Women detecting, Margaret Scott

Murder at the Brian Boru
Joan Druett,
Harper Collins, $19.95

Carol Dawber,
River Press, $16.95

These two books have some similarities but more, and greater, differences. Both are murder mysteries set in New Zealand with a woman observer/ solver. And both are paperbacks.

Joan Druett can be relied on for her accurately detailed historical backgrounds. In an earlier book of hers which I once reviewed (Abigail) it was the nineteenth-century whaling industry linking of the East Coast of the United States with the North island of New Zealand. In this one it is a nineteenth-century family feud and subsequent mystery linking the East Coast of the United States with the North Island (specifically, Thames in the Coromandel) of New Zealand. We have here some of the history of the Thames goldfields, and of the Brian Boru Hotel. This hotel became famous for its murder weekends during which a mysterious fake murder is required to be solved by the guests. Such a weekend is organised here but the murder is real and the solving of it a more urgent and difficult task than usual.

Most of the action occurs in the early 20th century but frequently harks back to the previous half-century. The setting is marvellous but is peopled by characters who, apart from the nicely-perceived protagonist, are not very convincing or memorable. I thought in the case of Abigail and I think again in the case of Murder at the Brian Boru that fiction is not the ideal medium to convey Joan Druett’s special gifts of historical evocation. Fiction is, of course, malleable, but is also dangerously difficult. This story is complex, well thought out and well told, and Druett’s depiction of real times and places is so good that one wonders why she doesn’t people them with real people – that is, actual historical people – rather than insufficiently realised fictional ones. As if I needed further convincing of the accuracy of the historical detail, I came across a passing reference to my own great-grandmother doing what I happen to know she did.

The second book is much slighter and plainer. It is a skimpy, tightly-bound paperback with small pages and almost non-existent margins. But its appearance turned out to be a sort of khaki camouflage over a bright and sparkling tale. This author, too, is absolutely at home in her setting – the Heaphy Track with its trampers’ huts in the dripping wet rain forest at the top of the South Island. A murder is perpetrated and the trampers are the suspects. The story cleverly mounts to what seems a solution of the mystery, only to throw up another later complication which puts the intrepid librarian, Liz, in danger, and requires the whole situation to be rethought. This unpretentious little book will give pleasure to all who have ever tramped in the New Zealand bush, and, for good measure, there are glimpses of Wellington and Westport, and a librarians’ conference in Christchurch.

Dawber is an intelligent writer who accurately listens and looks. She nicely captures the intonations and idioms of American, German and Australian trampers. Although her small canvas is not nearly as ambitious and challenging as Druett’s, she tackles it interestingly and well.

Some of the technical devices are a bit creaky. The time-disruptions – flash-backs, flash-aheads – tend to confuse and do not seem justified. To open the book with the discovery of the dead body so as to capture the reader’s attention is one thing but to continue the back and forwards switches of time serves no apparent purpose and tends to distance the reader’s attention from the unfolding action.

This is a story which deserves a much better dress than it has, although the author, Carol Dawber, is herself the publisher. River Press is a new press which plans a series of mysteries of which this is the first. One must hope that this will sell well enough to afford River Press a more generous use of paper, design, and proof-reader for future volumes. In the meantime, this one promises well.


Margaret Scott is editing the journals of Katherine Mansfield.


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