Most readers probably aren’t aware of this, but New Zealand has been influencing crime fiction ever since the 1930s. That’s when Ngaio Marsh—a onetime actress, born in Christchurch (the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island)—began penning mysteries featuring Roderick Alleyn, a patrician sleuth employed by London-based Scotland Yard. Most of the 32 Alleyn novels (beginning with 1934’s A Man Lay Dead) were set in Great Britain, where Marsh herself lived for much of her life, and where she was heralded as one of the “Queens of Crime”—along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham—during the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction (generally, the 1930s and ’40s). However, the action in four of the Alleyn tales, including 1941’s A Surfeit of Lampreys (published in America as Death of a Peer), took place at least partly in the author’s Antipodean homeland.
New Zealand’s contributions to this genre have only become more significant over the last decade, thanks to people such as Paul Cleave (The Laughterhouse), Vanda Symon (The Faceless), screenwriter/novelist Neil Cross (Luther: The Calling), Greg McGee (who has composed Cut & Run and other thrillers as “Alix Bosco”) and Joan Druett, the author of A Watery Grave and subsequent mysteries built around 19th-century Maori seaman-cum-snoop Wiki Coffin. Craig Sisterson, a Kiwi journalist who somehow finds time to write the fine blog Crime Watch, explains that his South Pacific nation now supports “a small but vibrant community of crime writers.”
Prominent among that fraternity as well is Paul Thomas. Born in England in 1951, he moved to New Zealand as a youth, and went on to tackle various communications-related jobs before embarking on a full-time writing career. After achieving success producing sports biographies, Thomas finally saw his first novel, Old School Tie (aka Dirty Laundry), published in 1994. It introduced Det. Sgt. Tito Ihaka, a headstrong, overweight, pop-culture-blind and blithely profane Maori police detective based in the North Island city of Auckland. Thomas followed that up with 1995’s Inside Dope, which was a joint winner (with Barry Maitland’s The Malcontenta) of the Crime Writers Association of Australia’s inaugural, 1996 Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel. A third Ihaka yarn, Guerrilla Season, saw print in that same year.
“Paul Thomas could well be considered the Godfather of contemporary Kiwi crime writing,” says Sisterson. “It was he who, in the 1990s, dragged the genre here from its Marsh and Christie-esque cozy confines into a more hard-boiled, violent world filled with crisp and satiric prose. Overseas critics have described him as ‘Elmore Leonard on acid,’ and the comparison seems apt. Thomas has an offbeat vitality to his writing that is hard to resist.”
After sending Guerrilla Season to bookstores, though, Thomas put his series star on a shelf while he tried his hand at standalone works. His Sydney-based thrillers Final Cut (1999) and The Empty Bed (2002) preceded Sex Crimes (2003), a collection of short stories rooted in “lust, deceit, betrayal and elaborate revenge.” More than a decade and a half would pass before the release of his fourth Tito Ihaka outing.
Death on Demand comes out of the blocks with a succession of vignettes spotlighting seemingly unconnected characters—among them a handsome young man who’s seduced away from his hometown by a peripatetic older woman; a quartet of middle-aged gents who swap confidences during their annual “boys’ weekend”; and a well-heeled Auckland woman, Joyce Lilywhite, who falls victim to an early morning hit-and-run incident. It isn’t until three dozen pages in that Ihaka finally steps to the fore. We learn that he’s spent the last several years exiled to Wairarapa, a rural region southeast of Auckland, following his unsuccessful efforts to close the aforementioned hit-and-run case and his run-in, in a public restroom, with an ass-kissing colleague, DS Ron Firkitt, who’s bent on undermining Ihaka’s law-enforcement career. Thomas’ account of that altercation—which finds Firkitt trailing his fellow detective into the toilet in order to continue berating him—gives you a sense both of this author’s humor-tinged storytelling style and his protagonist’s abject disregard for authority:
Ihaka registered that none of the stalls were occupied. He stepped up to the weeping wall. Firkitt followed suit, still snorting with amusement. As Firkitt unzipped, Ihaka threw a hard, fast elbow, spearing it into the side of his jaw, just below the ear. Firkitt bounced off the wall, his knees gave way, and he slid face first into the trough of the urinal. Ihaka unbuttoned his jeans and took a long, leisurely piss. The drainage flow encountered an obstacle, but the obstacle didn’t seem to notice.
Ihaka washed and dried his hands and walked out of the toilet. Firkitt still hadn’t moved.
Yeah, Tito Ihaka is not exactly a team player. Yet when Christopher Lilywhite, the dying husband of that woman who was killed by a speeding car six years ago, suddenly demands an audience with Ihaka, the latter’s bosses decide its worth their summoning him back to Auckland, if only temporarily. It turns out Lilywhite is ready to confess that he hired a hit man to do away with his wife—just as Ihaka suspected he had done, but was unable to prove conclusively. The problem is, Lilywhite never learned his hit man’s identity. Which soon becomes a problem, as people linked to that long-ago slaying, not the least of them being Lilywhite himself, start turning up in body bags. Is Auckland suffering the predations of a serial murderer, or is Lilywhite’s assassin trying to remove anyone conversant with the scope of his activities? As the parameters of Ihaka’s investigation expand to include a prolific gigolo, an imprisoned mobster, and instances of blackmail and possible police corruption, Ihaka proves that his recent banishment to the bush has not dulled his crime-solving acumen (or his robust self-confidence) one iota.
I used to think that nobody could touch Erle Stanley Gardner when it came to manufacturing twisted plots. But Paul Thomas is no slouch in that regard. There are enough questions raised in Death on Demand to make a Jeopardy! contestant’s head spin. Slowly and persistently, though, the author ties together all of the loose ends offered in the vignettes opening his new novel, and resolves the myriad mysteries he raises subsequently. At the same time, he invites readers to dine on a buffet of quips and lighthearted quotes scattered through his chapters, including this exchange between Ihaka and a glamorous but volatile TV personality:
She examined Ihaka through the glass doors, tapping her chin with her cellphone. “You don’t look like a policeman.
“This isn’t television, Ms. Kelly. I didn’t have to audition for the part.”
Death on Demand is one of four contenders for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, designed to honor “excellence in New Zealand crime, mystery and thriller writing.” Having now read all of those works, I can say that Paul Thomas’ fourth Tito Ihaka novel (published in the States by Bitter Lemon Press) deserves its nomination. Without a doubt.