Fremantle Press, $38.00,
Merlot Publishing, $33.00,
The Empty Coffin
Mary Egan Publishing, $30.00,
Fans of New Zealand crime fiction can add one more name to the rather compact list of excellent local writers. The name is Alan Carter, and he’s actually an import, but his Marlborough Man is authentic Kiwi through and through. Originally from Sunderland in northeast England, Carter, emigrated to Perth in 1991, later began splitting his time between Perth and the Marlborough Sounds, and now lives in Havelock at the base of the Sounds.
Part of the plot of Marlborough Man is similar to that of another recent New Zealand crime novel, Blood, Wine and Chocolate by Julie Thomas. In both books, a man testifies in an English court against a vicious crime boss, goes into witness protection, changes his name and moves to New Zealand with his family. Reading either book might put people off performing their civic duty in such cases, because, in both novels, the crime boss swears revenge, tracks down his enemy and launches Operation Vengeance.
In Thomas’s book, the witness is a civilian, but Carter’s lead character, Nick Chester, is a police sergeant. He spent two years undercover with Sammy Pritchard’s gang in Sunderland and, even in the quiet backwater of Havelock, he still feels paranoid – rightly so, because they really are out to get him. The other main crime strand in the novel is the hunt for whoever is kidnapping young boys, molesting and killing them. Nick, who narrates the story, is supposed to have only a small part in this big operation, but contributes valuable work to it.
But this is not just a crime story; it is a fully realised novel with characters you get to know, personal problems and relationships, and depictions of the Marlborough Sounds with their green hills and sparkling blue waters. It is life in a small town, where the main work for Nick and his constable Latifa Ropata is handing out speeding tickets and arresting young Denzel when he comes running to the police station, screaming, because the hot chicken he stole from the supermarket and hid down his trousers is burning sensitive parts of his anatomy. And that’s an example of the humour that livens the story from time to time.
Latifa is young, Māori and bright. She gives Nick cheek, but she seems to know everyone in the area, and her ability to connect with the Māori community, who are initially suspicious of Nick, leads to a breakthrough in the kidnapping case.
The experience of the immigrant is another thread in the novel. Nick comes to love the regional landscape and is happy enough in his work, but, in winter, their home in the hills is cold and blasted by fierce winds. “It will freeze your core and consume your heart if you let it,” Nick thinks. “If it wasn’t for the fact that New Zealand is so bloody beautiful, there are days when you could happily shoot yourself.”
Nick’s 11-year-old son, Paulie, who has Down syndrome, adjusts easily to life in rural New Zealand, but his wife Vanessa misses her family and friends, and doesn’t really like her new country anyway. Their immigrant life is made especially difficult by the fact that they cannot communicate with their communities back home, for fear of revealing their whereabouts to Sammy’s gang; Sammy is in prison, but still in control.
When police intelligence suggests that the revenge mission has been launched, Vanessa and Paulie move to a police safe house, while Nick is determined to face up to the danger. He has support from Steve and Gary, two Māori hunters who rent a hut on the property. The danger increases Vanessa’s unhappiness with their new way of life, and the marriage is in serious trouble.
McCormack owns the local forestry company and is the richest man for miles around. His company is the main supplier of jobs in the region, but he is generally detested. Nick learns why when he is called out early in the morning by the District Commander (DC), in response to a complaint from McCormack. Some graffiti artist has changed the name of his catamaran from Serenity II to Smaug, the evil dragon in The Hobbit.
The mogul expects his petty case to be given top priority. He plays squash with the DC, Latifa informs Nick, illustrating once again that the rich have power and connections in all the right places. McCormack is certainly a nasty piece of work; he orchestrates the killing of an alpaca belonging to the man he suspects of the graffiti. His part in the book could be seen as illustrating the growing unease in New Zealand about the gap between the rich and the poor. Later, Nick suspects McCormack is linked to the murders of the boys, and would dearly love to nail him for it…
The crime aspects of the novel are well handled, with dogged police work inching the team ever closer to catching the killer. But it is the human aspects of the story that make you understand the characters and care about them. Marlborough Man is a very complete novel.
It’s not Carter’s first, by the way. While in Perth, he wrote a series of three books featuring Cato Kwong, and his debut, Prime Cut, won the Ned Kelly Award for best first fiction.
Presumed Guilty is billed as a legal thriller and it is certainly legal, concerned with the working of the system, points of law and courtroom arguments. And this side of the novel works well, as it should – author Mark McGinn has had a lengthy career working in the court system.
Some of the legal points are interesting in themselves, but the book makes it clear that success in New Zealand courtrooms depends, to a large extent, on who has the best – most expensive – lawyers and investigators. In court, the rich will usually do better than the poor.
The thrills in the book are connected with the brutal murder of a woman called Lottie in her house in Akaroa. Lottie’s partner, Ben, a Christchurch newspaper editor, is charged with the murder. He persuades Sasha Stace, a former lover, and a very good lawyer, to defend him. Sasha is very reluctant to do so, partly because she is sick of defence work and, also, because she is about to be made a judge. She has just successfully defended a rapist by confusing the complainant in court, and is not happy with herself for doing so.
The prosecutor in the murder case, Quentin Fisk, is a twisted ratbag who is being groomed by his party to become an MP. Sasha is supposed to be investigating him after a client laid a complaint against him, and the lead police officer in the case is no stranger to sleaze either. None of this fills the reader with great confidence in our legal system.
The plot ducks and dives around the place as a good plot should, but sometimes gets so complicated it’s hard for a reader to remember what’s supposed to be happening. The cast of main and peripheral characters is so large that the book could benefit from a list of their names and connections at the front, as seen in some editions of War and Peace. Readers don’t always lavish the concentration and focus on a book that their author would wish, and McGinn lacks Carter’s ability to make his characters real and memorable.
In The Empty Coffin, by Gary Moore, a mysterious figure starts appearing at crime scenes in Auckland. He or she – they seem able to take various forms – deals to the perpetrators, and heals victims’ wounds by moving their hands over them while emitting a blue light. The perpetrators then confess to the police and mend their ways. The entity drives a stolen Toyota Corolla and sometimes borrows the body of a murder victim, hence the title.
Some think it’s the Second Coming, and church attendance booms while the Auckland crime rate plummets. All this is quite cute for a while, but Moore is unable to sustain his idea or come to a satisfactory conclusion. In the end, the entity has a chat with police and reveals their message: people should stop having wars and being beastly to one another.
No, it’s not the Second Coming, or indeed anything spiritual. In fact, the entity reveals that there is no God, but believes religion is good because it encourages better behaviour. All a bit silly, really.
Bernard Carpinter is a Napier journalist and a previous judge for the Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel.