RED HERRING

by Jonothan Cullinane

(HarperCollins, $37)


Auckland 1951: trams run along Queen St, women aren't allowed in the RSC, Cold War paranoia reigns and waterfront workers and the Government are heading for a bloody confrontation.

The waterfront strike - or lockout, depending which side you were on - remains the biggest industrial confrontation in New Zealand's history and Cullinane's debut will have thriller fans googling as he blends fact - there's real world characters like Labour bully-boy Fintan Patrick Walsh, PM Sid Holland and Jock Barnes - with fiction.

"Where the facts have interfered with the story, I've changed the facts," reads the author's note. There's also a car chase involving a Baby Austin.

Into the fray steps Cullinane's answer to Philip Marlowe, John Molloy, a pound-a-day (plus expenses) private eye. Molloy's ex-army, a disillusioned leftie and living in a boarding house in Williamson Ave. He's not bad-looking; likes his grog and women and keeps his cards close to his chest. Deep down he's a good man; he even exacts revenge on a wife-beating copper, but Cullinane allows him little interior life, so it's Walsh who gets all the good lines.

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Red Herring is a deft mix of politics and history with a local twist on the usual private-eye tropes: the heavy's a nasty Bay of Plenty Maori called Sunny, the gal's a beautiful reporter (well, a cadet on the Women's Page) from the Auckland Star. Think James Ellroy's LA Quartet without the megalomania.

A newly arrived American hires Molloy to look for a guy on an insurance job - he's supposed to be dead - but has been spotted hanging around with union men. That case will see Molloy run up against the local power-players at the Northern Club, the most fearsome being Fintan Patrick Walsh - a figure historian Michael King described as "the nearest thing New Zealand had to an American-style industrial gangster".

If, at times, historical details get in the way of the story Red Herring introduces an exciting new voice to the local crime genre.

Let's hope Cullinane finds a few more pounds to get his private-eye back into action soon.