Sisterson

Honouring ‘His Honour’

I then asked ‘His Honour Justice’ Craig Sisterson and ‘Associate’ Grant Nicol on to the stage. The judge had no idea what was happening next. In another unorthodox trial procedure, I delivered one final address.

‘Fantastic though this inaugural festival has been and acknowledging the idea and great mahi of Grant and Craig to make it work, we cannot say Haere Ra without acknowledging the 10th anniversary of the Ngaio Marsh founded by our Craig. Craig describes himself as a lapsed lawyer and a wandering writer but whether those descriptions are just cause for the peculiarity of not owning a cell phone is a moot point. Tonight, we recognise a lion-hearted man in every sense of the word.

‘Craig, generous with your time, your support of us as crime writers and in other charitable causes, your generosity seems to know no bounds. I’m sure it hasn’t always been easy for you living in the UK when a huge part of your heart is often tugging at you from Aotearoa, a place you love deeply. We’re all so grateful to Helen and Maddie for helping keep you strong.

‘You’re the best networker I’ve ever met and the greatest promoter of and ambassador for NZ crime writers around the world. You have an indomitable spirit: you are a taonga and our Rangatira and tonight we honour you and say, Kia ora, mate.’

Justice was done

An emotional moment between the organisers, Grant Nicol and Craig.

Grant presented Craig with a greenstone adze pendant, and he responded in typical form, acknowledging and thanking Grant for making the event happen and for everyone attending and making Rotorua Noir a very special event. Then it was time for drinks and kai and a very happy group of authors invaded a Thai restaurant.

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.






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.”

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