Letters – Issue 31

Puzzles and solutions

In his stimulating study, A Talent to Deceive: An appreciation of Agatha Christie, Robert Barnard argues that, in “approaching Agatha Christie and her fellows … as novelists and by looking for the same sort of qualitites one may hope to find in novels … critics are making a mistake… Agatha Christie is a teller of popular tales and should be judged by the criteria appropriate to such a genre.”

Jane Stafford’s assessment (New Zealand Books, August 1997) that Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s Blue Blood is a “classic detective story” but one which is “small beer to those experienced in the genre of detective fiction” suggests that not only can a crime story be mistaken for a novel but that a novel can be mistaken for a crime story. The murder “mystery” in Blue Blood is paralleled by a more substantial, more satisfying puzzle — the puzzle of what made “Ngaio Marsh” a crime writer. The crime puzzle starts off with a bang and ends with a whimper. The crime writer puzzle starts off with a whimper (“what will come to me in 1929?”) and ends with a bang — of fingers hitting the typewriter keys. And the reader starts off on the trail of one puzzle and ends with the solution to another. Nice work.

Malcolm McKinnon


A few points

I read Iain Sharp’s generally sympathetic and positive overview of my recent book, Paradise to Come, with interest. I would like to react/comment on a few points and put the record straight on a couple of matters.

Sharp’s observations about Fitzgerald and Verne seem disproportionately and peripherally erudite. The point of using a quote from Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has little to do with Fitzgerald and more to do with the view of the Persian-originated poem that paradise is earthly but (in my view), like all paradises, still awaited. Father Juan de Bolivar’s Catholic belief system is threatened by the earthly paradise that the crew of the San Lesmes appear to be enjoying — which, ironically after his earlier denunciations and baptisms, he himself appears to enter. It is a happy coincidence that Verne was an Indian prince (though a Chinese warlord would have been better) and I thank Sharp for drawing my attention to this fact. But three paragraphs on Verne and two on Fitzgerald? Iain, the book please!

I think Sharp too readily discounts my interest in power and politics and too facilely concludes that the erotic and the exotic are linked in Paradise to Come. Sea serpents, giant eagles, giant moas, taniwhas (say) are all exotic but not erotic. The sequence of the sailors’ meeting nubile companions may well be a male fantasy (and I am happy to have such) but one should recall the tradition of sexual hospitality recorded in much of Polynesia and the South Seas and the fact that when Magellan’s crew encountered the inhabitants of Brazil the women were available to them by the gift of some token gift  such as a ship’s nail. And wept when they left! But whether fanciful or exaggerated — and I maintain it has some basis in fact — it suits my dramatic purposes for it shows Bolivar’s initial stern asceticism.

Sharp finds Siew Yen’s small cuts and the loss of a finger reminiscent of Sade’s Justine! Surely not. Siew Yen is meeting adversity but, unlike de Sade’s helpless heroines, she fights back. I firmly deny that the divine marquis has had any influence either on my text — or my life.

The jest about Bolivar hearing birds crying for cooked pig was undergraduate-ish but I couldn’t resist. (I am, after all, an undergraduate.) However, this is one of a number of what I will call text disrupters (text rippers?) which should signal to readers who may have been lulled into thinking that this was a “straight” historical dairy, that it is a fictional conjuring trick. Like Houdini, I have deliberately revealed my sleight of hand. Comparable examples include the quotations from Brasch and Curnow slipped into the text which, surprisingly for one so well read on as Sharp, were not noted. Readers of (say) Strindberg should not be astonished. Yes, it’s early modernism, though in keeping with the times and in the light of recent literary theory one might call it post-modernism.

Sharp refers to me spending a small fortune on the launch. For the record I did not spend but allocated [money and items provided by sponsors].

I take strong umbrage at the suggestion that there should have been a stronger or any Maori presence in the second novella. The principle characters are, after all, Chinese and European. The whole point about writing fiction is its complete freedom from political, ethnic or anthropological prescription or vetting. This is a 3000-year-old western tradition. Any suggestion to the contrary is tainted by either the former Soviet Union’s view of art or the current narrow-minded and culturally fascistic view known as political correctness against which I continue to vigorously campaign.

I would have liked Sharp to have discussed the ramifications of the preservation of the architectural past more. The model for the fictional Arabian Nights theatre was obviously the Civic cinema and possibly His Majesty’s theatre. The former, we are now assured, will be preserved the latter was torn down and, as “Captain Nemo’s Child” relates, replaced by a carpark. The issue of Asian immigration and our cultural response to it is also prominently featured. These two are the principle themes of the novella. But the absence of Maori characters is singled out for comment — alas, I fear a dutifully kneejerk response. Next time, perhaps.

Van Morrison was once criticised by a New Zealand reviewer for celebrating the lyric joys of Irish life when he should have been paying more attention to what was going in Belfast. I rest my case.

Michael Morrissey


Editor’s note: Abridged. Critics are encouraged as a matter of editorial practice to go beyond the book, to add value for the reader. In citing Verne, Sharp was consistent with this brief.

Rail tourism

Murray King’s rail passenger resurgence as a tourist attraction may yet be no more than public relations. The great “Save Railer” Richard Prebble’s reign saw the ripping up of a potential tourist jewel, the line from Dunedin to Alexandra and Clyde with its Central Otago vistas and access to Queenstown, and the lifting of the heavy rail to Opua and the Bay of Islands. The Trans-Alpine is entirely dependent on contested coal traffic using the tracks and the new star, the Coastal Pacific, will lose its lustre without the cruise through the Marlborough sounds, Picton marina and the Blenheim vineyards and luxury hotels when the Clifford bay cutoff goes ahead. Electrifying the line between Kaikoura and Picton would have been a better option but only short-term accounting now registers with Tranz Rail.

I was one of the few original backers of rail privatisation but it is obvious after four years that the profits are coming from non-core manipulation and the system is just living on its capital, importing 30-year-old locomotives and carriages. Undoubtedly a few people have got very rich but Tranz Rail’s image as a modern railway with a future rests on little more than spray paint and signwriting.

Robert Miles


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