Hodder Moa Beckett, $18.95,
ISBN 1 8695 8296 9
Murder in Auckland, for book-loving New Zealanders, is much more delicious than killings in New York or Los Angeles. Aucklanders reading Paul Thomas’s crime novels can shiver with the frisson of mayhem happening in streets they regularly drive through; those of us who live outside Aucklandopolis can think smugly that this is just the sort of thing we would expect Aucklanders to get up to.
Paul Thomas’s murders are not only refreshingly close to home, they are among the best that money can buy. The first murder in Guerilla Season, Thomas’s third novel, is a beauty. Fred “The Freckle” Freckleton is a rabid ranting rightwing talkback host on radio, earning a quarter of a million dollars a year for abusing feminists, gays, environmentalists and welfare beneficiaries. The perfect target.
Kidnapped by two representatives of the Aotearoa People’s Army, he is made to walk across a narrow plank 15 storeys above the ground. Since he argues against safety nets for the poor and sick, none is provided for him.
“Why are you doing this?” Fred bleats at his captors.
“You’re a hate-mongering demagogue, you’re shallow as a birdbath, you’re in love with the sound of your own voice, you play too much Billy Joel — take your pick,” comes the answer. Thomas’s terrorists possess not only wit and style, but also good taste in music.
Thomas, a former New Zealand journalist and sports writer now living in Australia, displays this laconic wit and style through his three novels, the first two being Old School Tie and Inside Dope. The latter was voted 1995 crime novel of the year by the Crime Writers Association of Australia.
The first was a remarkably assured debut, the second maintained this standard, and Guerilla Season is better still. Thomas writes a cracking crime yarn, but these novels belong to the genre of superthriller, a term coined for this review to describe books which start off with the classic ingredients of the thriller — some evil-doing, a fast-moving story, a final plot resolution — and add something extra.
Part of the extra is simply good writing. Other aspects could be the psychological insights of Ruth Rendell, the anatomy lessons of Patricia Cornwell, the crunching satire of Carl Hiaasen, the Italian atmosphere of Michael Dibdin or the semi-relevant musings of Kinky Friedman.
Thomas gets the basics right first. Interesting things happen and keep happening, quickly enough to make you look across to the next page because you can’t wait for the next instalment. Puzzles puzzle, but with a reassuring sense that the truth is gradually emerging. The plots conclude with a flourish, a twist in which everything is made clear in ways that were unexpected but do fit perfectly together.
There is a great satisfaction to be had from the unravelling of a good thriller plot. One gradually learns what the complex mechanism is doing and then in a flash one understands how it all fitted together, what moved what, how and why. But it has to be done properly; the gears have to mesh precisely together. In other words, the plot has to make sense.
This may sound obvious, but there are distressing numbers of (non-super) thrillers around that do not meet this criterion. The worst offenders are Hollywood movies, the producers of which seem to think that an abundance of splattery deaths, choreographed car chases and screen-filling explosions obviate the need for a coherent plot.
I won’t even hint at the denouement of Guerilla Season, but it is ingenious, it is surprising yet plausible and it makes a political point.
Thomas has characters, lots of them. He introduces and sketches them quickly but clearly. Often they are a recognisable stereotype — a rugby thicko, a waffly academic — but humanised with some individual, quirky details.
At times one might wonder whether there are too many characters; it becomes hard to keep up with them and remember who they all are. And it may not be necessary, for example, to have a two-page biography of an Anglican dean whose sole function in the book is to own a dog which finds a corpse. The plethora of characters leads to an unusual structure: there is not really a protagonist, a single hero.
Thomas’s investigator is Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka, a grumpy Maori who would be a slob if he were a little more tidy. “He had a Popeye jaw, a greedy mouth and a flat, sprawling nose. After that, things improved marginally: his eyes were large and brown with long, dark lashes and would have been attractive if they’d contained a glimmer of warmth.” Ihaka occasionally shows signs of having a heart of perhaps four-carat gold, but the signs are well hidden.
An example of the Ihaka philosophy: “Ihaka reckoned anyone under 50 who wore cufflinks and a waistcoat when they didn’t have to was a wanker, simple as that. It wasn’t as bad as having a personalised number plate or wearing sunglasses inside or wearing a baseball cap backwards after your balls have dropped or putting some inane shit on your answerphone — but it was pretty fucking close.”
In these books there are generally so many characters that Ihaka’s place in the narrative is unusually small; he is just a part of Thomas’s machinery. Nor does the action take place from Ihaka’s point of view; many of the characters have their own point of view and Ihaka’s carries no more weight than theirs.
It’s not a better or a worse structure than the standard, just a different one. And you do get to meet plenty of interesting people.
There’s Rusty Trousdale, a gorgeous redhead who rejects a potential bedmate because he put tomato sauce on his confit duck leg, but marries the ugliest man in east Auckland. The latter also happens to be one of the richest men in Auckland.
Clyde Early has a well-thought-out plan for world domination, or what amounts to it in New Zealand terms: he aims to coach the All Blacks. One of his enemies is a player he had sacked with the damning words: “Once a sheila, always a sheila.”
Chas Gundry, a former car salesman and repo man, was elected as a National MP in the 1990 landslide and then founded his own Queen and Country Party partly because he “sincerely believed that an English grandmother with an unfortunate taste in hats was all that stood between New Zealand and anarchy”. He was proud to have topped the parliamentary press gallery’s arsehole index three years in a row, prouder still of his pitbull terrier Son of Sam, and seriously planning to write a book called The Joy of Pitbulls. The Aotearoa People’s Army takes a warm interest in his case.
Readers of the first two books will welcome back some characters they know already: Ihaka’s superior Finbar McGrail, the humourless Ulsterman; PR sleazo extraordinaire Caspar Quedley; the cold-eyed female CIA operative C C Hellicar; Duane Ricketts who got into a spot of bother with drugs. Nice to see them again.
Guerilla Season is very New Zealand, very Auckland, although the earlier books used other locales, including Sydney. Thomas sees no need to explain the supreme importance of rugby, or to tell the outside world what a weta is. The turns of phrase, the dialogue, are Kiwi to the core.
I’m delighted to see a superthriller set in New Zealand but what I really like about Thomas’s novels is his humour. It’s sardonic, cynical at times but essentially satirical and aimed at the right targets. It’s not the chainsaw approach of Hiaasen and it’s a bit blunt to be called scalpel-like; perhaps the best mechanical analogy is the deft twist of a screwdriver as Thomas fits in another component.
Auckland trendies, private-school dorks, Wellington experts, the French, television — all take direct hits from well-aimed sniping. Much of the humour is self-deprecating — and therefore very New Zealand — and one of the nice things about it is that Thomas lets his characters mock themselves. TV journalist Amanda Hayhoe on how to distinguish what another character has called the “glam young women” on the box: “It works like this: the game-show bimbos pout, the weather airheads simper and us current-affairs bitches do that odd sort of smug frown. It takes a lot of practice.”
When you’re reading Paul Thomas you’ve just about got everything: thrills, laughs, social comment and — irrespective of genre — a very good book.
Bernard Carpinter is a South Islander living in exile in Wellington. He edits the books page for The Dominion, works part-time at Victoria University and carries out a variety of freelance journalism.