Kendall Reviews was able to obtain this rare interview with crime-fighting brother-sister team Penny and Matiu Yee, stars of The Path of Ra supernatural crime-noir series, ahead of the duo’s third adventure, BLOOD OF THE SUN (as told to Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray) which releases November 2020 from Raw Dog Screaming Press.
KR: Hello Pandora and Matiu. Could you tell me little about yourselves, please?
Hello, Gavin. Thanks so much for having us. Just to clarify, my name is Penny Yee (only my parents call me Pandora) and I’m a scientific consultant for the New Zealand police force based in Auckland, the city of sails. Although, city of murders might be a better description. Chief Detective Tanner, who I’m contracted to, currently has forty unsolved murders on his books. People say it’s this balmy heatwave that’s been sweeping the country which has provoked the recent surge in crime. Whatever the reason, the police contract is a bit of a godsend after I severed ties with my former employer (and lover), ‘celebrity’ scientist Noah Cordell, and went out on my own to set up my science consult business. My dad, Hing Yee, helped me out with the loan. Yes, Matiu and I are those Yees, of the Yee Family Fleet of hire vehicles, but we’ve tried not to take advantage of our parents’ lofty connections. Quite the opposite. Of course, I should have known better than to ask my parents for a loan. Now they think they can tell me what contracts I should turn down, and who I should date. And they insist on my baby brother, Matiu, driving me all over town. I wouldn’t mind, because I love him to bits, I do really, and it’s not like companies are clamouring to hire an ex-con, but Matiu has a habit of not staying behind the yellow police tape, you know? I tell him not to touch in my best big sister voice, and do you think he listens? Also, I worry that some of those shady friends of his want to drag him back into that scene. Detective Tanner is convinced of it. If that happens, I don’t know who’ll kill Matiu first: Tanner, Dad, or me. Anyway, this year I’ve been working for the police, taking on the cases Noah Cordell has cast off. The dregs, really. But beggars can’t be choosers, can they, and since I can barely make rent, and I have my technician’s salary to cover, I’m not arguing. First up was the murder of Darius Fletcher, a locked door mystery involving the former owner of our dog, Cerberus, followed by a cold case featuring a bog body discovered on the shore of a swanky Auckland suburb. And each of those events lead us to other atrocities. But while the cases themselves have been devastating, I have to admit I love my work.
“Most people think crime scenes are sad, wretched places, and they’ll do whatever they can to avoid them. The suit on his way to the office. Students meeting outside a coffee shop. Call it superstition, but most will look away, cross the road, take another route, afraid the victim’s misery might somehow settle on them. It’s as if where there’s betrayal, Misfortune lingers, conveying Her despair on the passing breeze. Even a wallet, snatched at random in the street, can leave a sense of loss that will haunt passers-by long after the offender has pocketed the plastic and gone on his way. But Penny loves crime scenes. Not the suffering, of course. Or the ugliness. Only a psychopath could take pleasure in that. No, Penny loves their matter-of-factness; the way they reveal themselves in logical yet exquisite patterns, like the interlinking of bases in a DNA polymer. And when a crime scene is chaotic like this one, then Penny loves it all the more. The thrill of teasing out the tangled bundles, each newly uncovered node leading into the next. It’s like a dance, a beautiful dance of discovery.” – Penny Yee in Hounds of the Underworld
KR: What do you like to do when not working?
Penny: I own my own scientific consultancy, so any time I’m not working on a case, there are the accounts to do and things to sort at the laboratory. My benchtop DNA sequencer—it’s a Breadmaker™ brand—has been acting up lately, for example: I should really get that serviced. But in my spare time, I like to walk our dog, Cerberus. Golden Labradors need a lot of exercise. Recently, I’ve been talking him for rambles up Auckland’s Maungawhau, or Mount Eden for the tourists. There are a number of lovely trails to the summit and the crater, and the view at the top looking out across the harbour, is spectacular. I never get tired of looking at that skyline. Other than that, Matiu and I spend quite a lot of time avoiding formal family dinners—Mum and Dad do like to summon us home and give us the third degree about what’s going on in our lives.
Matiu: I’d like to say I’m always working on something, but who’d believe me? Was a time when the line between work and pleasure was pretty thin, but as you can guess walking that razor can land a guy in places he’d rather not be, like the slammer. Of all the things you could be doing while not working, being in jail isn’t one I’d recommend. Far too much time to think, to argue with the voices in your head, you know? So the thing I like to do these days is drive. I know, driving is also my job, but it’s that line again. It’s not about going anywhere in particular, it’s just about…not standing still.
KR: What is your favourite childhood book?
Penny: I can tell you my least favourite childhood book, and that was the dinosaur book I used to read to Matiu. It matched his dinosaur pyjamas. I must have read it a million times.
Matiu: Where the Wild Things Are. Who wouldn’t love a story about a kid who can just imagine his way into another world full of vicious monsters, one where he’s the king of the beasts just because whatever it is deep inside him shines out through his eyes and can drive those beasties to wet themselves in terror and bow down before him. And have you ever looked really closely at the pictures in that book? Have you looked at the moon, when he’s in his room being punished, and then he goes on this wild adventure, and when he gets back you’re supposed to believe it’s the same night and he just made it all up in his head because his supper’s still hot? Then why has the moon gone from a full moon to a crescent on that same night? Answer me that! Sometimes we can step between places and this world doesn’t even know we’ve gone. That’s the real message. Start looking too close at children’s literature, and you’ll see it’s riddled with occultism. Never mind romantic comedies.
KR: What is your favourite album?
Penny: My technician, Beaker, tends to play all the new local bands while we’re working in the laboratory, but I rather like the old stuff from the twenties: singers like Lorde.
Matiu: While we’re on the topic of the occult (yes we are Penny, don’t interrupt) back in the nineties there were some amazing metal albums that explored the nature of reality and sanity through the eyes of visionary artists. If I had to keep this answer short and pick just one, I’d point you to The Chemical Wedding, a solo effort by Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden fame, based on the writings and paintings of William Blake. Explores a whole lot of frightening possibilities about the powers that lurk just beyond our understanding, with thumping good metal riffs and soaring lead breaks to boot. Had that album on repeat all last summer. Retro as, bro.
KR: What are you reading now?
Penny: Like most scientists, I have a bunch of must-read articles on my device that I’ve been meaning to get to. The way technology is advancing, it’s hard to stay current with all the new work coming out. Since I bought the business, Yee’s Scientific, I’ve subscribed to a research database, streamed online and tax-deductible, so that’s helped. But in terms of pure escapism, I love science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I think a lot of scientists do. When you work with absolutes and rigour, a little magical realism and supernatural whimsy can be a welcome change. For example, I’ve been reading our chronicler, Dan Rabarts’ early work, the Children of Bane, a hilarious high fantasy steampunk series filled with elves and dwarves and talking barrels. I’m up to book three, Sisters of Spindrift, released back in 2021, which involves a bunch or warring pirate sisters in a delightfully feminist twist on the fantasy genre.
Matiu: Reading involves a lot of sitting still and letting other people’s voices speak inside your head. How can that be a good idea? It’s a dark magic all its own, writing, and reading is how that magic spreads. So I avoid it if I can. But while I’m driving, if I’m not cranking some concept metal, I like to listen to audiobooks, and just recently I’ve been listening to Lee Murray’s Taine McKenna military thriller series, starting with Into the Ashes. Because just quietly, I hear that Rabarts guy is a bit of a hack, and Murray is the real talent behind the operation.
KR: What was the last great book you read?
Penny: More historic work released in the time of Covid: a horror poetry collection by award-winning Italian poet, Alessandro Manzetti, called Whitechapel Rhapsody, which is based on the deeds of Jack the Ripper; and Realm of Wraiths (Aurelia Leo) by Taylor Balasavage, a wonderfully atmospheric YA literary horror examining death and the afterlife.
Matiu: Owners Manual for the 2013 Holden Commodore? Not very literary, bit of a vintage in fact, but at least it had some practical use. Oh all right, Penny. Sheesh. Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, OK? I’m going to take all this darkness inside me and turn it into spooky magic to get inside other people’s heads, so I might as well learn from the master, right?
Penny: Much as I love you, Matiu, do you really think you’ll have the patience to write a book? I’ve barely seen you write a shopping list all the way to the end.
Matiu: But you never noticed the moon in Where the Wild Things Are, did you? So maybe there’s more in this noggin than you know. Maybe there is a book in me.
Penny: Maybe. And maybe that’s exactly where it should stay.
KR: E-Book, Paperback or Hardback?
Penny: Paper books! Matiu, do you remember that time we were in the basement of the Auckland Museum and discovered all those archived print books? The smell of them was simply delicious. We were on the trail of a highly dangerous fanatic at the time, so we didn’t have time to linger, but Rabarts and Murray reported it in Hounds of the Underworld:
Penny runs her index finger along the edge of the nearest shelf, taking care not to touch the books: older tomes could be damaged by the oils in her fingers. Already the leather covers on some of these titles are showing signs of red rot.
“It’s the books, Matiu. All this paper. Even stored under the best conditions, the cellulose and lignin in paper breaks down over time, and in the process they give off benzaldehyde, which has an almond odour. There are other breakdown products: vanillin, toluene, and 2-ethyl hexanol—which smells kind of flowery too—and of course with books, there are the added breakdown compounds from the ink and the adhesives used in the printing and binding…” Penny breaks off. Matiu is glaring at her. “What? There are heaps of studies into that old book smell. Breakdown compounds can be helpful markers in determining the age of a document.”
Matiu: Audiobooks all the way. I heard a rumour that some book called Hounds of the Underworld was meant to be coming out in audiobook too. Hanging out for that. Sounds familiar, for some reason.
KR: Who were the authors who inspired you?
Penny: I think we’ll have to hand over to Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray, who have been chronicling our work with the police. There are three books in the Path of Ra series, all of which follow our adventures: Hounds of the Underworld, Teeth of the Wolf, and the final book in the series, Blood of the Sun.
KR: So Dan and Lee, do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?
Lee (purses her lips): Yes, we generally start with a bit of an outline, a page or two of suggestions from Penny and Matiu who provide us with the bare bones of the story. Then Dan Rabarts takes that outline and throws it to the wind, adding in explosions and car chases and other extraneous plot events to make the story more thrilling, and I have to drag him back and insist that we’re here to write the events as they happened.
Penny (purses her lips): I hear you, sister. Matiu is just the same. We’ll be on our way to a crime scene, and the next thing we’ll be sneaking into cult-owned laboratories or abandoned prisons, and too bad if it’s illegal, immoral, or that our parents are likely to disown us. (He never has his phone on either, so Mum and Dad can’t track him, and they call me the irresponsible one!)
Dan: What would Captain Jack Sparrow say? They’re more like… guidelines. Much as we know what we’re trying to write, I can never make any guarantees that as soon as the characters step in, they won’t drag the story off down other dark alleys. I’m a firm believer in letting the characters tell the story, since it’s theirs after all, and I’m just there to document what happens. That’s my alibi and I’m sticking to it.
Matiu: You… you guys spy on everything we do? And you write it down? And share it out for the world to read? And you reckon I’m the one who’s unbalanced!
Penny: Matiu, what I think Dan’s trying to say is that they channel our experiences…
Matiu: Well they can change the bloody channel, thanks. Bloody voyeurs.
KR: Can you tell me about your latest release, please?
Dan: Blood of the Sun is the climactic third instalment in the Path of Ra series, although it also stands alone and can be enjoyed by readers who are new to the world. In this book, our heroic duo find themselves assisting with the processing of bodies left behind in the aftermath of a gang shoot-out on Auckland’s wharfs, only to discover that their own family dealings may somehow be the reason for the slaughter. That’s only the beginning of the unravelling of all the family secrets, both worldly and supernatural, leading to a truly explosive endgame which will light up the Auckland skyline in shades of apocalypse.
The book is once again written in our trademark he-said/she-said style, full of dark witty banter and the constant tension between the real and the eldritch. Penny remains determined to find a clean, logical solution to the mysteries that defy rational explanation, while Matiu braces himself for the veils between the human realm and the domain of gods and monsters being torn apart.
KR: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Lee: Dan and I do a lot of research before and during the writing process. Since a lot of Penny and Matiu’s story is archived in police and ministerial records, we’ve had to do a bit of delving there. We’ve interviewed Grant Deaker (AKA Beaker) Penny’s technician, Constable Toeva Clark and a few others to ensure we haven’t misrepresented anyone. Some of the names have been altered to protect the victims—those who were massacred on Freyberg wharf, for example—but we hope readers will understand that.
Dan: One thing about Matiu is that he’s quite adept at covering his tracks, so research in that area has been sketchy at best. We have this weird psychic link that helps me see inside his head, but I still have to go away and fill in the blanks, make sure the mythologies he’s caught up in are accurately represented, which means a bit of communing with the other side, placating angry gods, necrophoning the deceased to get their side of the story, that sort of thing. Just the usual challenges of documenting the paranormal in the 21st century.
KR: How would you describe your writing style?
Lee: Hmm. Dan and I have approached the series in a he-said, she-said manner, with Dan providing Matiu’s perspective and me giving Penny’s take on events. In the main, we’ve tried to keep those two perspectives distinct without imposing our author views on the narrative, especially since in the last book, Blood of the Sun, there are some quite personal revelations from both of them—Matiu’s relationship with his probation officer, and the reason Penny never drives herself, for example—so we’ve wanted to stay as true to their voices as possible. It helps that I’m a third generation Chinese New Zealander (and also a former research scientist) so I have some understanding of those aspects of Penny’s narrative—as well as how to navigate the Chinese family politics.
Dan: My writing tends to the dark poetic, with generous doses of acerbic humour thrown in for good measure. I also always wanted to be quite a dark and brooding figure myself, but as I’m actually quite a cheery people person that never really panned out for me, so instead I’ve taken all that internalised characterisation and poured it into Matiu. We share a few other things as well, like having a strong Māori heritage which we didn’t really find until later in our lives, having older sisters we’ve always been trying to get the better of, that sort of thing, and it all feeds the Matiu/Penny relationship.
Lee: We’ve also tried to reflect that relationship between Penny and her brother, that affectionate squabbly banter, which comes from years of dishwashing rosters and bickering over who gets to lick the bowl.
KR: Describe your usual writing day?
Lee: I’m a full-time writer, so that means I have my first coffee in bed before getting up and heading to my home office around eight or nine, where I check my socials, and I’m usually there twelve hours later, still checking my socials and with not much more than 500 words written.
Dan: Fragments. I rise early to make some time, usually half an hour to an hour, in the morning, before walking the dog and heading in to the day job. Then once I’ve come home, had dinner with the family, read to both my kids and engaged in what I like to call my son’s home-based media studies—which is to say that we’re watching good SFF movies and series so he’s well-prepared for the real world—I get another half an hour to an hour at the other end of the day if I’m not too tired or distracted by other shiny things (like recently finding The Witcher on the Xbox and loving it). Sometimes I might get a weekend morning to hammer out words, but not during football season. All up, if I write 500 words on my current WIP, or for an interview like this, or for my monthly newsletter—Among Other Things—in that hour or two I carve out around life every day, then I feel like I’ve hit my goal.
KR: Do you have a favourite story/short that you’ve written (published or not)?
Lee: My favourite story is always the one I’m about to write, since I hope every story stretches me in some way, but significant stories are The Good Wife, which made me the first New Zealander to appear in iconic magazine Weird Tales, and also At Maratoto Pool, which appears in an anthology table of contents (One of Us: A Tribute to Frank Michaels Errington, edited by Kenneth W Cain) alongside a story by Stephen King, another milestone for a Kiwi writer. But I’ve especially loved writing Penny and Matiu’s homegrown story Blood of the Sun with Dan, and seeing all the story threads come together in an epic finale to the series. Writing collaboratively has been both challenging and exhilarating, a six-year journey of contrast and compromise between our writing styles and processes.
Dan: Last year my short story Riptide won the Australian Shadows Award for Best Short Story. It’s a story about love and loss, madness and grief, written from a place that dug deep into several of my own fears. It took quite a lot out of me to write it, and it followed a painful, circuitous path to publication in Suspended in Dusk II, after some delays when the original publisher fell over and it took a year or two for the editor to find the book a new home with Grey Matter Press, so after all that, for it to be recognised as a jury favourite, that meant a lot to me.
KR: Do you read your book reviews?
Lee: Sometimes. Depending on how masochistic I’m feeling.
Dan: I’ve heard of these mysterious, legendary reviews. Some kind of two-faced shapeshifter, as I understand it, smiling one moment and tearing your heart out the next. Best avoided, but often unavoidable. They have a sort of siren call that lures you in to their rocks. Let’s just say I enjoy the good ones, take what I can from the bad ones, and really have to wonder what book some reviewers thought they were reading for others. Especially those ones that say things like “I didn’t like that this was the first book in a series”. Our sincerest apologies. We should’ve just stopped at book one, right?
KR: How do you think you’ve developed as an author?
Lee: Over time my work has become darker, is more likely to have historical underpinnings, or has tended to examine issues which resonate for me, like the New Zealand-Asian diaspora, and the impact of creativity on writers’ (especially horror writers) anxiety.
Dan: I started out writing poetry, years ago, before moving on to short films. Then I sank into novels, all of which remain unpublished at the moment, before turning my attention to short stories. Having spent a while honing my craft in that market, both writing and editing, I returned to the novel form and now have the Path of Ra series with Lee out there, as well as my madcap steampunk fantasy series Children of Bane (Brothers of the Knife, Sons of the Curse, and book 3, Sister of Spindrift, releasing January 2021).
KR: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received regarding your writing?
Lee: So much advice. I remember an early mentor once told me that writers finish things and there is truth in that. Unfinished stories tend to stay in files on the computer or scribbled in a journal and tucked in a drawer somewhere, rather than being published and available to readers, so seeing a project through to fruition is an important goal.
Dan: Something Lee taught me, actually, regarding short stories. Drop in late, get out early. Basically, cut everything from the start of a short story that doesn’t get straight to the heart of the idea, and don’t be afraid to pull away without tying every end up neatly. Leave the reader satisfied but thinking, asking what more there may be beyond the last words.
KR: What scares you?
Lee: All the usual things. Otherness, oppression, abuse. Greed. Persecution. Lake Taupō erupting again. Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the lead pipe. Typos in a text after the book has gone to print. Mostly, I’m scared people will find out that I’m not a real writer, and that I’m making it up as I go along.
Dan: The heat death of the universe. Because for all our efforts to race against time, save our planet or find another one, eventually all the stars will burn out and all life will cease, and then what will the point of it have been? Everything that every sentient species has ever created will wither and crumble to icy dust, and not even memory will remain. So on that note, I try to focus on the things that are close to me, and accordingly nurture my fears for them. My kids, and the dangers of the modern world they’re going to face. Other drivers. Identity theft. Another IOS update that makes it harder to find my music on my phone.
KR: What are you working on now?
Lee: I have a couple of novel ideas brewing (including another Taine McKenna adventure), an outline for a poetry collection, and also ten commissioned short stories to complete, so my summer looks set to be busy.
Dan: Daughters of Dust, the fourth book in the Children of Bane series, is about halfway done right now. I’m also developing a screen treatment for a short story that a director is interested in, and I’ve got another short story that needs some attention before I fire it off to an anthology submission callout. On top of that, I’ve just started running my first Dungeons & Dragons campaign for my teenage son and his friends, so that’s going to be interesting.
KR: What about you, Penny and Matiu, what do you have planned?
Penny: Paying off my loan. Getting Mum off my case where Craig Tong is concerned. Detective Tanner still has a backlog of cases to solve, and the city coroner, Brendan Maher, could do with some help processing the latest events, so I expect I’ll be back on the job on Monday.
Matiu: Well, I’ve got a lot to process. Plenty to think about. Guess I’ll try to make sense of it all while I’m driving Penny back and forth, see if I can’t find a decent mince and cheese pie in this town. Try and work out this whole having a girlfriend thing while I’m at it. That might be more terrifying than all the other stuff I’ve been through lately. Wish me luck.
Blood Of The Sun
There’s been a gang massacre on Auckland’s Freyberg Wharf. Body parts everywhere. And with the police’s go-to laboratory out of action, it’s up to scientific consult Pandora (Penny) Yee to sort through the mess. It’s a hellish task, made worse by the earthquake swarms, the insufferable heat, and Cerberus’ infernal barking. And what’s got into her brother Matiu? Does it have something to do with the ship’s consignment? Or is Matiu running with the gangs again? Because if he’s involved, Penny will murder him herself…
Matiu can taste the chaos in the air. All they’ve done so far is keep it at bay, but now the streets are shuddering in protest. Things are pushing up against the veil like floodwaters. The coming days promise to be dark, but there’s a bright side. He’s got this flash new car, Penny’s been too busy working to bug him, and Erica keeps scheduling their probation meetings over her lunch hour…
Join Penny and Matiu Yee for the family reunion to end all family reunions, as the struggle between light and dark erupts across Auckland’s volcanic skyline.
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a three-time Bram Stoker Award®-nominee. Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. She has edited sixteen anthologies, her latest projects being Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women co-edited with Geneve Flynn, and the AHWA’s Midnight Echo #15. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year, and an NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow.
Dan Rabarts is an award-winning author and editor, four-time recipient of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award and three-time winner of the Australian Shadows Award, occasional sailor of sailing things, part-time metalhead and father of two wee miracles in a house on a hill under the southern sun. Together with Lee Murray, he co-writes the Path of Ra crime-noir thriller series from Raw Dog Screaming Press (Hounds of the Underworld, Teeth of the Wolf, Blood of the Sun) and co-edited the flash-fiction horror anthology Baby Teeth – Bite-sized Tales of Terror, and At The Edge, an anthology of Antipodean dark fiction. His steampunk-grimdark-comic fantasy series Children of Bane starts with Brothers of the Knife and continues in Sons of the Curse and Sisters of Spindrift (Omnium Gatherum Media). Dan’s science fiction, dark fantasy and horror short stories have been published in numerous venues worldwide. He also regularly narrates and produces for podcasts and audiobooks. Find him at dan.rabarts.com.