Thriller lite, Bernard Carpinter

Friendly Fire
Michael Wall
Penguin, $18.95
ISBN 0 14 D27768 4

Taken to the Cleaners
Morgan Jones
Cape Catley, $19.95
lSBN 0 908561 54 7

Mates
Laurie Mantell
Hazard Press, $19.95
ISBN 1 877161 33 0

 

Warning

The identity of the perpetrators is revealed at the end of this review of three New Zealand thrillers. If you are thinking of reading these books, cover the final two paragraphs.

There are some truly frightening characters in Friendly Fire. Desperate to wield total power in New Zealand, they will stop at nothing to achieve their ends: deceit, double-crossing, backstabbing and efforts to seize control of the news media are just part of their daily grind.

And these are the good guys: the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Catherine Carmichael, and her press, secretary, Erin Florian. The bad guys? Oh, they kill a few people, as usual, but at times it can be hard for the reader to decide whom to support in this top-level struggle between bad and evil.

Erin is the hero. Beautiful, talented, feisty, blah blah, she is a New Zealander who was editor of a group of fabulously trendy glossy magazines in London, with a fabulously wealthy and handsome French husband whom she visited in Paris every weekend. Until one day she arrived in Paris unexpectedly to find her fabulously etc husband bonking some bimbo. Whereupon she chucked it all in to come home to NZ and help her old school chum Catherine run the country.

Detecting a faint whiff of implausibility, I conducted a quick survey of some women journalists in Wellington. Their verdict was unanimous: they wanted the European fabulous stuff, thank you very much, and were quite prepared to take a Hilaryesque view of a misdemeanour which is after all practically de rigueur in Paris anyway. Wellington and the Beehive just could not compete.

Never mind. Erin settles back in Wellington and in no time at all is manipulating the media – of which she until recently formed part – like an old pro. One example is the “dump day”: when the government has a bad-news day, the word goes around all the offices to spill all their bad news at the same time. The media can’t cover all the facial egg properly at the same time, so much of it disappears almost without trace.

Then Erin sees someone killed, and it seems that a person or persons unknown are attempting to terminate her as well. She falls among the spooks. There is one good spook, the deputy director of the SIS, a thoroughly decent, resourceful chap who has hand-built a fabulous mansion in the wop-wops of Marlborough so from it all. All the other spooks –from a variety of outfits – seem to be pretty ghastly. And what are those terrible Frogs up to this time?

The main attraction of Friendly Fire for New Zealand readers is that it conveys a sense of being inside the corridors of power in this country. So it should – Wall from 1991 to 1994 was chief policy adviser and press secretary to Jim Bolger.

When the book was published, Wall won plaudits for his prescience in writing about a woman Prime Minister with a disintegrating coalition. He rips into it with a gusto which makes it clear that he enjoyed his time at the seat of power … and which should cause serious concern about the state of democracy in New Zealand.

But as thrillers go it’s not bad really. It’s slick – in both the good and bad shades of meaning of that word – and it rollicks among. It’s got the setting and the secrets, the sex (including some awkward manoeuvres in the front seat of a car) and the shootouts, and even some cyber sleuthing on the Internet.

Friendly Fire is at least as good as the average international mega-selling blockbuster you’ll find at the airport book shop. Which is nice, in a way. It’s good to see New Zealand writers who have no difficulty believing that New Zealand is a place where fantastically intriguing and exciting things can happen. It could be seen as a sign of cultural maturity.

2

As with most such books, the story in Friendly Fire is better than the writing that tells it. The opposite, curiously, is true of Morgan Jones’s Taken to the Cleaners.

This story starts in Queenstown so, as a devout Central Otago-phile, I stayed it with considerable interest. Would someone’s bunny cord be cut halfway through? Would a jetboat’s throttle jam open in the Shotover rapids? How would Jones – as a sculptor clearly a man of acute aesthetic sensitivity – describe New Zealand’s best scenery?

Well, the scene-setting in Queenstown is quite well done, but alas the story soon shifts to Australia. Jones lives in both Queenstown and Sydney, and clearly has an eye on the larger market.

The imperially measured Miles Furlong, hero and narrator, is an Australian PhD, a former art curator turned professional league player turned taxi driver. Jones knows enough about football to add plausibility by stating that while he was a curator, Furlong was a Wallaby. His art career collapsed when he was suspected of complicity in a theft from the gallery where he worked. Now Cecil Ng arrives in Queenstown to enlist Furlong in a quest to recover the loot. He says his grandfather’s ashes are in a stolen urn. There ensues a chase around Australia, including adventures which could put the more squeamish reader off ever entering an antique shop. It’s reasonably well done but the plot is loose in places and some of the characters on the thin side – the mysterious, multifaceted Elizabeth is so mysterious and multifaceted, not to mention chameleon-like, that it’s impossible to see her as anything like a real caricature, let alone a real person.

But Jones sculpts his words rather well, often supplying a turn of phrase with a freshness and observation not normally expected in this sort of book: I hadn’t noticed until then that he had two heavy gold signet rings, one on the wedding finger of either hand, as if like a car’s wheels he had to be correctly balanced so that he could move properly.

Miles Furlong has taken some knocks on and off the football fields, and his fine collection of scars help to give him a personality and credibility which is lacking in some other aspects of the book. We could be seeing more of him: the cover carries a little red circle saying “A Miles Furlong thriller”, implying that he is to become a regular fixture.

3

Laurie Mansell had five detective books published in Britain earlier in her career. Now, after a break of some years, she is back in print with this New Zealand-published effort.

Detective Sergeant Eric Walden, an ordinary New Zealand policeman in Lower Hutt, tells the story. He’s a plod. And as a story-teller, alas, he plods. There are times when the reader may wonder if this is an innovation in crime writing: a thriller without thrills.

To be fair to Mansell, she has deliberately written this book in a low-key style. Her narrator is a decent New Zealand bloke, compassionate, loyal to his friends, and not entirely insensitive. But he’s not a detective mastermind, he’s not funny, he’s just a bit boring.

As the title implies, the book does raise some questions about friendship. When Catia Praxton is found with a knife in her back, one of the chief suspects is her fiancé – a traffic cop friend of Eric’s. How do you react when your friend comes under suspicion of murder? Of course it’s just not possible, you think, but then you can’t stop a little doubt from creeping in. This extra dimension does give the book some additional strength.

It’s not a puzzle thriller, where the reader has a chance of solving the mystery before the experts, it’s just a story that chugs along through routine police investigation while the irascible Detective Inspector McCann supplies the brainpower in the background. The writing is perfectly competent, the New Zealand atmosphere assured, the dialogue natural. But it’s curiously old-fashioned, the ending is implausible, and for me at least thriller lite is just not enough.

4

These are three very different books, but they have one notable feature in common: in each case, the chief perpetrators turn out to be persons not of Anglo-Saxon descent. Or, the wogs dunnit. The French, a Chinaman, the Brazilians – the Kiwis only get a look-in as accomplices for the Frogs in Friendly Fire, although it has to be said that there are some distinctly undesirable Aussies in Taken to the Cleaners.

Can our writers not imagine that Kiwis are capable of achieving excellence in villainy? Why ever not? Our thriller industry will not be truly mature until we have some world-class bad buggers of our own.

Bernard Carpinter is a Wellington journalist and books editor of the Dominion.

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