Book Review: The Crime of Huey Dunstan

By David Hill

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The Crime of Huey Dunstan by James McNeish
Vintage, $36.99

Book cover of The Crime of Huey Dunstan by James McNeish. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The Crime of Huey Dunstan by James McNeish. Photo / Supplied

James McNeish is one of our most durable writers. And one of our most individual: leonine of countenance, peripatetic in lifestyle, versatile in output.

His first novel for 14 years begins with the trial of a young man, accused of battering a retiree to death with an axe and a poker.

So far, so sordid. But what perplexes Professor Chesney, psychologist, specialist in trauma counselling, witness for the defence, is the way in which the courteous, shy, disfigured defendant seems so set on incriminating himself.

Ches' blindness has led him to develop different forms of insight into people. (Yes, well ... though McNeish generally makes this convincing and intriguing, "picking up things like smells and twitches and general nervousness".) He quickly begins to sense all sorts of denied memories in Huey.

Ches fancied himself as a writer once. It's a neat ploy to explain a mind stacked with images, meditations and narratives, as 15 years later, he recollects the trial and its aftermath, putting together from memory "this tale, this enigma".

The verdict is swift and predictable. But then comes the appeal and retrial. Ches' comparatively ordered life in comparative retirement is utterly transformed.

Huey's early traumas of loss, upheaval and defilement have parallels in the narrator's own past. There's even blindness in both families. Again, McNeish stops it from becoming too pat.

Ches' increasing involvement peaks during a moment in Middlemore Hospital. Suspense swells as the retrial develops. A school report, an elusive figure called Glen, a street lamp and judicial use of a first name all play significant parts.

Courtroom scenes are pacey and fairly generic in format. We learn, painlessly and authoritatively, a good deal about the judicial system. McNeish's research is always interesting, if not always assimilated.

The history of Defence Counsel's briefcase entertains but doesn't advance matters. The same happens with scenes of Ches growing up fast during World War II, Ches being taken deer-shooting in the vividly-evoked bush, Ches cooking with parmesan and mimosa, Ches and books and book-reviewing. They're episodes which are absorbing enough in themselves but which contribute only tangentially to the narrative.

It's a story which hinges on dramatic, provocative issues of recovered memory. As usual, McNeish doesn't hesitate to buck current trends. Also as usual, he's produced a thoughtful story in which you watch a clear, cultivated mind at work.

I suspect that James McNeish will prove enduring as well as durable. Huey Dunstan makes its own modest contribution to that probability.

- NZ Herald

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