Nasty things people do, Bernard Carpinter

The Temptations of Frederick Weld
Michael Wall
Black Swan, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415930

Devil’s Apple
Simon Snow
Black Swan, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415477

The Monstrance
David McGill
Silver Owl Press, $24.95,
ISBN 095824510X

Chicane
Colin D Peel
HarperCollins, $21.99,
ISBN 1869504887

Alternative 3
Ken Mitchell
HarperCollins, $31.99,
ISBN 36009913517

Sex Crimes
Paul Thomas
Black Swan, $26.95,
ISBN 186941599X

Murder, sex and politics, even a bit of religion – Michael Wall’s latest has plenty of spicy ingredients. The twist is, it’s set in the time of New Zealand’s first Parliament, and the hero is this country’s first prime minister. And if some of the parliamentary debates sound bizarre – though they probably won’t if you’ve ever listened to contemporary Parliament on the radio – they are taken verbatim from Hansard. So you can enjoy the saucy bits with a clear conscience – it’s all historical and informative. Not to be taken hugely seriously, though. Wall himself calls it an “entertainment”, and in this he is not being unduly modest. But it is a very good entertainment, an intriguing story nicely told.

Frederick Weld, who narrates the novel, arrives in Auckland from Nelson in 1854 as a 30-year-old virgin, both politically and sexually. He has been elected to the General Assembly and wants to do good things for his newly colonised country. When he meets Emma Jane Playfair, he wants to do bad things – bad, at least, by the tenets of his Catholic faith. Soon he is bedding the beautiful and mysterious Emma Jane, investigating a series of murders in the town, fighting the Edward Gibbon Wakefield faction in the assembly, and trying to sort out his religious beliefs. He is a busy man.

Wall adopts a well-judged voice for Weld’s narration. The prose has a slightly old-fashioned and stuffy air but is still very lively and readable. Weld can mock himself slightly, and sometimes he unconsciously (but consciously on Wall’s part) reveals himself to be a bit of a dork. His detective manual is Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”: “The author’s hypothesis, as I recalled it, was that, in solving mysteries of the type that now confronted me, the ingenious detective would always be defeated by the dispassionately analytical one, even if the latter should be an amateur.” Alas, Frederick is no C Auguste Dupin. And he literally gets in the poo when he falls into a sewer while seeking evidence.

This novel marks an unexpected turn in Wall’s career in crime. His first two thrillers, Museum Street and Friendly Fire, were set in New Zealand, racy, stylish, funny and quite Kiwi. His next two, The Cassino Legacy and Cardinal Sins, were conventional thrillers, short of humour, designed to capture the international market. Now he has come back home, and back in time as well. A good move, I’d say.

Devil’s Apple is set on the West Coast, and is very much a West Coast book. It’s a coast of rain, macho men, hard drinking and suspicion of outsiders; a coast of beautiful bush – even if the locals want to chop a lot of it down – full of tui, wood pigeons and other New Zealand birds. Living in this bush is a recluse, Todman. On the other side of the river a 15-year-old girl called Rainbow comes to the bank every sunny day, takes off her clothes and dances naked while Todman plays his guitar. I hope that doesn’t sound pervy, because in Snow’s excellent prose it doesn’t read that way.

Then Todman finds Rainbow’s body; she has been tortured and murdered. Once he has convinced the porcine local cop, Sergeant Moynihan, that he is innocent, he and his mate Tosser secretly help detective Linda Loveridge tackle the case – which opens doors into his remarkable past, the reasons why he is a recluse. Hippies, conservationists, a witch, dope-dealers, a helicopter pilot, James the Forest Fairy who sits in trees wearing dresses – the cast of characters is certainly an intriguing one, and Snow makes them feel real even if at first glance they seem a bit way-out.

Snow combines authentic, rough West Coast dialogue – “I expect that long bugger used to swim across for midnight mass and a quick shag” – with sensitive observations of people and descriptions of the landscape. He seems to have at least some sympathy for all his characters, whether they are rednecks or hippies. In this, his first novel, he has set himself a difficult task. It’s quite a balancing act, juggling the different elements of the book, but he never drops a ball. Warmly recommended.

2

David McGill’s new novel is billed as a Waiheke Island mystery, and also as a coming-of-age novel. It is more the latter than the former. Baby boomers will recognise and enjoy many of the references in this story of two young men growing up in Auckland in the 60s then going off to see the world – the music, the clothes, the politics (frequent mentions of Kiwi Keith Holyoake), the changing social climate, and of course the urge to get laid. Those brought up as Catholics will recall the priests’ and nuns’ frequent proclamations that getting laid without the sanction of marriage would result in an eternity in the fires of hell. Indeed, even thinking about it would have the same grisly effect.

Narrator Steve has hell at the back of his mind, but the lovely Deirdre at the front of it: “There was only one thing on our minds, namely, our bodies … I was already damned in hell for all eternity for the mortal sin of thought: I’d thought about little else than going all the way, so the mortal sins of word and deed couldn’t make the punishment any worse.”

After a blissful interlude on the sands of Waiheke Island Steve and Deirdre have a falling out. Steve heads off overseas with his friend Denko, an immigrant from Croatia who has business back in his homeland. The two are blood brothers and linked by the fact that Steve’s parents and Denko’s father have been killed in the same car crash. Steve and Denko check out Sydney, Vienna and swinging London, where they live for some years before they return to a changing New Zealand. They also have a frightening experience in Communist Yugoslavia, and a baffling encounter with an official at the Vatican.

The mystery? Steve’s father brought a monstrance, found in Yugoslavia, back home after the war. A monstrance is a thing like a big candlestick that priests wave around during services; Catholics believe it contains the body of Christ. This appears to be a very special monstrance, and Denko’s father had tracked it to New Zealand aiming to get it back. It ends up in a sort of fortified cave on the island. Later on, drugs and violence become entangled with the monstrance, Deirdre returns to the scene, and Steve’s obnoxious older brother reappears as a cop. It all leads to a showdown in the cave, an echo of an earlier incident that has left Steve with nightmares.

Much of McGill’s writing on the coming-of-age theme is very good. So too is the social commentary – as new freedoms replace the oppressive 1950s New Zealand culture. Both are warm, well-observed, funny at times, and ring true. But the mystery and action adventure stuff doesn’t quite work. It crops up only sporadically through the book, the plot relies heavily on coincidence, the abrupt ending leaves much unexplained, and it doesn’t really gel with the rest of the material. A good read, though.

Colin D Peel is one of New Zealand’s most successful writers, and one of the least well known – in this country, anyway. An English immigrant, Peel writes thrillers for the international market. A list of more than 20 of them appears at the front of the book and White Desert is said to be a best-seller. Clearly Peel is commercially successful and on the evidence of Chicane he deserves to be. It’s a good book of its kind, a racy and entertaining thriller that makes no effort to be anything deeper. Just the thing for a holiday read or a long plane trip.

Chicane is probably aimed particularly at male readers, with its emphasis on technology and fast cars. Peel describes a new weapon whose rays can wipe out computer systems, and makes it sound quite plausible even to someone who recalls glimmers of university physics. He knows his cars too. Photojournalist Michael Fraser first encounters the weapon in Italy when it causes his best friend to crash a brand-new Ferrari while Fraser is taking action shots. The friend is killed.

Later an insurance assessor, the lovely Anna Todini, investigates the crash and suspicions about the weapon emerge. The Russians have it, the Americans want it, and sundry evil forces are also in the action. Fraser’s quest takes him back to Afghanistan, where he had worked earlier and acquired some disturbing memories. It’s all fast-paced, well plotted and good reading.

3

In the rather lengthy prologue to Alternative 3, Hitler escapes from the ruins of Berlin in a flying disc. Next the flying discs turn up in the Antarctic, where the Nazis have established a base with a special microclimate. President Truman decides to do a deal with them. At this point I would normally have thrown the book away. It was silly. But I had undertaken to review it, and besides I had read the publicity saying the book was all based on conspiracy theories that were seriously believed by some people. Perhaps it was a big piss-take.

The action takes place in contemporary times, with hackers on a mission to get information – concerning the flying discs – from a fellow who runs a conspiracy website in the middle of an American desert. Numerous conspiracy theories crop up. It’s all written in the dead-straight prose of a commercial thriller, so it doesn’t seem to be a piss-take after all – that would require a level of humour. And so what if it is based on conspiracy theories that some people believe? We all know there are loonies out there.

I was thoroughly disenchanted till I got to page 217, where I entered a whole new realm. Indeed, I entered a whole new book – When the Storm Breaks by Heather Lowell. Different page headings, different characters, different typeface, a different book.

Mitchell regains control on page 267, by which time a couple of characters have apparently been killed and the meaning of Alternative 3 explained. I can only conclude that a worldwide conspiracy found out what Mitchell was up to, hacked into the printer’s system and sabotaged his exposé. Scary.

Paul Thomas’s first three crime novels, featuring Tito Ihaka, are to my mind the best of their kind from Australasia. With their fast pace, intriguing plots and detached, cynical sense of humour they provided very stylish entertainment. Now Thomas has come out with a book of short crime stories, entitled Sex Crimes because they deal with the nasty things people do on account of lust – partners cheating on each other, men wanting to kill their fat wives so they can bonk their secretaries.

The stories – some of which have already been published elsewhere – display much of the usual Thomas style. The sardonic dialogue is wonderful, the humour more cynical than ever, and the descriptions always inventive: “He couldn’t believe the way Paula had pounced on the waiter whose name was Jarrod Croft. It was like something out of a wildlife documentary.” My favourite is the 50-page story “Star Struck”, about the murder of a fading Hollywood star during the shooting of a film in Sydney. It’s long enough to have a complex plot – shorter crime stories tend to depend too much on a single plot twist – and some character development, and it gives you the titillating sensation of getting inside gossip on how the worlds of film-makers and police really operate.

Less appealing was the novella-length story “A Dish Best Eaten Cold”, a tale of sexual revenge. For example, a woman who has been raped joins in a plot to have her rapist raped by a male homosexual. Thomas provides more detail than I really needed.

Personally I feel that crime writing works better with the greater sweep of a full-length novel. These bite-sized pieces left me wanting more, preferably a new novel from Thomas.

 

Bernard Carpinter is a Napier journalist. 

 

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