Running Towards Danger
Vanguard Press, $30.00,
Blood, Wine and Chocolate
Something Is Rotten
New Zealand crime fiction is booming. The long list for the Ngaio Marsh Award this year comprised nine books and the five on the short list are all very good. Those books are, in no particular order, Five Minutes Alone by Paul Cleave, The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing, Swimming in the Dark by Paddy Richardson, The Children’s Pond by Tina Shaw and Fallout by Paul Thomas.
Thomas and Cleave, in particular, have given New Zealand crime fiction credibility, their lively prose delivering crackling plots, larger-than-life characters and even humour. And they are distinctively Kiwi books; Thomas’s protagonist of five novels, Tito Ihaka, is Māori and well versed in the blunter forms of the Kiwi vernacular.
Their success, and that of others, seems to be inspiring more and more New Zealand writers to try their hand at the genre, some even taking up lives of crime after writing other forms of fiction. Julie Thomas and Linda Olsson (who is half of Adam Sarafis, as will be explained later) have both published novels in other genres. Well, if writers of the quality of John Banville (alias Benjamin Black) and Isabel Allende can turn to crime, there is no shame in anyone else following their example. And, really, a good crime novel is just a good novel with some crime in it; its plot, characterisation, dialogue and social comment all have to meet the same criteria as a non-crime novel.
None of the books under review has the extra class of a novel by Cleave, Thomas or Richardson; they are straightforward crime-adventure stories – which, after all, is a very popular genre – and for the most part they are well done. Two have a Swedish connection – Tina Clough grew up in Sweden and now lives in Hawke’s Bay, while Linda Olsson – who co-wrote Something Is Rotten with Kiwi Thomas Sainsbury – is Swedish and divides her time between Auckland and Stockholm. Perhaps the great success of Scandinavian crime fiction has spurred them on.
Clough sets most of Running Towards Danger in Hawke’s Bay, in a small settlement that is obviously Clive (the township between Napier and Hastings on SH2) but which, for some reason, she calls Riverton, borrowing a name from Southland. But the action starts in Auckland, when narrator Karen sees her lodger Nick shot dead in the street in front of her. Karen finds bank statements in Nick’s desk which indicate that he is a money launderer and probably a drug dealer, not the pleasant, harmless, travelling salesman she had believed him to be. She gives these documents to the police.
Then the bad guys who killed Nick start threatening Karen, demanding that she tell them where Nick had hidden the money. They refuse to believe her when she says she has no idea, and she is lucky to escape an assault they stage. Worse still, she cannot go to the cops because the baddies say they have an informant there.
So Karen disappears. And she does it thoroughly, cashing up, selling her car, getting a new cellphone, leaving her job as a lawyer and getting on a bus out of town. Now calling herself Cara, she travels round the North Island till she decides to settle in Riverton, where she is fortunate to meet Moira, who quickly becomes a close friend.
Readers of this quarterly will probably warm to Karen. For one thing, she is a reader and a discerning one at that: she loves Joy Cowley, hates The Da Vinci Code. She is sensible and practical, and relates well to other people – though she starts to relate altogether too well to Andy who, like Karen herself, has a mysterious past. Eventually, the bad guys track her down, and she shows initiative and courage as she escapes deadly threats, although she has no experience in dealing with such dangers. “I’m not some sort of drama magnet – I used to live a quiet and orderly life,” she insists.
The traumatic experiences give Karen significant insights. “I know that I have an inner strength and resilience and a degree of physical courage that I might never have realised if those things had not happened as they did,” she says at the end. Karen narrates the story in clear, straightforward prose, and she does that well, too.
Blood, Wine and Chocolate is certainly an intriguing title, and indeed one that ties in well with the book. The blood starts to flow in London, where Vinnie witnesses a double murder committed by his childhood friend Marcus, now a prominent gangster. Wine and blood then flow together as Vinnie defends himself by killing a thug with a broken bottle of wine. “Petrus! Oh Christ! I would have to pick the most expensive wine in the whole fucking world,” says Vinnie to himself, when he sees the label on the bottle.
Vinnie agrees to testify at the trial of his old friend. He and his beloved wife Anna enter a witness protection scheme, assume new identities and buy a winery on Waiheke Island. They feel they can finally relax after their drawn-out ordeal.
When Vinnie teases Anna about her chocolate plans, she replies: “I could never divorce you … but I’m seriously considering murder.” Vinnie is delighted: “The repartee was as solid as ever. It showed him that she knew him, she understood the need for verbal parry and thrust, for the humour to help him cope with the horror they’d left behind.” In fact, there is some humour in this book – often a good idea in a crime novel, to relieve the tension before building it up again. Murder and mirth can go together quite nicely, as Paul Thomas has shown.
Their wine is very good, Anna starts making great chocolate, the locals are friendly and their life seems idyllic. But then Marcus’s father turns up seeking revenge and, later, a somewhat implausibly remodelled Marcus himself. More blood and wine flow … .
Like Running Towards Danger, this book incorporates romance to add an extra dimension; accounts of Vinnie’s childhood do the same. The writing is slick and professional, and the story moves along nicely.
Spoiler alert: if you are planning to read Something Is Rotten, you should go no further in this review.
The title, of course, refers to Hamlet, which protagonist Sam is trying to read although he never seems to say anything about it. Sam has not recovered from the murder of his wife three years earlier and feels guilty about leaving his young son with his wife’s parents. He is working in a garage, unable to cope with his former position in a government ministry.
Jade, a prostitute, asks Sam to investigate the death of her friend Brent, found dead at the bottom of a flight of steps in the Auckland University library. We know he was murdered by a scar-faced man, but the cops reckon it was suicide or an accident. Brent had been writing a novel, and later scar-face brutally forces Jade to hand over the CD containing the manuscript.
Sam finds the investigation gives him a new purpose in life, and starts making progress. Meanwhile, his friend Lynette, a top business journalist, is looking into New Zealand’s remarkable success in gaining increased quotas for its meat in Europe. They find their investigations intersecting as it becomes apparent that some British soldiers who had committed atrocities in Iraq – and later been declared killed in action – have turned up in New Zealand under different names. One of these soldiers is married to the daughter of France’s former Foreign Minister, who has since become the French ambassador in New Zealand.
This makes an intriguing and spooky story … till you get to the end. It turns out that the New Zealand government has agreed to hide British war criminals in return for increased meat exports to Europe, and has engaged scar-face – based at the main Auckland police station – to murder anyone who might expose the plot. Brent had been terminated because his novel was a fictionalised account of parts of the scheme.
Well, I just don’t believe it. New Zealand politicians are certainly not above reproach, but they would never agree to such a grotesque deal. Even if their malleable consciences approved, the risk of career-ending exposure would be much too high. Also, Britain and France are only two members of the rather large European Union, so how would they persuade the others to allow in the extra meat? Scar-face is implicated in the murder of Sam’s wife three years earlier, but no cogent reason is given as to why he would do that.
Plots should make sense, and they should be believable. It really annoys me when they are not.
Bernard Carpinter was a judge for the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award.