So this week I'm featuring INSIDE DOPE by Paul Thomas, a book which won the inaugural Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel back in 1996 (co-winner with Barry Maitland's THE MALCONTENTA). Although Paul Thomas is a Kiwi, I believe he was living in Sydney at the time, so that may be why he was eligible for the Australian crime writing awards.
After studying at the University of Auckland, Thomas worked as a public relations executive, consultant, journalist and editor before turning to writing full-time. When he did so, Thomas quickly established a reputation as quite a prolific writer - churning out newspaper articles, novels, short stories, and non-fiction work, particularly cricket and rugby-related sports biographies, at a steady pace over the years.
After writing three sports biographies (in conjunction with top rugby and cricket players and coaches), his first crime novel was released in 1994, OLD SCHOOL TIE (later released in Australia as DIRTY LAUNDRY). It introduced DS Tito Ihaka, a Maori detective based in Auckland, as well as Thomas's blackly comic and witty writing style - one critic described it as "Elmore Leonard on acid", and the novel was widely acclaimed.
INSIDE DOPE was Thomas's second of three novels to feature Ihaka, and centred on a hunt for missing drugs from the notorious real-life Mr Asia gang which spanned Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia in the 1970s (and which was featured recently in the Australian TV series Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities). Disgraced former cop Duane Ricketts is on hand to hear the dying words of Frank Varty, the only man who knows the location of 10kg of high-grade cocaine misplaced after an aborted drug run a decade before. As Ricketts hunts for the drugs, he opens a Pandora's box of trouble, and Thomas has the reader racing along on a plot filled with bodies in spa pools, rogue CIA agents, indiscreet diplomats, crooked lawyers, hoods, and a CIA assassin. As well are recurring hero Ihaka and his police colleagues, of course.
As I said above, INSIDE DOPE was co-winner of the first-ever Australian crime writing award, the Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel in 1996.
INSIDE DOPE, along with his other Ihaka novels and some standalone thrillers (eg THE EMPTY BED in 2002), cemented Thomas's reputation as a high quality crime writer - at a time when New Zealand authors and publishers weren't really taking up the crime writing baton in any major way - understandably, Thomas's work has been called 'groundbreaking', in terms of modern Kiwi crime fiction.
As noted on the NZ Book Council website, in Writing Gothic Matilda: The Amazing Visions of Australian Crime Fiction, Michael Pollack and Margaret MacNabb write about Thomas’ early novels, "These comic novels leave the reader laughing, that’s for sure. The sparkling dialogue, absurd situations and all the crackling one-liners are pure entertainment. But there is always the shadow of doubt falling over the page…After reading Paul Thomas… one never reads a newspaper or watches a television newscast with the quite the same degree of innocence again."
A review of INSIDE DOPE on Amazon from back in 1999 (the very early days of the online bookstore) states, "Inside Dope is brilliantly plotted to tell a complex and highly amusing story. The characters are larger than life; the narrative deliciously demonic; and the dialogue outrageously overblown yet real. The whole adds up to a hilarious novel in a unique and original style. Get it!"
Thomas's crime novels fell out of print, but remained available from libraries and secondhand bookstores. However, in some great news for antipodean crime fiction fans, last year his publisher re-released all three Ihaka novels (OLD SCHOOL TIE, INSIDE DOPE, GUERILLA SEASON) in one volume - THE IHAKA TRILOGY. Even more than a decade later, the stories still hold up, and Thomas's writing can still entrance and amuse readers - the re-released trilogy spent several weeks on the New Zealand Fiction bestseller list (rising as high as #3 for some weeks - at the time that Ben Sanders's THE FALLEN was #1).
Reviewer Karen Chisholm of AustCrimeFiction said, "I just love these books. I love the settings, I love the humour, the quality of the plots and all of the characters. I love the way that Tito Ihaka is a central character, but not necessarily THE central character. These are very much ensemble cast books with Tito and others never taking the entire focus. I also love the way that these books are not necessarily straight-forward police procedurals, although they do involve police investigations (and ex-police investigations) and journalistic investigations and a whole bunch of things happening all at once. Making Ihaka not the entire focus of these books is quite an achievement as he's a larger than life sort of bloke. Maori, toe treading, unconventional, he's balanced beautifully against his very proper, very buttoned up, very Irish, dour boss Ulsterman Finbar McGrail."
You can read Karen's full review here.
I know I'm not alone in hoping that the re-release of the three Ihaka books might herald that Thomas is now working on a new crime novel. Watch this space.