Book reviews – August 2014


In this issue:

James Cook’s New World by Graeme Lay

The Bassett Road Machine Gun Murders by Scott Bainbridge

Purgatory by Rosetta Allen

Florid Eyes by Nicky English

JAMES COOK’S NEW WORLD by Graeme Lay, Fourth Estate, $37.00
James Cook’s New World is the second of a trilogy about the three great voyages of Captain Cook, often regarded as the greatest nautical explorer in history. In this second voyage, Cook traversed some 70,000 miles or nearly three times the circumference of the globe – the longest voyage yet made by any expedition. Lay’s first Cook novel – The Secret Life of James Cook – was a thundering good read, its triumph being the reconstruction by Lay of the explorer’s private journal to his wife plus convincingly researched nautical and geographic detail. The sequel has much the same strengths and is even, arguably, the better of the two, though like the first, occasionally marred by the use of somewhat banal dialogue when characters meet each other. In counterbalance, Lay shows off his dialogue skills in more extended deliveries of character-revealing talk.

The novel follows the traditional novelist’s scheme of giving a full account of all the minor drama leading up to the major drama of the voyage itself which begins around page 90. Some might think this leads to a disproportionate leanness of space for the account of the circumnavigation but the pleasing density of Lay’s prose makes the remaining 228 pages more than rich enough. All the same, a Bryce Courtenay or a James Clavell (or, indeed, Eleanor Catton) would have given the reader more than double that.

The main items in the pre-voyage pages include the vicarious lechery of the influential Lord Sandwich, the meeting with King George 111, but above all, the greedy self-centred demands of the sinfully rich Joseph Banks in wanting an extra deck to accommodate numerous servants. Here, as in many important matters, let us be thankful Cook got his rational way – the extra deck, which would have made the vessel dangerously top heavy, was removed, prompting Banks to lose his temper and pull out.

Banks was replaced by Johann Forster, an irritable (and irritating) Lutheran pastor, a bully and a moral fusspot who turns out to be, if anything, a bigger pain than Banks would have been. Like several of the crew, he decides to bring a monkey on board as a pet and then remonstrates with Cook when the cold of the southern ocean results in its freezing to death. His charming son George is much more amiable. Another important presence on the good ship Resolution was William Hodges, the resolute and capable painter who records various sights including a huge waterspout. Then there is Hitihiti, the Tahiti-based translator who proves invaluable on Cook’s many landfalls.

Although Banks, Dalyrymple and King George 111 were all convinced – or at least highly hopeful – of Cook finding the Great Southern Continent, the great explorer was much more cautious and of course his first voyage had not produced the desired positive result. As it turns out, there was no such entity – only the great ice mass beyond the Antarctic circle which did in fact secretly house the yearned for land mass but at a lower degree of latitude than envisaged. So, by a pleasing paradox, Cook both disproved the conventional location of the Great Southern Continent but unwittingly found it. Cook’s largest actual discovery was New Caledonia, an island of over 7000 sq miles.

The journey itself is thrilling both in detail and incident as Cook and crew moor at island after island in the Pacific. The high point of nautical adrenalin is reached when the Resolution nearly drifts onto a reef bringing back bad memories of the time they did so on the first voyage. Cook rapidly shouts orders and the crew responds. Throughout the book, Lay convinces us – and I have no doubt of it – that Cook was a great leader of men, scrupulously fair, and the first circumnavigation to bring back a crew without a single loss of life to scurvy. Cook was also loyal to his wife Elizabeth, patiently waiting back in England. The crew, alas, were not so chaste but humanly who can blame them? Especially when Polynesian women made it clear they were readily available albeit for the minor payment of a nail.

The re-creation of Cook’s personal journal is a major accomplishment on Lay’s part and is in dramatic contrast to the laconic style of his (Cook’s) official entries for the admiralty. That cannibalism occurred (which is denied only by a few nutty anthropologists) is dramatically made clear with at least four mentions of it including one such in front of Cook’s eyes. Cook, unsurprisingly, emerges as a strong-willed man, of high moral scruple yet tough when he needed to be. An envoy of colonialism? Of course – how could he not be? But his aim of introducing crops and faming of animals to New Zealand was surely benign.

The cruelest irony Cook had to endure was to discover that a John Hawkesworth – significantly a friend of Banks – had written a Banks-biased and inaccurate account of his voyages. So furious was Cook that he shot the volumes of Hawkesworth with his Brown Bess musket. Still angry nonetheless, his rage was only mildly appeased when he was told Hawkesworth had suddenly died. The novel concludes with him reassuring his wife he will never leave his family again. With the hindsight of history, we know this turns out not to be so.

A criticism of the book’s design is that the map of Cook’s voyages, does not include latitudes, and is too large for the format – the far east and west sections of his trajectory are cut short. Also the book’s gutters draw in so sharply, that most of New Zealand is obscured –shock, horror! One anachronism is the mention of Banks’ intellectual property – the term did not gain currency until well into the nineteenth century and only recently came into common usage. On balance, minor matters.

The two novels about Cook’s voyages are proving to be Lay’s highest achievement to date. There remains the third novel to follow which will cover the great explorer’s third great voyage also, alas, his death at the hands of the Hawaiians.


THE BASSETT ROAD MACHINE-GUN MURDERS by Scott Bainbridge, Allen & Unwin, $36 99

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Or was it rat-tat-tat-tat-tat? Five heavy calibre bullets were found in two dead bodies in a house at 115 Bassett Rd, Remuera, Auckland. It was December 1963. Summer was in full swing and the bodies were ripe before they were discovered.

Were the victims dispatched with a pistol? No – the bullets were identified as coming from a Reising sub-machine gun. So it was rat-tat-tat? No – it was Bang x 5 because the machine gun had been set on single shot mode. “Chicago Comes to Auckland” screamed a Truth headline. The city and the nation were in shock. And I, a timid law student, working in a government office, was in shock. There were only about eight murders a year (now almost one a week) though none were of the gang execution type. Who were the dead men and more importantly, who were their killers? And was this the beginning of a series of similar murders?

The best of Auckland detectives, notable among them John Hughes swung into action. Hughes was a tough policeman – a talented amateur boxer who knew how to deliver a knuckle sandwich to a crim reluctant to cough up a confession. In other words, the cops were as tough as the crooks, if not tougher. As related expertly and thrillingly by Bainbridge, the public were barely aware that in Auckland there was an underworld of “gangsters” who dressed in suits, wore Trilby George Raft-style hats rakishly angled over their brows and spoke in pseudo-American accents. They even had gangster-style names like Too Fats Smith, Diamond Jim Shepherd, Frank the Tank, Machine Gun Shaw, Knucklehead Walker. They could be racketeers, fraudsters etc, or involved in running beer houses or sly grog dens in order to cater for the thirst of patrons emptied out of bars onto the street at 6 pm every night. The police were aware of these establishments and raided them from time to time, whereupon new houses would spring up. Occasionally, there was a fisticuff but no one had been murdered with a Reising sub-machine gun. Until now

The victims were identified as the aforesaid George Knucklehead Walker and Kevin Speight. Both were known criminals. The police initially thought Walker was the real target and that Speight was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later, they reversed that view. But there was still no real clue as to who the murderer was. Oddly enough – only in New Zealand! – it was Rob Muldoon, future Prime Minister of New Zealand, who provided the first breakthrough. The assassin John Gillies, had been boasting about his deed and Muldoon, via a third party, got wind of it. Also Ron Jorgenson, who was to mysteriously disappear many years later, was involved.

It was originally believed that the motive for the killings was a turf war over the sly grog dens, but as investigation by Bainbridge continued, it came to light that another prime motive for murder was at work – sexual jealousy. Gerald Wilby, an older man, was involved with Mary Napira who had met and fallen for Speight. The upshot was Gillies was paid 1000 pounds (nearly $40,000 in today’s money) to get rid of Speight. Leading criminal lawyer Peter Williams always maintained Jorgenson was not an accomplice to the twin murders. However, the jury found him guilty. Subsequently, Gillies made the startling claim that Lola (not her real name) was with him and not Jorgenson, but the general consensus was it was more likely to have been Jorgenson.

Outlined above are the bare bones of the case. As thoroughly explored by Bainbridge, the full picture was extremely complicated and involved lots of other swishy Auckland identities, assorted nightclub and criminal folk – forming a labyrinth of intrigue and counter intrigue This is a fascinating and well-researched book that would make an ideal present for any guy who wears his overcoat pulled up around his neck, sports a George Raft hat, and chews a matchstick. And anyone else who enjoys reading about the darker side of life from the safety of an armchair.
PURGATORY by Rosetta Allan, Penguin, $30

Murder is always a serious business and for writers offers one of fiction’s ultimate challenges – how to evoke the horror of the deed without condoning it. How to take us into the murderer’s consciousness without corrupting those of the readers. Sometimes, as in detective fiction, the focus is more on the mystery of the murderer’s identity and the acumen of the detective. Dostoysevky’s Crime and Punishment remains the gold standard for both varieties.

Rosetta Allan’s accomplished debut novel steers us down an intriguing, and in some ways new path – there is no detective, there is only the murderer – initially unknown but it doesn’t take long for one to guess – and the victims. With the latter, Allan explores not an original idea but one seldom ventured upon – that of the viewpoint of a corpse. Well, not a corpse precisely but the ghost or soul thereof, still lingering, as ghosts are reputed to do, near the scene of the crime. This was how the brilliant film Sunset Boulevard began. It has not proved a very popular technique but here Allan utilises it superbly – very likely an heroic first in New Zealand fiction.

The youngest of the victims, John Finnegan aged just ten, tells us that his spirit and those of his mother Cathleen and his brothers Thomas and Ben will remain in this frozen state – until their bodies are discovered. Hence, they are – as the book’s title states – in Purgatory. Allan has stated in an interview that the original title was Mother Mary under a Bed of Carrots but her agent, Michael Gifkins, shrewdly suggested Purgatory which Allan came to prefer and presumably most readers would also whole heartedly approve of the change.

So the richly rewarding experience of reading Purgatory is to induce a small scale purgatory in the readers – we do not know who the murderer is, and we do not know how long the victims will lie in their burial ground until dug up. Meanwhile the brutal yet thrilling story of James Stack gets under way. His history enables Allan to tell us of the horrors of famine in Ireland in 1847 which includes the sight of food being shipped off to England; the unbelievably harsh sentence of his young sister Aileen – transported to convict-inhabited Australia – for stealing a ribbon; the agonising flogging of James; his exhilaration and participation in the storming of the Rangiriri pa; his brief time as a hangman; his romance with Mary-Jane.

Allan has done her research well and we feel the lash, the hunger, and the pain both emotional and physical that James endures. These ordeals irrevocably scar his psyche so it is no surprise that he becomes greedy and seeks to gain through felony what is not his – property and wealth. Throughout the moral darkness of the novel, her lyrical descriptions lift the mood of the narrative:

“Candlelight from the leadlight windows cut diamonds into the dark street. A mosaic of dancing light, and like a moth, James moved into it. Inside, a group of red-cheeked men sat around three tables; behind them a fire teased with inviting yellow tendrils.”

The poet in Allan is ever ready to spring into the firelight. The only reservation might be that about three quarters of the way through, the novel loses a bit of is momentum, but that soon picks up as James plans and executes his quadruple murder. Thus does Purgatory end grimly.
FLORID EYES by Nicky English

My first meeting with a vampire occurred when I was sixteen. I read Dracula, still the top vampire. Later, I read some of Ann Rice. And in recent times I have become aware in a vague male way that there was a new genre of popular literature called paranormal romance guaranteed to spice up one’s reading. There must be romance of course but instead of being with another human, it can involve a vampire, shapeshifter, ghost “or other entities of a fantastic or otherworldly nature” – my thanks to Wikipedia for offering a working definition.

But let’s stick with vampires. Even though I haven’t watched a full episode of The Vampire Diaries, I gather vampires have had a successful makeover and are now young, good-looking, glamorous, even charming. That being the case who wouldn’t want to be one? In theory, there’s no shortage of nourishment – any non-vampire will do – but there’s always the chance one might get staked. Apparently, a gun loaded with wooden bullets will also do the trick of taking out a member of the undead.

So here we go with Nicky English’s debut novel which is a racy rollicking read where the action never lets up. The central character and heroine is Violet Lancaster, a name that surely drips romance. Violet is a PhD student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., one of America’s most distinguished educational institutions. The action begins when Violet is out running and comes across a man who has been in a dustup and is distressed. Significantly, he has blood on his shirt. Later, he is thirstily eyeing her neck. A few pages later the morning sun is wearing him out. The clincher (almost) is when an intrepid Violet discovers bottles of blood in his fridge. In a few more pages, his ‘secret’ is out – Josh Levinson is a vampire! If this wasn’t a paranormal romance, it might be wise for Violet to pull out of this burgeoning relationship but Josh has so far managed to keep his lips puckered into a kiss instead of baring his fangs.

Levinson is tall, broad shouldered and handsome. He has hyper sight, hyper hearing and hyper speed (which comes in handy when you’re in a tight spot). He reveals the surprising vulnerability of these compulsive neck biters – they can be commanded by someone who shows no fear – also handy if fangs are headed for your aorta. He is also over 200 years old which is rather young for a member of the eternal undead. Unlike the general run of vampires who seem in quest of the nearest non-vampire neck, he is a gentleman with a code of ethics which requires him to only draw blood from bad guys.

So who are the bad guys in the book? Grandfather Arnold who killed Josh’s father and a Chinese gentleman Wang Xaiodong, who happens to be the Chinese premier, and also has the bow and arrow which can cure vampires of their condition – that is, if they want to be cured and have a pure heart. Despite his earlier crime, grandfather Arnold gradually allies himself with Josh and Violet while the evil Wang must perish in a thrilling climax with all the stops pulled out.

English is both a romantic (and an optimist) for it is only at the end of the book that we have a clear inference that the relationship of Violet and Josh is progressing beyond a number of passionate if cold-lipped kisses. English writes lively, combative dialogue and has a gift for vivid description. There are, alas, a significant number of punctuation mistakes and the odd missing words that should have merited a more careful proof reading. But these minor flaws don’t impede the pace of a lively paranormal romance whereas (as always in any romance), love triumphs as the good prevail and the evil are vanquished.