Rotorua Noir

Several days on, a buzz remains from having been at Rotorua Noir, New Zealand’s first-ever crime fiction festival directed by Grant Nicol and Craig Sisterson. An immediate sense of community developed, as at similar festivals around the world. Even though crime fiction and thrillers now dominate the publishing market, their writers maintain a “united us” versus the literary fiction “them” who, by and large, consider us lesser beings.

Sussman the-last-time-we-spoke
That debate and, perhaps, the self-doubt never ends, even though crime novels now provide as much if not more “social commentary” than the so-called purer literary forms. Fiona Sussman’s Ngaio Marsh Award-winning The Last Time We Spoke, for example, deals with the effects of home invasion as powerfully as does Ian McEwan’s Saturday. In fact, Sussman may well have more impact, her story being about an ordinary family as opposed to what many critics regarded as McEwan’s impossibly upper middle class/elite “victims”.
Crime fiction now ranges far and wide geographically and covers all contemporary issues including illegal immigration, human trafficking, drugs, corporate corruption and the rest. Some even suggest that all literature is crime fiction, in that a “crime” of some kind invariably provides the “inciting incident”.
Then, crime fiction is as much about character formation and development as any other literary form – think how Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch having been a Vietnam tunnel rat influences his cop career and behaviour. Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope, similarly, has a background story that shapes her police career. Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, on the other hand, is the average everyday cop who gets on with his life, grumbling at the multiplying tourists who ravage his beloved Venice. In New Zealand, Paul Thomas’ Maori cop, Ihaka, struggles as much with his family’s social and political views as with Auckland crims.

Paul Thomas Ihaka
I thought of Ihaka a lot in Rotorua where the role of Maori in New Zealand society is far more evident than in the South Island, as it is generally across the North, the result of a complex post-European 1840 annexation. The “land wars” were in the north, and the full range of the Maori experience occurred there with an impact on language, custom and tradition. More recently, Treaty of Waitangi settlements have had far more impact there (with due deference to Ngai Tahu achievements in the South Island).

This is not the place for a full discussion of the Maori trajectory fully, but it has been chequered. There have been highs: the Maori Battalion performance in numerous wars, and the achievements of people like Sir Peter Buck, Maui Pomare, Sir Apirana Ngata, Kiri Te Kanawa and Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan. But there have been lows: Maori like George Nepia being voluntarily excluded by a pakeha-dominated New Zealand Rugby Union from tours to South Africa; and the social ills portrayed by Alan Duff in Once Were Warriors. And then there are the health, education and welfare statistics that show Maori doing consistently worse than pakeha.

Tangata Whenua
But as demonstrated in the marvellous Tangata Whenua: an Illustrated History by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris, the Maori story lies at the heart of the whole New Zealand one.
For that reason, having Rotorua Noir begin with an official visit to the Ohinemutu Marae was a brilliant stroke. And that was compounded by our good fortune in having leading Maori cultural leader and academic Ngahuia Te Awekotuku as our official leader.


We were welcomed formally onto the Marae by the full force of Maori oratory, a reminder that this oral tradition reaches back to at least the thirteenth century. It was gently pointed out that, as writers, our spokespeople kept referring to their notes!
Ihaka would have loved it.
Over my days in Rotorua I returned to Ohinemutu, its wonderful village situated on Lake Rotorua and surrounded by thermal activity, because it signifies the complexity of the Maori journey since annexation. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku referred in her talks to Maori difficulties with “settlers”, and those difficulties are long standing. Yet Ohinemutu remains staunchly Anglican with a marvellous church whose interior is dominated by Maori carvings and motifs mixed with Christian themes.

And close to the marae entrance stands a bust of Queen Victoria perched on a magnificent Maori-carved plinth. The bust was donated to Te Arawa in 1870 by the visiting Duke of Edinburgh. A few days before us, Ohinemutu was again visited by royalty, Harry and Meghan. Our hosts told lovely stories about interlopers trying to get in on the photographs.
Most moving for me, though, in the late evening light, was walking through the graveyard dedicated to those warriors who had served, then returned to normal lives. There are Maori in military graveyards across the world, and their service is being recognised increasingly, yet this is one of the most telling reminders of how much Maori have given to New Zealand and how relatively little they have had in return until recently.

Ihaka might have been moved, too.

Protagonists like him worldwide, then, have back stories along with their strengths, flaws, failings, quirks, absurdities and ordinariness.
All that and more was present in Rotorua where well-known, successful writers mixed readily with lesser lights, about-to-be and hope-to-be writers, and readers. The community just got together to encourage each other. Internationally acclaimed writers Michael Robotham, Alex Gray, Lilja Siguroardottir and Kati Hiekkapelto set an openness and approachability that helped a set of Kiwi writers get to know each other, having met previously only in the social media world – there was a lot of “really good to meet you here instead of on Facebook”.
Sessions covered the full range from discussions of specific books through the tribulations of debut authors to film scripting, setting, character development, research and, inevitably, the mechanics of publishing.
By chance, that last topic has shot to prominence globally in the last few days with Ian Parker’s New Yorker expose of Dan Mallory aka A J Finn, writer of the bestselling The Woman in the Window.
If you haven’t yet read about or caught up on this, you must!

It is a thriller in itself. Parker reveals Mallory as a serial liar who matches or exceeds Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Fittingly, Mallory wrote academic pieces on Ripley, then later lied about having not one but two PhDs. He also claimed to have lost his parents and a brother to cancer when they are very much alive, and to having had serious cancer himself when that is apparently not the case. Parker suggests Mallory falsified his credentials to gain senior positions in publishing. In a wonderful twist, Mallory became the editor for Sophie Hannah who was rewriting Agatha Christie. She grew suspicious, hired a private detective to dig into his story, then made the results a plot line in one of her own novels. You cannot make this stuff up, as they say.
Necessarily, a torrent of commentary has ensued, swinging largely around the idea that although women dominate the publishing workforce, charlatan males like Mallory reach the top more readily. It might well be more about why the industry did not deal with him long ago. One telling story is that half way through the bidding war for the book, A J Finn’s real identity was revealed. Almost all bidders immediately withdrew with his own house left to buy the rights. He was a well-known problem but allowed to continue despite spectacular behaviours, like leaving urine-filled paper cups near out-of-favour colleagues’ desks

It should be noted Mallory has denied most if not all these behaviours, and issued a statement saying that he has mental health issues.
Even more seriously from a writer’s viewpoint, there are now close investigations of Mallory’s book itself, with suggestions it might not actually be that original. Some critics have pointed to it having a strong similarity to the 1995 film, Copycat, and others are likening it to other much lesser known books.
Leaving aside the obvious point that “originality” is moot – as discussed by Plato and Aristotle right through to Joseph Campbell’s work on myth and Christopher Booker’s more recent idea of seven basic plots – this may be the result of publishers looking for “more of the same”. Because Pamela Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl worked so well, then publishing houses search desperately for equivalents and along comes The Woman in the Window.
Just one of the many strands here includes the idea that academia now routinely uses anti-plagiarism software like Turnitin. Does the publishing industry have such a weapon, and is it used even on the hottest property, or does the lure of the market dictate all actions?
One further irony is that for authors, getting reviews on Amazon is now so much more difficult. In wake of revelations about some authors reviewing themselves and deriding others, Amazon turned the screws. Now, in some cases at least, it seems that the screws should be on the book rather than its reviewers.

Ideally, this scandale would have coincided with Rotorua Noir. In our company, for example, was the wonderful Joanne Drayton whose The Search for Anne Perry identified that writer as having originally been Juliet Hume. Along with Pauline Parker, Hume was convicted of having killed Parker’s mother in Christchurch in the early 1950s, but then relocated to America to successfully remake her life. Maybe Jo should write the Mallory biography.
But the Mallory event coming in the wake of Rotorua Noir has been stimulating enough and sharpens the reading. I am currently enjoying The Silent Death by Volker Kutscher of Babylon Berlin fame. It is good, but reminds me just how much we lost with the untimely death of Philip Kerr whose Bernie Gunther novels remain a marker of great crime writing.
Then, I am binge watching Season 2 of Fauda, an Israeli-made series featuring an undercover special forces unit and its campaign against Hamas. It is well written, underscoring the complex turns taken by Israeli and Palestinian interests and the surprisingly intertwined interests of all the rival factions. That level of complexity complicates personal as well as professional lives in a region where life is lived at maximum adrenalin. And an added bonus is the footage that shows the nature of living in crowded places like Ramallah and Nablus.

When I was working in Jordan, a Palestinian colleague asked how long it would take me to fly home to Melbourne in Australia. I said about 17 hours.
“That is about the time it will take me to get home from Amman to Nablus,” he replied, “because of the checkpoints.”
The distance between Amman and Nablus is 70 kilometres.
Fauda captures that intensity, even if there is the inevitable quibbling about its politics.

In its own way, Rotorua Noir, too, caught an intensity – of Kiwi crime writing that is now much encouraged as a result, and looking forward to the next festival.

Booking In

This has been one of those years during which time has disappeared, almost literally. It seems inconceivable that the last blog post was so long ago (please check: I cannot bear to date it). A combination of professional tasks have required a long presence in Sydney and upset a few timetables, but the real problem is that the world has gone completely mad.

Australia changed prime ministers.

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Some might rightly say, “Nothing new there, then!” and might very well be correct. When the egregious Peter Dutton mounted his open attack on the hapless Malcolm Turnbull (“Malcolm in the Muddle” as one wag retitled that old television show), our political cynic daughter Laura had another view. As Scott Morrison emerged from the rubble as the new boss, her view was that someone had been watching way too much television and channelling Frank Underwood in the Spacey version of House of Cards. Although Melania is no Claire, perhaps.

The American real life version of that show has continued apace, of course, and combining the “Me Too” dimension via the appalling Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court process. Kavanaugh’s sponsor has wreaked change on us all. At least some of my complications this year emanate from Trump’s confrontation with China that has bashed share markets everywhere including Asia. That all has an indirect as well as direct impact on the global higher education system. For example, the multi-leader Australian government’s siding with Trump in belting China has some Australian university bosses worried that the rivers of funds from Chinese international students might get dammed by the Beijing bosses. So the starting figures for those students next February in Australia will be watched closely.

Across in the UK Theresa May’s dance moves have attracted as much derision as her orchestral manoeuvres in the dark with the EU as a “hard BREXIT” looms. Hundreds of thousands of people have just turned out in London in support of a new people’s vote, while the Tories flirt with their change of leadership that might involve Jacob Rees Mogg or Boris Johnson, both of whom best belong in a political satire show rather than in real life.

The Saudis have apparently killed one of their own in the Istanbul consulate; the war in Yemen rages; Syria now contemplates massive reconstruction after years of conflict; Chinese financial power around the world raises the prospect of a new order of power, especially but not exclusively in Africa; Italy totters on the edge of another financial collapse; and even New Zealand seems to have succumbed.

Since her election a year ago the world has been agog at Jacinda Adern, witness her starring role at the UN and, more importantly, on the Stephen Colbert Show.   At home things have not been quite so rosy and, until the past few days, a one-term Adern gig seemed likely. Then the opposition National Party blew itself up. A renegade national MP went public against his leader, releasing privately recorded conversations that upset a lot of other members. At the heart of this was the alleged manipulation of party political donations from a Chinese businessman. Then the renegade was himself outed as a “Me Too” offender, claiming to have had an affair with the party’s deputy leader, before admitting himself for mental health assistance. It has been one of the most sensational events in NZ politics for a while, and made Adern look like a steadying force, especially as she seems also to have tamed the ever-present kingmaker, Winston Peters.

Even that has not spoiled the pleasure of a brief return to Queenstown where spring has finally arrived and good bike rising weather along with that.

And another way of escaping all that madness has been to catch up on some reading.

Johnson 260

When the American writer Denis Johnson died last year, several writers whom I really respect noted how much they liked his work. Having never read his work I went off finally to devour The Laughing Monsters. It is extraordinary and almost impossible to describe, but think of a cross between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (or Brando’s Colonel Kurtz-version of that in Apocalypse Now) and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. A couple of double/agents with a tortuous history meet up on a private wealth-gathering expedition in Africa, one of them accompanied by his about-to-be-wife who is the daughter of an intelligence boss. While the outcome is inconclusive, the story telling and use of language is in parts mesmerising and always compelling. If you want to escape the normal reading rut, this is a great candidate.

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I was less impressed by Kate Atkinson’s new book, Transcription, although many reviewers like it. She has been one of my favourite writers since I read Case Histories years ago. This new book is based around the imagined life of an ingénue woman recruited into British spy services during World War Two. Her role is to listen to then type out the printed version of secretly recorded conversations among low level Nazi sympathisers. It is a brilliant idea, Atkinson’s writing is as sharp as ever, and parts of it are terrific with the characters memorable. For me it limped along a bit, but maybe I just loved Case Histories too much – if you haven’t read that then please do, some of the most marvellous crime writing.

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In a similar setting, Cathi Unsworth’s That Old Black Magic is altogether different and more captivating, even if the conclusion is a bit too cerebral for me. This, too, focuses on people in Britain who did not support the war effort and on attempts to bring them to book, but locates many of these people in the world of the occult and the supernatural. Central to unravelling this is an undercover cop who himself has a occult connection as well as a flair for the show business life and suggestions of a few other different lifestyle inclinations. I really liked Unsworth’s capture of the period and this particular subculture, the characters are memorable and the plot lines clever. Well worth trying.

Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage is set in that city’s immediate-postwar life with spies and counter-spies on every corner, and an American businessman recruited into an operation that is well beyond his understanding.  This is one of the best things I have read for a while, as is Alan Judd’s Uncommon Enemy that covers a similar set of themes in postwar Britain. Both writers develop character extremely well, their story and plot lines are excellent, and the overall atmospherics convincing.

Donna Leon has been an exemplar of crime and place, and I have written elsewhere how I once spied her in a waterside restaurant in Venice and how her books were my guide to that city on my first visit. There are now well over twenty Guido Brunetti mysteries and perhaps I have now read too much other good stuff but The Temptation of Forgiveness did not provide the satisfaction of the earlier works. Brunetti now rails routinely against the depredations of tourism and tourists who make life miserable for the few remaining Venetians, and the crimes he investigates have some neat twists. But he remains essentially ageless, not much changes. His boss is as unfathomable as ever; the boss’s ever-ahead-of-the-game expert hacker is as strong as ever; his colleagues are as much as they ever were, just like him and his family. The city changes, but not them. These days, crime fiction is very often about personal change – think Wallander and say no more. I don’t get this from Guido now, and sadly so, because he has been a central part of my crime life.

Early next year I will be a part of Rotorua Noir, , so it is fitting that I round out my recent reading with a couple of authors who will star there.

Sussman the-last-time-we-spoke

Fiona Sussman won the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award with The Last Time We Spoke, the story of a violent home invasion in rural New Zealand, and the consequences of that for all  involved as victims or perpetrators. Set firmly in the “domestic noir” mode, now so strong in the UK and elsewhere, it is harrowing in parts, but realistic in capturing the New Zealand underbelly, as it were. And in doing it explores dimensions of the contemporary Maori and Pasifika experience, laid bare earlier in Alan Duff’s confronting Once Were Warriors. Sometimes overwhelming, it remains impressive because Fiona Sussman is a seriously good writer.

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So, too, is Alan Carter who recently won the 2018 Ngaio Marsh, for the cleverly titled Marlborough Man, and so added to his Ned Kelly Award for best debut of a few years ago. Here, an English undercover cop fleeing a criminal boss intent on revenge is relocated to rural New Zealand, specifically the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson, best known these days for the astonishing amount of sauvignon blanc it produces. This has serious characters and a strong story arc but with banter and light relief, wordplay and interplay between characters, and a back story of domestic pressure in the cop’s family life. It is a good read.

Meanwhile in other news. My Crusaders (you know I hate the Orientalist name) won the Super Rugby series yet again; and the All Blacks the Rugby Championship despite losing at home to South Africa – that was a timely reminder for the ABs heading into next year’s World Cup. The International Cricket Council had Dubai-based Pakistan flogging Australia in 40C+ heat, while India at home has been flaying the West Indies who are no longer the force they were when I played in Barbados long ago. And the Dodgers are in the World Series for the second year in a row, and we fans hope for a better display than against the Astros last time. But they are up against a massively talented Boston so who knows.

This next bit will have come to the attention of those who followed the link to Rotorua Noir.

AGG cover KDP 14 Sep.indd

Le Fanu is back.

In my last couple of blogs I mentioned that Le Fanu 4 was under way. Well, now, amidst all the chaos recounted earlier here, he is ready to reappear in A Greater God.

Le Fanu returns to Madras from the adventures of A Straits Settlement, intent on getting back to Penang as fast as possible, attracted by Jenlin Koh and a new post. But things get complicated, naturally. Hindu-Muslim tension is rising in 1920s Madras, affecting the working relationship between Habi and Jackson Caldicott, Le Fanu’s two main police offsiders. Arthur “The Jockey” Jepson is exploiting that in a campaign for ever higher office as Le Fanu’s major government supporters prepare to leave the Presidency. Le Fanu’s personal life becomes complicated, again, as the professional problems mount and he comes under severe pressure to resolve his future.

Auckland’s wonderful Adrienne Charlton has been a sensational editor on this one, and from her I have learned an enormous amount.    It is a running joke that she insists I do not use enough semi-colons and I insist she wants too many hyphens. But the final quality of the book owes much to her, as does its very presence on several global platforms awaiting a late-November release. If you need an editor, then I recommend her most highly.

And Adrienne thinks A Greater God has a stronger complexity than its predecessors, and a bit more of a “slow burn”. Maybe I was thinking about Guido.

I do hope you will all like it when it comes out, and if you do then needless to say I would love for you to post reviews on Amazon and anywhere else you can find.

Many thanks.