Death On Demand, Paul Thomas (Hodder Moa, 2012) 272 pp., $36.99.
‘I belong to New Zealand, not Australia,’ Fergus Hume stated in the introduction to the revised edition of his 1886 novel The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, the first crime novel to ever sell more than half a million copies. Its success inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write A Study In Scarlet, which introduced Sherlock Holmes. Doyle’s gratitude was not fulsome: ‘Hansom Cab,’ he remarked, ‘was a slight tale, mostly sold by “puffing”.’
Hume was New Zealand’s first detective writer. He had arrived in Dunedin in 1862 as a three-year old, leaving for Melbourne after being admitted to the Bar in 1885. A career as an author was more alluring. ‘I enquired,’ he wrote, ‘of a leading Melbourne bookseller what style of book he sold the most of. He replied that the detective stories of Gaboriau had a large sale and as I had never even heard of this author I brought all his works – eleven or thereabouts – and read them carefully. The style of these attracted me and I determined to write a book of the same class containing a mystery, a murder, and a description of low-life in Melbourne.’
It is a strategy that has been followed by many aspiring writers of detective, crime, and police-procedural novels ever since. The motive is usually described as financial — by its authors, publishers and publicists. ‘Units sold’ is the primary gauge. It seems a genre whose productive raison d’être is less concealed than many others; art is subordinated before the desire to sell.
Thomas De Quincey’s 1827 essay ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’ should be seen as a precursor text in the creation of the genre. ‘People begin to see that something more goes into the composition of a murder’, De Quincey wrote, ‘than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light, shade, poetry and sentiment are now deemed indispensable…’
Crime fiction was established as a genre in the mid-nineteenth century by Poe and Gobineau, and was enlarged by Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Conan Doyle. The twentieth century would extensively develop it with Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Simenon, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, and James Ellroy. Literary novels took the genre and subverted or referenced it. Radio and the movies codified it in different mediums. Computer games refigured it. ‘The detective story,’ Gertrude Stein claimed in 1936, is “the only really modern novel form that has come into existence.”
Contemporary crime novels are still the best-sellers of New Zealand fiction, including those by New Zealand writers. Paul Thomas’ Death on Demand, the fourth novel featuring his Maori detective Tito Ihaka was number 6 on the Neilson Bookscan Best Fiction list for 2012. Currently, the works of New Zealand crime authors Paul Cleave, Ben Sanders, and Paul Thomas sell well internationally and all three have been translated into European languages. However the history of the genre in its Kiwi variant has barely been examined.
Ngaio Marsh remains New Zealand’s best known crime writer, with 32 novels featuring her CID detective Roderick Alleyn. Colour Scheme (1943) is one of her very few novels to be set entirely in New Zealand. It is a New Zealand for non-New Zealanders. The novel opens with a glossary of ‘Maori Words Used in The Text’ (‘Aue! Aue! Aue! Te mamae i au!’ – ‘Alas! Alas! Alas! My grief!’). The novel’s setting is a classic piece of early twentieth-century tourism with hot-pools and the sacred mountain, Rangi’s Peak. ‘Then the Maori theme,’ Marsh has a character ask in the unravelling and winding-up of the mystery, ‘Eru Paul, the stolen adze, and the violation of tapu were all subsidiary factors?’
In Colour Scheme, they most definitely are ‘subsidiary factors’, a colonial picturesque inserted into an imported form, a Kiwi Cluedo, where the equivalents of Miss Scarlet and Colonel Mustard are permitted for a moment to stare breathlessly at blanket-wrapped Rua, whose grandfather, ‘a chieftain and a cannibal, was a Neolithic man.’
Writers like Valerie Grayland and Elizabeth Messenger, continued the development of Kiwi Crime in the 1950s and 1960s. Grayland, who published under the name V. Merle Grayland, integrates setting, character and language into her work in ways Marsh did not. She writes in a recognisable New Zealand vernacular. Her settings, unlike Marsh’s somehow flat theatrical backdrops, are generally bereft of the tourism-kitsch and the picturesque, focused more on untidy country towns, suburbs gone to seed, neon-lit milk-bars, and second-rate pubs.
Grayland also produced the logical apotheosis of the New Zealand crime genre, a Maori detective, eventually featuring in four of Grayland’s novels. ‘The idea for the Maori detective, Hoani Mata,’ the back-cover bio to Night of the Reaper (1963) explains, ‘came of her liking for off-beat places and people and a wish to put on paper certain aspects of life in a young country like New Zealand. The best way to do this seemed to be to invent a character who was more interested in places and people than in getting ahead and making money. A likeable, easy-going Maori character seemed ideal.’ Hoani Mata, however, is a curiously passive protagonist, inevitably deferring to the authority and mana of the New Zealand police. He is more than a narrative guide, but less than a charismatic sleuth.
Thirty years later, in a series of police-procedurals, Paul Thomas would introduce New Zealand’s next Maori detective, Tito Ihaka. Thomas’ first three novels, Old School Tie (1994), Inside Dope (1995), Guerilla Season(1996) were ‘a part tongue-in-cheek sendup of the hard-boiled sub-genre’, as Carolina Miranda and Barbara Pezzotti have remarked in ‘Foreigners in their own country: The Maori Detective in New Zealand Crime Fiction’, one of the few comparative studies of New Zealand crime writing.
Tito Ihaka may be a Maori but in the first three books of the series, he is largely without cultural background. It takes ten chapters of Old School Tie, as Miranda and Pezzotti observe, before Ihaka is actually referenced as Maori. He is also deracinated in more ways than one. While Grayland’s Hoani Mata, has a family and a milieu, Ihaka has neither. His being as a Maori seems more a writer’s or a publisher’s product gimmick, than something intrinsic. In an era of hyper-sensitivity to the Maori-Pakeha demarcation, it is a strange absence.
The first Ihaka plots are ‘relentlessly tough yet hilarious’, according to the back-jacket of their collected publication. They feature characters with names like Harold Funke, Al Grills, Caspar Quedley, Amanda Hayhoe, Fred Freckleton, Dermot Looms and Chas Gundry, whose cumulative nominative presence seems to contort the novels, immediately taking them much closer to parody than realism.
Thomas’ reliance on daily news for much of the currency of the initial Ihaka novels also tends to age them before their time. They are yesterday’s stories, and too often their details are things we’d prefer to forget rather than revive. In conjunction with the exaggerated characteristics of the secondary cast, the wincing litany of bad fashion and the gawky slang tend to balloon the early Ihaka novels distractingly towards the cartoon.
Thomas’ Death on Demand, his first Ihaka novel in 18 years, was published in 2012. It marks an odd shift in the series, as if we are being introduced to a new character for a new era. Ihaka has been extensively reconfigured. In Death On Demand Ihaka is recalled from exile in the Wairarapa, back to Auckland, to deal with a series of murders, which may or may not have a police connection. He now inhabits a world where race is an issue, a tension, and even a means of seduction: ‘Ihaka’s strategy, based on several optimistic assumptions was to hang in there nodding gravely for a few more minutes, get another margarita into her, then steer her onto the subject of race relations in the here and now and exactly what conciliatory gestures she was prepared to make to atone for the rapacity of her forbears.’
It is immediately apparent the novel is less of a pastiche than the previous novels in the series. The hokiness of the first Ihaka novels has matured, making a smoother product. His characters are now a gallery of effectively backgrounded and recognisable New Zealand types, without the comedic edge. In fact, much of Thomas’ talent lies in these quick sketches of individuals, with their plethora of telling local detail. Thomas is particularly aware of nuance, the difference in signification between Point Chevalier and St Heliers, the Northern Club and the Panmure RSA.
Death On Demand is regarded as part of a ‘new’ flourishing of the Antipodean crime genre, a view which seems to conveniently forget other historic assertions of the genre, particularly that of the 1960s when an equal if not larger number of New Zealand writers were producing crime fiction set in New Zealand for both local and international audiences.
Thomas is now flanked by writers like Ben Saunders whose style, borrowed from James Ellroy, is a blend of short-sentences and sharp vivid stabs of local detail. Saunders’ work is movie-cut action. His mean streets are evoked in such directive detail that his novels could be used in lieu of a GPS navigation system. Thomas suffers much by the comparison. Thomas is also curiously old-fashioned. His intended audience seems to be males over fifty, or the women who buy them presents. His sex is seldom explicitly sizzling. His crimes are never truly shocking. There is the sense of the once-a-year Christmas holiday reading about his work. It is rollicking narrative ride, and the clang of some of his sentences is blurred by the speed of the plotting. The roll-call of deaths seems improbable and artificial. Like Ihaka’s earlier forays, Death On Demand will not age well. It is temporary fiction for temporary purposes, but it does not claim otherwise. It will probably be a good earner.
The future of New Zealand crime fiction, however, requires a voice that will twist convention to make it something other than a pale reflection of generic style. The Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White loved reading newspaper reports of New Zealand murders (‘a real New Zealandy murder’) and rated New Zealand’s among the best. Unfortunately, our crime fiction does not yet reflect it.
DAVID HERKT is an Auckland writer whose work as a TV director and researcher has led to many profitable hours interviewing both police and criminals, frequently on the subject of the same crime.
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