From the sin bin, Bernard Carpinter

The Cassino Legacy
Michael Wall
Penguin, $19.95,
ISBN 0140288368

Cardinal Sins
Michael Wall
HarperCollins, $19.95,
ISBN 1869503619

Michael Wall wants to see his name on the airport bookshelves of the world. He is making serious and professional efforts to write, from New Zealand, thrillers that could match the sales of writers like Jeffrey Archer, Richard Patterson North and Tom Clancy. His last three books clearly show the development of his ambitions and expertise in the field of the international blockbuster.

His second book, Friendly Fire, was set in New Zealand, mainly in the Wellington bureaucracy. It was racy, it showed a lot of insider knowledge, and it was quite funny. At times it even seemed a little tongue-in-cheek. It had a lot of life and, though I had trouble suspending disbelief at times, I did enjoy it. Next comes The Cassino Legacy, set mainly in New Zealand – around the National Park area – but also in Italy, a country Wall knows and loves. It takes itself a bit more seriously, but is still a rollicking good read. Now we have Cardinal Sins – great title – which takes place mainly in Italy in the 1930s. It includes popes and many real historical characters and incidents, and one character from New Zealand.

The progression of these three books gives the impression that Wall has set out to tailor his product to the market. It seems he has made a careful study of the thrillers that sell in large quantities, and has reached the following conclusions:

  • best-selling thrillers are not funny
  • they are staged at a high level, with presidents, wars, fates of nations and so on
  • they include lots of semi-relevant facts to show that the author has done his/her research
  • they are long
  • they are not set in New Zealand.

These are the logical conclusions to draw from the available evidence, and if Wall wants to make a good living writing thrillers, then it is logical for him to apply these findings to his own work. Personally, I enjoyed these three books less and less, but then I’m not really in the market for airport books these days.

The title of The Cassino Legacy refers to Monte Cassino, the Italian monastery that New Zealand troops helped to capture from the Germans towards the end of World War II. At this time, according to the book, someone stole a huge amount of the finest art, and it hasn’t been seen since.

Adam Kennedy is a former member of the New Zealand SAS, haunted by – no, not Vietnam – a mountain incident that resulted in the death of troops he was responsible for. He is living near National Park and working on a PhD thesis about the New Zealand campaign in Italy. No one in New Zealand knows about his study, for he is a taciturn Kiwi bloke, a loner although he has been scoring well with the female skiers at the Petit Neige Lapin lodge (cute). Meanwhile Toni Travato has been studying the art theft at her job in the Italian bureaucracy. She comes to National Park to continue her enquiries. At the Petit Neige Lapin she makes an immediate impact with her “sky-high cheekbones with the deep green eyes” and “sparkling raven hair”.

Adam and Toni get together, sort of. People start trying to kill them. It’s not immediately clear whether it’s Italians or Kiwis aiming rocks at their four-wheel-drive. Toni goes back to Italy for a while, adding international flavour. Turns out there’s a right-wing conspiracy to seize power in Italy, raising the level of the action. Detail of the war in Italy reveals the author’s research. The book moves pretty swiftly through its 379 pages. There’s mayhem, dastardly plots, New Zealand settings and people, and just a little sex. I would recommend it for a long flight, if you can’t find Friendly Fire.

Cardinal Sins leaves New Zealand altogether. Brendan Lehane is a Kiwi who has gone to Rome to study to be a priest, and all the action takes place in or near Europe – Europe in the lead-up to World War II, with the growing power of the Fascists, the Spanish Civil War, the attacks on Jews, Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia and the political machinations in the Vatican. He befriends, and gets into trouble with, another seminarian, Spanish nobleman Tomas Aquino Reyes de Montello y Torres. He joins a secretive order that seems like a sort of Catholic SAS, which bends one or two of the Ten Commandments, such as “Thou shalt not kill”. Tomas is also committing the odd sin, getting involved in the Spanish Civil War and bonking “the most beautiful young woman Spain could boast in that troubled generation”.

There’s a fair amount of action and some interesting historical detail, all written in clear, straightforward prose. But the book doesn’t have the life of Wall’s earlier work; it’s more earnest, it’s not funny and – for obvious reasons – it doesn’t give you that feeling that the author was really there at the time. And, at 427 pages, it’s too long. But really Wall has succeeded in his aim. Cardinal Sins is as good as successful books in the genre, and while that may be faint praise from the literary point of view, I sincerely hope he enjoys commercial success with the book.

 

Masks and Shadows
Michael Riddell
HarperCollins, $24.95,
ISBN 1869503481

Theological thriller is one of many labels one could apply to this unusual and courageous book, which is set in England. I say courageous, because it’s about the rape and murder of a young girl, a child, and because it goes into the mind of the murderer.

The theology comes mostly through one of the main characters who is a minister, and gets into discussions about God and evil – whether a just God would allow an innocent child to be murdered, all that old stuff. Many voices tell the story in different ways, including the murdered girl – writing entirely in lower case from beyond the grave – and a mystery man writing in italics. It’s all a bit confusing and annoying for a while and indeed the writer and editor seem to have got confused themselves at the top of p90, where Elizabeth temporarily becomes Mary.

But if you can persevere with the book you will be rewarded. This is accomplished story-telling; the strands are tied together neatly at the end when, yes, you find out whodunit. The different voices have their distinct personalities, and there is a disturbingly realistic air about the presentation of the terrible things that happen. I’d advise you to skip the prologue, though. The author suggests to the reader, “You’re getting annoyed already, aren’t you?”, and he’s quite right.

 

Spindrift
Greg Billington
Reed, $24.95,
ISBN 0790007339

Greg Billington’s first novel has some crime in it, quite a lot in fact, but it’s really not a crime novel. It’s about a teenager growing up the hard way in Tauranga, with a “very bad bastard” older brother trying to run his life for him, and about the legal crimes that people commit against one another in ordinary living. Martin wants to be a commercial fisherman, but brother Henry wants him to stay and help run the family business – mainly stealing and dealing in drugs. Fisherman Jack tries to help Martin, but has his own problems with Alice.

It had never occurred to me that commercial fishing had some glamour attached to it, but Billington manages to convey at least part of the appeal of being out in a big ocean on a small boat trying to out-think gropers and trevally. Personally I’d rather be on a motorbike, and Billington is good on motorbikes too. The crash scene brought back some painful memories. This comes across as an honest book, told in prose as functional as a fishing boat. Martin is a sympathetic character and you wish him well as he tries to take charge of his life. Perhaps the ending could have been better handled, though.

 

The Matter of Parihaka
Edmund Bohan
Hazard Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1877161632

This is the third of Bohan’s series featuring Inspector Patrick O’Rorke, an Irish policeman operating in 19th-century Christchurch. O’Rorke is perhaps not the ideal character to hang a series on; he’s stiff and uncommunicative and in need of a good anger management course. I don’t like the bugger at all myself, and, with the exception of beautiful women, neither do most of the other characters in the books. Worse, O’Rorke lacks depth; Bohan’s interest seems to lie more in presenting the history of the time than in achieving rounded characterisation.

This time O’Rorke accepts a government request to investigate aspects of the mistreatment of pacifist Maori at Parihaka, leaving his sidekick Detective Constable Taylor to sort out a murder in Christchurch. The result is a better book than the previous one in the series, The Dancing Man, which I found very tedious. The story flows better, some of the minor characters have a bit of life in them (more than O’Rorke, certainly), and there are even hints of humour at times. It’s still a bit wooden, though, and too much of the dialogue is devoted to clunky exposition. With its deliberately old-fashioned air, it could make a suitable present for an elderly relative with an interest in New Zealand history.

 

Bernard Carpinter is a journalist in Napier.

 

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