Marlborough Man by Alan Carter (Fremantle Press, 2017), 304 pp., $37
This is a cracker of a novel, pacey and sharp. It opens with a scene from every parent’s nightmare: swimming lessons are over, children spill out from the pool, and as a little boy makes his way towards the bus stop a car door swings open and he accepts the invitation to hop in. The Pied Piper – as the local press has dubbed this paedophilic child murderer – has taken another victim.
Galloping to the rescue is Sergeant Nick Chester as the Marlborough Man, only the reference to the iconic cowboy of the cigarette brand is an ironic one at first. It appears in an email sent to Nick by the flesh-carving sociopath Marty Stringfellow, a criminal associate from Nick’s home town of Sunderland. After a botched undercover operation, Nick failed to gather enough evidence to put away the leaders of the gang for life. For his safety, Nick’s superiors give him a new identity and send him and his family to the end of the earth, or near enough, to Marlborough’s Wakamarina Valley. Now Marty is out for revenge, and he is heading Nick’s way.
Carter won the Ned Kelly award in 2011 for Prime Cut, the first book in the Australian-based Cato Kwong series, and he now extends his geographical and cultural range to Aotearoa New Zealand. Carter’s evocation of the country is, fairly evidently, a translation of local mores for an international audience. Nick’s snacks are a roll-call of Kiwi favourites, from sausage roll (of the artery-clogging variety) to rocky road and ginger slice – look out for the Anzac biscuits and the cheese rolls in the sequel. The descriptions of the land itself as simultaneously young and primeval wouldn’t be out of place in a New Zealand 100% Pure advertisement, albeit one tinged with noir-ish Kiwi downbeat: ‘If it wasn’t for the fact that New Zealand is so bloody beautiful, there are days when you could happily shoot yourself’ (p.11). Yet as Carter hauls out the national mythologies, he also shows a true ear for Kiwi idiom, a genuine feel and fondness for local people and place, and a sardonic but not trenchantly cynical outlook. Hard-boiled crime is the genre of fallen humanity, and Marlborough Man joins similarly capacious local crime novelists such as Paul Thomas and Gaylene Gordon, in a world where nobody is any better than they ought to be and many are considerably worse.
The first half of Marlborough Man bristles with energy. The action cuts cinematically between the Sunderland-based back-story and the narrative present, briskly juxtaposing Nick’s previous embedding within a vicious criminal world with ongoing difficulties in his family life. Nick still carries the stain of his incompetence in failing to carry out the sting operation, and his marriage is understandably strained. Even given that a rocky sex life is de rigueur for Nick’s character type, I also felt that there were moments of genuine heart and tenderness in the way that Carter draws out household tensions between overstretched, anxious parents. Nick’s wife Vanessa decides to head into town with their son Paulie to avoid getting sliced up by Marty, leaving Nick to sort out his own mess, professional and personal. He spends his evenings at the family’s isolated rural property waiting for Marty to loom out of the bush, and his days trying to sift out the child killer somewhere amongst the gamut of humanity in provincial New Zealand.
Embattled communities and individuals are a significant part of Carter’s social geography. Down the valley is alpaca-and-chicken farmer Charlie Evans. As his neighbour and corporate boss Richard McCormack strips his land of trees, Charlie’s land has become clogged with grey mud. ‘Maybe this is what they mean by the economic trickle-down effect,’ Charlie observes phlegmatically (p.16). Out on the Sounds is Patrick Smith, ‘a known kiddie-fiddler’ (p.25), who has opted for self-isolation over social ostracism after being de-registered from a private boys’ school in Perth. On the marae is the Haruru whānau, who deal with trouble in their own way. ‘We don’t need to be told how to live our lives,’ Uncle Walter tells Nick. ‘We’ve tried trust and cooperation and you lot always let us down’ (p.62). True to genre, the local cops are also something of a law unto themselves, from the uppity junior constable to the bent former cop. Nick himself yields to and then repels the sardonic but sexy DI Marianne Keegan from Wellington HQ, preferring to find justice through more local and unconventional pathways.
If it takes a village to raise a child, in Marlborough Man it takes a community to catch a child murderer. The degree of integration between the detective figure and the people of the area possibly brings a new element to crime fiction set in this country – it is a discussion worth pursuing, at any rate. More particularly, Māori characters play a significant part in both the Sunderland and Sounds plot lines. Māori provide elements of comedy (Nick’s foul-mouthed sidekick, constable Latifa Rapata), bush wisdom (the itinerant labourer and pig whisperer, Gary Farr), ‘at risk’ youth (Denzel Haruru), and spirituality (Beth Haruru has the power of matakite) – roles which might be dismissed as local colour and stock character types were it not for Carter’s fairly sensitive handling of racial issues.
Something of an alliance of marginalities is implied between Nick as the Geordie working-class pragmatist and the Haruru whānau, who carry griefs that are inextricably personal, political and historical. Beth has a feeling that a brief encounter with a tall, skinny Pākehā at the pub five years earlier is significant: ‘Matakite. A feeling, that’s all. I get dreams about that bloke, still. Not him as a memory, but the memory of how I felt when he looked at me … Pōuri’ (p.133). Nick, too, relies on an element of intuition; a rich bastard who subsequently turns out to be a very bad man ‘sets [his] Sunderland-bred hackles rising’ (p.116). Lines of mutuality between cultures are reinforced when (one kind of) Western equivalent to extra-sensory knowledge is added to the mix: the police take Beth to ‘ponytailed Professor Sumner and his Japanese wall hangings’ at a private consulting room for hypnosis to winkle out further details of the scene at the pub (p.161).
The second half of the novel develops new plot strands linked to Gary’s family and associates. Another child goes missing, little Qadim Reza. Denzel goes into hiding. False leads proliferate; Nick comes under pressure and is suspended for breaches of protocol. He berates himself for not making the most of the name that Uncle Walter gave him, not entirely kindly: Weka-tāne, the man who runs around in the undergrowth and digs stuff up. The action comes to a climax when Nick’s own son goes missing, courtesy of the world’s most negligent child-care centre. Running out of time to catch the Pied Piper before Paulie ends up tortured and dead, Nick again hauls Beth out to summons further memories and voilà – with the help of a mobile phone contact list, Nick has his man. It’s a contrived moment but the action moves swiftly on to a satisfying close.
Given the cross-cultural conversation that runs through the novel, I don’t think it is giving away any spoilers to say that the obligatory exchange with the villain in the final confrontation (they never go quietly) involves some kōrero about the nature of revenge. Latifa has been writing an essay for her law degree on the forms and legal implications of the concept of utu, and Carter’s characters pursue their own private (mis)understandings of the term. Latifa has the last word on this point – ‘it’s our utu, you twisted creepy fuck’ – as she cuffs the killer and returns the focus away from men’s private obsessions and towards the broader social obligations that the concept of utu is meant to rebalance (p.291). Maybe it is kaupapa Māori 101, superficially glossing a thriller genre that is not known for its philosophical niceties, but I found Marlborough Man compelling from start to finish. Highly recommended and I am keen to see the next instalment.
JENNIFER LAWN is head of the school of English and media studies at Massey University’s Auckland Campus. She is the author of several articles on New Zealand crime fiction, as well as the author of Neoliberalism and Cultural Transition in New Zealand Literature, 1984–2008: Market fictions (Lexington, 2016) and co-editor (with Misha Kavka and Mary Paul) of the anthology Gothic NZ: The darker side of Kiwi culture (University of Otago Press).