Monday, July 31, 2017


PANCAKE MONEY by Finn Bell (2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Bobby Ress is a cop with a simple life. He believes in making a difference. He loves his wife and his daughter. He has a place in the world. Then people start dying, a lot of them, in horrible ways. It's a case like no other. And step by gruesome step the simple, true things Bobby knew to be right and good begin to make less and less sense. Because Bobby is learning about pain. He doesn't like to admit it. He doesn't like to know, but he's slowly realizing: If you hurt someone bad enough for long enough then there's nothing, absolutely nothing, they won't do.

When I look back on my crime reading for the 2017 year, no matter what books I rate as my top reads, I am pretty sure that I'll consider Finn Bell as my 'find of the year' in terms of new-to-me authors. This is the second of Bell's books I've read, after his terrific debut Dead Lemons, and this is equally as good. Perhaps better, depending on your personal tastes.

Whereas Bell's debut centred on a wheelchair bound amateur sleuth, this one has a more traditional hero, police detective Bobby Ress (who makes an appearance in Dead Lemons in a supporting role).

Partnered up with the likeable Pollo Latu, one of New Zealand's many Pacific Islands policemen, Ress is called out to the brutal murder of a Dunedin priest. It's a particularly horrific crime, where it's clear the victim was made to suffer. When another tortured priest is found, it's clear someone is targeting the local clergy, but why? Could this be payback for abuse at the hands of the church? Were the victims men of God who'd fallen from grace? What do the medieval style deaths represent?

While the 'killer targeting priests' trope is hardly new, Bell's writing comes across as fresh and packed with power and narrative drive. There's just something about his crime storytelling that drags you in and keeps you welded to your seat, whirring the pages. While in Dead Lemons he did a great job evoking the remote south of the south setting of small-town Riverton, here he balances urban life and the countryside that lurks closely wherever you are when you're in New Zealand.

I particularly enjoyed the interplay between Ress and Latu, the two main cops. There's an authentic sense of long-time partners who care for each other, joke around with each other, and worry for each other, even as they try to do their best in a very tough job, and maintain their sanity despite the horrors they see. Bell peppers the narrative with interesting characters and philosophy as well as action. Occasionally he has a tendency to go slightly monologue-y, delivering chunks of information or philosophy - but for me it didn't come across as too expository. Maybe because it was fascinating, or delivered in an interesting way, or wrapped up in enough other good things it didn't bother me.

Bell has real storytelling talent, and has shown in his first two books that he's a powerful new voice in antipodean crime writing. Wherever you are in the world, I'd recommend you give him a go.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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