At last, some mayhem, Howard Warner

Mr Halliday and the Circus Master
James McNeish
David Ling, $19.95,
ISBN 0 908990 38 3

The Opawa Affair
Edmund Bohan
Hazard Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 908790 61 9

Payday in Saudi
Selwyn Carson
Arrow, $17.95,
ISBN 1 86941 285 0

We New Zealanders have long held the view that we are blessedly free of the widespread violence and mayhem that has besmirched the rest of the world. There is an unfortunate corollary to this, however: the lack of a cohesive tradition of crime writing.

It’s a genre in which such gun-crazed, lawless societies as the United States are understandably rich. Our murders have tended to be sporadic and domestic (the infamous matricide on which Peter Jackson’s based his film Heavenly Creatures was probably rendered the more horrific by its isolation in the sleepy suburban Christchurch of the 1950s). Not for us the obsession with stalkings, serial killings and drive-by shootings that litter the American landscape daily.

Aside from a few one-offs, such as Maurice Gee’s rapist mystery In My Father’s Den or Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s parody of southern gothic in The Scarecrow, use of crime in our literature has tended towards a genteel, drawing-room style of detective fiction (Ngaio Marsh writing in the tradition of Chesterton and Christie).

Several new trends in the past two decades — mass slayings, serial rapists and Triad conspiracies — suggest we are at last maturing as a violent nation (beyond the respectable bounds of a rugby paddock). Add to these such high-profile events as the drug killing of “Mr Asia”, the international terrorism of the Rainbow Warrior bombing, the Springbok tour demonstrations and clearly we are setting the stage for an emerging home-grown crime fiction tradition.

We have seen it already in the books of Paul Thomas (his latest, Guerilla Season, was reviewed in New Zealand Books in December), who is tapping into a vein of international expansionism and sophistication within organised crime. Here are three more new novels concerned with murder, mystery and mayhem. However, apart from their backgrounds of political awareness, they are all far too different to suggest any incipient explosion of the crime genre, though.

The Springbok tour of 1981 was bound to feature sooner or later. Where were you when they played the All Blacks at Hamilton on that winter’s day? The tour is now more than 15 years distant and developments in post-apartheid South Africa have to some extent overtaken the tour’s issues. But the ramifications for New Zealand are much wider.

The events of the tour — massed marches the length and breadth of the country, police baton-charging of citizens from every walk of life, bitter feuds that split friends and families irreparably, the flour bombs, the prosecutions, the court backlog — were less to do with apartheid or law and order than “instinctive liberalism versus conservative control”. So writes the protagonist of James McNeish’s Mr Halliday and the Circus Master in a note to be read after his death.

And what better catalyst than the game of rugby, perhaps the one subject about which the passions of our nation can be truly tested. Such is the terrain for this odd little tale of one man’s stand for what he believes in. Unlike the other books reviewed here, it defies easy categorisation into a genre. There is a body, there is a mystery yet it is neither detective fiction nor crime thriller.

It begins with the discovery, in a member’s room at Parliament, of a body — that of Dr Fred Halliday, specialist in migraines, good family man, private poet and sometime activist. This takes place halfway through the tour, after the Hamilton match but before the march on Parliament.

The victim appears to have shot himself through the brain, but the motive is unclear. Ahead of the inevitable coroner’s inquest, a gritty police inspector and a high-flying lawyer sift through clues to provide answers to the questions that arise. Did he do it himself or was anyone else involved? Why did he do it? Why at Parliament? Why at that time?

Evidence comes to light that Halliday had been meeting the Prime Minister of the day (we all know who he was and McNeish paints him well enough without attaching the name) in his office for secret, late-night discussions on philosophical matters. Oddly, we never meet at first hand these principal actors. Fred Halliday is dead and the Prime Minister is in Britain to sign the symbolic Gleneagles Agreement and attend the wedding of Charles and Diana. Nor do we meet the other principal actor, McClure, the man (given no first name) who aspired to crashland a light aeroplane into the stand at Hamilton, who is on the run from the police. We see them only through the perceptions of others or through flashback devices such as memoranda, letters, poems and taped conversations.

Up front are the bit-part players — Halliday’s widow, Patty; the ambivalent policeman Inspector Harry Blewitt, who possesses too much basic human empathy for one seeking promotion up the ranks; his more businesslike sidekick Sergeant Kerr (again, no first name); Halliday’s solicitor, Peter Boyd, described as “the sort of lawyer, always polite, whom feminists avoid, politicians mistrust and journalists want to crucify”; and the tenacious reporter, Cathy Baines, who is looking for someone to crucify.

One gets the sense of a mass of conflicting sensibilities and collusions among all characters, present or not, as the ground continually shifts around the central mystery. As with the tour itself, nothing is clearcut or black and white and no precedent exists for the way history will interpret this episode.

This uncertainty is reflected in the novel’s structure. For the first five chapters we are treated to a bird’s eye summary of the investigation, a mini-bio of the protagonist, a dispassionate, Brecht-like introduction to the principal actors and their functions, a documentary-style backgrounder to the political situation and a reconstruction of the meetings between Halliday and the Prime Minister. Only then, with the words, “But away with the background. On with the blood”, does the plot truly begin.

McNeish comes at his subject from odd angles, with multiple viewpoints, variously sized chapters (from two lines to several pages) and inconsistent styles. These include news copy, extended metaphors (the “circus” concept of the title is one), snatches of poetry, stream-of-consciousness musings, dialogue and informative digressions (description of Parliament buildings, specialised use of the long baton). He feeds us fragments and slowly, tortuously fills in the gaps to strive towards some sense of meaning. Ultimately, it is the gaps in the thread of causality which (like Pinter silences) contain the most potent resonances.

This scatter-gun technique is used to great effect by writers such as Don DeLillo and Australia’s Robert Drewe and by television detective dramas such as Taggart. Here it unnerves and challenges us, heightening our collusion in the mystery. Also skilfully effective is the careful interweaving of factual and fictional details. For example, Colin Moyle is referred to several times by name, but the reason for his fall from grace is not spelled out. So many recognisable details of the Prime Minister’s legend are spelled out but he is never named. And Halliday’s interest in activism is backgrounded through documentable protests such as Bastion point and the USS Truxtun, as well as invented ones.

The Springbok tour has proved in this short novel a very potent vehicle for exploring a mystery. It is still fresh enough in the minds of many, yet distant enough that we may aim for some kind of cultural, historical perspective. It was also an episode which stirred emotions in usually reserved Kiwis like nothing else. Mr Halliday is a valuable addition to our fictional efforts to create a dramatic national myth, the way Americans have done so well with key historical events like Kennedy’s assassination.

2

The character ensemble of Edmund Bohan’s The Opawa Affair sounds like the start of an ethnic joke: three Italian singers, three Irish agitators, three French servants and three New Zealand politicians. But this sordid tale of nineteenth-century Christchurch is no laughing matter.

It is the first work of fiction by Cantabrian Bohan, an historian and former international opera singer. It features a detective, Sergeant O’Rorke (also, no first name), who looks to become a serial crime-solver (judging by the publisher’s advertising blurb for the next Bohan novel).

As a whodunit, it would be unlikely to satisfy devotees of the genre, brought up on super sleuths like Miss Marples and Hercules Poirot — they would have this mystery solved in one chapter flat. Fortunately, however, The Opawa Affair is much more than just a detective story. It is a well-researched and convincing study of attitudes and manners and a glimpse into the world of professional opera at a time when it was king of entertainments.

The body of a young Irish maid, employed by an upper-class house, is found washed up in the Avon river. The signs point to a thwarted crush on a fellow employee, leading to her suicide. But the obstinate O’Rorke, who was courting the maid, is convinced there’s more to it.

At the same time, a travelling opera company has come to town, seducing one and all with its colour and vibrancy. The cast includes a rising star from Auckland, the exquisite Frances Grace, and a name of great experience and renown in Tomaso Briani (aka Tom O’Brien, of Limerick).

Also newly arrived in town and much remarked on by fashion-conscious society are the genteel, opera-loving brother and sister pairing of Simon and Amelia Allen. Then there’s the mysterious, elegant Mrs Fletcher with her two pretty French retainers, a silent Negro who pops up everywhere, and the suspected workman John Greaves who cannot be found anywhere.

It’s a rich cast of characters worthy of the latest stage offering from Bizet or Meyerbeer. And indeed there is something of an operatic feel about the whole thing — characters are constantly pining and swoon and experience all the grand emotions. Each chapter is introduced by a quote from a song or aria in the company’s repertoire. And the overall structure, with its thwarted loves, high social gatherings and lingering death sequence, mirrors that of the art form it exalts.

As with all good opera, there is also the political environment underpinning the narrative — in this case the upcoming general election. The incumbent premier, the lasciviously depicted George Grey, is standing on a conservative, morality ticket. Christchurch is divided on the merits of the man: he’s either a divinity or the Devil. And complicating the political picture is the continual sniping of “Fenian agitators”. This political thread, along with the opera company and the strong Irish connection, is laced through the narrative, leading towards the fiery polling-day climax.

Aiding our credulity is the use of real historical figures — von Haast, Turnbull, Stevens and Tancred — alongside authorial creations. Against such a rich company of fellow actors the protagonist O’Rorke seems at times colourless, despite what we learn of his background — former Fenian desperado and Pinkerton agent. Maybe it’s just that the tools available to an 1870s detective were still rather rude. For the most part, O’Rorke pits his gut instinct against the society-conscious police hierarchy, which sees its prime role as political — protecting those with wealth and breeding from the ill mannered hoi polloi. But there is potential here for a complex and charismatic truth-seeker.

Christchurch a century ago seems a most unlikely framework for a mystery. But as we have already seen with the historical fictions of Eldred-Grigg, strong tensions lurked beneath the surface. Above all, we sense the hypocrisy of this society in which drugs and prostitution are rife among the wealthy and a gentleman’s word is always accepted as “firm evidence”. Bohan has recreated this world and that of the travelling opera company with skill and vitality.

This is an impressive fictional debut. I look forward to following O’Rorke through further mysteries and hope he will grow into a character to be reckoned with.

3

Payday in Saudi belongs squarely in the genre of fast-paced thrillers in which the ordinary good guy gets caught up in something frightening and unexpected and has to use all his resources to save himself and his loved ones. But it’s hardly a New Zealand prescription, given that it is set in Saudi Arabia. The hero and his family are New Zealanders but for the most part they could as easily be any expatriate nationality at large in a strange culture.

Selwyn Carson has chosen the job of GP for his hero Sam Wood. It’s hardly a glamour job in a restrictive muslim setting — great pay but nothing to spend it on. However, medicine does lend him an air of respectability as well as a useful set of skills in a crisis. Dr Wood has put in his time at the clinic but his marriage is starting to fray as the boredom of the expatriate life sets in. Then he is called out to an emergency one night and finds himself attending a seriously wounded patient — at gunpoint.

Throughout the novel he is held hostage together with wife Maggie, their two children and the patient, who turns out be a Saudi royal being used as a pawn in a Saudi power game. Carson paces his action well towards the final resolution and creates well-rounded characters who develop as the plot progresses. The fraught hostage situation counterpoints the domestic strain imposed on the Woods’ marriage by career pressures. Yet in a way it provides a catalyst for them to work through their problems.

If the hero appears at times a little too gung-ho (his skills acquired back in Enzed extend, propitiously, to such things as boat-handling and all manner of dangerous weapons), Carson’s villains are vividly believable. He adds depth to what could easily be stock, gun-toting types by placing them in situations where their emotions and human frailties are tested. For example, the bond that develops between Sam’s boy, Peter, and the terrorist leader, Khalid, is touching but also subtly affects the balance of the hostage operation.

Carson creates a good sense of atmosphere through careful use of sensory details:

The ancient air-conditioning unit clanked into life … and the aroma of fresh-baked bread from the baker came in through the gap where the window had been. Outside the moonlight fell on the facades of the buildings on the other side of the narrow street and there were sounds and movement in the black shadows below — the slither of sandals in the sand, an occasional metallic sound as a moving foot kicked a discarded soft drink can or a rifle barrel touched a concrete wall, the mutter of Arab voices. They lay on the rug, sweating in the darkness, grateful to have each other.

 

There is a great deal of local detail in this book, giving valuable insight into Saudi customs, attitudes and fashions. Where it lacks detail is in the political motivations of the terrorist group. We know that important Middle East negotiations are imminent and Saudi Arabia is jockeying for position. We understand something of the hypocrisy of the royals, who exhibit the trappings of islamic fundamentalism while embracing the lifestyle of their rich and powerful idols in the west. But the exact purpose of the hostage-taking is never made clear. And the presence of the two western mercenaries in Arab garb seems gratuitous.

As the plot climaxes toward its inevitable crossfire of bullets, the reader has little chance of working out whose side anyone is on.

The only one we’re sure of is our Kiwi hero, Sam, though we realise that his resourcefulness stems more from the situation than any national characteristics. In style, Sam is probably more like the Bogart character of American fiction than Mulgan’s Man Alone or Crump’s Good Keen Man. It’ll be interesting to see where Dr Sam Wood pops up next and whether he could prevail as easily in, say, Paul Thomas’s urban-guerilla landscape of south Auckland.

Howard Warner is a Wellington writer. 

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