Category Archives: Vanda Symon

We Were Sailing Away With a Cargo of Bricks*

Shipping and BoatingThe shipping and boating industries have been essential to many nations’ economies since ships were able to cross the oceans. People have made fortunes transporting cargo, and it’s been responsible for a lot of related businesses (shipbuilding, banking, and even pleasure and sport boating, just to name a few).

And if you think about it, places like cargo holds, shipping crates and boathouses are effective settings for crime fiction, too. All sorts of things can happen in those places, and they make good hiding places for bodies, weapons and clues. So it’s not surprising that we see those locations in crime fiction.

In Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask, for instance, Tom Broughton, who works for the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company, is sent down to the London docks when the Bullfinch pulls in from Rouen. There’s a valuable consignment of wine on board, and the company wants to ensure that it’s arrived in good order. As Broughton checks the various casks, he makes a horrifying discovery. Instead of wine, one of them contains the body of a young woman. Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard begins to investigate. At first the case is difficult, since the woman has no identification. But, going from the fact that the casks came from Paris, Burnley suspects she may have been French. So he travels to Paris and works with M. LeFarge of the Sûreté to find out who the woman was and how her body ended up in a shipping cask. Among other things, this is an interesting look at the way cargo was moved at the time the novel was written.

Vanda Symon’s Containment begins with the grounding of the Lauretia Express in Dunedin. The ship’s cargo ends up strewn on the beach (and some of it doesn’t even get that far), which sets off mass looting. People grab whatever they can, from clothes to furniture and more. The looting raises tensions to the point where people are fighting over the salvage. In fact, when Detective Constable Sam Shephard arrives on the scene, she tries to break up one such fight and ends up injured herself. But there’s something else about this particular cargo. When one women goes searching among the clothes, she finds a human skull. And Shephard ends up with much more to cope with than a public disturbance.

There’s also Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man. In that historical (1742) novel, Attorney and Coroner Titus Cragg works with his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, to find out who shot pawnbroker and would-be banker Philip Pimbo. As Cregg looks into the case, he learns that Pimbo had financially backed a ship called The Fortunate Isle. A few weeks before Pimbo’s death, Pimbo’s business partner, Zadok Moon, lodged a claim with the company that insured the ship, stating that the ship and all its cargo was a total loss. As it turns out, that insurance claim plays an important role in the solution to the mystery.

And it’s not just what one finds in ships’ holds and cargo containers, either. Boathouses and storage garages can also hold plenty of shipping equipment, too – and clues, as well as bodies. For instance, in Jill McGown’s A Perfect Match, DI David Lloyd and DS Judy Hill investigate when the body of Julia Mitchell is found in Thorpe Wood, a boating park near the town of Stansfield. At first, all of the evidence points to a man named Chris Wade, who was known to have been with the victim on the night of the murder. But he can’t be questioned, since he’s gone missing. And as it turns out, there are several other possibilities. So Lloyd and Hill have to untangle the messy network of relationships among the people in the victim’s life. And they find that part of the key to the mystery can be found in a boathouse.

A storage garage figures in Minette Walter’s The Breaker. One morning, two young boys discover the body of Kate Sumner on the beach near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset. Not long afterwards, her toddler daughter Hannah is found wandering the streets of nearby Poole. PC Nick Ingram, who’s first officer on the scene, works with DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who the murderer is and what happened to Hannah. The field of suspects ends up being narrowed to more or less three possibilities. So the police have to look closely into each one’s background. And part of what they learn comes from a garage that’s used to store a boat – and the evidence of other ‘business enterprises.’

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse, the first of his Lewis trilogy. In that novel, two sixteen-year-olds, Ceit and Uilleam, sneak off to a boatshed on the Isle of Lewis to find some privacy. Instead of the romantic interlude they planned, they make a gruesome discovery: the body of Angel Macritchie is hanging from the rafters. As it turns out, there’s been a killing in Edinburgh that bears similarity to this case. So Edinburgh police detective Fionnliagh ‘Finn’ Macleod makes the trip to Lewis to see if anything about this newest murder can help in solving the other. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up here. But it’s not a happy one. Along with solving the murder of Angel Mcritchie, Macleod will also have to face his past, and plenty of personal ghosts.

See what I mean? Shipping and boating are certainly crucial to a lot of economies. But safe? Peaceful? I don’t think so.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Irish Rover, attributed to J.M. Crofts.


Filed under Freeman Wills Crofts, Jill McGown, Minette Walters, Peter May, Robin Blake, Vanda Symon

Halfway Down Dominion Road*


The building in this ‘photo is Auckland’s Supreme Courthouse. It’s even more beautiful and impressive in real life than it is in the photograph. It’s also a great reminder that crime happens everywhere, including New Zealand. You wouldn’t think so, but crime happens even in a beautiful place like this. Certainly crime-fictional sorts of crime happen.

If you want a thorough, rich discussion of Kiwi crime fiction, you’ll want to go and visit Crime Watch, which is the source for all things crime-fictionally Kiwi. It’s also your stop for updates and information on the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, New Zealand’s highest award for crime writers. For now, though, let me just make mention of a few New Zealand authors who set their novels and series here.

Perhaps the most famous of New Zealand’s crime writers is Ngaio Marsh. Her Roderick Alleyn novels take place in different countries, often England. But she also wrote stories that take place in New Zealand. For example, Died in the Wool is the story of the murder of MP Florence ‘Flossie’ Flossie Rubrick. One day, she goes to one of the sheep pens on her husband’s farm to rehearse a speech she’s planning to give. She doesn’t return until three weeks later when her body turns up in a bale of wool. The victim’s nephew asks Inspector Alleyn to investigate, and he travels to New Zealand to do so. In the process of looking into the matter, he finds out that several members of Rubrick’s family had very good reasons for wanting her dead. This murder turns out to be related to espionage, and to one family member in particular.

Another crime novelist who’s gotten quite well known is Paul Cleave. In fact, Cleave won the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel for Five Minutes Alone. His debut novel, The Cleaner is set in Christchurch, where Joe Middleton works as a janitor at the police station. Unbeknownst to everyone, he is also a serial killer known as The Carver. The story is that The Carver has killed seven victims. But Middleton knows that’s not true, because he’s only killed six. He wants to find out who the ‘copycat killer’ is, so that he can frame him for the other killings, and punish him for pretending to be The Carver. It’s not going to be as easy as it seems, though…

Paddy Richardson’s novels are also set in New Zealand. Her novels Traces of Red and Cross Fingers feature Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. In the first, Thorne begins to suspect that Connor Bligh, who is in prison for murdering his sister, her husband, and their son, might be innocent. If he is, this is the story that could ensure her place at the top of New Zealand TV journalism. So she starts asking questions and looking into the case again. As time goes on, she finds herself getting closer to the case than is safe. In Cross Fingers, Thorne investigates the thirty-year-old death of a man who dressed up as a lamb and entertained crowds during the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand. That tour was controversial, and there were many, many protests and reports of police abuse of power; so at the time, not a lot of attention was paid to the death of one person. But Thorne finds it an interesting angle, and uncovers an unsolved murder. Richardson’s standalone novels, Hunting Blind and Swimming in the Dark, are set on New Zealand’s South Island.

So is Vanda Symon’s series featuring Constable Samantha ‘Sam’ Shephard, who works with the Mataura Police. Along with the crimes she investigates, she has to deal with a difficult boss, family strain, and, in Overkill, being suspected of murder. But she has plenty of grit and determination; and, despite the fact that she doesn’t always play ‘by the book’ she’s a skilled detective.

Paul Thomas’ Tito Ihaka novels are mostly set in Auckland. Ihaka is a Māori police detective with his own way of solving cases. In Guerrilla Season, his first outing, Ihaka wants to investigate a series of deaths claimed by extremists called Aotearoa People’s Army. Ihaka isn’t sure they’re responsible, though, and starts to dig deeper. This gets him into trouble with his superiors, though, and he’s taken off that case and put onto a case of suspected blackmail. When that proves to be related, it’s clear that Ihaka has uncovered something much more than he’d suspected.

Bev Robitai’s Theatre Mysteries are also set in Auckland, at the Regent Theatre. In Murder in the Second Row, and Body on the Stage, Robitai combines murder with a look backstage at the way stage productions are planned, created, rehearsed and executed (yes, pun intended 😉 ) Readers also get to know some of the people outside the theatre who make those productions possible.

Under the pseudonym of Alix Bosco, Greg McGee has written two novels, Cut and Run and Slaughter Falls, featuring Auckland legal researcher Anna Markunas. In the first, she helps defend a young man accused of killing a rugby star. In the second, she investigates a series of deaths among a New Zealand tour group that’s visiting Brisbane. It’ll be interesting to learn if another Anna Markunas novel will be released.

And then there’s Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe novels. Rowe is a Wellington missing person expert who’s called in to identify twenty-five-year-old remains in Surrender. In My Brother’s Keeper, ex-convict Karen Mackie hires Rowe to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny. As Rowe learns, Mackie was in prison for trying to kill Sunny, so the dilemma in this case is a real one.

There are plenty of other New Zealand writers, such as Cat Connor and Andrew Grant, who set their novels elsewhere. For a small country, Kiwi crime fiction leaves quite a footprint…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Mutton Birds’ Dominion Road.


Filed under Alix Bosco, Andrew Grant, Bev Robitai, Cat Connor, Donna Malane, Greg McGee, Ngaio Marsh, Paddy Richardson, Paul Cleave, Paul Thomas, Vanda Symon

Anything You Want, You Got It*

Standalones and seriesMany crime fiction authors choose to write series (some in fact write more than one series). Other crime writers opt for standalones. And of course there are good reasons for each choice. There are also authors who do both. There are some challenges when an author writes both series and standalones. The author has to make the standalone distinctive enough to have its own character. At the same time, fans of a series likely chose it because of its unique ‘personality.’ So the author has to maintain the quality of the series. That includes characters, setting, type of plot, and even things such as marketing choices. Some authors have made it work though.

For instance, Agatha Christie is well known for her novels featuring Hercule Poirot, and for her novels featuring Miss Marple. Fans will know that she also wrote a series featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, as well as some stories featuring Parker Pyne. But she also wrote several standalones, and they’ve been just as well regarded as her series. To give one example, there’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, ten people gather on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Each received an invitation or offer of employment and for different reasons, each accepted. After dinner on the first night, everyone is shocked when each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. Not long after those accusations, one of the guests dies of poison. Late that night there’s another death. And then, one by one, there are other murders. It’s clear now that someone lured everyone to the island and that if the survivors are to stay alive, they have to find out who’s behind it all.

Tony Hillerman fans will know that he created the Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series featuring members of the Navajo Tribal Police. That series takes place in the US Southwest and its focus is often the Navajo Reservation. But Hillerman also wrote a standalone Finding Moon, which takes place in 1975. In that novel, Malcolm ‘Moon’ Mathias, managing editor for a Colorado newspaper, finds out that his mother has collapsed in the waiting room at Los Angeles International Airport and has been rushed to a nearby hospital. At first, Moon is stunned. His mother lives in Miami; what would she have been doing in LA, and where was she going? He discovers that, unbeknownst to him, his mother was planning a trip to Southeast Asia. Then he learns the reason for the trip: she was going to recover the body of his brother Ricky, who died there. What’s more, Ricky left behind a daughter, and Moon’s mother was going to try to find her. With his mother incapacitated, Moon takes on the task himself. He’s hoping to find out more about the brother he only thought he knew, and he wants to do something to mend his troubled relationship with his mother. In the process of looking for his niece, Moon finds out quite a lot about life in Cambodia and Vietnam. He also finds out quite a lot about himself. Although there’s plenty of suspense in this novel, as well as atmosphere and setting, it’s not a crime novel in the sense that Hillerman’s series is.

Ruth Rendell is very well-known for her Inspector Reg Wexford series. It’s highly regarded and popular. But Rendell fans know that she’s also written many standalones both under her own name and under her Barbara Vine pen name. And some of those standalones are at least as highly regarded as her series. For example, A Judgement in Stone is the story of the wealthy and educated Coverdale family. In the novel, George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman as their housekeeper without giving her background a very thorough check. All goes well enough at first, but what the Coverdales don’t know is that their new housekeeper has a secret. When one of the family members accidentally discovers that secret, there are tragic consequences. This novel is often thought of as one of Rendell’s best.

C.J. Box is perhaps best known for his Joe Pickett series. Pickett is a game warden in rural Wyoming, and many of the novels focus on the interplay of development, ecological and local interests. There are also plots that focus on Pickett’s family within the context of larger mysteries. Box took a different approach with his standalone Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. That novel, which takes place in Denver, features Jack and Melissa McGuane. They’re the loving adoptive parents of baby Angelina. Everything begins to fall apart for them when they learn that Angelina’s biological father Garrett Moreland never waived his parental rights, and now intends to exercise them. Garrett’s father is powerful Judge John Moreland, who at one point tries to persuade the McGuanes to give up Angelina in return for financial and court support for them to adopt another child. The McGuanes refuse this fairly obvious attempt at a bribe, and the Morelands move from bribes to threats. The McGuanes are given twenty-one days to relinquish custody of Angelina or face prosecution. The McGuanes choose to do whatever it takes to keep their daughter, with no idea of how far ‘whatever it takes’ will actually take them.

Vanda Symon has also written both a series and standalones. Her series features Samantha ‘Sam’ Shephard of the Dunedin Police. In Overkill, The Ringmaster, Containment and Bound, we follow her career as she works her way up, sometimes against very difficult odds, to Detective. The series is well-regarded; Bound, for instance, was shortlisted for New Zealand’s 2012 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Symon has also written a standalone, The Faceless, which was shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh award in 2013. In that novel, the fates of three unhappy characters come together when one ill-advised tryst gets out of control. This story takes place in Auckland and doesn’t involve any of the ‘regulars’ from the Sam Shephard series. But it’s well-thought-of in its own right.

The same is true of Geoffrey McGeachin’s work. He’s written three novels featuring Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin. Beginning with The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947, each novel takes place ten years after the previous one. So we get to see how Berlin evolves over time, and how his family life and his life as a cop changes as society does. Before the Berlin series though, McGeachin wrote a standalone Fat, Fifty and F***ed, which features bank manager Martin Carter. As the story begins, Carter’s been made redundant at his job. As if that’s not enough, his marriage has fallen apart. On his last day of work, Carter can’t resist the chance to get his hands on a million-dollar payroll. He escapes in a stolen police 4WD, and that’s just the beginning of his adventures.  This novel is different in tone to the Berlin novels, and of course, with different characters. Yet both the Berlin series and this standalone have been very well-received.

It isn’t easy for an author to pull off both a well-done series and an equally solid standalone, but there are some out there. Which ones have you liked best? If you’re a series author, do you stick with that series, or do you include standalones?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s You Got It.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Geoffrey McGeachin, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman, Vanda Symon

You’re in My Mind All the Time*

AnzacDayToday (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) is Anzac Day. It’s a day set aside to thank and commemorate the men and women of Australia and New Zealand’s armed forces. They have served, and continue to serve, with distinction and bravery.

I’m neither an Australian nor a New Zealander. So why am I setting time aside for Anzac Day? One reason is that I am a world citizen. I know (at least a little) about the role the ANZAC forces have played in world history since WWI. Their bravery and sacrifice has helped keep me and my countrymen and women safe. There is no way to properly express gratitude for that. But you can at least learn a bit about it.

You can learn about the ANZAC forces here and here.


There’s another reason for which I set time aside for Anzac Day. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to both NZcountries. During my travels I’ve met some truly fine people. They’ve hosted me generously and treated me kindly, and I’ve made some good friends. I’ve had some memorable conversations about everything from politics to sport to film to education to social issues. And books. Of course, books. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve seen some amazing things. I’ve petted kangaroos, ‘toured’ Auckland from 328m up in the air, and seen some spectacular scenery. And that’s just the start!   All of this has been courtesy of people who wouldn’t want a fuss made about how kind they’ve been. But I remember.

AusRoosI’ve made some good online Australian and New Zealand friends too – friends I’ve not yet met in person. I hope that will change. We’ve had wonderful conversations about writing, books, and lots of other topics, too, and I’ve learned an awful lot. To all of you, thanks for reaching out.

So yes, I take some time on Anzac Day. I owe a lot, on many levels, to the good people of Australia and New Zealand. Here’s to you all!



Have you read these Australian authors?


Y.A. Erskine

Sulari Gentill 

Robert Gott

Katherine Howell

Adrian Hyland

Wendy James

Geoffrey McGeachin

Andrew Nette

Michael Robotham

Angela Savage

Peter Temple

David Whish-Wilson

Felicity Young


Australian Blogs You’ll Want to Follow



Australian Women Writers Challenge

The Crayon Files

Fair Dinkum Crime

Mysteries in Paradise

Reactions to Reading

Reading, Writing and Riesling


Have you read these New Zealand authors?


Cat Connor

Neil Cross

Donna Malane

Ngaio Marsh

Paddy Richardson

Bev Robitai

Grant Shanks (Andrew Grant)

Vanda Symon

Paul Thomas


New Zealand Blogs You’ll Want to Follow


Beattie’s Book Blog

Booksellers New Zealand

Crime Watch

The Crayon Files

NZ Book Lovers  


Give a little back. Support an Australian author. Support a New Zealand author. And let’s all of us be grateful for the way the Anzac forces have supported us.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Snapper’s Gentle Hour, also recorded by The Clean. Later, Yo La Tengo recorded a version of it too. Listen to all of the versions and see which you like best.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Andrew Grant, Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Bev Robitai, Cat Connor, David Whish-Wilson, Donna Malane, Felicity Young, Geoffrey McGeachin, Grant Shanks, Katherine Howell, Michael Robotham, Neil Cross, Ngaio Marsh, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, Vanda Symon, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover…*

Covers…Or can you? It’s a fact of life for the book-lover that there are far more good books to read than there is budget or time to read them. That means that most of us have to pick and choose among the many offerings. In some cases the choice is easy. We all have a list of authors whose work we look for and buy eagerly. And sometimes we get recommendations from people we trust. That makes it fairly easy to choose a book too. But what about the rest of the great books out there? What makes a reader pick up and flip through Book A as opposed to Book B? One answer is…the book’s cover. Covers aren’t the only basis of course on which we decide whether to read something or not, but they can really influence our decision.

For example, covers can give the reader a lot of information about the sub-genre of a crime fiction novel. Cosy mysteries tend to have covers that are quite different to the covers you see on other kinds of crime fiction. Just take a peek at these two examples. On the left is the cover of Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence, which features retired art expert Beatrice Coleman. Just a quick look will tell a reader that this is a cosy novel. There’s no violence depicted on the cover and it’s got a ‘folksy’ look to it. Now take a look at the cover to the right, of Vanda Symon’s The Faceless. Without knowing anything about the plot or characters you can tell right away that it’s a darker novel and most likely not a cosy.

quilt or innocThe-Faceless-13108015-5

You’ll notice something else too I’ll bet about the cover of The Faceless. It’s done in attention-getting shades of black and red. Of course the purpose is to set it off from other novels. That’s part of the reason for which the covers of my two novels (Check my sidebar to see what I mean) have so much red in them. Same point.

One of thegarnethill-cover_custom-747c30ad0b7854591d77bb8ca99505d5dd280edd-s6-c10 other things a useful book cover does is tell the reader something about the story. In fact I know several book lovers who get very cranky if the book cover doesn’t reflect the story. Here for example is the cover of Denise Mina’s Garnethill. The real action in that story begins when Glasgow ticket-taker Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell wakes up after a long night of drinking only to find the body of her former boyfriend Douglas Brady in her living room. Brady’s body is tied to a chair, and although the cover isn’t ‘busy’ you can tell something about the story just by looking at it.

You see the same thing on this cover of Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. There’ve actually been several covers for that particular novel, but what works for this one (at least in my opiniolullaby-town-robert-crais-cd-cover-artn, so do feel free to differ with me if you do) is that it gives a powerful message of what the story is about. In Lullaby Town, private investigator Elvis Cole is hired by powerful Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Nelson wants Crais to find his ex-wife Karen and their twelve-year-old son Toby, mostly because he wants to get to know Toby better and start really being a father to his son. Cole reluctantly agrees and he and his partner Joe Pike trace Karen and Toby to a small Connecticut town. What they don’t know at first is that finding Nelson’s ex-wife and son is going to lead them right into the path of the local Mob. If you take a look at this cover, you see the focus both on film and on the boy. It gives a strong clue about the story.

Some books, especially if they are part of a series, are ‘branded’ on the cover as being a part of that series. The books in the Lilian Jackson Braun’ Cat Who… series, for instance, have a very similar look and distinctive ‘paw marks’ on the cover to indicate that they’re part of this series. The-Cat-Who-Lived-High-9780613063784Here’s an example: it’s the cover of The Cat Who Lived High. In that novel, newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran investigates the murder of art dealer Diane Bessinger. He gets involved in this case when he agrees to save the Casablanca apartment building from being demolished. While he’s working to save the building Qwill says in the apartment Bessinger used to have and thereby gets drawn into the investigation of her murder. You can see by this cover not just that it’s a Cat Who… mystery (check out the ‘paw prints’) but also something about the story.

Some book covers take advantage of television or film adaptations and tie in with them. That’s got the advantage of recognition for readers who perhaps have seen an adaptation and may be interested in trying the series. To show you what I mean, here’s one of the covers for Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods. The cover features the incomparable John Thaw, who of course starred in the Inspector Morse series and who was Morse (at least in my opinion).The Way Through the Woods

All of those things (shades and choice of colour, ‘brand markings’ tie-ins with adaptations and things and what’s depicted on the cover) are often very carefully chosen to get you to take notice. There are other strategies too that are used to attract your attention. Cover art is a big concern to a lot of publishers.

But does it work? What do you think? Do you choose to read or not read a book based on the cover? At the very least do you pay attention to what’s on the cover? If it matters to you, what do you look for? What puts you off? Fellow writers, what are your thoughts about the covers of your books and stories?

Want to read more? Check out this excellent post on covers from mystery novelist and superb blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig.


ps I know there are several aspects of this topic that I haven’t mentioned here (e.g. how covers have changed over time and the e-reader’s effect on covers). But there’s only room for so much in any one post…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Willie Dixon’s You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover, made popular by Bo Diddley.


Filed under Colin Dexter, Denise Mina, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Lilian Jackson Braun, Robert Crais, Vanda Symon