Fresh Blood

Name: Finn Bell

Title of Book: Dead Lemons

'A worthy winner.'

In the far south of New Zealand, a young girl goes missing, lost without trace in the wilderness beyond her remote family cottage. A year later her father disappears in the same place. Then nothing. At all.

Eventually the years grow over the grief. The decades wear away the questions, life flows past the forgotten tragedy. Until Finn moves into the abandoned home, looking for a fresh start. A place to heal himself far from his old problems. But rebuilding life is complicated by chance encounters and odd occurrences leaving Finn with the growing suspicion that the people here are harbouring a terrible secret.

Suspicion turns to obsession the deeper Finn digs while also facing steadily escalating dangers in the here-and-now. Soon Finn's own journey of recovery becomes inextricably linked with his need to unravel the mystery. Past and present finally collide when Finn starts to learn the truth about this place and himself. Now he must choose between exoneration and condemnation, justice and vengeance.

‘Dead Lemons’ recently won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel written by a New Zealander. Bell cleverly begins his novel in the present, and then takes us back months when Finn (yes, the character has the same name as the author), first moves to the area to try and put his life back on track. With intermittent chapters bringing us back to the present, Bell keeps up the pace of his novel.
Finn is damaged goods… under the threat of becoming a dead lemon as his counsellor, Betty tells him if he continues on his usual self-destructive path. He is wheelchair bound due to a car accident, drunk behind the wheel. He is divorced and has come to the middle of nowhere to lick his wounds. But soon he comes to the attention of some very unsavoury folks.

Bell is very good at characterisation, and shows how Finn, with a new and positive crowd around him, begins to slowly come to terms that he doesn’t always have to be one of life’s victims. The Zoyls, who are the source of Finn’s disharmony, are menacingly portrayed, but not everything is as it seems and Bell has one final twist up his sleeve by the end of this novel.

The story of Alice’s disappearance and all that happened afterwards is mysterious and intriguing. Bell cleverly keeps the suspense held while also chronicling Finn’s long journey back to being a whole person again.

‘Dead Lemons’ is a fitting novel for this award. It has action, suspense, tragedy and humanity all wrapped up in an easy to read novel. I am not sure if we will hear more from Finn Bell (the character), but I am quite sure that we will be hearing a lot more from Finn Bell (the author) if he continues to produce such books like this debut. A worthy winner.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) Your main character in ‘Dead Lemons’ has the same name as you. Why did you decide to give him your name? Or have you stolen his name?
Bit of both really (with a decent helping of natural stupidity mixed in). The self-named protagonist is of significance (for a given value of significance) - it's the result of a private joke that turned into a lost bet and ended in having the lead character of my first book named after me. The reason why this all seemed like a good idea at the time was that Alfonso Cuaron's 1998 film adaptation of Dickens' 'Great Expectations' also had a lead character named Finn Bell (I did mention the natural stupidity right?) Then once that was done it started, unintentionally, working backwards and I ended up basing Finn’s character (especially his many, many flaws) on my own.
2) Finn is wheelchair bound after a car accident. Why did you put your main protagonist in a wheelchair? What challenges did you face when writing your book because of his condition?
As you may already suspect (from my previous answer and possibly life in general):

People (this author included) are stupid.

This quality appears to be a universal aspect of humanity (generously spread in some circles) that happily co-exists (seemingly unaffected) next to the allotment of intelligence per given individual (meaning that even really, really smart people are able (and often too willing) to do stupid things just as well as the rest of us).

Fortunately, we seem (thus far) to also be a lot luckier than we deserve. Simply put, most of us, in some manner, do stupid things, make bad decisions, in short, tempt fate in our own special ways. To quote Adam Duritz, we are all to some degree (some at some point, and some for the most part) “idiots walking a tight rope of fortunate things.” So far, so good.

Where life invariable gets interesting (at least from the unbiased observer’s perspective) is when the luck runs out.

This doesn’t seem to happen too often but it does happen. This in turn got me thinking about what life would be like if none of us got away with anything. Ever. If cause and effect ruthlessly returned the costs of our stupid choices to us measure for measure. No narrow escapes, no second chances. No ways to make things ok again.

Finn (the character) became a way to think about that. A guy who (through all his own faults) had lost his wife, his friends, his business even his legs.

To me there was no separation between losing his legs and losing his life. They were the consequences most of us thankfully don’t have to live with.
3) Dead Lemons comes from a phrase during Finn’s counselling sessions. Is dead lemons a real used term?
Not as far as I know (but then I don’t know a whole lot). I’m sure there’s some bright person out there who will be able to string together an academic sounding term for what concept I was actually referring to (although that would take the fun out of things).

The naming of ‘Dead Lemons’ (just like my other books ‘Pancake Money’ and ‘The Easter Make Believers’) come from my own life and those moments when you go through something (that usually you somehow caused in the first place) and the experience is so vivid and searing that you think to yourself ‘there just has to be a word for this shit’.
4) Tai is a Maori friend who introduces Finn to ‘Murderball’. Is this a real sport in N.Z.?
Most people don’t know a lot about New Zealand.

The common facts the rest of the world can agree on tend to be: 1. It’s probably part of Australia (we’re not) 2. Everything looks like the Lord Of The Rings movies (completely true) 3. They’re good at rugby (actually we’re bloody amazing and the present, past (and future) world champions that dominate the game to the utter, awe filled embarrassment of our foes on both sides of the gender gap.) Keep fact 3 in mind and read on.

Murderball and all the related details about the game are mostly true. The people who play it really are a great lot. Personally, I think all adults, challenged or not, should play some kind of group sport regularly and vigorously. I think we’d all be saner. And yes, New Zealand did actually win the world championship, and it did exactly coincide with the period when the more PR-safe sounding term ‘wheelchair rugby’ replaced (despite objections from many players) the term ‘Murderball.’ This will make a kind of inevitable sense to you if you understand how uniquely crazy this country is about rugby. It’s a special kind of obsession, somewhere between religion and addiction, but mostly without the drawbacks of either.
5) You have just won the ‘Nagio Marsh Best First Novel’ award. How did that feel winning such a prestigious award with your debut novel?
Complete surprise. To put this into context let me say that there was no big plan or cunning career path mapped out or anything. I’m just a guy who wrote things down in a diary to help him deal with the bad stuff that happened at work. Didn’t think anybody would want to read it. I wrote Dead Lemons and Pancake Money as one big, confusing book and then split them in two afterwards (which actually took longer than the writing). My partner talked me into publishing them (at least) as eBooks (which I did a little over a year ago) and the response has been really, really great. Then I get shortlisted for the Ngaios (Dead Lemons for Best First Novel and Pancake Money for Best overall) and I get the invite to go to the awards night. So, I look at the rest of the short list and see actual published authors with degrees and awards and things. Real writers. Don’t get me wrong – I worked hard on my books, real hard. But so did these guys and they were people with actual printed books that a real business was willing to risk money on (all I had were eBooks I self-published). But I decided to go anyway, go see who won and to talk to some people in the industry about what they think I should do next. Then I win. I win a book award, the Ngaio Marsh of all things (without actually having printed a single book yet. Never even held it in my hand. Still haven’t). Go figure.
6) What do you have planned for your next novel?
Both ‘Pancake Money’ and ‘The Easter Make Believers’ (so my 2nd and 3rd books) have cops as central characters and while not your typical police procedural at least have the general shape of the classic who dunnit? My next book ‘A Pearl For Every Child’ is going to be a return to the darker noir side, where there are no cops or ‘good’ people of any kind in sight. I’m about half way and it feels a lot more like ‘Dead Lemons’.
7) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, what are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and you would wish to have on a deserted island?
Yeah but I read all sorts really. My first pick is cheating a bit (but it’s a deserted island so there’s no one to tell me different):

The Complete Sherlock Homes by the inestimable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the big leather bound one with gold tint on the page edges and the severe looking, embossed titles on the front with those curly gold bits. Great stories I grew up on plus the book’s heavy enough to use as a blunt instrument. Handy on a deserted island).

Thud! by the supremely excellent Terry Pratchett (to help raise my spirits after having used the above book to bludgeon my dinner to death.)

No Country For Old Men by the accomplished and inexplicably talented Cormac McCarthy (because he’s really just that good).

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