Boring murder to death, Michael Pearson

Off With His Head
Ngaio Marsh
HarperCollins, $15.95, ISBN 000 6169198

Sounds Easy — a New Zealand mystery
Carol Dawber
River Press, $16.95, ISBN 0959804129

Inside Dope
Paul Thomas
Hodder Moa Beckett, $17.95, ISBN 186958 1598

“Who cares?” has replaced “Whodunnit?” as the literary fulcrum which sustains today’s murder novels. In an amoral literary universe death is no longer bizarre in itself; the means and frequency of death are the keys to holding readers’ attention.

Five decades ago, Ngaio Marsh wrote a kinder, gentler tale of murder than is viable today. She also unravelled her plots with deliberation and care. “The progress of a case is rather like a sort of thaw,” is Superintendent Roderick Alleyn’s very first observation. So, too, the progress of the novel, which opens by noting: “Over that part of England the winter solstice came down with a bitter antiphony of snow and frost. Trees, minutely articulate, shuddered in the north wind.” As the mystery deepens the snow melts, revealing the physical and moral landscape beneath.

The trouble is, there is so much snow and so little landscape. By the time all has been cleared away there’s disappointingly little beneath. The reader is weighed down by an avalanche of detail of who said what to whom, who might have done what to whom, who had opportunity to do something and (of course) who had the motive.

The motives are many but thin. Was Andersen’s murderer his son Ernie, piqued at not getting the part in the Mardian Mawris Dance he wanted and angry at his father for killing his dog? Or was it Ernie’s brother Chris, piqued at his father’s anger over his affair with Trixie? Or Simon Begg, piqued at Andersen’s refusal to sell his blacksmith’s business for development as a service station? Or Ralph Stayne, piqued at Andersen for changing his will in favour of his granddaughter, providing she doesn’t marry Ralph?

Superintendent Alleyn plods a weary and solitary way through this labyrinth. The reader is firmly excluded from his deliberations. Alleyn reveals his theories and insights to his colleagues but we are not permitted to eavesdrop.

The denouement, which has the Mardian Mawris Dance as its dramatic and thematic core, shows Alleyn at his didactic worst. The book’s solitary murder occurs on‑stage during the Dance of the Five Sons. After 200 pages of talk, red herrings and inaction, Alleyn decides to restage the Dance. “We’re in for a reconstruction, my boy, and I’ll tell you why,” he informs the lad who will play the part of his murdered grandfather.

But he won’t tell us. Instead, we are left to labour through a complete re‑enactment of a scene already described in rather tedious detail and recounted, in response to Alleyn’s questioning, by all the major protagonists. I disliked being toyed within this fashion. “Put up or shut up, Alleyn,” I wanted to say. “And get that superior smirk off your face while you’re about it!”

Despite various characters’ allusions, Off With His Head does not evoke the tragedies of Shakespeare, Webster or Marlowe. Plot and pattern override characterisation, to the extent that the theatrical device through which the murder is achieved is far more significant than any feeling for the victim or psychological insight about the perpetrator.

Sounds Easy takes a different tack. A drug‑related homicide sees Wellington detective Doug Fisher in the Marlborough Sounds, where he is joined by his upstairs neighbour Liz Gresham, a librarian, water colourist and amateur pilot.

The coincidence of their visits stands far beyond the prospect of belief. But then author Carol Dawber handles neither plot nor prose with any accomplishment. Kayaking round the Sounds, Liz just happens to overhear an argument on board a yacht which throws light on to the case. And she just happens to recall “the stunning‑looking blonde with a voice like a fishwife” was the woman in green on the ferry she bumped into a few weeks earlier.

If the plot turns on coincidences, the prose pivots on clichés which sometimes descend to bathos. The central character, a decent bloke called Jeff Woodfield, approaches the house where the “stunning‑looking blonde” is holed‑up: “‘Destiny!,’ he called when he got to the back door. ‘Destiny, it’s me, Jeff. Open the door!'” All that’s missing are the strains of Beethoven’s 5th wafting through an open window.

Or there’s the scene when Jeff reconciles with his wife Allison: “He hugged her roughly, filled with pity, and as he crushed her silly blonde head against his neck his own eyes misted too, as he realised what he had lost.”

Here the murder mystery meets Mills and Boon.

Sounds Easy, incidentally, is woefully edited, with numerous typos, plus the odd spelling mistake and historical inaccuracy. At one point it even manages to get one of the character’s names wrong.

Then again, perhaps it’s Destiny’s fault rather than the editor’s. Destiny sure has a lot to answer for in this book. On first seeing her in the pub “Jeff thought she was exciting and he was suddenly filled with a longing for better things.” Better things mean anything but his nagging wife. Jeff is the archetypal New Zealand male (of fiction, at least) ‑ strong, silent, physically capable ‑ but painfully aware of the emotional wasteland wrought by his own psyche. When the earthquake hits Jeff is outdoors. “He would have liked to see the trees ripple and the earth move and the waves crash, just once. But somehow, yet again, he’d been looking the wrong way.”

But a new age Dawns. (Dawn is Destiny’s other name. But so are Fay and Julie).

Back to the earthquakes. “I thought the earth would move whenever you walked,” Jeff tells Dawn. Alas, no, for Dawn/Destiny/Fay/Julie is but a fickle woman and a criminal into the bargain. Jeff might like to fantasise about the female ideal but his experience of women results in his preference for dogs. He sold his centreboard to buy Allison’s engagement ring, exchanging a symbol of freedom for one of servitude. When early in the marriage Allison very sensibly leaves him, she returns “with a wallet full of credit card slips it had taken Jeff years to pay off.” Eventually, Jeff makes his dream of escape a reality. His dog Angus becomes his mate and eventually lays down his life for his friend.

Intertwined with the tale of Allison and Jeff is that of Doug Fisher’s pursuit of the drug‑runners. Although New Zealand no longer has capital punishment, one fears if he does catch them he could well bore them to death.

Boredom is not something any reader of Inside Dope need fear. Paul Thomas tells a violent picaresque with wit, verve and unrelenting pace. The plot turns and twists with ever-increasing complexity and joie de morte. And there are delightful snapshots along the way ‑ flashbacks to help explain what made the protagonists the venal set of misfits they are today.

The inventive flair and crude good humour of Inside Dope is a welcome relief from the plodding police populating the other two books. Thomas’ humorous self‑irony evokes a caricature of Elmore Leonard at his best. It becomes difficult to distinguish the possible from the parody.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. in a novel which features a CIA hitwoman coming to New Zealand to eliminate a former CIA operative who came to New Zealand to track down a stash of cocaine which he found out about when killing an Asian transvestite who overheard a former member of the Mr Asia syndicate telling another New Zealander about … anything is possible.

Provided it is slick, cynical and witty. When Thomas writes in expository mode he is detailed and tedious. The beginnings of chapters are particularly weak. Witness the prologue: “On a soft, overcast night in October 1983 a 38-foot yacht skimmed down the section of Coromandel Peninsula’s east coast which faces Great Mercury Island on a 15-knot breeze from the north‑west.” Or the beginning of chapter 6: “Amanda Hayhoe, the television reporter, was not the only person in Auckland to be intrigued by the single column NZPA story about Dale Varty which appeared on page 5 of The New Zealand Herald on Friday, April 15.”

Thank God there’s very little writing of this sort in Inside Dope. After all, who needs another murder mystery novel when the alternative is so much more enjoyable?

Michael Pearson is a Wellington writer.

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