Victoria University Press, $30.00,
The Man Who Would Not See
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
Money in the Morgue
Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy
“I hear you like a good thriller, David,” said New Zealand Books’s courteous email. “Is that right?”
I responded with the dignified aloofness that marks all my exchanges with editors and publishers. “Oh yes. Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
Actually, the resident thriller expert is my wife. Beth has shelves solid with crime classics: Christie, James (P D, not Henry), Rex Stout, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Price. She’s numbered their spines according to publication dates. She can discourse about Allingham’s aristocratic scion Albert Campion developing as books pass, whereas Price’s MI6 agent and middle-class fellow David Audley doesn’t. She and her friend since high school, Elizabeth Smither (name-dropper? moi?), talk about how Poirot’s patent-leather shoes mean he has to operate cerebrally rather than physically; how traumatic it was to see Nero Wolfe shedding weight to elude an assassin; how Agatha Christie’s other narrators, Tommy and Tuppence, need a good smack.
Beth sees thrillers as inductive: the protagonists take a series of specifics and build a general pattern, on which they act. Crime stories are deductive: they shape a particular case from diverse details. She calls them both comfort blankets; can pull them up around her; relax into the plots. She likes the best ones’ meticulous settings, both historical and geographical; their assumption of intelligence in the reader; their crafted competence of style and plot. She acknowledges their social conservatism: crime is usually a rupture in an established and hierarchical social order, which all good people work to restore.
But this is supposed to be my opinions of three contemporary and local – in a pretty elastic sense – examples, so I’d better come cleanish, and admit I opened this trio with some apprehension. I find a lot of current thrillers – second elastic term – so poorly written. Okay, I get the feeling that for many readers, and a fair number of writers in the genre, style is largely irrelevant. They’re just words, for Gawd’s sake; sling them down and give us the story. How else to explain the clunky cadences of Lee Child, the prolix paragraphs of Stephen King, the way Dan Brown writes like a hippo wallowing through mud? Yes, I’ve read bits from all these, usually while concealed by their offensively huge piles in a bookshop.
Annaleese Jochems’s Baby headed RNZ’s announcement of the Ockham shortlist. “A lesbian thriller set in the Bay of Islands is among the finalists
in … .” Schlock, horror.
This bruising, bravado debut novel is, of course, much more than RNZ’s description. And, also of course, I probably shouldn’t be reviewing it. The plot’s first page refers dismissively to “a very puffed-out middle-aged woman”. Fair enough: the young are a foreign country; they see things differently there. This very scrawny old-aged man found Baby tasteless, amoral, ugly, offensive, and admired it enormously. It does indeed usher in a remarkable 20-something author, and I hope I’ll read a lot more from her, even if I need a strong cup of cocoa beforehand.
The plot, the plot … . Cynthia is 21 going on 12 or 35, utterly self-centred, utterly bored, capable of utterly nothing, or anything. She lives in a rich bit of Auckland with her intermittent father. He’s typical of the book’s males, by the way; they’re nearly all inadequate of complexion (“puffy, pinkish”) and comprehension. Even the dog’s been neutered. He’s also called Snothead. Yeah, yeah.
Cynthia lusts after her exercise instructor, delectable Anahera in her loose orange shorts and singlet that buttons up between the legs. She’s desperate “to go somewhere, to feel things, and be a real person”. Third-rate language, which fits our anti-heroine perfectly. She and Anahera get together, steal money, head north, and buy the eponymous boat in Paihia. Cynthia’s heard of Paihia; it was on The Bachelor NZ. That’s just one of Jochems’s surgically precise chuckaway references, the litany of brand-names (people are brand-names here, too: see Victoria Beckham) that build the glittering surface of her story.
On board Baby, things go from ugly to squalid. Snothead shits on the cushions, spews on the cabin floor. Cynthia watches Bachelor Pad on her phone, talks about selling their used knickers online to perving men, obsesses over Anahera. Claustrophobia builds; a male – unbecoming – moves in. Things promise to end horribly, and (gulp) you’re not disappointed.
You’re not disappointed by Cynthia, either. Anahera seldom gets past being a stage prop, which is largely how her shipmate sees her, but Cynthia is everything and nothing – a cliché to which Jochems would never stoop, I rush to add. She’s dazzlingly, chillingly narcissistic, fuelled by ignorance and entitlement, her language and thoughts (hyperbole there) shaped by reality TV, Tinder, Snapchat, Instagram. She’ll have passed you in downtown malls, though she certainly won’t have noticed you. You’ll recoil from her, occasionally pity her. You won’t be able to deny her.
The resident expert had reservations about Baby: “Very clever … . scarily compelling, though emotionally smeary … . a disjunction between adolescent angst and adult events.” Did I like it? Don’t be silly: how can you like a half-grown monster? But I did and do admire it. It’s flat-out, pitch-perfect flat-voiced, concussively honest. It’s put me right off tinned peas.
Rajorshi Chakraborti is Calcutta-born, globally-raised, internationally-published, now Wellington-based. Good to have him in New Zealand Books. And in New Zealand books.
In India, pre-pubescent half-brothers Abhay and Ashim inadvertently start a family crisis. They’re judged to be bad influences on each other, so they and innocent sister Didi must all be separated. Nearly three decades later, Abhay (aka Ahi) is in New Zealand, to which he’s fled via other countries of “infrastructural smoothness”. He’s novelist, jogger, tennis player, husband, father. He holds Kiwi and Indian bank accounts. Didi seems to have disappeared, but there have been reciprocal visits between Abhay and Ashim (aka Dada). Now the latter is en route to Wellington, to see his younger sibling once more and possibly destroy a few things while he’s there.
Individual mysteries are what edge The Man Who Would Not See towards thriller status. Most of the frissons come from the conundrums that characters’ behaviour pose. What is motivating Ashim/Dada? Is something about to erupt and smash Abhay/Ahi? Is the slightly superfluous Tony just a misconstrued threat to family honour? What’s become of Didi? In particular, “(T)he great reunion … . when did it all go so wrong?” A lot of questions get asked; the majority are satisfyingly answered.
Shelly Bay, Day’s Bay, Karori, the Wainui Coast, all feature. So do Hazaribargh and Calcutta, which makes for a nice contrast between tumultuous urban India with its matching emotional nexus, and inward-focused Kiwi suburbia with its own matching lives. Most of the narrative is packed into three summer months. Characters spend much of the time finding their way, literally so in the opening pages, in which the brothers get spectacularly and colourfully lost during a Calcutta power cut. An eventful final section sees both of them back in India, where we even have a gent getting his upturned moustaches waxed, and where a small daughter seems to hurl herself under a bus. Things end with a mischievous mixture of reconciliation and recrimination.
Chakraborti is much concerned with the slipperiness of truth, the perils of assumptions, the need for communication and compromise. Sounds trite, but one of his achievements is that these motifs nearly all rise from the characters and their arcs – make that parabolas in a couple of cases. It’s good old Show-Don’t-Tell, till the marginally didactic last pages, at any rate.
We have a shuttle of narrators. Beth noted that a cast list would have helped, given the multiplicity of intra-family names or titles, and she’s quite right – as always, dear. Voices vary authentically; you’ll enjoy Abhay’s wife, Lena, who takes no shit and precious few prisoners.
The resident expert liked this one: “Well-written, well-constructed, well-disguised. Always coherent. Emotions credible and carefully rendered.” I finished the final page and felt pleasantly complete. Then I realised I’d finished, and felt a bit bereft. That’s success for any author.
Ngaio Marsh wrote only the first 10 per cent of Money in the Morgue. Tokoroa-raised (I hope there’s a plaque) Stella Duffy was commissioned to do the rest. Such two-hander scenarios always bring a danger of something assembled rather than organic, and so it is here – but divertingly so.
Inspector Roderick Alleyn, of Scotland Yard no less, is in WWII New Zealand, at a remote hospital for military convalescents in the Canterbury foothills. He’s supposedly a “writer collecting traditional tales in the Antipodes” (urrghh) but, truth is, there are whispers of a Japanese spy ring.
It all happens in less than 24 hours, with one location and one narrative focus. Aristotle would have nodded approvingly. And it certainly does all happen: a storm is imminent; there’s a load of cash in the hospital safe; handsome Dr Hughes is strangely distracted; the patients are breaking out and breaking up.
Very soon, the cards are down and the road is up. Old Mr Brown dies (no spoiler; no surprise). So does Matron (still no spoiler; major surprise). A labyrinth of tunnels and glow-worm caverns lie beneath the hospital and can be accessed from the most unexpected places. A local farmer could be a bad lot; a pillow could be significant. Relationships are rampant and sometimes randy. After it all works out, Alleyn delivers the obligatory, protracted summary covering absolutely everything, while still finding time for a letter to faithful, working-class subordinate Fox back in the United Kingdom.
Sorry if I’m sounding flip, but I couldn’t take this pastiche very seriously. Neither, I suspect, did Duffy. You sense she had a good time writing it. She’s attentive; she kicks the plot along energetically; she adds inventively and a touch provocatively. There’s even a Māori character. I won’t call him token, but he seems to be the only one, except for a kuia who appears and disappears in half a page.
Marsh’s stately, now-stilted style is rendered neatly. People use the subjunctive flawlessly in conversation. They say “A hospital is a world unto itself”; “our worrisome crew”; “There are some perversions that cannot stand”. Duffy has to have been giggling as she produced that last one.
I remember a writing friend, who’d prefer to stay anonymous, steaming gently as she recalled interviewing Marsh in Dunedin, back in the 1970s. Friend had referred to the impoverished families in streets not far away. The grand Dame’s reply was along the lines of “My deah! Their dreadful accents!” Alleyn and her other characters in the New Zealand-set books sniff at the same abomination, and Duffy niftily picks up on it here. Some characters are reluctantly back in the country after art or drama school in the United Kingdom. She makes sure that men are chaps, with impeccable syntax or comic colloquialisms, and that women are pleasingly bolshie. I note that in what seems to be Marsh’s contribution, one woman’s heavy jowls automatically make her “an old cow”. There’s a lot to be said for current political correctness.
It’s measured. Oh, it’s measured. It’s a curiosity, and it kept me curious. The resident expert wasn’t impressed: “talk, talk, talk”. She’s right – again, dear. There’s even chatter from beneath the earth.
I reckon the literary liveliness of a culture can be defined partly by how much competent genre stuff is being written and read: Paddy Richardson, Ben Sanders, Paul Cleave, Donna Malane, Vanda Symon and several more, show that New Zealand crime fiction has a lusty heartbeat.
Two of the three reviewed here reach well beyond the genre, which I see as another index of such health. I obviously won’t be reading the next book by Marsh; I’m perceptive that way. But further titles by Jochems and Chakraborti? Bring ‘em on.