The Scene of the Crime, by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins, 2015), 320 pp., $39.99
We learn that Steve Braunias did some preparatory research for his book The Scene of the Crime, subtitled Twelve extraordinary true stories of crime and punishment, by reading ‘about crime writing in Te Ara, the New Zealand online encyclopedia for children’ (‘for children’ is Braunias’s interpolation): ‘The author was some nobody. “Crime news,” Nobody wrote, “offers the media potent content as it is often negative, personal, visual, violent, emotional and lacks complexity.”’
Braunias comments that the article ‘made me want to wring Nobody’s neck’. Braunias of course is no nobody. Just as he is prone to write that he likes or dislikes someone on sight, at times his perception is so acute he can detect originality, even ‘genius’ in a person that is so self-evident it requires no corroborating evidence. For example, he relates in chapter three that the psychiatrist ‘[Karl] Jansen was funny and charming company; it’s always exciting to chat with a genius.’ On another occasion he talked with the New Zealand writer Peter Hawes, whom he considered ‘was in possession of one of the most original minds in New Zealand literature’. He asked Hawes, who thought Mark Lundy guilty of the murder of his wife and daughter, whether he had ‘considered the possibility that he’s innocent?’ Hawes replied: ‘That would be an interesting intellectual exercise.’ Braunias’s ruminations on the Lundy case, which comprises a third of The Scene of the Crime, read as a response to Hawes’ challenge.
His book’s blurb states that The Scene of the Crime deals with ‘issues of psychology and the soul’, and that ‘the strangeness just beneath the surface is revealed’. Yet a number of times at the start of the book, Braunias discounts the importance of psychology. An example: ‘… the business of a trial is far less concerned with psychology than an exercise in complicated physics. It’s a study of time and [space].’ ‘Soul’ is not mentioned in the book, though perhaps this word is used to imply something ‘just beneath the surface’. In the end, Braunias decides to stick to the surface:
It’s impossible and pointless to try to put yourself in the mind of a killer, but the setting takes you to the scene of the crime, shows you something about New Zealand. It’s not the dark underbelly; it’s the dark surface …
The setting is the scene is the surface! If a writer is sceptical about investigating the psychology of people, then analysis of the surroundings may provide copy. A mansion in Auckland’s Mount Albert features in one of Braunias’s chapters on the killing by a Chinese man of two other Chinese men. He investigates the complex clash of cultures in thorough journalistic style, but increasingly beyond the Chinese and their motivations looms the setting:
To gaze upon 23 Stilwell Road is to see it as a big old luxury-liner, splendid and gleaming, a fantasy of wealth and success. Possible, too, to think of it sailing through a history of Auckland, taking onboard an essence of the city over successive generations.
This is a description of a prop from the Gothic tradition. Braunias goes on to sketch some of the colourful array of previous owners of the haunted house.
At the second Lundy trial, Braunias muses on a painting of a judge hanging on the wall: ‘The eyes of the insane judge in the portrait gallery seemed to widen, and bulge.’ At times his prose suits the Gothic genre: ‘He was such a wretch, hopeless and demented, and horrible right to the bitter end.’ And: ‘What madness and collapse brought him to the hell he made for himself inside the house on the hill?’
Halfway through his book, in the chapter entitled ‘A Naked Male Riding his Bike: Timaru’, Braunias attempts some explanations of his style of writing. He argues that although ‘journalists are among the least creative and original people’, one of journalism’s ‘great appeals’ is that it enables ‘sentences no one has ever written before’. And it’s true; he does produce some unique sentences.
Although he claims that ‘all reporting is the accumulation of minor details’, that does not preclude insight into New Zealand: ‘One of the golden rules of the New Zealand way of life – once something is finished, move on.’ And: ‘We were here first. So much of the New Zealand way of life bristles in that remark.’
Braunias often plays up to an audience (only, who is his audience?): ‘The strict policy that dictates that New Zealand courtrooms must only exhibit really terrible works of art … two big painted oars fastened onto the walls … The artist was identified as someone called Denis O’Connor – possibly a joke, a sly reference to America’s Cup buffoon Dennis Connor – ’
Denis O’Connor is, as anyone with a modicum of familiarity with New Zealand art would know, a well-known and well-established local artist. Braunias’s joke is not funny nor is its reference sly; it is, to appropriate his own term, buffoonish.
In his chapter on the trial of three policemen for rape, Braunias says about one of them: ‘I liked Rickards. I liked the way his mind worked … like all obsessives, he talked too fast … it didn’t seem much of a stretch to treat him like a human being.’ Braunias goes on to liken Clint Rickards to Louise Nicholas, who had accused him of rape: ‘He and Nicholas actually had a lot in common. Rickards wanted to make things better for people; so did Nicholas … They were both fighters who stood their ground, were staunch, resolute.’
The preceding is a good example of Braunias’s strategies – engagement, quick summations, provocations, contradictions. At the end of the chapter he concludes: ‘The three men were found not guilty, but almost no one regards them as innocent’; ‘Mission accomplished: the New Zealand public now believe the gospel according to Nicholas.’ He cannot resist a final quote and comment: ‘“Punishment comes in all forms,” Nicholas said with terrific piousness to a women’s magazine.’
Though Braunias accepts the not guilty verdict for Rickard, in contrarian mode he does not accept the guilty verdict for Mark Lundy. He supposes that the jurors ‘reached a verdict based partly on a stupid and vindictive reading of [Lundy’s] body language’.
At the start of the trial, Braunias ‘stood among the mob of 60 in a queue outside the courthouse that Monday morning. I thought they were freaks wanting to watch the trial.’ His ‘mob of freaks’ turn out to be the potential jurors. He refers to a ‘nice old duck’ (probably ‘older woman’ in Brauniese) who fails to be chosen for the jury but who ‘might have made a difference’. He refers to some of the jurors as ‘the cripple’, ‘the munter’, and ‘the pretty forewoman’. After the jury brings in a verdict of guilty, he responds: ‘I think I probably hate them.’
Braunias judges the jury: ‘Were there little alliances, important cliques? The forewoman seemed on especially good terms with the hipster … they’d exchange a knowing smile … were sometimes seen sharing a joke … sighted together on the morning of the verdict at Tank Juice Bar … Their relationship took on a sinister turn at the precise moment Lundy’s chances of an acquittal went from extremely likely to zero.’
The back cover pronounces the Lundy case ‘the riveting centrepiece’ of The Scene of the Crime. The Lundy material is apportioned to the beginning, middle and end in an effort to impose structure on a selection of court reports that Braunias wrote for newspapers and magazines. Though his book does not purport to be satire but ‘true stories’, it is infected with the same ridicule and sarcasm prevalent in his regular satirical newspaper columns. The Scene of the Crime is a book that is less than the sum of its parts – parts that while sometimes entertaining are too ‘often negative, personal, visual, violent, emotional and lack[ing] complexity’.
DENIS HAROLD is an independent researcher living near Dunedin.