The Empty Bed
Killings and jokes are what readers expect from Paul Thomas, after his three wonderful thrillers Old School Tie (also known as Dirty Laundry), Inside Dope and Guerilla Season. There is a killing in The Empty Bed and there are plenty of jokes, but it’s a very different sort of book. It’s a serious novel, and a good one too.
The murder, of Nick Souter’s wife Anne, doesn’t come until a long way into the book, but I’m not giving away any secrets by revealing it here. It’s plastered all over the back cover, no doubt to reassure potential buyers that Thomas hasn’t gone completely wussy.
The three thrillers mentioned above were really capers told in an ironic third-person narrative, a little far-fetched but written with such panache and pace that the reader was swept along by both the plot and the expectation of the next big laugh. The Empty Bed, on the other hand, is told in the first person by Nick Souter, in a realistic fashion. It has serious themes: sexual betrayal, identity, and the possibility/impossibility of really knowing another human being,
Nick, a schoolteacher in Sydney, is happy in his long-standing marriage with Anne, a public relations specialist. Then, suffering a cold and looking for a handkerchief, he finds what appears to be a love note from someone else in Anne’s jeans pocket. Confronted, Anne eventually admits to a brief affair but says it’s all over. She wants her relationship with Nick to stay the way it has been. She appears very convincing but, then, PR people are supposed to be professionally convincing. What does Nick do? Breathe a sigh of relief and stay happily (or perhaps a little less happily) married to the lovely Anne? Or start digging around to see what’s really going on?
Human beings are inquisitive creatures. Knowing full well that he might be better off not knowing the whole truth, Nick becomes an amateur private eye, albeit a rather obsessive one. He finds suspects. Unsurprisingly, his relationship with Anne deteriorates fast. She kicks him out. Then – as you knew all along – Anne is murdered. At the risk of sounding callous, I should say that her demise comes as some relief for the reader. You expect a good murder in a Paul Thomas book; you’ve been promised it on the back cover; you’ve read through a fair bit of tortured love stuff to get this far; you want some action.
I don’t wish to imply that the first part of the book is not well written, because in fact it’s very good. The character of Nick is well established and sympathetic, and his wry sense of humour neatly offsets the unhappy developments in his life. A sample of Nick/Thomas’s writing style:
She’d slithered into a little black dress, climbed onto a pair of fuck-me shoes, and daubed on Promise of Fellatio lipstick. After a few minutes of her mutely decorative company, I decided that her riding instructions were to remain within fondling distance of Joel, keep her mouth shut – especially when he wanted to say something, which was most of the time – and then, at a pre-arranged signal, fuck the daylights out of him. If anything, she seemed over-qualified for the assignment.
The reader’s knowledge that Anne is going to get offed helps give this section narrative drive, an extra edge. If the murder wasn’t telegraphed on the cover, it would need to be signalled in the text.
So now the book becomes a whodunit, but it remains also a what-did-she-do? Nick of course is the main suspect for the cops. In his own investigations, however, he wants to find out not only who killed his wife, but also what she had been up to before her death. Thomas conveys a sense of the different scenes that exist within Sydney, where he lived for some time (he’s now in Wellington). Nick’s school planet is in a different orbit from Anne’s higher-flying world of big business and PR, money and concern for appearances. The levels of morality are different, too.
The plot goes through some twists and turns – hairpin bends, really – in this section of the book before the murderer is unmasked, and the extent of Anne’s deceit is revealed. Perhaps it twists a little too much; at times it starts to feel more like a murder mystery than a solid novel. But overall this novel works very well. It tackles serious themes and does so in an entertaining, engrossing way.
Eye of the Kea
Horizon Press, $24.95,
The Syndicate is back in business. That means the Bureau has to call ace Kiwi operative Todd Blaine back into action from his home in the Hutt Valley.
Both the Syndicate and the Bureau are based in Britain, but it’s all happening in New Zealand. The evil Syndicate has decided to target New Zealand for its counterfeit money operation, and the Commonwealth Bureau for Dealing to Bad Buggers needs to go where the action is.
This is a thriller of the old school – just a story, all action, no profound thoughts on the human condition, no humour. It seems curiously dated. No one seems to say anything; they snap, snarl, sneer or, for occasional variety, rasp it. And although it’s set in New Zealand, there’s little that’s distinctively Kiwi about it.
The dialogue is unnatural. Rank villains use implausibly correct grammar when they’re talking: “My mate Pete Whittier was the only one who knew about my pinching those forgeries.” This scumbag must have been paying abnormally rapt attention in school when his teacher told him to use “my” before a gerund, not “me”.
One little twist is the casting of a female as the baddies’ chief assassin, but essentially this is just a pretty ordinary shoot-’em-up. It could appeal to those who regret the passing of Bulldog Drummond.
The Irish Yankee
Hazard Press, $22.95,
Devoted followers of Edmund Bohan’s Inspector O’Rorke series – this is the fourth – will find here more reasons why their hero is such a surly bastard.
Before becoming a police inspector in 19th-century Christchurch, the Irishman spent some years in the United States. There he fought for the Union in the Civil War and, naturally, became entangled with an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Neither were pleasant experiences. A fair chunk of the book is devoted to O’Rorke’s experiences in the Civil War, and readers unfamiliar with that conflict will find some of the events quite illuminating. Bohan is also a noted historian, and at times he appears more interested in presenting history in these novels than he is in developing convincing characterisation or storytelling.
The action jumps 20-odd years and shifts to Christchurch, where the sharp-tempered, uncommunicative O’Rorke is the scourge of both the criminal element and his fellow police officers. Into town ride some of the nastier men from his Civil War experiences, accompanying their wives who are, perhaps a little implausibly, visiting to lecture on women’s rights. Feminism is one of Bohan’s themes this time and O’Rorke is now – somewhat scandalously – entwined with a successful Jewish businesswoman. Yes, she’s beautiful too, but still not enough to melt the Inspector very often: “She had several times already tried to make conversation but each time her efforts had foundered on the dark rocks of his unsettling gloom.”
It’s not a whodunit, it’s a slightly melodramatic adventure story that charges along at a fair pace. The style is suitably atmospheric with a 19th-century feel, although occasionally the writing gets awkwardly close to pastiche or even satire, especially when the exclamation marks start flying. Still, it’s a reasonably good read, and Bohan has to be applauded for trying to bring to life some older parts of the New Zealand story, events and ideas that have helped make us what we are today.
Bernard Carpinter is a journalist in Napier.