Cross Fingers, by Paddy Richardson, (Hachette, 2013), 288 pp., $35
A second-rate literary artwork, no matter its genre, always contains lessons. Comparative artlessness reveals much that is otherwise hidden. It is possible to observe the inherited mechanics, the authorised shapes, and routine expectations of the novel in starkly-lit detail. We are offered a backstage panorama of the form, the conditions of its production, and its relationship to a perceived audience without the expert sleights and distracting patter by which more proficient exemplars blur the view. Paddy Richardson is the author of two short-story collections and five novels. Cross Fingers is the second in a crime/suspense series that began with Traces of Red. Both novels focus on Rebecca Thorne, a TV journalist, whose media career enables the plots and provides their impetus.
In Cross Fingers, Thorne is working on an investigative documentary about a dodgy property developer for a TV production company, Zenith, when she is suddenly and unwillingly side-lined into making a 30th anniversary programme on the polarising 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. While researching and conducting her interviews, Thorne comes across references to ‘the Lambs’, two figures costumed as sheep, whose provocative performances at anti-Tour demonstrations earned them both admiration and anger before the pair abruptly disappeared without explanation.
Thorne’s involvement with the personalities and events of the Tour alternates with the complications of her personal life. Her relationship with a Wellington ministerial press secretary involves a perfect Raratongan getaway holiday which turns septic. Back home in Wellington, Thorne finds herself being stalked. There are crank calls. Surreptitious photographs of herself and her family are sent to her phone. Her home is invaded. Personal and political motives mount.
However, Cross Fingers is ultimately a scaffold of a novel. While Richardson’s previous novels have been dense with reference and voice, near overfilled with luminous local detail, Cross Fingers is comparatively stark. It has been stripped down to a bare articulation of the writer’s earlier work. The plotting has become mechanical, the false leads creak, and misdirection frustrates rather than titillates.
Richardson’s cultural density, her New Zealand-specific idioms and references, have also been toned down and muted. In her earlier novels, Richardson demonstrated a superb ear for the New Zealand vernacular. If any crime/suspense author could lay claim to having mastering a certain colloquial New Zealand woman’s voice, then Richardson would be one of the first in line:
That I looked the right way was essential. I had a sea of people gazing critically at me, working out my style. Not too severe; that could suggest to the public I was a promoter of feminism, even, God forbid, a lesbian, which wouldn’t at all fit with what they wanted. But definitely not girly. Girly would imply superficiality; it would trivialise what I was saying. Perhaps jackets? Jackets with detail: applique, bold buttons, something a little whimsical …
(Traces of Red, p. 38)
It is the aspirational voice of middle New Zealand, ineluctably gendered. A New Zealander can precisely locate the personal histories and social positions of Richardson’s characters by their language. However, unlike Richardson’s previous successes (most notably in A Year to Learn a Woman), Cross Fingers somehow generalises this voice and removes much of its interest. Where A Year to Learn a Woman and Traces of Red could provide dictionary citations for the New Zealand vernacular, Cross Fingers attenuates this voice to a poor shadow of itself:
About six every night when Happy Hour started we slipped into sun loungers that edged the beach, drank our pina coladas and pineapple daiquiris and watched as the sun slipped away. We ate amazing food, enjoyed the kind of sex which leaves you breathless. There is nothing like making love on a smooth sheet, in the kind of heat where you delight in stretching out naked, bodies tasting of sun and salt.
(Cross Fingers, p. 52)
The disjunct between the two novels, Traces of Red and Cross Fingers, that claim sequence and a common narrator, is therefore jarring. The style has suddenly been smoothed and made bland. The individual New Zealand voice has become a frictionless global product. Even in terms of detail, Cross Fingers feels like it is written by a different writer, and nowhere more so than in its setting. Traces of Red can lay some claim to being a satisfying representation of a real media world, but in Cross Fingers, the sequel, this world has, bewilderingly, become a glib and sometimes inaccurate simulacrum.
In Cross Fingers, the commissioning and production of a TV documentary, the centre-piece of the plot, is a strange enterprise which manages to ignore the fact (recognised in Traces of Red) that any TV production is a vast co-operative process, where camera and sound personnel are ubiquitous and present during filming, not to mention the involvements of the people on the rest of the traditional credit-roll. Richardson uses the clumsy ‘editing room’ instead of the industry standard ‘edit-suite’. It is simply impossible to make many of the programme decisions and in the way she describes. Once a reader’s belief in the setting is shaken, it is hard to regain lost trust.
The novel’s interpolated ‘voices of the Springbok tour’– demonstrators, police, organisers, reporters – further compounds this problem. The history and actions of this seminal event in New Zealand’s recent history are rehearsed in a way that can teeter on the recitative of a Wikipedia article.
It is a common event to ally a novel with an historic period, and even an historic incident, but in Cross Fingers this apparatus becomes a laboured enterprise. Explanations are bolted onto the narrative. Frequent exposition wears on the patience. These ‘Tour voices’ become eventually ignorable distractions to what is essentially a straight-forward text-book example of suspense/detection.
There are pleasures in misdirection and feint, but they are not found here. Richardson’s skill in manipulating a multitude of character viewpoints has been previously proven, but in Cross Fingers these ‘Tour voices’ are flat recitals that seem to belong somewhere else. This is especially apparent when the final denouement has no great relationship to the public history that has been so extensively rehearsed.
Cross Fingers can be framed as a cautionary lesson for young writers. The 1981 Springbok Tour becomes the classic ‘MacGuffin’ popularised by the film-maker Alfred Hitchcock in the structure of his suspense movies: an emphasised plot-feature that initially seems to be of immense import to the narrative but, in rear view, is simply misdirection. A MacGuffin is a titillation and a risk. It must be used well or not at all. Ultimately, in the case of Cross Fingers, the reader takes little pleasure in being misled, particularly at such length.
Whether the 1981 Tour in Cross Fingers eventually becomes something important by its mishandling, is a question that will be asked. What does this clumsiness tell us about contemporary New Zealand? Is the subject still too volatile for background, too importantly polarising to be used as mere scenery? It certainly becomes the glitch in Cross Fingers that forces us to see the mechanics. It is the blur that destroys the illusion. It is the novel’s great MacGuffin that does not succeed.
DAVID HERKT is a poet, short-story writer and documentary-maker whose TV work has won two Qantas/New Zealand Film and Television awards.