Award-winning Auckland writers Linda Olsson and Thomas Sainsbury tell Craig Sisterson why they’re collaborating on a thriller trilogy.
We meet where they killed a man. Budding writer Brent Taylor was working late at the University of Auckland library when he was attacked, his skull bouncing and vertebrae popping as he tumbled down the stairs.
Linda Olsson and Thomas Sainsbury smile widely as they shake my hand. They may not have personally shovelled the troubled young man's body over the guardrail, but they planned his death. And he won't be their final murder; they're just getting started with the debut of their first thriller together, Something Is Rotten.
"Linda, I really think we should do something. Let's write a thriller." Sainsbury was living in Olsson's basement when he spoke those words a few years ago, the pair having met while they were taking Witi Ihimaera and Stephanie Johnson's creative writing programme at the University of Auckland.
Despite a shared love for Scandinavian thrillers, it seems an odd literary coupling: A Matamata-raised scribe in his early 30s who has won awards for subversive, comic tales for stage and screen (Sunday Roast, Super City) and a Swedish ex-financier in her 60s whose poignant novels of past secrets, love and unlikely friendships (Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs, Sonata For Miriam) have been published in 18 countries and sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Europe.
"The good thing is, we are incredibly different," says Olsson. "The initial agreement was that Tom said we'd pick the scenes we wanted to write, he would amalgamate it, and I would make it beautiful. But then it didn't quite come about like that. After sitting on the backburner for years, we decided to finish it, and started following particular characters - I was more Lynette and Tom was more Sam - and we would edit each other."
In Something Is Rotten, former government terrorism adviser Sam Hallberg is working as a mechanic when he's approached by a young sex worker certain that the grisly library death wasn't a suicide, as officials are proclaiming. As Hallberg reluctantly delves into the case, a search for Taylor's missing manuscript starts pulling on threads that seem interwoven with business journalist Lynette Church's investigation of dirty politics in relation to New Zealand's meat exports. The first in a planned trilogy called The Matakana Series, it's an intriguing tale that blends plenty of page-turning thrills with themes relating to past tragedies, power imbalances and the nexus between business, politics and the media.
Ian Rankin has called crime fiction the modern social novel, with investigators able to delve into all levels of society, while Scandinavian crime fiction has become famous for examining political and socio-economic realities through the prism of a murder mystery. Sainsbury and Olsson were keen to do that themselves, to bring something more to their collaboration than just a gripping whodunnit.
"Writing about societal things makes it more important I guess," says Sainsbury, before Olsson points out that Sainsbury's plays have always been "about societal things". Olsson and Sainsbury are completely at ease around each other, finishing the other's thoughts and talking as much to each other as to me. I wonder whether, given their love of Nordic noir, and Olsson's background, there was any thought of setting Something Is Rotten in Scandinavia rather than New Zealand?
No, the story "just naturally came to New Zealand", says Sainsbury, before Olsson jumps in to elaborate. "We were really interested in the political situation here in New Zealand, the vulnerability that comes from being so reliant on exports of agricultural products, and from my perspective the constant discussions in Europe of restrictions on such imports. I think there is very little knowledge and understanding of New Zealand's situation ... basically the French would like to stop imports of meat and they're really pushing the EU to reduce meat imports."
That real-life European protectionism that threatens a key plank of New Zealand's export economy comes to the fore in Something Is Rotten as Sam, Lynette and others are caught up in a powerful conspiracy that is about much more than the death of a troubled library worker.
Sainsbury and Olsson want to continue that blend of real big issues and gripping personal storylines throughout their crime collaboration and are already working on the second novel in the series. Entitled Not Even The Gods Can Help Us, it involves a race against time to expose a breach of New Zealand's nuclear-free policy. "Hopefully we've learned from all the mistakes of the first one and the next two will be a lot more streamlined," says Sainsbury.
"But it's quite scary," says Olsson, "because with the second book, which we're writing now, we find that however far out our ideas seem to be, I'll send a message to Thomas saying, 'It's actually happening now, we have to do something ...'"
"Even more outrageous," offers Sainsbury.
Something is Rotten (Echo Publishing, $29.99) is out June 1.