In search of...
THE NEW ZEALAND POLITICAL THRILLER
When I first had the idea to write a New Zealand thriller based on parliamentary politics, I felt it was important to check out the literary history of the genre, make a study of the benchmarks, and see if any of my ideas for the book had already been covered. One slight problem: I couldn’t actually remember – much to my shame – ever having read a genuine political thriller set in New Zealand. In fact, the only example of (specifically parliamentary) NZ political fiction I could bring to mind was the excellent TV drama, Fallout (1994). (Older readers might remember the days when TVNZ produced some top quality dramas. Ian Mune played Robert Muldoon with gusto and Madeline McNamara was a terrific Helen Clark).
Anyway, digressions aside, there was clearly work to do. It was time to google.
Initially, the focus of my search was narrow. I was looking for the New Zealand equivalent of Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards or John Ehrlichman’s The Company (aka Washington Behind Closed Doors), but after coming up with precious few results, I realised I had to be a little less specific. Here’s a snapshot of what I eventually came up with:
Smith's Dream (1971) C.K. Stead
C.K. Stead, New Zealand’s Poet Laureate (2015-2017), began his distinguished career in fiction with the novel that inspired Roger Donaldson’s iconic 1977 film, Sleeping Dogs. Written at the time of the U.S. war in Vietnam, Smith’s Dream imagines a New Zealand where martial law has been declared and a dictator, Volkner, has assumed absolute power. American troops – at the invitation of the government – are on the ground in order to help rid the nation of the communist guerrillas lurking in them there hills. The hills in this instance are located on the Coromandel Peninsula where the author’s reluctant protagonist, Smith, finds himself in the thick of the action.
The nub of the novel lies in Smith’s crisis of conscience: is an armed struggle morally justifiable against a regime of tyranny and terror? And how does one overcome one’s existential indifference in the face of all human folly? On a personal level, Smith’s crisis is one of confidence. His wife has left him for one of the resistance fighters; a betrayal Smith believes is a consequence of his – and by implication, the nation’s – political apathy.
Sex is something else that’s clearly on the author’s mind. In a wholly unrelated episode, Smith meets a frisky farm girl on his travels who promises to punish him with the aid of a 'switch cut from a hedge'. Hmm.
Smith’s Dream is in many ways a typical first novel; short, subjective, and a little one dimensional, but it’s an absorbing read from a recognised master of the craft.
*Available through the National Library. (Hard to find and a bit pricey elsewhere).
Recommendation: Sleeping Dogs. DVD available at amazon.
Museum Street (1991) Michael Wall
More than just a first rate political thriller, Museum Street is a historical memoir of an important era in New Zealand politics. Former parliamentary press secretary, Michael Wall, questions the official history of the times and invites us to consider an alternative hypothesis.
The action begins with the untimely and unexpected death of New Zealand Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, in August of 1974. Was Kirk murdered? Was the NZ PM, through the celebrated economist, Bill Sutch, in secret communications with the Russians? And what’s all this got to do with the sacking (in 1975) of Australian PM Gough Whitlam, satellite spy bases, and the CIA?
Enter features journalist Erin Page, hot on the scent of the truth and doggedly determined to leave no stone unturned. We follow Erin on her journey of discovery as revelations of government ministers’ homosexuality – this is 1974 remember – and secret atrocities committed in World War Two, threaten to bring down the government.
This is not only a great read for lovers of conspiracy dramas but also for students of New Zealand’s political history.
Michael Wall also provides us with an unexpected bonus: how to write a decent sex scene. Erin’s tasteful love scene with the charismatic M.P., David Leyton, is simultaneously tender and erotic. Very refreshing.
* In 2002, controversial TVNZ doco series, Secret New Zealand, investigated the sudden death of Norman Kirk in connection with the murky political intrigues of the day. It made very interesting viewing, but Museum Street got there first.
Friendly Fire (1998) Michael Wall
Michael Wall’s sequel to Museum Street lacks the gravitas of the latter, but it’s still a taught, entertaining read. Museum Street’s protagonist, the journalist, Erin Florian (nee Page), returns to Wellington from Europe after discovering the infidelity of her French husband. Erin takes up an appointment as the Prime Minister’s press secretary and is soon in the thick of the capital’s political machinations.
This is MMP in its early stages and the government is struggling to get to grips with a new style of democracy. The disruptions within the government’s junior coalition partner send the nation lurching towards a dangerous instability, while in the background, sinister forces are at work.
Erin meets the dashing SIS commander, Michael Churton, and begins to unravel a sinister plot cooked up by rogue factions in New Zealand’s intelligence services. As Erin puts the pieces of the puzzle together, her life is in imminent danger. This is a fast-paced ride from beginning to end with enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes.
Shafts of Strife (2016) David Bates
In Shafts of Strife, David Bates takes us back to an alternative 1980’s in which Prime Minister David Lange’s government has been replaced by an administration led by the Robert Muldoon-esque, Wynyard Nairn. Power mad Nairn is a virtual dictator, establishing a rule of fear over his cabinet colleagues with the sheer force of his intimidating personality.
With the resumption of visits of American warships to New Zealand ports, and rumours that the government is in negotiations with the U.S. to establish a Pacific naval base in New Zealand, NOANA – National Organisation Against Nuclear Arms – begins a popular, well organised protest campaign aimed at putting pressure on the government to uphold David Lange’s anti-nuclear position.
Police Commissioner, Patrick Edsun, is the meat in the sandwich, tasked with the near impossible job of protecting the nation’s security in the face of ever more radical acts of protest by NOANA. Political pressure is brought to bear on Edsun, but the Commissioner stands his ground against Prime Minister Nairn, clashing with the PM on matters of police policy and ultimately, constitutional legitimacy.
The stakes are high for all concerned and the author does a good job in creating a page turning tension. As a former high ranking police officer, Mr Bates is able to provide us with revealing insights into police procedures and security protocols.
The story is good, and in the light of New Zealand’s history of protest, notably the Springbok tour demonstrations of 1981, the scenario the author describes is eminently credible.
Recommendation: Patu! (NZ On Screen)
A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse (2016) Brannavan Gnanalingam.
I was looking forward to reading this satirical novel. I had already determined that my own book would not be an out-and-out satire, but as a big fan of the BBC’s Yes Minister, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist including an element of comedy. But Briefcase is much more Franz Kafka than Jim Hacker.
The story centres on Rachel McManus, a new recruit for the wonderfully named, New Zealand Alarm and Response Ministry. Rachel’s bureaucrat colleagues are predominantly male; sexist, racist, homophobic half-wits to a man; poor Rachel is like a spider with a skipping rope.
Briefcase is no thriller, but oddly enough a distinctly edgy tension is created when our hapless heroine is tailing a suspected Islamic terrorist through the Wellington city streets. I was genuinely fearful of something really bad happening to the poor girl, expecting her to be flattened by a bus at any second.
Briefcase might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this book serves us well as a reminder of the dangers of excessive State surveillance, the egregious nature of racial profiling, and the paranoia of Islamophobia.
*Strangely this book is not listed on amazon but I found it through the National Library.
Red Herring (2016) Jonothan Cullinane
Set in the streets and bars of nineteen fifties Auckland, Red Herring is not only an historical, political thriller, but a classic detective novel in the gritty tradition of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
The author’s shamus is Johnny Malloy, a world war two vet’ and former member of the Communist Party. Malloy is hired by an American agent to track down a rogue Irishman suspected of insurance fraud. Malloy begins making his inquiries and soon finds himself crossing swords with none other than the formidable Union boss, Fintan Patrick Walsh. Walsh was then vice president of the FOL – Federation of Labour – and it’s the larger-than-life Walsh who ultimately steals the show. Jonothan Cullinane’s portrait of the man considered by many to have been inherently evil is not wholly unsympathetic. We do get a strong sense of Walsh’s innate villainy and his amoral outlook, but there’s also a likeable nonchalance in his easy manner and an admirable courage in his do-or-die philosophy.
Jonothan Cullinane’s fine novel brings us full circle. The vision of a New Zealand in the 1970’s that C K Stead projected in Smith’s Dream, had already – albeit temporarily – become a reality in February of 1951, when as a result of the continuing political conflict with the Watersiders Union, the National Government led by Prime Minister Sid Holland, declared a state of emergency. Extraordinary powers were granted to the police, civil liberties eroded, and the media was subject to a restrictive censorship. The government even passed a law making it illegal to provide food or money to the families of workers who were locked out of the workplace.
Jonothan Cullinane brings the era to life in the pages of Red Herring. You feel like you’re really there in the early fifties; the cold war, the grim shadow of the atomic bomb, and the incessant spectacle of “commie” phobia.
Recommendation: 1951 (NZ On Screen)
Broken October (1976) Craig Harrison
What a great pity it is that some terrific Kiwi novels that pre-date the digital age have been seemingly forgotten. Craig Harrison takes CK Stead’s vision in Smith’s Dream considerably further on down the track in this tense, page turning thriller.
Broken October gives us a portrait of a New Zealand in the mid 1980’s torn apart by civil war and a total breakdown in what was once euphemistically dubbed “race relations.” With the nation in economic turmoil and a constitutional crisis looming, a trigger happy squaddie opens fire on a group of unarmed protestors, lighting the fuse for an armed insurrection.
Chief protagonist, Rangi Tamatea, and his group of well armed, well organised Māoris, begin a campaign of lightning strikes against the government and its military forces. (Interestingly, the author’s vision was in some way enacted by the events of the Springbok Tour in 1981 when protestors openly clashed with Police in a series of violent confrontations.)
The final chapters are particularly exciting as the net tightens on the guerrillas and the Māori insurgents fight tooth and nail to stay alive. Meticulously researched, Broken October is a classic Political Thriller.
The Idiot played Rachmaninov (1989) Michael Brown
Thorium is the new plutonium, and when large deposits of the element are discovered on Westland’s beaches, the government seeks to cash in. But when the locals discover there’s a goldmine on their doorstep, they set out to get their share of the profits. When the first thorium dredge is blown up by a terrorist group calling itself “The Little Red Hen,” para-military “Specials” are dispatched from the capital to deal with the subversives.
A cat and mouse game ensues, and the Specials soon learn not to underestimate their ingenious local adversaries.
The idiot of the title is Rosa Driscoll, the beautiful, gifted pianist who has the body of a woman but the mind of a child. Rosa’s haunting melodies act as an eerie soundtrack as the conflict escalates and the politicians in Wellington and their troops on the ground become ever more desperate.
The Idiot Played Rachmaninov is a humorous, at times hilarious tribute to New Zealand’s often overlooked West Coast and its colourful cast of inhabitants. A great read.
The Plot To Kill Peter Fraser (2017) David McGill
Set in the decade immediately prior to Jonothan Cullinane’s Red Herring, the story centres on Detective Dan Delaney, who first appeared in the author’s novel, The Death Ray Debacle. Delaney has survived WW2 and returned to New Zealand with his Jewish wife.
The detective uncovers a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister and – with the help of his beautiful, resourceful spouse – he’s soon fending off a variety of spies from all sides of the political divide.
Plenty of twists and turns and some insightful observations along the way.
Discovery: Reading a nation’s library of Political Thrillers is a great way to learn something of the country’s history; social, cultural, and political. When I think of great NZ Prime Ministers, I think of Michael Joseph Savage or Norman Kirk, but as David McGill points out here, Peter Fraser’s important contribution to the embryonic United Nations and his championing of the rights of smaller nation states, mark him out as a genuine statesman of the highest calibre.
Recommended: Helen Clark's speech on Peter Fraser and the U.N.
...and my own modest contribution to the genre:
A SOVEREIGN NATION
‘No point in fighting it, Tom,’ Georgina told him. ‘You’re a hero, a genuine icon, every bit as much as Hilary, the All Blacks, and the ANZACS.’
‘Sssssssst!’ Tom exclaimed, making the sign of the cross. ‘God save us from the holy trinity!’
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND 2023.
Tensions are escalating in the South Pacific and the latest global financial crisis has brought New Zealand to its knees. From his Bee Hive office on the ninth floor, Prime Minister Michael Armstrong plays a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
In this intricate tale of geo-political chicanery, the author gently lampoons the “politically correct” New Zealand cultural landscape and presents us with a disturbing vision of a dystopian future.