Penguin Books, $39.00,
The Crime of Huey Dunstan
The field of crime writing is an expansive one, as shown by the variety of the three books reviewed here. And the growing maturity of New Zealand crime writing is shown by the fact all three are good in their different ways.
Alix Bosco’s second book is what I would consider a classic crime novel. It has murders and mysteries, action and anxiety, and on top of that it has the virtues of good writing, lively characterisation and a little social comment. James McNeish’s offering is, as one would expect, a literary novel. There is a homicide but not much mystery; the novel is about motivations and the way our justice system works. Ben Sanders, just 20, has produced a thriller – that is, a book where the story is all and the action takes precedence over factors like development of characters.
It is no doubt a reflection of our current attitudes that both Bosco and Sanders feature police corruption in their books, and McNeish questions the justice of our justice system. The image of the New Zealand police has certainly been tarnished by, for example, convictions for – and further accusations of – rape by police officers.
In Bosco’s case the dirty cops are in Queensland, where police corruption has been well documented. This aspect of the books is certainly unsettling – what sort of society do we have if we can’t trust the people employed to protect it, and the courts are not that interested in achieving justice?
Slaughter Falls opens with a gruesome scene – an overweight ex-All Black does a strip-tease and then dives into a Queensland canal which is, alas for him, inhabited by hungry bull sharks. This incident turns out to be entirely irrelevant to anything else that follows, but it certainly makes a forceful start to a book.
A second death follows swiftly, an apparent suicide – a quiet man who goes by the name of Manu Williams has jumped from his room in the hotel in Brisbane where a group of Kiwis have gone to see a rugby test match. Anna Markunas, protagonist of Bosco’s debut novel Cut and Run, feels impelled to find out more about the mysterious Mr Williams.
Manu Williams’s daughter says his death was murder, not suicide. As Anna investigates Williams – who played at the Onehunga Bowling Club under a different name – more people die. Anna starts to wonder whether Williams was even Maori – the lady at the bowling club says he spoke with an Australian accent when he arrived. She gets some help from a grossly obese private investigator who tells her, when she says she wants to find the truth: “A nebulous concept, in my experience. Those who seek it need to be brave or innocent: maybe both.”
Anna ends up deciding to move to Brisbane to be with her new man, lawyer Rory, and to make a new start after the tumultuous events in the previous novel. She finds that parts of Brisbane are more attractive than Kiwis tend to assume but that some of its denizens live right down to their reputation, including an unhelpful cop and a judge who gropes her.
Meanwhile Anna has personal concerns to deal with – her two children and her new granddaughter, her increasingly fraught relationship with Rory who is trying to revive his career in a new city, and attempts to find her father – her mother would never tell her who he was. She finds a clue to his identity and discovers family she never knew she had.
These back-stories give the novel substance and credibility. Anna is a real person, a bit of a worrier but brave nonetheless, persisting in the face of obvious danger while she does not know if she can trust anyone. It becomes apparent that she certainly cannot trust the police.
On the other hand, there are moments in the book where the story becomes a little Hollywood action-adventure-ish, as when she is driving a vehicle while a druggie killer clings on outside and tries to kill her through a window. Overall, though, this is a human crime story with believable characters, a strong plot and an atmosphere of hidden menace.
McNeish’s novel is narrated by Professor Chesney, an elderly, blind psychologist. Ches, as he is known, was a witness in two trials of Huey Dunstan, a young man who killed another man with a poker. That is a fact and Huey admits guilt; the questions are, why did he do it and how should he be punished for it?
Huey says he freaked out and lost control because a situation arose that caused a flashback to an incident in his childhood when he was molested by a man from outside his family. Ches and lawyer Lawrence have to find out whether there is any evidence to support his claim, and then try to convince a jury that Huey did not have full responsibility for his crime.
As Ches rambles through his narrative – he is an old man, after all, one who sometimes goes to sleep in court – it becomes clear that he does not hold a reverent view of our legal system.
“There is the law and – to state the obvious – there is justice,” Ches muses. “They are not the same. Good law doesn’t guarantee justice; equally, good justice may result from bad law. The two are often at odds.” Judges, he reckons, are not interested in people; they are interested only in points of law. “Outside their own field they were at a loss; they were good for nothing beyond what their training had equipped them for; somewhere along the line their feelings had been amputated.”
Similar thoughts might occur to anyone who spends a day in court, but McNeish gives them force by presenting a sympathetic young man whose life has been blighted first by the abuse and now by his crime – in the eyes of the law it remains a crime, even if his actions were involuntary. Now Huey is at the mercy of the justice system; his fate depends on the ability of his lawyer and expert witnesses, the attitude of judges and the fickle opinions of a jury. And perhaps just some luck.
In The Fallen, Auckland cop Sean Devereux officially investigates the murder of 16-year-old Emma Fontaine, whose body is found in Albert Park. He unofficially looks into a complaint from the attractive woman next door about a suspicious character continually parking over the road from her house. For the latter project Devereux enlists the help of a mate, a cop turned private investigator called John Hale, who seems prepared to do a remarkable amount of work for no pay.
As Hale’s methods are unorthodox at times, and the pair keep encountering corpses, Devereux comes under suspicion from his bosses. And they come under suspicion from him, as he learns more about an earlier incident when a police car carrying money was robbed at gunpoint. Devereux and Hale are isolated in the middle of a whole lot of trouble.
Some crimes are deliberately carried out for clear motives such as greed or anger. But for others, Devereux opines:
I think as much as we like to try and force a frame of logic on crime, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes people just do stuff, and it can’t be labelled with an explanation that makes sense. She wanted to kill someone, you know? That’s it.
Which doesn’t make the job of the detective any easier.
Such pauses for reflection are rare, though. Killings, kidnappings and car chases – in Hale’s old Escort with the hot motor – whip the story along and clear, straightforward prose does not get in the way of the action. If Sanders can write like this at 20, Michael Connelly should be starting to worry about the competition.
Bernard Carpinter is a journalist in Napier.