This compilation of 12 cases, most of which first appeared in the New Zealand Herald, is a follow-up of sorts to the author's 2015 The Scene of the Crime. The book developed during a time when Steve Braunias considered himself "missing".
"The usual failings," he writes, "plus old age, which for so long had felt like a rumour, was busy furnishing my life with intimations of mortality." He "was a lost soul" who "took a special interest in reporting" the stories of Socksay Chansy, Nigel Peterson, and Murray Mason. Braunias "almost felt envious. They had managed to disappear."
The book begins and ends with coverage of the trial of Grace Millane's killer. It's harrowing on a few levels, delving into bleak detail of what the courtroom demands of its witnesses, and of Grace herself, in order to conduct a fair trial. And of course, reading about Jesse Kempson's actions—"rightly described as depraved"— from Justice Simon Moore's summary. For some part of the narrative, there's no moving past Kempson until, finally, we're done and are left with what remains.
Murray Mason is a hard-drinking ex-Herald journalist who died after a lonely fall down a stream in the Auckland Domain. His friends remember him as a "fantastic joker". But when Braunias contacts Mason's daughter, Rachel Wise, she reveals another side, "an unrelenting story of trauma and unhappiness and grief". Mason was nasty in the worst of ways, his reign of terror ending only when he left the family. It's a superbly crafted piece on the unravelling of a life.
Men feature heavily in the compilation. In several of these cases, it's because the women we could have been listening to are dead, at the hands of a man. Simonne Butler is one exception. She says she can "play the attack like a movie" and proceeds to do just that, giving an unflinching account of the day her ex-boyfriend Antonie Dixon nearly murdered her. The legacy of the attack is something she has to deal with every morning: "those hands, that claw up in winter, and she has to soak them in a basin of hot water when she gets out of bed in the morning. After that, they're good to go".
The inclusion of entrepreneur Kim Dotcom comes as hilarious light relief (as does Colin Craig, whose chapter is called "Half the man he used to be"). Dotcom is a prepper, "preparing for end days" with a somewhat frugal outlook. When asked about a steady water supply, he replies: "These technologies are quite advanced. They basically turn your own poo and your own pee back into drinking water." Braunias describes him as "a man with two visions. One, the fear of rotting in jail, a creature in captivity; two, the idea of hiding in an underground bunker."
Braunias is also the author of a 2007 memoir, How to Watch a Bird, and the magpie ways in which he collects stories echo the bird watcher within. He particularly excels at the exit, closing each chapter with sharp, spare and devastating prose. The final lines of Missing Persons are a beautifully wrought example, when all that's left is an emptying courtroom, with its "old familiar silence" and a framed photograph of Grace Millane.
Missing Persons by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins, $35)
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Reviewed by Angelique Kasmara
Angelique Kasmara is a writer, editor, translator and reviewer from Auckland. Her novel Isobar Precinct will be published in August. A longer version of this review will appear on www.anzliterature.com on Wednesday.