More spills than thrills, Bernard Carpinter

The Wastings
Don Donovan
Hazard Press, $24.95, ISBN 1 877161 52 7

Don Donovan’s The Wastings could be read as a savage satire on the evils of the right-wing economic theories that have bedevilled this country over the last 15 years.  Hero/narrator Morgan Campbell-Pye is an advertising high-flyer – a perfect example of the sort of people who make a lot of money and gain a spurious glamour without actually doing anything very useful – and he sets about systematically murdering his friends for profit.

MC-P (a clue there, surely?) is invited by a group of his business mates to join a tontine. Tontines were a regular feature of the old thrillers I read as a lad, but have been out of fashion for a while now. A tontine, I perhaps should explain, is an arrangement whereby a group of people all contribute money to a pool, and the last surviving member gets the lot. A New Right businessman can spot the opportunities immediately. Campbell-Pye sees fortune beckoning, and over a period of some years arranges a series of accidents for his friends.

A fat judge is left to drown in the ocean at night after Campbell-Pye pulls up the ladder on their yacht, making it impossible for the unfit swimmer to get back on board. “Can you imagine how he must have felt? The noise coming from the boat, the lights. Not being able to climb onto that platform. No ladder to climb up. Wallowing about, losing strength. I wonder if he called out?”

That was a piece of dialogue spoken by Campbell-Pye himself as he discusses the tragedy with his friends. He takes great pride in his ability to display grief at his friends’ premature departures, and indeed assures the reader that he does regret the consequences of his actions – but hey, business is business and you have to break a few eggs along the way, right?

Campbell-Pye from time to time voices his approval of New Right policies, and indeed runs the advertising campaign that helps keep the Tory Government in power. He acknowledges that the gap between the rich and poor has increased, but this observation seems only to increase his determination to be filthy rich. In a master-stroke of writing, the author has Campbell-Pye tell readers that he is charismatic. Without any internal evidence to support such an assertion, the reader could easily have concluded that the narrator was just a bit of a wanker. But after reading this claim, the reader knows that MC-P is in fact a total wanker.

Yes, it makes an excellent satire, if you read it that way. There were times when I was quite enjoying what appeared to be some nice tongue-in-cheek writing but, alas, I ended up believing that the author was serious. The smugness is terribly convincing.

 

Connor Is Free
Denis Edwards
Penguin, $19.95, ISBN 0 140 28704 3

Connor Is Free by Denis Edwards, whose Miramar Dog was well received not long ago, is a more conventional thriller. The first chapter is a cracker, with clean, urgent writing and a neat twist at the end. The only trouble is, you have to wait till page 249 to discover what relevance it has to the rest of the book, and even then the connection is somewhat tenuous.

Connor is a white-collar criminal recently released from jail, which Edwards depicts with convincing detail as a very unpleasant place to be. He is on the track of the loot from his crime and so are a fine collection of people one would prefer to avoid, including the police and a self-styled religious guru.

Most of the time the book rips along quite nicely, with periodic butcherings, a love interest, plenty of mystery, a reunion with a daughter, recognisable Auckland settings and leavenings of wry humour. Bad guy A says, “We’re interested in money, as I’m sure you are too. We think you should share some of yours with us. If you feel political correctness is a motivator, look on it as returning stolen resources to the indigenous people.” Bad guy B adds immediately, “Or I’ll bloody waste ya.”

Connor goes out to investigate the guru’s sinister religious centre, and spends altogether too much time there in an overextended set piece that becomes a bit of a drag. Some of the plot connections are a bit hard to follow, too, but overall it’s well worth taking to the beach or aboard an aeroplane.

 

Hawks
Andrew Grant
Shoal Bay Press, $19.95, ISBN 0 908704 79 8

Hawks works in a different genre, the action adventure, although there is at least one attempted murder in there. It’s real Kiwi stuff, set in “the venison wars in New Zealand’s wild south-west”, as the cover blurb so eloquently puts it.

Author Andrew Grant (a pseudonym) is a survivor of those times in Fiordland and South Westland when modern-day cowboys and helicopter pilots did crazy and dangerous things for big money – first killing deer for their meat, and then capturing wild deer for the new deer-farming industry. He lived it, now he’s written about it in fictional form, and the authenticity shows through. The scenery, the characters and the details ring true, which makes the tales of flying, shooting, drinking and fighting all the more hair-raising.

Gray (no other name is ever given) turns up in Fiordland with a gun and a recurring nightmare from his days with the SAS in Vietnam. His prowess with the gun makes him the top shooter in the region, a local legend although he is a quiet and enigmatic fellow. Whenever he goes to Dunedin on leave, beautiful, intelligent women fall all over him (there seems to be a shortage of such females on the other coast). Gray, we are to understand, is not insensitive. He has his problems, and he thinks about his relationships with other people – especially Mary, who married someone else when she thought Gray had died in a crash.

The book is unashamedly middle-brow, although it could have been improved if an editor with an eye as keen as Gray’s had gone through and removed most of the clichés – sparks flying, blood running cold, that sort of thing. But it’s an honest, exciting and very New Zealand book and I liked it for those reasons.

 

After-heat
Keith Stewart
Vintage, $24.95, ISBN 1 86941 379 2

Keith Stewart, a well-known wine writer (I’ve long enjoyed his column in the Listener) and art commentator, has now published his first novel, After-heat. He insists that After-heat is not a thriller, in spite of the terrorism element that has led some to label it as such. He’s quite right: the terrorism doesn’t start until well into the book, and it is evident that his purpose is much more serious than giving readers a few thrills.

At the age of 20, John Selkirk discovers that his grandfather, who died in the Second World War, was Maori. He talks with Matiu, a friend of his grandfather, and this conversation continues after Matiu dies in a boating accident. Matiu, a staunch Maori nationalist with a particular hatred of the French, talks to John from the grave, especially after John goes to Europe for his OE. On the plane John receives a lecture on wine from a Frenchman, and when he starts a relationship with a woman in London she lectures him on art. The dead Matiu urges him on to action, which begins with attacks on French art and wine.

The trouble with this book is that too much of it reads like lectures. The dialogue is unnatural and unconvincing. People say things like: “You see, what the Impressionists give us is not truth, which in their time was the rampant industrial militarism which would culminate in the Great War.” What a mouthful.

Stewart has plenty of good ideas to offer but he presents them in such a schematic, didactic way that reading them is not much fun.

 

Unsolved Murders in New Zealand
Tony Williams
Hodder Moa Beckett, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86958 724 3

For readers of thrillers, Unsolved Murders in New Zealand has two drawbacks. First, obviously enough, you never find out whodunit, although in some cases prime suspects are identified. Secondly, it reminds you that in real life murders are terrible things, not only for the victims but also for their families and friends. This realisation might affect your enjoyment of the next thriller or two.

Most of the cases are well-known: Mona Blades, Jennifer Beard, the Crewes, Kirsa Jensen, and Ernie Abbot, for example. The stories are told in competent journalistic style, but the book is printed in a slightly annoying typewriter-like typeface. I’m not sufficiently well up on the cases to be able to tell you whether Tony Williams has any breakthrough evidence or theories to offer, but in some cases his assemblage of material is quite enlightening. Of course, the laws of defamation prevent him from pointing fingers at living people, which must have been fairly inhibiting.

PS:

I’d like to mention quickly a couple of other New Zealand thrillers not included in this bunch.

Paul Thomas’s first three Down Under thrillers were the best in this genre by any New Zealand writer. They had style, wit, brilliant plots and huge numbers of interesting characters. His fourth, Final Cut, is different in its approach: more serious, less funny, and with a much smaller cast of characters. The hero, just out of jail for insider trading, becomes obsessed with a beautiful, sexy woman who featured in an amateur porn video. It’s not bad but I found it a little disappointing; it lacked the insouciant flair of the first three.

Morgan Jones’s second novel, Dummy Run, brings back Miles Furlong, the former art curator, rugby player and taxi-driver. It’s more assured than the first Furlong book, Taken to the Cleaners, and rather a good read. Set in the Australian art world (with a bit of New Zealand in there too), it presents some well-aimed satire of the art scene and a truly wonderful murder, which becomes the star turn at the opening of an exhibition. Jones says he has more Furlong stories coming, and I look forward to reading them.

Bernard Carpinter edits the Dominion books page.

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