Overcast Sunday by Christodoulos Moisa (One Eyed Press, 2016), 306 pp., $24; The Agency by Ian Austin (published by Ian Austin, 2016), 424 pp., $29.99
I like very much what Whanganui artist and writer Christodoulos Moisa has attempted to do in Overcast Sunday. He has attempted to write a brisk and simple little crime story, which will illuminate the ethnic group to which he belongs and the cultural heritage from which he comes. Moisa is a Greek Cypriot. Set in Wellington in 1950, his Overcast Sunday concerns the little community of Greeks and Greek Cypriots who settled in Wellington after the World War II and Greece’s fratricidal civil war.
The corpse of a young woman, her throat slashed, is found in the alleyway next to Wellington’s Greek Club. Suspicion falls on Dmitros Psilos, also known as Mitso or ‘Jimmy the Short’, who is the first to discover her. The cops try to pin the crime on him and give him the third degree. Hari, one of Jimmy’s mates from the Greek Club, believes in Jimmy’s innocence. He’s a scholarly chap, a student at Vic who once aspired to the Orthodox priesthood. Hari tries to reason with the cops.
Truth to tell, this narrative line is no more than a thread on which to hang a portrait of the Wellington Greek community – or at least of its male members, as women are very much in the background. After we have been introduced to Greek Club habitués such as Peter the Cripple, Spiros the Mechanic, Gogos who recites obscene proverbs, Aeschylus and Aristophanes, the solution to the crime is almost a throwaway.
Moisa tries manfully to interweave plot and setting, but the task defeats him. Too often, the narrative breaks down into self-contained lectures.
No sooner is the corpse discovered in Chapter One than we are lectured on the Greek Club, on what Greek male immigrants wore in 1950, on New Zealand laws concerning immigration, on the Chinese Club around the corner and on Kiwi racism. We get a four-page lecture (pp. 95–99) on Saint Neophytos the Recluse because Hari is thinking of doing a thesis on him. Description of a wedding feast leads to pages on courtship back in Greece. When each new character is introduced – and even quite late in the novel – there is a backstory the better to tell us of one of the wars they have fled. Even a late sex scene turns into a flashback about sex among the partisans of 1944.
All these details have a legitimate place in a story on this subject and with this setting. Trouble is, they are simply not integrated into the tale. Rather than advancing the narrative or rounding characters out, they are plonked down like research that has to be used. What has been mugged-up is inserted into improbable dialogue such as:
‘The pohutukawa is to New Zealanders what the olive tree is to us,’ said Lefteris. ‘Actually, they remind me of olive trees when I see them. They have the same grey-green foliage. Except the olive tree is always serious, severe, but the pohutukawa bursts out in these amazing, joyful plumes of summer. I love it! Did you know it’s of the myrtle family and it’s generic scientific name is Metrosideros … another English word from the Ancient Greek … metra hardwood and sideron iron …’ (p.120)
If you can forgive this sort of thing, Overcast Sunday is an easy and pleasant enough read, though I am surprised at some of its presentation. It runs to over 300 pages only because the print is so big, with large gaps between paragraphs. And, goodness, the people who printed it have a very erratic way about the use of italics. And, without overstressing the point, Overcast Sunday also suffers from mediocre editing.
This is one of the areas where Ian Austin’s The Agency definitely has the edge. It has clearly been through the hands of a very good editor and emerges as a professional job of writing. In fact the chief thing that surprises me about this thriller is that it is self-published and has not been picked up by a major publishing house, as it should have been. Formulaic it may be, but it is proficient in what it sets out to do.
Dan Calder is a disillusioned and upset English cop in his forties, who has settled in Auckland after his career in Britain went bung and he left the force. He stumbles upon evidence that a serial killer is at work in New Zealand – a woman whom he suspected, but was never able to nab, in England. Part of her modus operandi is to prey on depressed and wealthy elderly people, pretending to be a member of a euthanasia society, ‘the Agency’, willing to put them out of their misery. The first half of The Agency has Dan Calder methodically collecting evidence to make a case against the serial killer. The second half has the serial killer taking counter-measures, once she has been accidentally alerted that the cop is on her trail.
Ian Austin is himself a former policeman, having served on both the English and New Zealand forces. Apparently he draws on aspects of his own professional life. The Agency is a ‘police procedural’ in the most literal sense. Police matters such as surveillance, reading evidence, setting up an incident room, protecting witnesses or potential victims, and interrogation techniques, are all laid out for us in great detail. So are the complexities of a non-force member persuading the New Zealand police to join in his unauthorised investigation. Perhaps it is all this detail that swells The Agency to over 400 pages of close type, but the novel is well-written, well-structured and comes to a clear conclusion, as all thrillers must. In effect, the documentary bits are properly woven into the story.
Okay – there are the improbabilities that come with the territory. There’s the coincidence of policeman Dan forming a relationship with a woman who is innocently connected to the serial killer, but the relationship allows for the romance element that is obligatory in this genre. When the serial killer becomes a ninja-like master of disguise in the novel’s second half, we sail very close to the image of a fiendish super-villain, at odds with the novel’s more sober documentary touches. The grand climax (staged in an Auckland marathon) is the sort that has been seen on many a cop show. And, if I wanted to judge this by the criteria of ‘literary’ novels (horrible term), I would say that the psychological motivation of both the policeman and his quarry is simplistic.
In the end, though, this is a capable cop thriller, which makes the best of its Auckland setting and would perform well to a large audience if it had the publicity of an established imprint behind it. Ian Austin intends to feature Dan Calder in a number of sequels. Fair enough. I look forward to them.
NICHOLAS REID holds a PhD from the University of Auckland. He is an Auckland poet, historian and teacher, and writes the weekly book blog, Reid’s Reader.