The 2012 edition of the Crime Fiction Alphabet (CFA) kicked off back in May (yes, this year, unlike previous incarnations, I've badly slipped behind so far, only doing the "C", "E", and "F" posts), and this week we are up to the letter 'O'.
Unlike the last edition of the CFA, I haven't aimed for any particular theme for this edition (eg, all New Zealand crime fiction-related posts), however for this week's letter, I am going to feature a New Zealand book: OLD SCHOOL TIE, the debut crime novel from the 'godfather' of contemporary New Zealand crime fiction, Paul Thomas.
After writing three sports biographies (in conjunction with top rugby and cricket players and coaches), Paul Thomas published OLD SCHOOL TIE, his first crime novel, in 1994 (the book was later released in Australia as DIRTY LAUNDRY).
Written in an edgy style, in OLD SCHOOL TIE businessman Victor Appleyard jumps from the Harbour Bridge with a suitcase of evidence connected to a wealthy woman's death 20 years earlier. Police investigator Tito Ihaka finds himself entangled with the local mafia, a Maori street gang, a small-time loser, and some big-time ex-SAS psychos (The SAS is a very elite military unit, for those unfamiliar with the term).
Quite often, when people are discussing the best opening lines in the history of New Zealand fiction, it is Ronald Hugh Morieson's THE SCARECROW that is mentioned as having the greatest of all (incidentally, a macabre, gothic novel with plenty of crime and thrills in it): "The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut". A good opening, for sure, but I think that the first crime fiction lines from Thomas' pen were also pretty darn good too:
"It was entirely appropriate that Wallace Guttle, the private investigator, should have spent the last hour of his life looking at pictures of other people having sex."Thomas garnered much critical acclaim for OLD SCHOOL TIE, and was particularly praised for bring life, entertainment, and a cracking sense of the satiric to contemporary New Zealand literature. His work was not akin to the boring "New Zealand novels" (exclamation mark and underline) that were force-fed to local high school students, thus putting many off from ever dipping into locally written novels by choice. In fact, I wonder why - given the acclaim for his work, both from a craft and entertainment standpoint, and his widely accepted importance as a marker point in our literary history - why New Zealand high schools and universities don't make some of his novels part of the English/New Zealand literature curriculum.
But that's a discussion for another day.
As I said above, with OLD SCHOOL TIE, Thomas burst onto the novel writing scene, garnering plenty of critical acclaim, in New Zealand and overseas. Vincent Banville in the Irish Times said, "Thomas is a true original, energetic, scintillating and quite mad. I devoured OLD SCHOOL TIE in one gulp, then suffered the indigestion of laughter for a week." The New Zealand Listener, one of our premier publications when it comes to books coverage and criticism, called OLD SCHOOL TIE "as significant a debut as THE BONE PEOPLE - and with jokes". THE BONE PEOPLE was of course Keri Hulme's debut novel that won the Booker Prize. So pretty high praise there, in terms of the significance of Thomas's conversion to fiction.
Having lived for a short period in Sydney (and setting some of his second Ihaka novel, INSIDE DOPE, there), as is often the case with our trans-Tasman cousins, Thomas was embraced/claimed as part of their culture too. He won the inaugural Ned Kelly Award for INSIDE DOPE, and in an Australian critical text, Writing Gothic Matilda: The Amazing Visions of Australian Crime Fiction, Michael Pollack and Margaret MacNab write about his early novels, including OLD SCHOOL TIE:
‘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.’
So now, just for you, dear Crime Watch readers, here are some of those hitherto unpublished quotes and insights from my Listener interview with Thomas.
Talking about why he moved from writing sports biographies to starting to write what would become OLD SCHOOL TIE, and why he chose crime rather than a different style of fiction:
"The answer to that ... is I did like crime fiction [Thomas talked about his love of Raymond Chandler earlier in the interview]. I lived in London for five years and did a lot of commuting, and read, poweredd through a hell of a lot of crime fiction in that time, because it was something that could take your mind off the fact that you were spending four hours of your day sitting on a train. And then I'd always had this desire to write fiction, and I guess I started to think about - when I actually got myself to the point where I was determined I was going to do this - it just struck me that I had an instinctive feel for how to go about writing a crime novel."
Talking about whether he thought, when first writing about DS Tito Ihaka in OLD SCHOOL TIE, that the Maori detective could or would become a recurring character, and why he brought him back after a fifteen-year hiatus:
"I certainly didn’t think in terms of him being a character I’d keep going back to. If you remember OLD SCHOOL TIE, and for that matter INSIDE DOPE, Ihaka is not the main character in those books. He’s just part of a cast, and Reggie Sparks is the main character in OLD SCHOOL TIE and Duane Ricketts is the main character in INSIDE DOPE. And it’s not really until GUERILLA SEASON where Ihaka kind of becomes a central character and the person who drives the story.
But what happened is that I just got a lot of feedback from readers saying ‘we really like this character, are you going to continue with him?’, and obviously in between, in that long hiatus between GUERILLA SEASON and DEATH ON DEMAND, the questions when they did arise were always ‘are you going to do another Ihaka book’, rather than ‘are you going to do another Duane Ricketts book?’, or whatever."
If you have read Thomas, then everything I am sharing here about what the critics and readers think of his writing will I imagine seem quite familiar. If you haven't, then I suggest you try to get your hands on a copy of his crime novels, perhaps starting with OLD SCHOOL TIE. Although the individual novel is now out-of-print, it has been re-released in 2010 as part of THE IHAKA TRILOGY, which contains all three of Thomas's ground-breaking mid 1990s crime novels featuring, in ways large or small, the hulking Maori investigator: OLD SCHOOL TIE, INSIDE DOPE, and GUERILLA SEASON. A terrific collection for your bookshelf. And for those of us, like me, who have read some of Thomas's excellent novels, well, it can't hurt to have another read now and then anyway, eh?
To find out more about Paul Thomas and his crime writing:
- "Out of exile" - my large feature on Thomas for the New Zealand Listener, Feb 2012
- Auckland University magazine Salient interviews Paul Thomas, February 2012
- A Booksellers NZ Q&A with Thomas, April 2012
- Thomas referred to and quoted in "It's a Crime Wave", Mark Broatch's excellent large feature about the rise of New Zealand crime writing in the Sunday Star-Times, August 2010
- "Have you read Paul Thomas?" - my Crime Watch encyclopaedia-style piece about Thomas from back in September 2009 (clearly I need to do an updated post, but this gives you some further historic information about his other 1990s novels etc)
Have you read OLD SCHOOL TIE, or any of Paul Thomas's other crime or thriller novels? Do you agree with the critical acclaim? Do you like a bit of edgy humour with your crime? Comments welcome.