(Random House, $27.99)
is a bit like listening to a mate telling you a yarn over a beer down at the pub. Wellington author Chris Else has captured the suffocating feel of small-town life and conjured up an intriguing mix of whodunnit and offbeat love story, but most of all he's completely nailed the voice of his narrator, Ken McUrran.
Ken runs the service station in the fictional lower North Island town of Te Kohuna and he's one of the last people to see young Austrian hitch-hiker Anneke Hesse alive.
Convinced the cops are on the wrong track, he becomes caught up in trying to solve the case himself.
Ken is a quiet kind of bloke, not very confident, a bit pushed around by his family. What's most notable about him is the care he takes in looking after his beautiful and once brilliant niece who's been orphaned and left brain-damaged by a car accident.
She's known as Gith (hence the unprepossessing title) because that's the sound she makes when she's trying to say yes.
It turns out Gith saw the abducted girl getting into a white van. The police dismiss her evidence, Ken believes her. And so his obsession with finding the driver of the white van develops.
It quickly becomes clear that there's something more going on between Ken and Gith and it's no surprise when she starts undoing the buttons on his shirt or getting jealous when she sees him with other women. This physical relationship between over-protective carer and damaged girl could have sounded an off-note in the story but Else succeeds in keeping it poignant and natural.
The book is peopled with familiar characters - the tough-as-old-boots farmer, the local weirdos and bigots, the good keen Kiwi blokes - who orbit the main plot and the core cast.You meet so many at once you have to pay proper attention or you can start getting your Ray Tacketts and your Rick Parlines mixed up. A bit of an edit of some of the extraneous characters would not have hurt.
Else clearly wanted to give that small-town sense of everyone being mixed up in each other's business but the pace of the whodunnit side of the story flags at times when it all gets too crowded.
That said, this is a good honest read.
In Ken the author has created a bit of Kiwi everyman, an unlikely hero you just can't help rooting for especially when just about the whole town turns against him.