In the Spotlight: John Daniell’s The Fixer

>In The Spotlight: Martha Grimes' The Anodyne NecklaceHello, All,

Welcome to another special edition of In The Spotlight. For many people, New Zealand just wouldn’t be New Zealand without rugby. And plenty of Kiwis are true fans of the game. So it’s only natural that there’d be at least one rugby-themed book among this year’s finalists for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. Let’s take a look at that book today, and turn the spotlight on John Daniell’s The Fixer.

Mark Stevens is a former member of New Zealand’s legendary All-Blacks. Heading towards the end of his career, he’s now playing for a French professional team, and planning for the end of his playing days.

One day, he gets word that someone wants to interview him for a magazine. That someone turns out to be Rachel da Silva, who works for a Brazilian magazine. She’s been sent to France to do an in-depth piece on rugby, its popularity, and the rugby life. Rachel is both smart and attractive, and she seems genuinely interested in getting her material, so Stevens is only too happy to meet with her.

Soon, Rachel tells Mark about a friend of hers named Philip, a wealthy man who’s apparently made quite a bit of money betting on rugby. In fact, she tells Mark that it was Philip who suggested she do the rugby story. Before long, Mark finds himself the object of Philip’s (extremely generous) gratitude, and Rachel’s (extremely personal) attention. Soon drawn in, Mark finds out that what’s at stake is betting on matches using his ‘inside information.’

The chance to shore up the future for his sister and her family (and to secure a comfortable retirement for himself) is too alluring, and Mark goes in with Rachel and Philip’s plan. Then things change. Now the plan is match-fixing, which to Mark, crosses the line. He’s very uncomfortable with the idea, and he knows what it’ll do to his reputation, both in the club and with his family. And for Mark, that matters.

The only problem is that by now, Mark is in deep, as the saying goes. What’s more, his family back home in New Zealand has been threatened. If he and his family are to come out of this intact, and if he’s to maintain any kind of integrity, he’s going to have to shake off the people who have pulled him in. And that could prove to be a fatal decision.

Rugby features heavily in this novel, and it’s an important element. Readers who understand the game and have played it will appreciate the authentic descriptions of the matches. Readers who don’t know much about rugby will find that there’s a lot of useful information about the game, and for the most part, it’s clear even to the uninitiated. Readers who dislike sport, and would rather not read about it, will notice the focus on rugby. That said, though, there’s as much emphasis on the suspense of betting on and fixing matches as there is on the game itself.

Because the novel is about rugby, there’s also some focus on the behind-the-scenes interactions among team members. There’s a unique camaraderie that comes from playing on a team, being on the road with those people, drinking with them after games, and so on. This isn’t to say that everyone’s close friends. But we do see how team members depend on each other, and how intimately they know each other in some ways.

The questions of betting and match-fixing are central to the novel, so, as you can imagine, there are some really interesting ethical questions. Most people would probably agree that betting on a sport with ‘inside information’ is at least ethically questionable. Match-fixing is, for plenty of people, even more ethically wrong. But what happens if the reason isn’t to become rich? What happens if the goal is to help family members who are in difficult financial situations? Daniell doesn’t make light of the choices that Mark makes. But we do come to understand why he makes them.

I’m not sure you could really call this a noir story, but it certainly has a few elements. For example, Mark is presented with a situation where there really is no easy, ‘correct’ alternative. Whatever he decides to do, there will be serious consequences. And things are not made all right again at the end. This isn’t one of those stories where a ‘bad guy’ is led off in handcuffs.

There’s also the character of Rachel da Silva. As is the tradition in many noir novels, you could consider her a femme fatale. On the other hand, Daniell makes it clear that she is, in her way, a victim, too. Or is she? Readers who prefer complex characters will appreciate that Rachel is neither presented as an ‘angel who’s trapped’ or an ‘evil temptress.’

Mark is from rural New Zealand, and Daniell shares that growing-up experience with readers. There are flashback scenes to his uncle’s farm, for instance, that show the reader what that life is like. Daniell uses that to explain Mark’s character, and to show his relationships with his family members. Readers who dislike flashbacks will notice this.

The rest of the story is told more or less sequentially, in present tense. Readers who have a tense preference will either appreciate or be disappointed in that choice. It’s worth noting, too, that Daniell sets the flashback scenes apart by using past tense for those, so that readers know when the different parts of the story occur.

The Fixer is an inside look at rugby, at who plays it, and what it means to the players and fans. It’s also a look at what happens when a person is faced with a set of choices that don’t really have any good outcomes. It features a skilled player who’s looking back on his career and trying to leave whatever legacy he can, and is set in the distinct context of a sport team. But what’s your view? Have you read The Fixer? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 31 October/Tuesday, 1 November – Twister – Jane Woodham

Monday 7 November/Tuesday, 8 November – Montana, 1948 – Larry Watson

Monday 14 November/Tuesday, 15 November – The Eye of Jade – Diane Wei Liang



Filed under John Daniell, The Fixer

It’s the Blackjack Blog Scavenger Hunt!

blackjack-blog-scavenger-huntIf you’ve been kind enough to read this blog lately, then you may know that my newest Joel Williams mystery, Past Tense, will be coming out on 1 November. Now, a lot of authors like to do blog tours when they have a new novel coming out. I think that’s a terrific idea, and I’ve decided to do it, too.

But this won’t be a typical blog tour, where I visit different blogs. Instead, I thought it’d be fun to do a blog scavenger hunt, so you can perhaps visit some new blogs, and so that some talented and richly-deserving blog friends of mine can get the readership they deserve.

So here it is: Your own game of Blackjack! It’s the Blackjack Blog Scavenger Hunt!

Here’s how it works.

  • I’ll give you a list of 21 clues to a few of the various blogs on my rounds.

  • All you have to do is match the clue to the right blog. I promise: All of the correct answers can be found on the blog roll on my sidebar.

  • When you’ve got all of the answers, email me (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) your list of blog titles (just the titles will be fine). That’s your entry ticket. On release 3d-past-tenseday (1 November) I’ll draw three lucky names. Each winner will receive a signed copy of Past Tense (Here’s the blurb)! If you’re a winner, I’ll send you your prize no matter where you live.


Already pre-ordered the book? First, thank you! Second, you’re still welcome to play. If you win, that’s one name crossed off your holiday list.

Rather not play? That’s perfectly fine. But I really would appreciate your passing the word along on your social media. Thank you!


Ready?  Here are your clues:


  1. This blogger/author is usually busy ‘Chasing the Cozy Thrill’

  2. This bilingual blog frequently lets readers know: Esta entrada es bilingüe, so that whether you speak Spanish or English, you’ll understand.

  3. This blog’s logo comes straight from Poe. No wonder it features ‘Criminally Good Reads.’

  4. This blog uses tips of a particular kind of hat to rate books and films.

  5. This crime writer’s blog has ‘Murder Down to a Tea.’

  6. This Aussie blog logo includes a magnifying glass and a sketched-out map of Australia.

  7. This blog tells us that ‘Bitter hot tea is the perfect companion’ to a mystery.

  8. This blog includes ‘Reviews of books…and occasional other stuff’ – including Mr. Darcy.

  9. This blog offers ‘One reader’s view’ of books – and shares its name with a famous ancient royal.

  10. This blog is a place ‘Where Mystery Writers Talk Shop,’ and gets its name from the three keys to finding a suspect guilty.

  11. On this blog, Sundays are ‘Dress Down’ days. But of course, the blog’s focus is wardrobe-oriented…

  12. This blog features the beautiful Australian Galah bird. And that makes sense, since the blogger is an Aussie.

  13. Every day’s different on this blog, which features, ‘An Eclectic Mix of Books, Writing, Crafting, Green Living and Nature.’

  14. This blog has a great feature called ‘Logging the Library.’ And it’s a criminal log…

  15. This blog features a Maya Angelou quote that ends: ‘You’ve got to go out and kick a**.’

  16. This blog is ‘A place for my mind to gather its images.’

  17. This blog’s owner just had a new novel, A Deadly Thaw, released.

  18. This blog’s theme features prairie grass, a perfect choice for a blog that comes straight from a Canadian ‘prairie province.’

  19. This blog finds time for ‘Thinking, Writing, Thinking About Writing.’

  20. The logo on this India-based blog urges us, ‘When you write, don’t just write, tell a story.’

  21. This Aussie blog features all sorts of book reviews and recipes. Even its title includes a very nice wine.


Ready to play? Have fun!!  Tell ‘em all Margot sent you!


Filed under Uncategorized

At Every Occasion I’ll be Ready For the Funeral*

funeralsAn interesting comment exchange with crime and true crime writer Vicky Blake has gotten me thinking about funerals. Now, before I go on, do pay a visit to Vicky’s excellent website, and try her work. You’ll be glad you did.

Right, funerals. It’s inevitable that, in crime fiction, there’d be plenty of crime-fictional funerals. After all, in a lot of crime novels, there’s at least one murder. Police and other sleuths can find those events quite useful, actually. Most people are killed by people they know. So, attending a funeral can give the police a good idea of how people react to the death in question. And that can give them important clues.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral. After the actual ritual, they return to the family home at Enderby, where Abernethie’s attorney, Mr. Entwhistle, prepares to read his client’s will. At that gathering, Abernethie’s youngest sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up. Even she tells everyone not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, people do begin to wonder. And when she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. Mr. Entwhistle has his own concerns, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. As it turns out, something at that funeral gathering provides an important clue. And so does something that’s said at a later gathering, where Abernethie’s family members decide which pieces of furniture and other belongings they want.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances marks the debut of her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. In that novel, up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned one afternoon when he’s about to make an important speech at a community picnic. He was a good friend and political ally of Joanne’s so she is devastated by his death. As a way to deal with her grief, she decides to write a biography of her friend, and starts to gather material. As she does, she slowly finds out what really happened to him and why. At one point, she accompanies Boychuk’s widow, Eve, to his funeral. There’s quite a police presence there, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. The purpose is, of course, to see who attends and how the different people react. It’s an interesting look at the way police use information they get from funerals.

The real action in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent begins with the funeral of Carolyn Polhemus. She worked as a prosecutor for (fictional) Kindle County before she was murdered. Because of her ties with that office, it’s extremely important that the investigation into her death be handled scrupulously and transparently. So Kindle County Prosecutor Raymond Horgan assigns his best deputy prosecutor, Rožat “Rusty” Sabich, to the case. At the funeral, Sabich notes how big the police presence is, and for good reason:

‘Killing a prosecutor is only one step short of killing a cop, and Carolyn had many friends on the force…’

Attending the funeral doesn’t give Sabich (or the reader) the answer to the question of who killed Carolyn Polhemus. But it’s interesting to see how the police react to this ‘(almost) one of their own’ funeral.

In Jane Casey’s The Burning, Met DC Maeve Kerrigan. Her team is investigating the case of a killer who tries to incinerate his victims. For that reason, the press has dubbed him ‘The Burning Man,’ and there’s a lot of pressure to solve the case quickly. And Kerrigan wants to be a part of the investigation. When the body of PR professional Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it’s believed at first that she was another victim of this serial killer. But Kerrigan isn’t completely sure. There are enough differences between Haworth’s murder and the others that it could also be a case of a ‘copycat’ killing. She’s put on the Haworth case, both to prove to the public that the police aren’t neglecting other cases, and to explore that lead if this is a ‘Burning Man’ killing. As a part of looking into the murder, Kerrigan attends Haworth’s funeral. There, she meets the victim’s parents and other people close to the victim. She also witnesses something that turns out to have some significance later in the novel.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Finger Lickin’ Dead features her sleuth, Lulu Taylor, who owns and runs Aunt Pat’s, one of Memphis’ most popular eateries. She gets drawn into a case of murder when food critic Avery Cawthorn is murdered. One of the suspects is Lulu’s friend, Evelyn Wade, so she has a personal interest in finding out the truth about the murder. And there are plenty of possibilities, too, as Cawthorn had been merciless in his criticisms, and not exactly a ‘model citizen’ in his private life, either. Several of the people involved in the case attend his funeral, and it’s interesting to see how people’s reactions to it and one another provide clues.

And that’s the thing about funerals of murder victims. As harrowing as they are for family members, they can provide interesting opportunities for the police (or other sleuths) to find out information. These are only a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, Vicky, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Band of Horses’ The Funeral.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Jane Casey, Riley Adams, Scott Turow, Vicky Blake

To a Land of Opportunity*

immigrationOne of a country’s great strengths is arguably the talent, energy and intelligence of those who immigrate. Fresh ideas and other perspectives add richness to a country. Of course, there is no need for me to detail how difficult immigration can be. And I think we’re all familiar with the all-too-true horror stories of immigrants who’ve been mistreated or worse. There are plenty of crime fiction novels that have that motif, too.

But there are also stories of immigrants who’ve made good lives in their new homes, where both they and their adopted countries have benefited. Those stories, too, are important. And in crime fiction, they allow for all sorts of character development and plot twists, too. They also reflect reality in our world, where it’s increasingly easy to move from one country to another.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is originally from Belgium. He came to England as a result of World War I, and quite frankly, hasn’t really looked back. There are things about life in Belgium that he no doubt misses; in general, though, he is content in his adopted home. Interestingly, apart from a few characters and remarks (I know, fans of Taken at the Flood), he’s been more or less accepted. He’s most definitely a foreigner, and treated differently sometimes for that reason. But he’s been accepted.

So has Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who immigrated to the United States from Montenegro when he was a young man. He’s become an American citizen, and has had a good experience in his new country. In fact, he’s grateful to the United States, and has done well.

One of the main characters in Anya Lipska’s series is Janusz Kiszka, who immigrated to London from his native Poland. Now he is a sort of ‘fixer’ in London’s Polish community. He knows how to get things done, whom to talk to, and so on. And he knows most of the other people in the community. So he proves to be very helpful to DC Natalie Kershaw. The two are very different, and certainly come from different cultural backgrounds. But they slowly learn to work together and trust each other. Kiszka is content with his Polish cultural identity. At the same time, though, he has no burning desire to return to Poland. His immigrant experience has been more or less a successful one, and he’s made a new life for himself in London.

We might say a similar thing about Gerda Klein, whom we meet in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Gerda and her husband, along with their daughter Ilse, emigrated from Leipzig, in the former East Germany, when Ilse was a child. They ended up on New Zealand’s South Island, in the small town of Alexandria, and made a good life for themselves. And New Zealand has been, in the main, welcoming to them. For that, Gerda is grateful, and she’s been more than content to stay in her adopted country, even after Germany’s reunification. Ilse, though, has a different perspective. She, too, has been treated well, and has made a good life for herself (she’s a secondary school teacher). But she was a child when the family left Leipzig, and doesn’t have the troubling memories of the Stasi (the East German secret police) that her mother has. Still, she likes New Zealand, and has done a fine job teaching. Her dedication is exactly why she starts to get concerned when one of her most promising pupils, Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. When she does come to class (which isn’t often), she doesn’t participate. And she doesn’t compete much schoolwork. Ilse grows even more worried when Serena disappears. And it turns out that she and her mother will get more drawn into what happened to Serena than either imagined.

In Three Little Pigs, Apostolos Doxiadis tells the story of the Franco family, who immigrated to New York from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco started out making a living as a shoemaker. As time went on, he and his family saved their money, adopted many American ways (they even changed their last name to Frank), and began to fit in. Ben opened his own shoe repair shop and shoe store, and the family prospered. In many ways, this family began to live what some people have called ‘the American dream.’ Everything changed when Ben got into a bar fight one night and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, who, as it turns out, was the son of a well-known criminal and member of the Mob, Tonio Lupo. This Lupo cursed the family, saying that each of Ben Frank’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, Luigi’s age when he was murdered. As we follow along with the family’s story, we see how the curse played out. We also see how that family became not Italian so much as Italian-Americans.

And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club. In that novel, which takes place in 1950’s Auckland, we are introduced to Istvan Ziegler. He left his native Hungary after World War II, wanting to make a new life for himself. After a stop in London, he learns that there’s work available on a new bridge at Auckland Harbour, and decides to go there. He has no family, and there’s nothing really keeping him in Europe, so he takes a chance. When he arrives in Auckland, he starts work on the bridge. There are moments when things are more difficult for him because he’s a foreigner. But in general, he’s treated fairly and shows by his hard work that he can do the job. And that’s what really matters. Istvan soon finds himself drawn into complex and dangerous situation when he helps a young girl, Judith Curran, recover from a (then illegal) abortion. It turns out that that act gets him involved in a case that uncovers some truly ugly things going on just under the surface of this seemingly peaceful city.

There are plenty of other stories of fictional characters who’ve immigrated successfully, and of their families (right, fans of Anthony Bidulka’s Russel Quant?). That plot point offers the author some interesting opportunities for character development as well as for a sense of place and culture. There’s only space for a few examples here (I know, fans of Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel!). Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Pogues’ Thousands are Sailing.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Apostolos Doxiadis, Jen Shieff, Paddy Richardson, Rex Stout

Takin’ Suzy to the Church Bazaar*

social-eventsFor many people, places of worship aren’t just for prayer and ritual. They also serve an important social function. People come together at church halls, synagogues, mosques and temples for films, talks, celebrations, meals, and sometimes secular events like book sales. Even those who aren’t observant sometimes enjoy the company and the social experience.

You might argue that churches and other houses of worship used to serve a more important social function than they do now. But even today, they’re important in many communities. So it’s only natural that they show up in crime fiction, too. Whether you have a set of religious beliefs or none at all, it’s hard to deny the social role of churches and other such places.

As fans know, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple lives in the village of St. Mary Mead, where the church serves important social functions. Of course the vicar leads services on Sundays, but there are also teas, craft and artwork sales and other events. And Miss Marple makes use of them all to hear the local talk, ask questions and get to know people when they’re off their guard.

We also see that side of the local church in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first in her series featuring retired English teacher Myrtle Clover. Although she’s in her eighties, Myrtle has no intention of being ‘put out to pasture.’ But her son, Red, who’s the local police chief, has other ideas. He loves his mother, but he’d like to see her take her ease, watch soap operas, and fill in crossword puzzles like other retirees. He thinks he can help her along by ‘volunteering’ her to serve on the local church’s Altar Guild, as well as signing her up for the United Methodist Women’s social group. Needless to say, Myrtle isn’t happy at all about this, and comes up with a creative way to express her disapproval. Still, she goes to the church. When she gets there, she discovers the body of real-estate developer Parke Stockard. Myrtle wants to prove that she’s not ready to be shunted aside yet, so she decides to find out who killed the victim. And she soon learns that there are plenty of possibilities. Parke was both arrogant and malicious, and had made plenty of local enemies.

Churches also serve as important social support groups. For example, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Carl Lee Hailey is arrested for the murders of Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. On the one hand, he’s clearly guilty. There are witnesses, including a sheriff’s deputy who was wounded in the incident. On the other, there’s a lot of sympathy for Hailey. The two victims had recently beaten and raped his ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, and left her for dead. Plenty of people privately think they’d have done the same thing Hailey did. Still, he’s committed murder. So Hailey asks his friend, attorney Jake Brigance to defend him. In one plot thread of the novel, the Hailey family gets a lot of social, financial, and other support from their church, even from those who have very little money themselves.

Places of worship also provide a sort of cultural as well as social connection that goes beyond the ritual. We see that, for instance, in several of Tony Hillerman’s novels. His two main protagonists are Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, both of whom are Navajo, and both of whom are members of the Navajo Tribal Police. For the Navajo Nation, gathering for ritual also involves a lot of social interaction. Traditional Navajo rituals can take several days, so there are shared meals, catching up with people one hasn’t seen, and more. Many rituals are undergone in people’s homes, but there are also events at local Navajo chapter houses. Whether the occasion is a rite of passage or a secular event, it’s an opportunity to connect with people who may be otherwise very far-flung. And for Chee and Leaphorn, these gatherings offer the chance to talk to people and find out all sorts of information.

Many synagogues have social halls where people meet for book discussions, lectures, holiday parties, or to break ritual fasts together. We see those social gatherings in Faye Kellerman’s series featuring Rina Lazarus and Detective Peter Decker. For instance, in The Ritual Bath, here’s how Rina’s son Jake describes Purim (the Feast of Esther):

‘You get to dress up in a costume and the shul [synagogue] has a big Purim party after they read the megillah [the story of Queen Esther].’

The synagogue isn’t just a place for worship, although that’s an important aspect of it. It’s also a place for social gatherings and the development of a sense of community.

In Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, we are introduced to Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government. They are called in to investigate when the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the bottom of the Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. The CPS is generally concerned with hate crimes and community relations; so, at first, there doesn’t seem a reason for the CPS to be involved. But Khattak has learned that Drayton may actually be Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal who was known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If he is, then there’s an important question of how and why Canada admitted a war criminal. There is evidence that Drayton was Krstić, so one lead for Khattak and Getty is the local Bosnian mosque. In this way, they get to know a little about the members of that community. The mosque serves not just as a place for worship for them. It also serves important social and cultural purposes.

And that’s the thing about places of worship. Apart from their importance as places for religious ritual, they also serve social and cultural functions as well. And that means they can be important for fictional sleuths.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dion DiMucci’s Written on the Subway Wall/Little Star.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Tony Hillerman, John Grisham, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Faye Kellerman, Ausma Zehanat Khan