Craig Sisterson is a New Zealand lawyer turned journalist who reviews and writes features about crime fiction for many magazines, newspapers, and websites around the world. He has also discussed crime writing at several book festivals and on radio, is the creator and Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, and the founder and editor of the Crime Watch blog.
An armed robbery interrupts a drug deal, igniting an award-winning tale powered by intriguing characters that has a good feel for modern life in rural and small-town New Zealand.
Publican Toni Bourke is treading water, trying not to drown, as she operates the Black Horse Bar & Casino in Rotorua. She's determined to keep the tills ringing as the months pass since the sudden death of her husband - fortunately the locals in her town in the central North Island of New Zealand like to drink, and gamble. From blue collar forestry workers to rich pricks who like to flash their cash and play the bigshot, the steady stream of money keeps her bosses up in Auckland happy
Outside in the dark, Pio Morgan nervously prepares himself. He's had a tough life and comes from a tough family, but he's not a tough guy. Duped by a local pot grower, he's backed into a corner, desperate for money. The lure of the Black Horse pub, with its treasure trove of pokie and racing losings, is strong. Gun in hand, Pio enters the pub. A moment of madness upends so many lives, lighting the fuse on a violent chain of events that pulls in locals and others from far away. Therefore from these intertwined lives, not all will survive.
Ray Berard's first crime novel is a real cracker, and it's easy to see why an international judging panel selected INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE as the winner of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel (it was also a finalist for the major Best Crime Novel category). An exciting beginning pulls the reader in, but it's the nice touch Berard has for a fascinating and diverse cast of characters, along with the way he evokes rural and small-town New Zealand life that blends with the action and mystery, to really elevate INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE to must-read crime novel territory. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started - Berard was a new author, a Canadian immigrant to New Zealand, setting a book in the central North Island; a region that combines Lord of the Rings-esque scenery, with a blue-collar farming and forestry worker population and an even stronger Maori influence. It's the kind of rural area in New Zealand that produces both plenty of All Blacks, and plenty of gang members. Though rich in scenery, if not in high-paying jobs, it has become a paradise for tourists masking a seedier reality for locals.
For me, INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE started well and got even better as it went along, with Berard layering in depth to the characters and story as the action unfolded. I was curious at first, then intrigued, then enthralled. There was a good sense of balance between character and plot, with some interesting underlying themes and a well-evoked setting, sociologically and geographically. This debut crime novel felt very 'well-rounded', for want of a better phrase.
Berard is a former TAB supervisor (that's a New Zealand betting agency that has outlets all across the country, often attached to pubs and bars), and his experience and knowledge of the intricacies of that industry is well utilised. He does a great job evoking life in small-town New Zealand, including the focal point of the 'local', where various people from the community all meet to drink (some to gamble), along with threading in the symbiosis between blue collar locals who keep the tills ringing and the 'corporate suits' in big city head offices who are focused more on numbers, bottom lines, and perceptions.
In some ways INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE feels like a snapshot of modern-day life, populated by a range of authentic characters: hard-working people, blue collar and white collar, bludgers, gang members, cops and criminals. These are the weak and the wounded, the courageous and the strong; trying to do right by their family and those willing to sacrifice others to get ahead, or just survive.
Pleasingly, even when I thought I could see where INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE was going, plot-wise, Berard did a nice job at throwing in a few surprises, crafting an engaging story that felt fresh and unique even as it delivered the kinds of things fans of crime fiction expect and like to see from the genre.
Complete with vivid characterisation, good action, some nice prose, all culminating in an excellent and evocative rural crime thriller, and one of the best debut crime novels I've read in a few years.
In two words, “highly recommended.”