BREAKING RANKS: THREE INTERRUPTED LIVES

by James McNeish
(HarperCollins, $35)

The late James McNeish sets out the subject of his final book right from its opening line. It is, he says, "about three men who defied authority, and paid for it". Three men - a doctor, a soldier and a judge - who died prematurely when they had much more to give.

The doctor was John Saxby, the only one of the three McNeish knew personally. An Englishman, he became superintendent of Tokanui - now closed, but in those days a giant mental institution.

After introducing innovative and more humane therapies, he was, as McNeish tells it, driven out by "restructuring" and took his own life in 1993.

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The soldier, Reginald Miles, was a military chap through and through. A World War I veteran, he stayed in the army between the wars and was a brigadier by the time he was captured in Libya in 1941.

After an extraordinary escape from an Italian prison, he made it to Switzerland, from where he was smuggled out, across France and into Spain. And there, after apparently arriving in good cheer, promptly killed himself.

The trio's third member is Peter Mahon, QC - "Mr Justice Mahon", as he was inevitably described at the height of his fame, during his inquiry into the Mt Erebus disaster.

His immortal "orchestrated litany of lies" pointed the finger of blame straight at Air New Zealand, for which he was never forgiven by elements of the legal and political establishment. After resigning as a judge, Mahon died aged 62.

So, brief sketches of three interesting lives, but is there a bigger story and does that opening sentence stack up? Here, McNeish isn't convincing.

Mahon certainly paid for defying authority; Saxby killed himself after being sidelined but it's a moot point whether that was for defying authority or just the result of being in the wrong place during the reform of the mental health system.

And Miles' death remains too mysterious to read anything into it. The suicide note to his wife is as sad a document as you're likely to read but it sheds little light on why he did what he did. Foul play may have been involved, or maybe, after two wars, he was just exhausted.

What does shine through is McNeish's long-time fascination with outsiders and rebels. A bigger picture, though, remains unclear.