Death on Demand
Hodder Moa, $36.99,
Traces of Red
Ihaka is back – and about time, too. It’s around 15 years since Paul Thomas captivated readers with his three novels featuring Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka, Old School Tie, Inside Dope and Guerilla Season (re-released by Hodder Moa in 2009 in one volume called The Ihaka Trilogy), and Thomas’s many fans have been feeling frustrated ever since.
Those books are brilliant, with intricate and ingenious plots, constant action, and energetic prose crackling with cynical humour. Ihaka is central but just one of a cast of thousands. He is overweight, surly and a slob’s slob. Ihaka does things his way and he gets results, but his approach does not always endear him to the police hierarchy.
In Death on Demand Ihaka is a little older and wiser, and Thomas has changed his approach too. For the last five years Ihaka has been living and working in a Wairarapa backwater – he had been banished from the Auckland police for punching a fellow cop unconscious and leaving him lying in a urinal. Ihaka had good reason for this forceful intervention – the other cop was clearly a total arsehole – but he had finally gone too far. Ihaka had also got up his bosses’ noses by harassing a prominent businessman whose wife had been killed in an apparent hit-and-run. Ihaka believes the businessman ordered a contract killing, but cannot prove it.
At the start of this new book, Ihalka’s former boss Finbar McGrail – now the Auckland district commander – calls him back to the big smoke because that businessman wants to talk to him. The dying businessman confesses that he had indeed paid to have his wife killed. He does not know who the killer is, but believes the hitman has killed others.
Ihaka has also had a change of heart. He eats healthy food, he drinks wine, he has lost some weight, he keeps his house tidy and he is a little more canny in his dealings with others: “Besides, scaring silly bitches out of their frillies was something else he was trying to give up.” But don’t worry, he is still a maverick, determined to do things the Ihaka way and capable of brutal rudeness when he feels like it.
Murders proliferate, a sex-blackmail scheme comes to light, a crime boss continues to run his operation from prison. Ihaka tries to dig out a rotten cop who caused an undercover colleague to get shot. And he gets involved with a couple of women. This time Ihaka is clearly the main character, as in a conventional crime novel. The writing is tighter, more focused and slightly less funny. It’s different from the trilogy, but it’s also excellent. The dialogue is still snappy, and the complex plot makes perfect sense when all is revealed. Thomas is still a top-class writer.
I’ve probably made Ihaka sound rather unattractive, so you may be wondering why anyone would want to read about him. I think it’s largely the appeal of the maverick – someone who to a large extent says exactly what he thinks and pursues his own course of action. Don’t we all sometimes wish we could break free of social conventions and act in that way? The Ihaka books are definitely blokey, which may be one reason why Death on Demand is my favourite of these three books. Ihaka is not given to introspection – usually the most we hear of his internalisation is his recognition that so-and-so is obviously a wanker – so the book is mostly action and dialogue.
The other two books are by women writers from Dunedin, and their approach is significantly different. They go much deeper into the psyche of their main characters, their thoughts and feelings and their relationships with others. One virtue of this approach is that their characters – and therefore the novels themselves – seem more real and the reader cares about them more. At the same time, these two books are definitely not girlie or even chick-lit. They are tough enough to be serious crime novels, and they are both very good.
In Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red we meet Rebecca Thorne, a TV journalist in Wellington whose career seems to be stalling. Her current-affairs programme Saturday Night is becoming more and more trivial and ratings are slipping. “I need a story,” she tells her MP brother David and his wife Anna. “A good one. You know what we did for this week? First up, the effect of the economic downturn on Fashion Week. And the other half’s turkey farms.”
Rebecca finds her story. Connor Bligh is serving a life sentence for murdering his sister, her husband and her son in Palmerston North. Bligh, a bright young scientist, has always denied his guilt and now there is talk of a retrial. Rebecca does her research, decides that Bligh is innocent, and works on a crusading programme to clear his name and free him. Her motives might be a little mixed – she needs to move her career forward – but she takes this work very seriously.
Television journalism can be superficial, Rebecca knows; she remembers the fuss about developing her “style” – clothes and hair, for example – when she joined the programme. Richardson gets in some subtle but telling comments about TV and the media in general. But the Bligh story is real investigative journalism. Bligh is a loner and a little strange – he seems to have had an almost obsessive relationship with his sister – but was he convicted because he seemed weird? When he talks to Rebecca and writes material for her, he seems pretty sane.
Meanwhile, Rebecca is coping with an unsuccessful love life, office politics, relationships with her family and friends, and her growing fascination with Bligh. Assured writing helps make this a book that is not only very readable, but one with a lot of depth.
Bound is Vanda Symon’s fourth book featuring young female cop Sam Shepard, based in Dunedin. Many of the characters are now familiar to regular readers: there’s Sam’s lover Paul (also a detective), her manipulative mother, her sick father, her smart flatmate Maggie and her massively unpleasant boss DI Johns.
A teenage schoolboy comes home from practising with his band Munted to find his father dead from a shotgun blast in the face and his mother tied to a chair injured and almost suffocating. The police find fingerprints and DNA evidence that link two known criminals to the scene – men they have been wanting to put away for a long time. But before the DNA can be analysed – it takes weeks – the two men disappear.
Sam’s beloved father is very ill but pressure of work makes it hard for her to get to hospital to see him. Which leads her mother to say things like: “[I]t’s too hard having to try and explain to your Dad why you don’t want to see him.” Ouch. Sam’s colleague Smithy, who was shot in the last book, has gone all morose and bitter and his wife has left him. He thinks he knows who shot him, and wants revenge. At least Sam’s relationship with Paul is going well, which is fortunate for reasons I will not divulge here.
Unlike the great majority of fictional detectives, Sam is young, female and positive in outlook. She narrates these novels in the first person, in plain straightforward prose. It is in keeping with her character that she falls back on clichés sometimes. But she is an astute observer of life and her empathy for others means she can even feel sympathy for a crook:
Despite the fact Gideon Powell had been what I considered to be one of the basest creatures on the planet, rating down there with rats and cockroaches, I couldn’t escape the fact that he had been a man, and a man with a family who cared for him.
The storyline is a strong one, with events developing constantly, and there are a couple of real twists at the end. This is a very accomplished crime novel.
Bernard Carpinter is a Napier journalist, and was a judge for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Awards for New Zealand Crime Fiction.