It’s been a bumper year for women’s crime. This year a record 169 books were nominated for Sisters in Crime’s 22nd Davitt Awards. Tens of thousands were published overseas. But it’s not just the number of books – it’s the sheer quality. Quite a few Australian books have notched up other literary awards, most recently Leanne Hall’s Davitt YA winner, The Gaps, which took out the Prime Minister’s YA Literary Award worth $80,000 earlier this month.
Long-time member, Vikki Petraitis, who has 18 true crime books under her belt, created great excitement when she won Allen & Unwin’s inaugural crime fiction award, for her manuscript, published as The Unbelieved, four months ago. Her book attracted two recommendations when Sisters in Crime asked convenors, author members, Davitt Award judges, and winners to nominate their best holiday reads by women crime authors. We hope you enjoy the books they’ve nominated. Most are fairly recent but some are golden oldies. Several are self-published.
The protagonists are variously police, mothers, writers, wives, editors, fashion creatives, students, paralegals, and executive recruitment consultants . . . This year there’s even a bride-to-be, an astronomer, and pleasingly, for the very first time, an indigenous woman sleuth who is armed with a TAFE certificate in investigation. Scenes of the crime range from Australia, New Zealand, UK, Mexico, USA, and Japan. What they all have in common, we believe, is superlative story-telling, pace, and characterisation, combined with the pursuit of justice and the odd thrill or two.
The Next Girl, the just-published novel by Perth author, Pip Drysdale, also attracted two recommendations. Way to go, Pip!
LOUISE BASSETT (AUTHOR)
Donna Tartt, The Secret History (Penguin, 1992)
The Secret History is an oldie and had its 30th anniversary this year. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants an immersive reading experience. The dark academic world Tartt creates in this literary thriller is fascinating and seductive. A charismatic professor at a New England college runs an exclusive, cult-like classics program with a group of hand-picked students. The story follows how the group turns from studying the classics to committing the murder of one of their own and the lingering effects that act has on their lives.
HARRIE BLAKE (AUTHOR)
Georgette Heyer, The Unfinished Clue (Originally published in 1934; (Poisoned Pen Press, 2018)
Georgette Heyer’s better known for her extraordinary research and worlding building in regency romances; however, it is her murder mysteries that I love the most. While it is hard to pick a favourite, I have chosen The Unfinished Clue. This story is set in a country house and is the quintessential house party with all the personalities clashing that Agatha Christie was known for, but with that extra layer of humour and delight. Trust me, the death starts the fun!
ROBIN BOWLES (AUTHOR)
Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018)
This is a deceptively small book, embracing beautiful imagery, a slowly woven but intriguing story, and a small cast of characters who live and breathe on the pages. It is a crime story—of sorts—or is it? As the plot tantalisingly enfolds the central character, the reader becomes engrossed in her life in the marshes. And for those who dig a bit deeper, there is a controversial mystery about the author herself. Is the novel loosely based on true life. . .? Not saying any more as I will spoil the carefully woven plot! I’m told you should read the book before seeing the movie (haven’t seen the movie!) because the book is better! There may be a T-shirt out in time for Christmas!
ANNE BUIST (AUTHOR)
Pip Drysdale, The Next Girl (Simon & Schuster, 2022)
It grabs you from page one and doesn’t let you go; an unreliable narrator that you can’t help but root for (her heart is in the right place), a cast of men that make you want to become a vigilante yourself (and one that might be okay but can you be sure?) and enough heart-stopping moments to be sure you won’t sleep until it’s finished.
JACQUIE BYRON (AUTHOR)
Lisa Jewell, The Family Remains (Simon & Schuster, 2022)
I don’t remember the last time I had this much fun with a crime novel. I found myself returning to The Family Remains every night with glee, knowing I’d be sliding back into this complicated, creepy, quirky world created by Lisa Jewell. The final thing I’ll say is that this is a crime novel with a happy ending. How often do you find that?
LINDY CAMERON (AUTHOR & CONVENOR)
Vikki Petraitis, The Unbelieved (Allen & Unwin, 2022)
Australia’s queen of true crime has finally turned her skills to fiction, with an angry and righteous twist on the whole cop returning to their hometown to discover the lies and misogyny that taint everyday life there. Vikki’s debut crime novel is a cracker of a read, and her new series character, Senior Detective Antigone Pollard is believably fearless.
NINA D CAMPBELL (AUTHOR)
Sulari Gentill, The Woman in the Library (Ultimo Press, 2022)
In a year of incredible crime releases, The Woman in the Library was a stand-out for me. Set in and around Boston’s beautiful public library, this story, within a story, within an epistolic story, is a captivating and clever meta-fiction novel that bends the genre to its will. Offering a peek into Sulari Gentill’s writerly process, The Woman in the Library blurs the lines between life and art, explores the nature of narrative fiction, and even poses questions about the ethical dimensions of crime fiction, all while holding the reader transfixed with a cast of quirky characters and a mystery that had me guessing to the very last page. A masterclass in crime writing and a thrilling read!
B.M. CARROLL (AUTHOR)
Sally Hepworth, The Soulmate: A marriage to die for (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2022)
A special book that is all at once thrilling, humorous, and thought-provoking. Gabe is a local hero, having talked down seven ‘jumpers’ from stepping off the cliffs near his home. Pippa, his wife, can’t believe how fortunate she is to be married to such a kind and remarkable man. But when Gabe fails to save the eighth person, everything falls apart. He said the woman jumped. But from what Pippa could see through the kitchen window, it looked as though Gabe might have pushed her. Prepare to be charmed, wrong-footed, and transported into the heart of the family in the story. The Soulmate is a twisty domestic suspense novel that proves nothing – and no one – is ever as it seems.
VICKY DADDO (AUTHOR)
S D Hinton, The Brothers (HarperCollins Australia, 2022)
This is a stunning debut crime novel set in the south-west of Victoria. It’s mysterious, gripping and surprising. Jake Harlow, an army vet experiencing PTSD, has returned home following the death of his brother when he starts to receive cryptic notes. Was his brother’s death really an accident? With the help of his brother’s best mate Stocky and ex-girlfriend Lucy, Jake starts to peel back the layers of his family history to reveal shocking secrets that expose them all to danger.
POPPY GEE (AUTHOR)
Katie Gutierrez, More Than You’ll Ever Know (Michael Joseph, 2022)
Katie Gutierrez’s debut novel is a suspenseful and evocative story about a complicated woman, Lore Rivera, who falls in love with two men and marries them both, at the same time. It doesn’t work out well for either of the men – one ends up murdered. This excellent literary thriller has many intriguing hooks: a woman’s double life; a beautiful setting in Mexico and a struggling, tenderly described USA border town; questions about motherhood and female desire; a dual timeline and a determined true crime reporter. The American author is married to an Australian so I think we probably could claim her as ours!
LESLEY GILLIS (CONVENOR)
Marion Halligan, The Apricot Colonel (Allen & Unwin, 2006)
This is another oldie but goodie. Not sure if it has won any prizes. I purchased it from the Paperchain Bookshop in Manuka, Canberra. You can find it second-hand on eBay. Told in the first person, by a female editor. Murder, match-making, and the dark arts of book editing. For Cassandra, an editor, books are easy to sort out. It’s the real life that’s the challenge: it doesn’t sit quietly and let itself be fixed. Right now, Cassandra’s life seems far too heavy on the suspense, while the romance is distinctly unconvincing. But that was before the murders started, and before she suspected her own name was on the hit list.
NARRELLE HARRIS (AUTHOR)
Livia Day, Dyed and Buried (Fashionably Late #1) (Tansy Rayner Roberts, real name for Livia Day)
Livia Day brings her trademark vibrant Tasmanian setting, colourful and lively modern characters, cleverly woven plot, and no loose ends. And, yes, I am enjoying myself too much with the dye and sewing puns (a sin not committed in the book) for a story about a murder (victim drowned in a vat of dye) at the back of a store specialising in pre-loved and repurposed fashion. Day delivers a sense of joy in the love of beautiful clothing, delight in murderous mayhem, and key players and supporting characters that are distinctive and engaging. Even the villains. Day’s alter ego (or the other way around?) is the award-winning fantasy author Tansy Rayner Roberts.
NETTE HILTON (AUTHOR)
Holly Throsby, Clarke, (Allen & Unwin, 2022)
A great read worked around the Lynette Dawson murder. Wonderful characters that grow so much you only want the best for them. Throsby’s language use is succinct and evocative – you don’t get to be a leading songwriter for nothing and it translates beautifully into prose. Well, well worth finding the book but, be warned, you won’t be putting it down in a hurry.
SARA HOOD (CONVENOR)
Maryrose Cuskelly, The Cane (Allen & Unwin, 2022)
For many (most?) crime novels the crime is the story. There’s a body on the first page (usually) and someone steps up to investigate and the story is of their pursuit of the ‘who dun it’ and the ‘why dun it’ and the ‘how dun it’. If you removed the crime from most crime novels, there would be no story. Not in The Cane. In this magnificent debut novel, Cuskelly has turned that structure on its head. It is a closely observed, and very moving exploration of a community under stress due to a crime. But it’s never mawkish or sentimental. Whilst there is a sleuth and solution to be found, it’s not the single focus, and takes you very convincingly back to the Queensland cane fields of the 1970s. A total page-turner and a very satisfying read.
KYLIE KADEN (AUTHOR)
Mary Beth Keane, Ask Again, Yes (Scribner, 2019):
I looked over my book club’s recent reads (as you tend to do in this reflective season) and this was the one that stayed with me most. A profound but unpretentious domestic thriller set in New York City, and spans forty years as you watch the impact of a crime unravel across generations. It’s a little bit high-brow in that it would suit fans of Ann Patchett and Laura Dave, but it’s fast-paced and twisty enough to suit hard-core crime buffs. It delves into some topical themes, yet will leave you feeling hopeful. And yes, the weird title will make perfect sense, but only at the very end.
JOY LAWN (REVIEWER AND DAVITT JUDGE)
Vanessa McCausland, The Beautiful Words (HarperCollins, 2021)
The Beautiful Words is Vanessa McCausland’s third novel (the first two were published during lockdowns). It is beautifully written, in keeping with the title. Protagonist Sylvie loves reading and is nicknamed Sylvia Plath. Our experience of reading The Beautiful Words echoes how Sylvie feels when opening a book: “She got the same tingle she always got when she read the first sentence of a new book and it snared her. Something about the cadence, the rhythm of the words. Something about falling under the spell of a writer.” McCausland captures us through an intriguing plot that parallels Sylvie’s youthful experience at Palm Beach lighthouse with her uneasy reunion on a Tasmanian island with those who really know what happened all those years ago. Friendship, memories, betrayal, and forgiveness . . .
DR JANET LEE (AUTHOR)
Sally Piper, Bone Memories (UQP, 2022)
Bone Memories explores the life of a family in the aftermath of a murder. How does a family ‘move on’ with their lives and the memories that remain over a decade after the dreadful crime? The book is a different type of crime novel which delves into the way a murder touches and changes so many lives. The Queensland author has written a tender, evocative story, which explores the emotional toll of love and loss, and . . . oh my heart, the final scenes made me weep.
NAOMI MANUELL (AUTHOR)
Emi Yagi, Diary of a Void (Penguin, 2022) (Translated from the Japanese by David Boyd and Lucy North)
Not a crime novel as such, this book nonetheless shares many of the qualities that lovers of the genre might appreciate in a summer read. Fed up with being lumped with the most menial tasks in a staid and sexist workplace, a young woman decides to fake being pregnant, and her diary documents the benefits she enjoys as a result. It could be read as a feminist critique of Japanese society, but I found many of Yagi’s observations just as applicable to ours. It’s a deliciously odd, hilarious, and occasionally disturbing book.
KELLIE MCCOURT (AUTHOR)
Cassie Hamer, The Truth About Faking It (HarperCollins Australia, 2022)
Cassie Hamer masterfully explores the flawed, heartfelt relationships three generations of ambitious compelling women have with love, society, expectations, trauma, work and most importantly, each other. It’s an insightful, touching, funny, and compelling look at the kaleidoscope of unrealistic pressures real women with real lives, families, and relationships face daily. You’ll be hooked. Family at its best: secrets, guilt, love, self-deception, and no personal responsibility or filter. What’s not to love about the people who push your buttons?
PETRONELLA MCGOVERN (AUTHOR)
Pip Drysdale, The Next Girl (Simon & Schuster, 2022)
Just released in December, The Next Girl is the perfect holiday read, a wild rollercoaster of a ride where the twists keep coming and the stakes keep rising. Billie is a paralegal about to lose her job and watch a guilty man walk free. The system isn’t working and she decides that the solution is to become his next victim and turn the tables. This clever thriller questions power in relationships, technology, and the justice system. It hooked me in and kept me up all night until I’d finished.
LILY MULHOLLAND (AUTHOR)
Jane Harper, The Lost Man (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2019)
You’d have to be living under a rock to have missed Harper’s brooding detective Aaron Falk, in her multi-award-winning 2017 debut novel, The Dry, which was also released as a feature film in 2020. But it’s The Lost Man, winner of the 2019 Ned Kelly award for Best Fiction and the 2019 Davitt Award for Readers’ Choice, that made Harper one of my favourite crime novelists. She has captured the searing heart and heat of remote Queensland, drawing the reader in with a mysterious death of a brother on a remote cattle station, which unravels family secrets long hidden in dark shadows and casts them into the harsh outback light. This is the kind of gripping, quintessentially Australian fiction I love. I hope you will too.
MEGAN NORRIS (AUTHOR & CONVENOR)
Vikki Petraitis, The Unbelieved (Allen & Unwin, 2022)
When seasoned true crime writer and podcaster, Vikki Petraitis, decided to turn her hand to writing crime fiction, she set a new benchmark in the world of Australian crime writing by taking out the Allen & Unwin Award for best fictional crime debut novel of 2022. It leads the reader on a dark journey beyond the peaceful façade of the sleepy Australian coastal town of Deception Bay, where Petraitis’s feisty but flawed protagonist, Senior Detective Antigone Pollard has retreated from life as a city cop, only to find herself on a mission to solve a decades-old double murder and lifting the lid on a patriarchal regime which has been keeping the town’s women trapped in a cycle of abuse and sexual violence for generations.
NICOLE MORRIS (AUTHOR)
Kate Kyriacou, The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer (Bonnier Publishing Fiction, 2018)
This is the previously unheard story of exactly how police undercover officers ‘stung’ Brett Cowan, which eventually led to him being convicted of the murder of Daniel Morcombe. Released in 2018, this incredible book is back in the headlines due to the new film The Stranger, which was recently the most watched Netflix film in the world. The Stranger is based on Kate’s book. Approaching this very tragic story with great sensitivity mixed with a strong narrative detailing the long process of finding justice, Kate takes the reader behind the scenes of arguably the most well-known child abduction and murder case in Australian history. Kate’s writing is powerful and emotive and this book deserves every accolade.
(Note: Nicole is currently director of the Australian Missing Persons Register and her own book is being published in July 2023.)
AMRA PAJALIC (AUTHOR)
C.J. Archer, Murder at the Mayfair Hotel (Cleopatra Fox #1) (C. J. Archer, 2020)
C. J. Archer is an Aussie author and I loved her first book in the Cleopatra Fox Cozy Mystery series. December 1899. After the death of her beloved grandmother, Cleopatra Fox moves into the luxury hotel owned by her estranged uncle in the hopes of putting hardship and loneliness behind her. But the poisoning of a guest throws her new life, and the hotel, into chaos. I loved Cleo’s character and the world of London at the end of the 19th century. I listened to the audiobook and the narrator was amazing in creating Cleo’s world and the various accents.
MICHELLE PRAK (AUTHOR)
Candice Fox, The Chase (Penguin 2021)
An absolute thrill-ride with one helluva premise. A Nevada desert prison is forced to release all 600 of its inmates, thus The Chase begins! This novel is told via multiple compelling points of view, occasionally short snippets from characters who may make only one or two appearances. The characterisation and structure are an absolute inspiration to me.
PERCY ROSE (AUTHOR)
Julie Janson, Madduka: The River Serpent (UWA, 2022):
An Australian crime story with a difference. Follow the indigenous sleuth into a world of intrigue for which she is ill-prepared despite her TAFE course in investigation. Uncover the stories within stories, fill up with country, and imagine a better world. You’ll be glad you did.
ANGELA SAVAGE (AUTHOR)
Lucia Nardo, Messy Business (Lucia Nardo, 2022)
I’m addressing this review to readers who are, like me, snobbish when it comes to self-published novels: don’t let that stop you from reading Messy Business or you’ll be missing one of the year’s most entertaining crime reads. Jacqueline (Jac) Byrne’s life is unravelling fast. Her husband is cheating on her, her business is in trouble, her antisocial teen stepson has turned up looking for a place to stay, and her well-meaning housekeeper, Draga, only makes things worse with her advice. While Messy Business is laugh-out-loud funny, it also passed my ‘riveting reads’ test by making me miss my tram stop not once but twice! And there’s a lovely subtext about how we create a sense of kinship. Enjoy!
NAOMI SHIPPEN (AUTHOR)
Jess Kitching, How to Destroy Your Husband (Kingsley Publishers, 2022)
When bride-to-be, Cassie, discovers her fiancé has been unfaithful, she embarks on a covert plan to destroy him. Her rage-fuelled mission raises some interesting questions about the efficacy of revenge, and the far-reaching consequences for all in its orbit. I ripped through this novel in a matter of days and found it gratifying to watch Cassie grow from a compliant and unsuspecting victim to a strong and self-assured woman. A fast-paced, enthralling story with an ambiguous ending, that sees the chips falling in some very unexpected ways.
CARMEL SHUTE (CONVENOR)
Kimberley Starr, The Map of Night (Pantera Press, 2022)
This unconventional crime novel has no murder but the suspense is killing. A woman astronomer falls down an abandoned mining shaft in the Yarra Valley and nobody, bar her daughter, appears to be concerned. While she hopes to be rescued and has to drink arsenic-contaminated water, all that she has to contemplate is the night sky. The lyrical writing is compelling – and epitomises the broad church of contemporary crime writing.
JEM TYLEY-MILLER (AUTHOR)
Sally Bothroyd, Brunswick Street Blues (HQ Fiction, 2022)
Sally Bothroyd’s debut novel is a delightful romp through the dingy, hip, and often beer-smelling streets of Melbourne’s beloved Fitzroy. I tend to prefer dark and moody crime novels, but this book was exactly what I needed last Christmas when it felt like the world was falling apart. The plot is engaging, the quirky characters keep you laughing, and foundling Brick Brown is certainly lovable, but it is Brick’s irreverent crime-fighting style and unique sleuthing abilities that provide the most joy. Having lived in Fitzroy, I relished being taken there. I also appreciated the definite sizzle whenever Brick is joined on the page by war correspondent Mitch Mitchell. This book is so much fun it would be a complement to any holiday reading list.
SANDI WALLACE (AUTHOR)
Vanda Symon, Bound (Simon and Schuster, 2021)
If you’re after something binge-worthy for the holiday period, I highly recommend the Sam Shephard series which combines Kiwi crime fiction, police procedural, a sprinkle of humour, and lashings of humanity. Bound is the fourth outing for Sam . . . and fortunately, there is a fifth coming soon! In this installment, the young detective is on the case of a brutal home invasion that leaves a man murdered and his wife traumatised. Evidence mounts against the apparent perpetrators who are two notorious Dunedin criminals. But all is not as it seems, so Sam wades against the tide to find the truth. Meanwhile, in her personal life, she is also dealing with a tragedy and a curveball. Bound is an exciting and moving crime story.
LISA WALKER (AUTHOR)
Helen Fitzgerald, Ash Mountain (Affirm Press, 2021)
This is the first book I’ve read by Helen Fitzgerald, but it won’t be the last. I was drawn to it by a description that said it was a “darkly funny disaster thriller”. This sounded like a hard act to pull off, but the author delivered! As a bushfire rips through a small Australian town, dark secrets are exposed to heart-pounding effect.