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.