Greg Fleming reviews the latest thriller from Auckland novelist Ben Sanders.

Everyone's guilty in Auckland writer Ben Sanders' sixth novel — his third with an American publisher — especially the main protagonist, Miles Teller, who's an ex-NYPD detective gone from catching crims to ripping them off.

Despite exhibiting an unusual moral rigour — early on he cuts his driver in, even after he tries to rob him — Teller fits right into Sanders' cut-throat world(s) of gun thugs, killers and heist merchants.

Sanders' previous two books, American Blood (2016) and Marshall's Law (2017), introduced ex-undercover cop Marshall Grade, a man who came out of witness protection with a gun and an old-school mission for justice.

But in this standalone story, Teller is less clear-cut. He's a man in freefall, under threat of a murder charge and needing quick getaway money. If he's luckier than the usual bent cop, he's a realist:


"All his life, he'd felt this strange elation, walking out of hospitals ... There'll come a time when you can't leave on your own steam ... all things in life have a number on them, and every day you're running down the count."

We meet Teller holding up a dodgy lawyer. That mafia money's a good score but getaways are expensive. Enter Nina Stone, The Stakes' head-turning femme fatale, who has gone awol from her gangster/film producer husband. She has a half-million-dollar job for Teller and a bit of history with him. Even Teller knows he should run a mile; he doesn't.

As we've come to expect from Sanders, there's some great side-characters, like the ageing fixer Stanton, whose legal education is now used for illegal ends. He suggests Teller hide his ill-gotten gains in New Zealand — "their tax reporting is shit, so they don't have to tell their IRS who benefits". In another — less believable — local connection, Teller listens to an audiobook of Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries on stakeouts.

Then there's the emphysema-suffering, semi-suicidal Lucy Gates, who drags an oxygen tank behind her and greets unwelcome visitors with a shotgun.

The Stakes doesn't always play to Sanders' strengths. The plot's unnecessarily serpentine and Stone never gets past being a noir stereotype. But there's much to enjoy here: razor sharp dialogue, sly humour, head-swivelling action and a superb sense of place. Sanders' New York is gritty and tactile; train fumes, trash and iron squeals.

The result is a cinematic, testosterone-heavy read for fans of street-smart, hard-boiled crime.

Interview with Ben Sanders

Why a stand-alone? And is Marshall coming back?

Marshall is on a well-earned holiday, but I hope to put him through strife several more times: he's fairly likeable, as far as violent oddballs go. The reason for the standalone is that I wanted to avoid a full Marshall immersion—my books take about a year to write, and I try to publish one a year (or thereabouts), which means I'd have to devote all my writing time to one character if I do a continuous series. So THE STAKES has been a nice breather. It's kept my hand in the genre I love, and posed a nice challenge in that I needed to create a whole new cast of wily operators.


What would Marshall think of Miles?

They both view the world with great skepticism through a warped moral lens - I think they'd tolerate each other if they met, but each would keep a hand on his gun.

Fantastic detailed depiction of New York here – how often do you get there - and what has the city brought to The Stakes?

New York has a long, dark past of thuggery, both in fiction and in real life. So I hope from a reader's perspective, a New York backdrop will bring plausibility to a story full of lawlessness and mayhem. I've visited once or twice a year for the last five years, but the novelty of the place hasn't worn off. When something's familiar, the detail of it fades into visual white noise a little bit. But with New York being 'new' to me, everything is interesting, and interesting to a writer means 'put it in the book.' My process is visual - once I can see my setting, I can see my characters moving through it, and I have my story. So the city in a way has ensured THE STAKES is a good yarn—it spoiled me with data, and I was writing with a kind of upbeat momentum the whole way.

What's happening with film options on the US books – any news?

The Marshall books are still under option for TV, although I've heard no news. Hollywood seems to have a happy little sub-industry of giving writers money for nothing.

by Ben Sanders
(MacMillan, $33)