Acts political, Vanda Symon

Paul Thomas
Upstart Press, $35.00, ISBN 9781927262016

Where the Dead Men Go
Liam McIlvanney
Faber & Faber, $25.00, ISBN 9780571239863

New Zealand crime fiction is going from strength to strength, with great work being published by old favourites as well as the up-and-coming. This pair of novels by writers Paul Thomas and Liam McIlvanney explore the minefield of the political realm to underpin their stories.

Fallout is the fifth novel by Paul Thomas featuring Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka. Ihaka is investigating a cold case. It is a case that has haunted his boss Finbar McGrail for 25 years, so when a new piece of information comes in he leaps at the chance of redemption and sets Ihaka onto the job. Polly Stenson, a 17 year-old woman, had been murdered at a prestigious New Year’s Eve party in 1987, the kind of party held at the best address and attended by the glamorous set – politicians, models, the rich, famous and influential. The investigation at the time was hamstrung by the well-to-do and elite closing ranks and keeping quiet, and the pressure from the politically motivated not to make a fuss. Ihaka is at first ambivalent about his assignment, but it soon becomes very personal when he receives some information that suggests his father, who died at around the same time, may not have died of natural causes after all. Jimmy Ihaka had been a “union firebrand and a renegade Marxist”, and his union links may well have had something to do with his death.

Ihaka’s disgraced former friend and detective Johan Van Roon also makes an appearance, chasing the trail of a shadowy man who happened to disappear after the party in question and has been recently spotted alive and well by a journalist who knew him back in the day.

The cold case dips into a very interesting period of New Zealand history. The New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act had come into effect and caused a lot of tension in the government’s relationship with the United States. Plenty of people tried to manipulate and influence the situation. The trade unions held a lot of power and Thomas casts the hard-line, hard-nosed union men very well.

Ihaka has become a much-loved character. He is the king of the one-liner, which provides some very humorous moments, and his take-no-prisoners, abrasive style makes him appealing. He has work-place issues with his superiors, who aren’t his greatest fans. His bluntness doesn’t help him on the relationship front, especially given that his girlfriend is excessively jealous and has a shorter fuse than he has. But he adores his would-be stepson, Billy, and struggles with Denise’s explosiveness and use of emotional blackmail. His relationship with Denise is one element of the story this reader would have liked to have been better resolved: it was left hanging.

The intersecting of the cold case, politics and the unions, Ihaka’s father’s death, the investigations of Van Roon and Ihaka’s palpable growing anger pull you along, waiting for the next confrontation. Fallout is a very good, very New Zealand, political crime thriller.

Liam McIlvanney may have traded the mean streets of Glasgow for an academic life as Professor of Scottish Studies in Dunedin, but his familiarity with the Scottish city is evident in his effortless and evocative description of its environs and seedy underworld.

Where the Dead Men Go is McIlvanney’s follow-up to his debut novel All the Colours of the Town, and in it we see the return of journalist Gerry Conway to The Tribune after his fall from grace. His return after three years in the hinterland is bittersweet, as his former position as the top-dog crime reporter is now occupied by his former protégé and current byline king, Martin Moir. The fourth estate is financially stretched, and newspapers everywhere are feeling the pinch. Editors carefully choose which stories grace the front page in order to maximise sales. Everyone looks for the scoop, pressured to break the big story. Conway is relegated to the ranks of political reporter, something he has a track record with and understands, but working in the shadow of his friend and being constantly reminded of his past failings by his boss rankles.

When Martin Moir’s body is found submerged in his car in a flooded quarry, Conway feels compelled to find out why his friend and colleague apparently killed himself. Moir’s widow is not convinced the death was suicide, and pressures Conway into investigating further. When she shows him a bank statement she has discovered with over £26,000 of unaccounted-for money, Conway wonders what the hell Moir had got himself involved in. Was he on the take? The search draws Conway deep into gangland territory. Glasgow’s underworld is run by two powerful families, wrestling for control – the Walshes and the Neils. When a known Neil heavy is shot dead whilst playing football for the local team, you can feel the city holding its breath, waiting for reprisals. McIlvanney plays the simmering tensions so well. There is a hint of sectarian violence, the very present throat-hold of the gang king-pins, and the constant threat of escalation and revenge. The tension is transmitted by Conway’s colleagues, the police, the press; Conway’s building sense of danger, to himself and potentially his family, also ramps it up.

Conway’s voice is that of the street-weary, but also the persistent investigative journalist. He has a tendency to rely on beer, whisky and cigars to get him through the day, as do many of the protagonists of the genre. What grounds Conway and makes him real is his domestic life. He juggles the professional with the family. He has to deal with an ex-wife, trying to spend time with his two young sons from that marriage. He is the hands-on dad of his almost two year-old son in his new relationship, working around nappy changes, sleepless nights and early starts courtesy of his story-book-wielding child. He is fully fleshed out, and his family is everything. He knows the only way to ensure their safety is to resolve the mystery – who killed Moir, and why? He asks himself how Moir would react to the threat of danger:

Moir would live, he would walk tall in the world, he would perform a useful job to the best of his abilities. That would be his rebuke to the would-be killers, the cowards in the shadows with their bombs and their guns. To take his own life would have been, for Moir, an act of ingratitude, an act of civic dereliction. He could no more have killed himself than he could have failed to exercise his vote at an election.

The political element is so well played in Where the Dead Men Go. McIlvanney sets the novel in the run-up to Glasgow’s hosting of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Event and athletes’ village sites are being cleared, contracts awarded: there is a lot of money involved and fortunes to be made, by the legitimate and by organised crime. Local politicians vie to make their mark, and also posture for the long-term potential outcomes of the Scottish referendum. They try to avoid bad publicity for themselves and bad press for the city at any cost. And where do the lines between organised crime and big business lie? How blurred are they? And what does it have to do with Moir’s death? To have the novel seated in the machinations of these very real, very large issues adds a level of realism and complexity to the plot that enhances the already superb characterisation.

Where the Dead Men Go was the winner of the 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Fiction Novel, and with good reason. It is a superb read.

Vanda Symon is a writer and reviewer living in Dunedin. 

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