Allen & Unwin, $35,
A defenestration (nice word, eh?) makes an arresting beginning to Chad Taylor’s third novel. Especially as the defenestree is the narrator.
Just how Ellerslie Penrose came to be flying out of a window on the top floor of an Auckland hotel makes quite a story, a story with murders, sleaze, sex and love, money, a man who seems to be impossibly old, and an old woman who dies in a fire but also remains young and alive. Mysterious stuff, and complicated too; there’s enough here to keep an army of academics happy for years. Readers could well find themselves confused at times – I certainly was – but they will probably not mind, because this is an intriguing and very well-written book.
Ellerslie Penrose is an independent investment adviser, specialising in futures. He studies the market, he keeps files on everything, he tells people what to buy and sell. He makes a lot of money; he’s a high-flyer. But he comes crashing down to earth, in more ways than one. The story could be subtitled “The Fall and Fall of Ellerslie Penrose”. Incidentally, I like the fact that no one ever comments on his bi-suburban name; his girlfriend Wilhelmina calls him “Ellie”.
Ellerslie works long hours, he sleeps badly, he’s detached and obsessive. He doesn’t seem to have any real friends: “I liked living by myself. But sometimes I felt as if there was someone else in the room, a nameless observer, watching my actions, listening to every thought.” He stumbles upon a murder scene and sees the grisly corpse, cut to pieces in a recycling bin full of broken glass. The scene is described in some detail. He picks up the deceased’s wallet and, being an obsessive collector of information, starts his own investigation into the crime. This initiative does not please the Sherlock Holmes-quoting detective, Tangiers.
The trail leads our hero to diaries apparently written by Palmer, a man born in 1874 – and still alive and dangerous. Things become very strange. Is Ellerslie cracking up? Is it all in his head or is the ancient Palmer really out to get him? Who is the blonde in the long black coat?
Taylor takes us right inside Ellerslie’s head. It’s a scary place to be, and not just because of the perceived external threats. There are internal problems too; Ellerslie is disconnected, on the outside. He’s a type that goes back at least as far as Camus’s The Outsider, and no doubt it’s just coincidence that Camus also wrote a book called The Fall. His relationship with Wilhelmina is fragmentary. As Madame Sunde says to him, “But of course you say nothing. You are the cool one. Everything hidden away.”
If this sounds a bit heavy, well it is and it isn’t. It’s heavy because it’s complex and because Taylor deals with serious subjects; it’s unheavy because he writes so well. The writing is cool, sharp-eyed, wry and ironic. Taylor comes up with unexpected but apt descriptions: “All that was left of the store was a network of black, spiky compartments like a Mondrian.” The man has style.
Cape Catley, $19.95,
Temptation Island is also a suspense book with serious intentions, but one written in a more straightforward, conventional sort of way. And none the worse for that.
Lay takes us to the South Pacific nation of Avaiiki, a former British colony and now an independent state, sharing an island with the French colony of New Cythera. It’s a beautiful place, warm and apparently tranquil. The people are lively and friendly. But there is corruption in high places, siphoning off the aid money the people need to build their country up. A half-built, abandoned hotel is a constant reminder of what is going wrong.
To Avaiiki comes New Zealand photo-journalist Max Davidson, despatched by a magazine editor with an eye for a story. But instead of remaining the detached, objective journalist, Max gets involved. Involved with local newspaper editor Mose Baumann’s struggle to get the truth out; involved with a beautiful Avaiikan woman (naturally); involved with the country. He needs some involvement. He’s recovering from the death of his only child, and from two failed marriages.
Max finds plenty to keep him busy as the plot unfolds. The Prime Minister, Sir James Makeora, played rugby with Max at university and he played it dirty: he kicked opposing players in the head when the referee wasn’t watching. He’s a bad bugger, and things gradually get nastier and nastier.
Lay conveys a real sense of the place: you can see the colours and smell the smells. He devotes a lot of the book to description and comes up with some nice suggestive turns of phrase: “Fat dragonflies hovered above the water like helicopter gunships.” Perhaps at times there is a little too much description for what is billed as a suspense novel. There were times when I found myself thinking, “Bugger the dragonflies, cut to the chase.”
On the whole, this is a serious, well-crafted and very readable novel with a lot to say about the effects of colonialism, corruption and relationships. It’s not just about the island; there are references to corruption in Australia, and dawn raids to kick Pacific Island overstayers out of New Zealand. The book is let down slightly by its production values. My copy was so tightly bound that it was a physical struggle to read it; some of the French is wrong (as in “a Bordeaux chardonnay”); and Mose changes randomly to Moss. And it’s probably a bit too long at 354 pages.
This book, by a Swiss-born lecturer in Management Science now living in Christchurch, shares a couple of features with Temptation Island: a concern for the welfare of developing countries, and bad French. In both books, people say “Enchantez” when it should be “Enchanté”. Surely it can’t be too difficult for editors to check these things?
Ultimate Dare (not a promising title) gets off to a poor start. You begin to wonder if it’s a cross between a thriller and an economics textbook. The first real conversation between Matthias Bachman, who works on computers in a Swiss bank, and his wife Monica is an earnest discussion about the evils of Third World debt.
Meanwhile Paul Sekholi, who knew Matthias at university in England, is trying to straighten out the finances of his poor African homeland, Zainga. The country is ruled by his uncle, the corrupt dictator General Kambula. Paul is plotting to have Zainga simply default on all the debt that is crippling the nation – the “ultimate dare” of the title. A mean hand with computers, he hacks into Matthias’ – and discovers that the Swiss is ripping off his bank with a neat little scam.
The pace starts to pick up, with tension in the ruling circle of Zainga, Japanese mobsters, and killings. By a considerable coincidence, a gorgeous blonde, whom Paul had been shagging on holiday in Bermuda, turns up in Zainga – as the General’s mistress. Paul gets the country’s old steam locomotives restored so the rail system can run on local coal, instead of imported diesel, in case the country gets cut off after it defaults on its loans. Some other interesting aspects of running national and international economies are offered, along with useful tips on computer fraud.
You’ll find worse books than Ultimate Dare at an airport bookshop, but you’ll find two much better ones reviewed above.
Bernard Carpinter is a Napier journalist.