Nigel Cox: Responsibility

By Chris Barton, Reviewed by Chris Barton

Not the catchiest of titles — especially for a novel that promises "delicious ironic awareness of the hardboiled detective fiction cliches which lie behind every twist and turn". But Nigel Cox likes outrageous juxtapositions — irreverently mixing themes, not unlike putting a Colin McCahon next to a Kelvinator at Te Papa. Or perhaps with all the copyright fuss over Cox's previous Tarzan Presley, he was deliberately looking for a dull word to cause the least amount of fuss.

Like Tarzan, Responsibility is playful with plots and locations. The "darkly comic thriller set in contemporary Berlin" is thoroughly informed by a New Zealand past. The plot is suitably improbable — featuring a twist on the Nigerian scam, a slob of a sleuth, and a 13-year-old dressed as a hooker.

Driving the madness is the bored, refusing-to-grow-up museums expert Martin Rumsfield — a husband, father and New Zealander abroad. Through his confessional voice we're led into his angst, longing for adventure and memories of poetry lost. "The poet wore a corduroy jacket that was aromatic in a way that suggested a life pursued in livid undergrowth."

Along the way Cox draws on his time at the Jewish Museum in Berlin to muse on Holocaust work camp memorials. "Someone had loaded them — pitchforked them. It was a larder, of kinds, for keeping. And it had kept, and would always keep, and when you went there, what you got you kept, whether you wanted it or not."

There are also references to the enigma that is "the celebrated deconstructionist architect" Daniel Libeskind who designed the Jewish Museum. "He's diminutive, about five-nothing, your classic leaping gnome, and has a fat-cheeked, babyish face, from which his gappy teeth protrude in a semi-circle, like a mouthful of tacks. When he talks there's a danger of spittle. But the words are a torrent. They're visionary, close to William Blake at times, with reference to angels and our higher selves."

Sadly such rich tapestry, potentially the best part of the novel, is all too brief. Ditto the nice observations contrasting German and New Zealand life. On German beach etiquette: "Everyone always feels free to come right into your little spot and get undressed, bum before your eyes. But with a kind of quiet consideration."

Woven into this fine underlay is a follow-the-money plot which, although silly, races along, frequently devolving into farce and serving up a kicker of an ending. In the process Responsibility becomes a sort of smartarse morality tale. A remarkable mix.

* Victoria University Press, $29.95

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