The Bone Ranger by Louisa Bennet

‘The big secret is that dogs pretend to be dumb so that hoomans don’t feel threatened.’

This is the second time I’ve met Monty and his human companion, Detective Constable Rose Sidebottom. My first encounter was only a short one (‘When the Chips Are Down’) but it had me intrigued. In ‘The Bone Ranger’, Monty and Rose become entangled in both a murder investigation and a series of dog-nappings.

‘I sniff two warning wee-mails.

Dogs are disappearing. Stay home, stay safe.

He who must not be named is back! Be vigilant.’

Rose is on sick leave, and while she wants to return to work, she is having trouble complying with the medical fitness requirements. Monty, who loves Rose dearly, has his patience tested when Rose insists on washing his yellow toy duck. Hoomans just do not understand:

‘At least my bed carries my doggy aroma. The smells that come with me to bed at night are the memories of that day and they rub off on the bed cover. When I sniff my bed, all those memories come flooding back. Wash my bed and the result is olfactory amnesia. A terrible affliction.’

But back to the case of The Bone Ranger. Monty can enlist help from his friends Betty the rat and Nigel the squirrel. Dante the magpie also helps with aerial surveillance. If only Rose could understand when Monty tries to share some of the clues with her! [We hoomans can be so slow, as my own late doggy companion Sir Bruce the Battle Rat could have attested. Sir Bruce, a Jack Russell Terrier, would have loved to assist Monty, although he may not have been quite so keen on Betty.]

And poor Rose. While she can tell whether someone is telling the truth (or not) it is hard for her to help when she’s been directed not to. But our intrepid detectives are not deterred, and together after a misadventure or two, they sniff out the culprits.

I really enjoyed this novel: wondering whether Rose would make the breakthrough she needed and hoping that Monty could communicate the information he received from his wide network of advisers and informers. After all, lives are at stake!

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Bad Habits by Sarah Evans

Meet Detective Inspector Eve Rock. Her festive season is not going according to plan. After her house and other prized possessions were blown up, she has had to move in with her mother, Sister Immaculata in St Immaculata’s School for Girls in Nedlands, Perth. Eve’s daughter Chastity is also living there, and things are a little tense. Sister Immaculata is not happy, Chastity is developing a crush on a man who is possibly her brother and Eve cannot decide which of her two police colleagues Quinn Fox and his son Adam she prefers. Oh, and Eve invited her father Henry Talbot as well.

To escape the toxic tension, Eve arranges a callout with her sergeant. She arranges for Adam and Quinn Fox to be called out as well. But Eve’s strategic escape from family simply signifies the beginning of a rollercoaster ride. There’s crime aplenty to investigate: a freezer full of body parts, a jewellery theft, and a body in a skip. And Eve is seriously avoiding telling Chastity who her father is.

So, where did the body parts come from? Who stole the jewels, and what is Sister Immaculata hiding? Can Eve finally make a choice between Adam and Quinn? And who are the mysterious people hanging around the school at night? Eve falls out with Chastity, meets some fairly creepy people and avoids death in three car accidents in which she is deliberately targeted.

While I will never look at body art quite the same way again, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and have added the first in the series to my reading list. Who knew that investigating crime could be so complicated and so full of laugh out loud moments? Poor Eve, I do hope that her hair grows back:

‘ […]my hair had been singed so badly I’d had to shave it off so that I now resembled an orange bog brush.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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My father the murderer: a reckoning with the past by Nina Young and Denise Young

 ‘Was it even possible to truly know who you are if you didn’t understand where you came from?’

This is Nina Young’s story, of an uncomfortable search for the truth about her estranged father, Allan Ladd. This is also Denise Young’s story, about how she became involved with Allan Ladd, why she left him and the challenges afterwards.

This book arose out of a six-part podcast series in which Nina told her story. But as Nina writes, the podcast did not answer everything. The book came about, in Nina’s words ‘… as a way for us [Nina and Denise] to bond as we searched for the last pieces of the emotional puzzle that is our lives.’

The chapters of the book alternate between Nina and Denise. Nina writes of her shock at discovering that her father had strangled a woman to death, Denise writes of how she fell in love with Allan while working as a tutor at the gaol in which he was imprisoned. Denise fled from Allan when Nina was very young and worked hard to establish a new life. But Allan cast a long shadow over their lives: another murder, a half-brother who needed a home. Nina’s search for truth was uncomfortable and confronting, Denise found the process difficult and liberating. The two of them became closer as a consequence.

This is a well-written and moving account of what must have been a very difficult journey for both women. Denise may have been reluctant to revisit the past, but she found the courage to do so. And Nina? What a complicated story she had to unpack. Learning that your father was a murderer would be challenging enough, but to search through the past for the truth, to find the details must have been overwhelming.

A courageous journey by both women, through a past full of psychological minefields, hopefully to a more comfortable future.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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Reasonable Doubt  by Dr Xanthé Mallett

‘The effects of wrongful convictions impact us all.’

Dr Xanthé Mallett is a forensic scientist and criminologist who has been based in Sydney since 2013. In this book, she looks at six specific cases where justice has failed. In five cases, men have been convicted of murder and have served time in prison. In each of these cases, there was a miscarriage of justice. I think that the most important points Dr Mallett makes are that miscarriages of justice can take many forms, and the criminal justice system does not always deliver justice.

‘We mostly forget about the wrongly accused and convicted when we think about victims of crime, but in this book I want to highlight some of their stories, because if it could happen to them it could happen to anybody.’

Staying with the first five cases, Dr Mallett demonstrates how the criminal justice system failed in each case. From false confessions and poor police work to contaminated evidence, from unreliable eyewitness accounts to dubious expert advice: there are many causes of failure. There are expert inserts included which provide additional information about legal procedures and forensic evidence. In two of the cases, involving an Aboriginal man and a man of Ethiopian heritage, racism seems to be a factor. Assumptions feed sloppy policework in one case, witness misidentification based on race seems a factor in the other.

Reading through each of these first five cases: Wayne Butler; Kevin Condren; Andrew Mallard; Henry Keogh and Khalid Baker is an eye-opener. I wondered how any of these men could have been convicted (found guilty beyond reasonable doubt) based on the information presented to the court. And then I remembered that what I was reading and what the jury had available to them were not the same.

The sixth case Dr Mallett covers is very different. This is the case of the infamous Lawyer X, Nicola Gobbo. This woman defended many of the criminals involved in Melbourne’s gangland war. While she was defending them, she was feeding information to the police about their criminal activities. She may also have been feeding information back to her clients about police activities. And so, it would seem that at least some of Ms Gobbo’s clients were denied a fair trial. Sigh. At least one client, Tony Mokbel, has appealed against his conviction. The implications for the Victoria Police Force are huge, and undoubtedly Ms Gobbo will be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life.

I found this book disturbing, informative and thought-provoking and would recommend it to anyone interested in criminal justice.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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Who Sleuthed It? Lindy Cameron (Editor)

‘I am smug, snug and contented.’

I feel confident that I can say, after sharing my life with him for almost 17 years, that the late, great, Sir Bruce the Battle Rat would have loved these stories. Sir Bruce, an inquisitive Jack Russell, solved more than a few mysteries during his time on this earth. Alas, he was not always impartial. Sir Bruce as quick to blame any cat within range for any misdemeanour as well as his younger companion, Max, also known as Sir Other Little Dog. Max, a Tenterfield Terrier who lived to the great age of 17 years and 6 months, was suspicious of all other creatures. He’d have made a great detective. So, in my home, dogs ruled. Now that I’ve made that clear (channelling Sir Bruce and Max) I can move onto the stories in this delightful collection.

Lindy Cameron has edited a collection of nineteen different stories featuring an eclectic collection of animal heroes. Sir Bruce would be shocked to think that cats could be heroes but would be delighted to hear about a weredog. I, as the responsible human trying to be objective, loved Fin J Ross’s story about Mrs Hudson’s cats: Sherlock, and Watson. And I particularly enjoyed the role played by the little penguin in Meg Keneally’s story about the bubonic plague in Sydney in 1900.

Other stories include hawks, rats, mice, pigs, foxes, chipmunks, bears, spiders, and Great Horned Owls. Their roles differ: some actively solve crimes; others act as intermediaries. I enjoyed watching the stories unfold, seeing the part each protagonist had to play in solving the crime.

If you like animals, if you enjoy whimsical stories then you may enjoy this as much as I did. Although crime is the focus, these are gentle stories. And I really must mention the beautiful cover and illustrations by Judith Rossell.

While I am familiar with other work by seven of the authors (Fin J Ross, Kerry Greenwood, Lindy Cameron, Kerry Greenwood, LJM Owen, Meg Keneally and Narrelle M Harris), I’ve added the other authors to my reading list (Atlin Merrick, Chuck McKenzie, CJ McGumbleberry, Craig Hilton, David Greagg, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, GV Pearce, Jack Fennell, Kat Clay, Livia Day, Louisa Bennet, Tor Roxburgh and Vikki Petraitis).

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Traffic by Robin Gregory

‘After that case, I’d sworn I’d never investigate another homicide. If only I’d remembered.’

Meet Private Investigator Sandi Kent. Sandi works in Melbourne, where she supplements her PI income by teaching swimming to children twice a week. She’s on her way home from one of those swimming sessions in December when her ‘phone rings. Her friend lawyer, Maria Luisetto, wants her to find out more information about a client she is defending, Ricardo Lopez, who has been charged with the murder of a sex worker. There are inconsistent witness statements, a few complicating issues and Sandi is initially reluctant.

‘If my lack of money hadn’t been such an issue right now, I would have waved adiós amiga.’

Sandi then takes on another case, after meeting up with her volatile ex-girlfriend Cassy Joynson. It has been seven years, and Sandi wonders why Cassy has contacted her. She soon finds that Cassy wants Sandi’s help to rescue a young woman who is being held as a prisoner in a Melbourne brothel. Can Sandi help?

Meeting Cassy brings the past back to Sandi. Memories of failed relationships and hopes for the future. And then a reminder that it is December, and a family Christmas needs to be negotiated with her sister Iris and their mother.

Sandi is smart, strong, brave, instinctive, and impulsive. She will need all her skills if she is to negotiate the dangerous reefs of Melbourne’s underworld to get the information she needs. Sandi quickly finds that there is more to Ricardo’s case than she thought, and several people are in danger. And rescuing the young sex worker will not be easy. Her friend Stewart Wright helps: teamwork at its best!

This is a fast-moving story, with a plenty of tension and more than a threat of violence. While everyday Melbourne provides the setting, an underworld of human trafficking, drugs and murder is where much of the action takes place. The story held my attention from beginning to end. Sandi is an engaging character, her friendship with Stewart is terrific, and I hope to read more Sandi Kent mysteries.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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Billings Better Bookstore and Brasserie by Fin J Ross

‘She was alone.’

Meet Miss Fidelia Knight.  She set out from England with her parents on the SS Great Britain and arrived in Melbourne in 1874.  Alone, except for half of Samuel Johnson.  Fidelia takes refuge at night in the fabulous Coles Book Arcade in Bourke Street.  Here, surrounded by books, she takes refuge in words.  But Fidelia’s rest in Coles Book Arcade is interrupted by a man puzzling over words (in alphabetical order).

Over twenty-six wonderful chapters, an A to Z of life through words, we travel with Fidelia as she meets several wonderful (mostly) characters and changes their lives.  First, she starts with Jasper Godwin.  He is the manager of the new Billings Better Bookstore and he is really struggling to prepare for the opening: how can he catch the attention of potential customers?

Fidelia calls him Quandary Man.

‘Could she be Quandary Man’s muse?  Would he thank her for her effort?  Or begrudge her presumptuousness?

A

Amelia Audacious Admonished an Amateur Abecedarian and Absconded with an Antediluvian Aardvark,

After Adjourning for an Arousing Absinthe at Billings Better Bookstore and Cafeteria.

Did she Absolutely?  She did indeed!’

And this is just the beginning.  Fidelia loves words.  Her enthusiasm helps Jasper Godwin, and Mr Billings who is also in a position to help others.  Where others see problems, Fidelia sees possibilities.  But there is one mystery she would like to solve: what happened to her parents?

What a word feast this novel is!  The superb cover and illustrations are by Judith Rossell and they are a perfect complement to the story.  I discovered new words, met some old favourites, and loved the alliteration. Fidelia’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and her enthusiasm enables her to teach others.  There are some unexpected twists in the story, and a very satisfying ending. 

Every one of the twenty-six chapters opens alliteratively.  My favourite today is x.

X

Xavier Xerxes, a Xenodochial Xenagogue, used Xyston and Xiphos

To eXtricate himself from a Xanthippe aboard his Xebec,

In an eXotic display at

Billings Better Bookstore and Brasserie

Did he Xenially?  He did indeed!’

A rewarding read. A read to return to.  Really.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor2020

Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic

‘Great art can make even the most important person seem insignificant – and I’m not important by any means.’

Art dealer Alex Clayton is both thrilled and nervous to be previewing the Melbourne International Museum of Art (MIMA)’s latest exhibition: Masterpieces of Victorian Britain.  Alex is thrilled because of the art, nervous because she has some unpleasant memories from the time she spent working there.  She and her friend, conservator John Porter, meet and make their way into MIMA.  They are present when, as a large painting is being unpacked, one of the packers collapses and damages the reportedly cursed painting.  The packer is taken to hospital.

Meredith Buchanan, a senior conservator, is to repair the work.  But when she dies, less than twenty-four hours later in an apparent suicide, John Porter is asked to supervise the repairs.  Was Meredith also a victim of the reputed curse?

The conservation studio is now a crime scene, but there is something strange about the scene.  There is a splash of paint: a vivid crimson which is not a colour on the painting to be restored.  And then Alex discovers a torn-up photograph.  The police dismiss the photograph as irrelevant, but something is not right, and Alex and John are determined to investigate.  Their amateur investigations lead them into some tight spots while their knowledge of art leads them to some worrying conclusions.  Alex is offered a job at MIMA, which complicates matters. 

This novel is the second in Ms Kovacic’s Alex Clayton Art Mystery series.  We were introduced to the characters of Alex and John in ‘The Portrait of Molly Dean’, and they are further developed here.  They are good friends, have been for years, even though John’s jealous wife does her best to keep them apart.

Ms Kovacic works some interesting technical detail (about the behind the scenes work of art museums and the restoration of damaged paintings) into the story.  But the real focus is on the death of Meredith.  If she did not commit suicide, who killed her and why?  And what is the significance of the crimson paint?   

The various pieces come together in a satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this novel.  The story and the setting held my attention, as did the working relationship and history between Alex and John.  I especially liked Alex’s Irish wolfhound Hogarth. 

I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series shortly.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor 2020

#SistersinCrime Aust

Death on the Derwent: Sue Neill-Fraser’s story by Robin Bowles

‘The facts and rumours surrounding the event have polarised the close-knit Hobart community.’

On the night of 26 January 2009, Bob Chappell went missing from his yacht Four Winds and was never seen again.  The yacht had been moored near the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania’s marina in the Derwent River.  Bob Chappell had intended to spend the night on the yacht and was found to be missing the next morning. 

Bob Chappell’s body has never been found.

‘The police were investigating a murder with no body, no weapon, no witnesses and no confession.’

In 2010, Sue Neill-Fraser, his life partner of 18 years was found guilty of his murder and sentenced to 26 years imprisonment.  There have been several appeals, and in March 2020 Ms Neill-Fraser gained leave for a second appeal against her conviction.  This appeal has not yet been scheduled (as of 25 July 2020) because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Ms Bowles sets out the story in three parts: the disappearance of Bob Chappell; a summary of the way the case was dealt with by the legal system; and the ongoing challenging of the legal system in this case.

Before reading this book, I knew little about the Sue Neill-Fraser case.  While I appreciate the amount of detail and background information that Ms Bowles has included, it took me a while to adjust to her writing style.  For example, initially Ms Bowles’s referring to her connections to Tasmania, of knowing ‘who’s who in the zoo’ seemed irrelevant but I soon realised that it was part of her scene-setting, of describing the environment in which events took place.  I do not necessarily share all of her conclusions (I am an expatriate Tasmanian with no establishment ties), but I think her observations are relevant.

We may never know what happened to Bob Chappell, but I am gobsmacked that Ms Neill-Fraser was convicted of murder on the case made by the prosecution.  While I do not necessarily agree that:

‘When you go into court, you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.’

I do have concerns about the way the case was presented and can only hope that the most recent appeal is successful.  Usually, when reading books about true crimes, there is an outcome.  In this case there is not.  Yet.  Ms Neill-Fraser is still in gaol, is still awaiting a determination of her appeal. Ms Bowles started her investigations in 2015, and when this book was published wrote:

‘So that’s it, really.  My job is done.  I never expected this story to cover this many years and still not have an ending.’

I finished this book dissatisfied, not with the book, but with the process surrounding Ms Neill-Fraser’s conviction. I will be extremely interested in following the appeal which hopefully will be heard later this year.  The appeal hearing has been delayed by COVID-19 restrictions: Ms Neill-Fraser’s legal team are based in Melbourne.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor2020

#SistersinCrime Aust