The body in the pantry, Margot Schwass

The Case of the Missing Kitchen
Barbara Else
Random House, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415744

The Case of the Missing Kitchen is Barbara Else’s wicked, waspish take on the thriller. Set in Wellington, it brims over with the genre’s stock elements: there’s an abundance of corpses, stolen riches, kidnappings and thugs in suits. It has pace, attitude – even a bad guy with a limp.

Else brings together all the conventions of the genre, both to use them and to send them up. Through the knowing commentary of her narrator Suzie Emmett (“I hoped this would turn out one of the thrillers where the main character – who I assumed was me – stayed alive to tell the tale”), Else pokes fun at all that is hackneyed and faintly ridiculous about the thriller genre.

While her plot may be hectic with dramatic incidents and colourful bit-players, her main characters remain rooted in the deceptively tidy middle-class suburbs that have become Else’s fictional stamping-ground. There may be ransom notes on the kitchen table and guys with Glocks in their pockets, but this is still a world in which mothers take their daughters to ballet classes and lunch at Kirk’s.

Part-time chef and harassed single parent Suzie Emmett is several rungs down the social ladder from Kate Wildburn, the surgeon’s wife who wreaked such satisfying revenge on her straying husband in The Warrior Queen. In fact, you’d find Suzie out in the kitchen making salads in the smart Parnell cafés frequented by women like Kate. At 37, serial romantic disasters have left Suzie with a truculent teenage son, a daughter with headlice, a dilapidated house and credit problems. Her current relationship – with star detective Caine – is on the rocks, although he’s talking marriage.

Against this background, Suzie begins what she grimly calls “that week my life was … near to meltdown.” Headlice and inadequate kitchen cupboards soon pale into insignificance in the face of a succession of increasingly terrifying events. Caine takes her to the city morgue to identify a body which looks disturbingly like her sister Philippa, Suzie’s house is burgled, her children go missing, and she is drugged in a Khandallah phone box. Is Caine somehow implicated? What does her charming, devious ex-husband Gifford have to do with it all? Who is driving those sinister dark cars that pass her in the night? And just why is a well-coiffed woman lying dead in Suzie’s pantry? (See? The corny conventions of the thriller genre – all those relentless rhetorical questions – are infectious.)

As the central mystery simmers and thickens, another storyline unfolds. In a safe deposit box she never knew she had, Suzie finds a stash of US dollars and a birth certificate she thinks just may be hers – although the holder’s name is quite definitely not. So begins a stocktake of her childhood, spent mostly in America with a vague relish-making mother, an inadequate scientist father and – more influentially – her two bossy, high-achieving sisters Lara and Philippa. As children, they delighted in tormenting her; as adults, they never miss an opportunity to remind her of her wasted talents. Yet she is unshakably bound to them – even more so as frightening events engulf her.

Polish and pace are Barbara Else’s hallmarks. She is mistress of the telling detail, especially of dress or style or tone, that makes further description superfluous. In a fast-paced story like this, characters cannot be allowed to emerge slowly, layer by layer. To work, they must be instantly recognisable, drawn in just one swift and wholly convincing gesture. So, Lara’s portly husband Brick is “a dressed-up bear in his Yves St-Laurent suits”; Suzie’s daughter Tilda at dancing class “float[s] with the grace of a bundle of newspapers dumped out the back of a truck”; one of the murdered women wears a “heart-rending sweater”.

Else’s light yet exact touch makes her dissection of family relationships especially pleasurable. Mothers and children, sisters, husbands and wives: seldom does Else write better than when capturing all the treacherous murk of family relationships in a single telling phrase. When Suzie observes of her insufferable elder sister Lara, “She left the kitchen and ascended the staircase. Lara cannot merely go upstairs, she always ascends”, you sense an entire lifetime of petty tyrannies and resentments.

Because Else does this so skilfully for the most part, the few occasions where her prose becomes flabby and generic are disappointing. Couldn’t Suzie’s mother, a faded hippie, have organised something other than a save-the-whale march? Does a well-aged Scotch really smell “like the sweat of Loch Ness monster”?

But there are no lapses at all in Else’s merciless mining of the thriller genre to comic effect. From time to time, Suzie lapses into deliciously hardboiled voiceovers that are pure Philip Marlowe. Of her relationship with Caine: “in the basement of my heart I suspected it was time to say goodbye.” Confronting the wreckage of her kitchen after a burglary: “My brain, which had momentarily stayed out on the front porch, pulled up next to me.”

We are at once inside a thriller that’s genuinely tense and intriguing, while also remaining outside it, invited to look at its shortcomings and inconsistencies. There are knowing observations about how such events usually turn out “in books and movies”. Suzie compares herself with fictional characters in moments of crisis: “Don’t you hate it when a person in a mystery has crucial information and doesn’t look at it straight off?” At one point, Else even has Suzie apologise for not telling her story according to orthodox thriller conventions.

This book is clever and funny – frothy without being insubstantial. It’s true that Else sacrifices depth to pace, insight to verve. Her characters work not because they are rich and complex, but because they unerringly remind us of people we know – the harassed waitress who brought us our morning latte, the blandly efficient teller at the bank. Here, these very ordinary players are dropped into a baroque plot overflowing with intrigue and incident, a comic thriller that’s the ideal vehicle for Else’s pacy, playful wit and shrewd satire.


Margot Schwass is a Wellington writer, editor and reviewer.


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