Imagine the West. Noisy cars and Cheryl West. "Proud Westie" and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. Local champion and mayor-for-ever Bob Harvey. Piha, potters and plonk.

That is a short and superficial summary. For something longer, and far deeper, a new guide is at hand, West: The History of Waitakere, a hefty and lively account of an idiosyncratic chunk of New Zealand.

From Piha's black sands and turbulent seas, through the brooding botanical riches of the Waitakere Ranges to the sprawling suburbs of West Auckland and waves of settlers, the book serves as a reminder that the region has embraced and nurtured characters whose outsider status seems shaped by its distinctive physical qualities.

Few of its famous sons and daughters are natural-born Westies. Many simply arrived and stayed. The original, writes Keith Stewart in a chapter called The Immigrants, may have been a Portuguese-born chancer, Francisco Rodrigues Figueira.

Figueira wore sharp waistcoats, rode a black horse and brandished pistols. His habit of bucking the system earned him the handle Don Buck - a byword out West which survives as the name of a primary school, a major road and a kindergarten.

In 1911, Buck set up a gumdiggers' camp on a 10-acre (4ha) block near Henderson, where magistrates sent petty criminals as an alternative to a stretch in Mt Eden. Handed a spade, spear, sack and cut-lunch, the labourers sold their booty to Buck and paid a shilling a week for shelter.

The canny landowner supplied "Dally plonk" from Croatian settlers to his captive workforce, who had a reputation for brawls and rows over prostitutes. A visitor found "the worst desperadoes and ruffians that could possibly be gathered together".

Ruth Kerr, a joint editor of the book, says the West "has certainly produced and sheltered more than our fair share of New Zealand's most notorious criminals and oddballs".

Australian conmen Gordon McKay and James Talbot were among them. In 1939, the pair devised an insurance scam by torching a Piha bach. As flames engulfed the building, Talbot pleaded with neighbours for help to "save his mate". Talbot's "mate", whose body was found in the bach, turned out to be the mortal remains of Patrick Shine, a greengrocer buried at Waikumete Cemetery and who the Aussie graverobbers tried to pass off as the late Gordon McKay.

The West is more justly proud of its creative endowment to the country. Artist Colin McCahon lived in a board-and-batten house in French Bay near Titirangi with his wife and four children during the 1950s.

Writer Maurice Gee gave expression to his Henderson childhood in the novel Going West, and Maurice Shadbolt spent a productive 40 years in his studio beside the house he bought beside Little Muddy Creek in Titirangi.

Poet Allen Curnow drew inspiration from the raw landscape and Jane Campion captured the West at its moodiest with the sweeping images of Watchman Rock at Karekare in the opening scenes of her film The Piano.

Eco-city enthusiast Bob Harvey gets the last say, unsurprising given that his Waitakere City Council was a major sponsor of its production. The richly illustrated tome celebrates the city's 20th anniversary.

Harvey, probably Waitakere's last mayor before the Super City arrives, thinks Westie values have widespread appeal "because while Waitakere is vastly urban, it has retained a rural ethic".

Writes Harvey: "Westies these days are a cleaned-up bunch. They now reflect the new tribalism of our youth and social culture and the Westie name gives them a hook to hang their sense of place and belonging."

West: The History of Waitakere, edited by Finlay Macdonald and Ruth Kerr, Random House ($79.99).
WIN THE BOOK
The Weekend Herald has three copies of West to give away, courtesy of Random House NZ Ltd. To be in to win, answer this question: What was Don Buck's real name?

Entries on the back of an envelope to: West contest, Weekend Herald Review, PO Box 3290, Auckland. Entries much reach us by 5pm on Thursday.