Hazard Press $19.95
ISBN 1 877161 10 1
The Dancing Man
Hazard Press $19.95
ISBN 1 877161 14 4
Two murder stories set in my home town, Christchurch. Not one of the world’s more renowned murder centres, although the Parker-Hulme Heavenly Creatures killing gave us a modest reputation in this field. Neither of these books, I’m afraid, will give us the grisly glamour of, for example, New York or Los Angeles as a killing capital.
Ray Prebble has the bright idea of a crazed cult taking over the Christchurch MED and building all the substations in the form of temples to the evil goddess Med. Come to think of it, those substations do look a bit odd.
It starts with an old drunk – who has been raving about the Bringers of Darkness – being found with a stake through his heart and a diamond written on his head in his own blood. Psychologist John Luck resolves to solve the mystery, in between arguments with his friend-flatmate Sintle and lover Robyn.
Prebble kicks the idea along from here with some quite cute conspiracy clues reminiscent of, though nowhere near as good as, those in Umberto Eco’s Foucault‘s Pendulum. It seems quite a jolly jape and you look forward to the dénouement in which the Med/MED tangle will be unravelled in a frightfully clever sort of way, with a logical explanation for all the silly-looking but nevertheless worrying hints of a demonic plot. This stroke never comes. Instead the conspiracy-cult story keeps rambling on, getting sillier and sillier until it runs out of breath and flops into one of the feeblest endings I’ve read for a long time.
It’s disappointing, because the book does have its merits. Prebble is a sharp observer of personal relationships, especially of people’s remarkable ability to piss off their friends and lovers. These parts of the book achieve a realistic atmosphere which is quite at odds with the implausibility (to say the least) of the Med cult story. The tone of the book veers back and forth between these extremes, and also takes a detour into some nasty and unnecessary killings. One appreciates that murder books tend to induce a smattering of splatterings, but these just don’t fit.
Still, Prebble does have the ability to conjure up some atmosphere, and I do not recommend reading this book during the Wellington gale season. As you try to get to sleep, every creak of the house suggests that maybe there really is a Med freak out there working towards the Dark Day.
Edmund Bohan spent 25 years in Britain singing opera, and has also written five other books including a well-received biography of Edward Stafford, a general history of New Zealand, and the novel The Opawa Affair. The latter, set in 19th-century Christchurch, introduced Inspector O’Rorke, who also stars in The Dancing Man (no connection with the Sherlock Holmes story “The Dancing Men”).
There is certainly plenty of history in The Dancing Man, but the novel reminds me more of a musical drama than an opera. In musicals the characters act more or less like normal people for considerable periods, and then they all stop for a bout of singing and dancing. This is one of the reasons why I dislike musicals: they kill the action, and by the time they get going again you’ve almost forgotten what they were on about in the first place.
The Dancing Man doesn’t have too much singing or dancing, but it does have flashbacks. Lots of them. From New Zealand back to Ireland, America, South Africa and the Crimean War, and they tend to read more like history lessons than part of a good murder story. At one point everything stops while the Inspector reads a letter from his beloved. The letter tells her history and runs for eleven and a half pages. Every time the vehicle of the story gets up to speed, it runs into major roadworks and has to wait for far too long before it can start off again.
It’s not a conventional detective story, in that it doesn’t start with a murder requiring to be solved; it’s more a case of waiting to see who is going to get the chop at the end of the book as the result of unfinished business from the Fenian uprising in Ireland. And whether the proud, uncommunicative Inspector O’Rorke is going to get it on with the beautiful Kate Martin, who seized a large part of his heart when he met her briefly in Ireland many years earlier.
The catalyst for much of what action there is comes from the visit of the Dancing Man, a sort of 19th century Michael Flatley who was also involved in the Fenian movement; Some of the history in the book is quite interesting, and Bohan has a cultured prose style, but the book never comes alive. It doesn’t help that many of the characters are, like the good Inspector, stiff, proud and uncommunicative types: such people are unlikely to supply sparkling dialogue.
Changing mores always present a problem in historical novels, and The Dancing Man is no exception. Some of the characters’ concerns have trouble arousing sympathy these days. The military types, for example, are obsessed with the honour of the regiment, a central tenet of which seems to be that homosexuality is fine within the regiment but a suicide-inducing disgrace if word of it gets any further. To a modern reader, this appears neither honourable nor logical.
The Great Christchurch Mystery Novel remains to be written. Perhaps the city fathers should offer Paul Thomas a grant to come and show how it should be done.
Bernard Carpinter is a Wellington journalist and books editor of the Dominion.