Fallout: A Tito Ihaka Novel, by Paul Thomas (Auckland: Upstart Press, 2014), 288 pp., $34.99
Is this novel is a good read? Sure. It hums along with Paul Thomas’s typically brisk pacing, his talent for braided plot lines, his ear for fluent dialogue. Is it vintage Ihaka? No, not if your reference point is the zestier early novels in the Tito Ihaka series, Old School Tie (1994), Inside Dope (1995), and Guerilla Season (1996). More in the vein of a police procedural than a thriller, Fallout is more sedately paced, a bit more earnest, less bitingly satirical, less convincingly embedded in geographical place. As in the previous Ihaka novels, there is no poring over dead bodies, little filtering of forensic evidence, not much observation of clues; instead, it is mastering the chain of connections that leads to the culprit. But whereas in previous novels that chain of connections grew exponentially and became absurdly convoluted through random connections and diversionary backstories, Fallout seems to have a less manic energy, as events are reconstructed through a series of detailed interviews. Instead, Fallout is more domestic in its premise and scope, more committed to fleshing out characters who return from previous novels. What emerges in this latest instalment is a more rounded picture of Ihaka as a lover, a son and a would-be father.
The departure from Thomas’s earlier Ihaka novels is apparent from the first page. Previous novels generally open in full flight: a spree of deaths (Guerilla Season starts with four murders in quick succession, or five if you count the pit bull, all executed with baroque extravagance), or a scattershot array of characters drawn from Thomas’s trademark cast of roué tycoons, self-seeking low-lifes, con-men, deceased estate-chasers, seedy middle-men, gigolos, and gin-and-tonic trouts (some 14 characters are introduced in the short prologue to Death on Demand, for example).
By contrast, Fallout opens in meditative mode. Finbar McGrail, now Auckland District Commander, is saying his bedtime prayers. He takes a photo from a drawer, giving us the first hint that this story is going to feature various forms of truncated or ersatz fatherhood. McGrail studies the face of 17-year-old Polly Stenson, strangled and bundled into the sauna at the Remuera mansion of the Bartons at a party on election night, 1987. Shortly after, McGrail receives a tip-off from Andy Maddocks, who was also at the high society party some 25 years earlier.
As McGrail sets Ihaka on the trail of the cold case, the maverick detective (still languishing at the rank of sergeant) has some unfinished business of his own to attend to. In her PhD research, Ihaka’s former not-quite-girlfriend Miriam Lovell has uncovered the papers of a political science lecturer, Ethan Stern, which imply that the untimely death of Ihaka’s union activist father Jimmy might not have been caused by a heart attack after all. Jimmy is described in Stern’s papers as ‘impossible to dislike, impossible not to admire, but he really can be a pain in the ass’ (34). Made in his father’s mould, Ihaka takes unpaid leave and pursues his personal Oedipal agenda, settling another old account on the way via a boxing bout with police colleague and foe Ron Firkitt.
In a parallel plot, disgraced cop Johan Van Roon returns from Coventry, or at least from the dismal Wellington flat where he has been exiled after being dismissed from the force, booted out of the family home and estranged from his children. Now working as a private investigator, Van Roon is visited by an old Paul Thomas favourite, Caspar Quedley. Acting as a go-between for a client, Quedley gives Van Roon a commission to locate Eddie Brightside, who was assumed to have skipped the country on election night 1987, until a recent sighting.
Like Alix Bosco in her works Cut & Run (2009) and Slaughter Falls (2010), Thomas’s cold case takes us back to the 1980s, cast as the scene of social and policy crimes (not to mention fashion crimes). In an earlier novel, Thomas characterised the 1980s as a time of fast money in the ‘slot-machine economy: you punch numbers into a computer and it spews out money’ (The Empty Bed, 95). Bryce Spurdle in Inside Dope had been saved from financial ruin by a chance reading of a book by J.K. Galbraith. In Fallout, Tim Barton calls the 1987 election win–win: the only competition is which party is more laissez-faire. Thomas’s Guerilla Season had also revisited the era, through a Gallic intrigue based around the Rainbow Warrior bombing in 1985; in Fallout, the ex-model Ann Smellie tells us that ‘they were all the same, the rich boys: they loved Labour’s economic policies but didn’t like the anti-nuke stuff’ (136).
For Bosco, writing as a pseudonym for left-leaning playwright and novelist Greg McGee, the 1980s were a watershed period when the nation lurched disastrously to the right. In Fallout, Thomas is more even-handed: corrupt union bosses on the left vie with American pro-nuclear/pro-neoliberal lobbyists on the right in spreading the moral decay (I suspect that there’s a roman à clef element in the characters of Eddie Brightside and Gerry Waitz; I wonder if other readers have spotted allusions to any historical figures?). Ihaka’s father was part of a radical communist group, the Workers’ Vanguard Party, which had its own brutal forms of discipline and was hoping to infiltrate New Zealand’s defence policy to push the government’s anti-nuclear stance and orient alliances away from the United States and towards Soviet interests. Ultimately, it is the WVP that is least to be trusted; the villain proves to be a leading player in the organisation who, unforgivably, tells Tito that he was named after a ‘Croatian pimp’ (200). The ones who jumped the fence end up the survivors. After all, as communist turned tycoon muffin-maker Tom Murray puts it, ‘a neoconservative is a lefty who’s been mugged by reality’ (269).
The previous novel in the Ihaka series, Death on Demand (2012), ended with a text from one-night-standee Denise Hadlow inviting Ihaka to watch her son play rugby. In the sequel Ihaka has semi-shacked up with Denise, according to the relaxing of genre conventions that now allow the hard-boiled detective a sex life, as long as it is rocky and inadequate. We are clearly in cougar territory with Denise, but even given that potentially juicy role she is not particularly satisfying as a character: she is snarky without evident justification, while falling short of the luxurious bitchiness of a femme fatale. (In recent New Zealand crime fiction, only Paul Cleave’s Melissa X plays that role to the hilt; even considering that the femme fatale can only return as a parodic shadow of her former self from the classic hard-boiled era, the figure is remarkably absent in local variants of the genre).
However, we find that the drawcard in the Hadlow ménage is not simply Denise, but also her son Billy: as he seeks to requite the memory of his father, Ihaka in turn wants the chance to mentor a boy who is hungry for the guidance and security of an older male. Ihaka coaches Billy’s rugby team, masterfully as one would expect, and comforts his step-son by spending an evening watching a match on TV with him, only to be ousted by Denise returning home with a bloke she has picked up for another leg-lifting romp.
The rise of the father as a charismatic figure appears to be an evolving genre convention: witness Vanda Symon’s The Faceless (2012), Paul Cleave’s The Laughterhouse (2012) and Blood Men (2010) and, in a more gothic horror mode, Carl Nixon’s Settler’s Creek (2010). Tito resents Jimmy’s early death, ‘father and son drastically shortchanged’ (103). If Jimmy’s death proved not to be accidental, there would need to be a ‘settling of accounts … utu’ (104). This is not the symbolic law laid down by a detached and implacable Sam Spade figure; rather, the paternal order is asserted through the actions of a hysterical, overly attached son whose own paternal role is interrupted and whose grief and sense of guilt can justify a spate of vigilante reprisals. McGrail has perhaps acted as a father figure to Ihaka in the past, indulging his waywardness and blunting his rougher edges; but now Ihaka searches for his own irreplaceable biological father.
There is certainly an air of middle-aged retrospection about the novel. It is a bit slow to crank into gear as the opening chapters are devoted to backstory of various kinds. Once underway, it’s an absorbing read, owing quite a bit to Thomas’s interest in political journalism along with some digressions into his other life as a sports journalist (or, to be more precise, male sports journalism; Thomas doesn’t often write about the other kind). Maybe it is just an impression on my part, but in Fallout I also miss something of the usual sparkle and vulgarity of Thomas’s language. Where are the bon mots that Thomas has gifted to the English language in his previous novels, from Kiwi argot (‘humungous bingo’) to scatology (‘taking it up the chocolate speedway’), neologism (‘dildogram’), witticism (‘the face that launched a thousand coffee commercials’) and silly simile (‘generating as much sibilance as three elocutionists ordering sushi’)?
With the big publishing multinationals merging or reducing their list of local fiction, it’s good to see small publishers like Upstart Press, founded in 2013, stepping in to fill the gap with handsomely produced editions. In addition to Thomas, the press has picked up crime novelists Paul Cleave and Paddy Richardson and looks to be well worth supporting.
JENNIFER LAWN lectures in English at Massey University’s Auckland campus. She is the author of Neoliberalism and Cultural Transition in New Zealand Literature, 1984–2008 (Lexington Books, 2016) and co-editor (with Misha Kavka and Mary Paul) of Gothic NZ: The darker side of Kiwi culture (Otago University Press, 2006).