As I wrote in a large feature for the New Zealand Listener in early 2012, "In the 1990s, Thomas exploded onto the local fiction scene with a series of fast-paced crime thrillers packed with mayhem, spiralling subplots, humour and his very own maverick cop. Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka, a hulking investigator who, like his literary antecedents, stood slightly apart from society and was somewhat untroubled by expected scruples, first appeared in Old School Tie, Thomas’s groundbreaking 1994 debut that one critic described as 'Elmore Leonard on acid'."
Thomas paved the way for the darker, funnier, modern thrillers being penned by some great New Zealand crime writers nowadays, tearing us from the cosy confines of the British-style village murder mystery made famous by Agatha Christie and our own Dame Ngaio Marsh. He returned, after a 15-year absence from the crime writing page, with DEATH ON DEMAND in early 2012, a book that went on to win the 2013 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel last December. Fortunately, we won't have to wait that long for the next instalment: Thomas and Ihaka will both be returning later this year in FALLOUT, which centres on a confrontation between New Zealand and the USA over our country's long-held anti-nuclear stance.
But in the meantime, Paul Thomas stares down the barrel of 9mm.
1) Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Well I think if I had to nominate someone it would be Phillip Marlowe. I think if I hadn’t read Chandler I doubt if I ever would have written a crime novel. So, yeah, I mean I still keep going back to Chandler as the greatest crime writer, and I think that Marlowe created a template for the protagonist or heroes of crime fiction that still applies really. Everyone puts their own stamp on it and adds their own little idiosyncrasies and oddities and what-not, but the basic template I don’t think has changed a great deal at all.
And I think it’s the vulnerability I think which was the really revolutionary thing that Chandler introduced – you had a hero character who gave you an insight into his own psychological make-up, and his own depressions and concerns, and self-loathing. And I think that opened up a whole psychological area for crime writing that really revolutionised it in my view.
2) What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I can remember very clearly that at primary school we had access to a series of novels written by a guy called Ronald Welch, who wrote sort of historical novels that traced members of the same family over several hundred years. They were kind of minor nobility and a military family – so in each generation a member of the family was involved in the major military action of the time, whether it was Agincourt right through to the Battle of Quebec and so forth. And I was very, very taken with those, and I can remember devouring all of those, and going back to them.
And it’s interesting that a writer whose work I very much admired later was the George MacDonald Fraser flash series, who did a similar thing with one person – he took him through all the major military engagements of the Victorian era, using the same kind of idea that you inserted this character into the very heart of the action. But those Welsh books, and I can’t even remember the name of the characters now, were certainly the first books I can really remember being riveted by.
3) Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
The first book I ever did was a book called CHRISTMAS IN RAROTONGA, with the cricketer John Wright. Then I did a book with John Kirwan, the rugby player, RUNNING ON INSTINCT, and then the first book with John Hart, STRAIGHT FROM THE HART. So all those had come out before... I’d written those three before I wrote OLD SCHOOL TIE. I’d also worked as a journalist, I worked in Auckland for the Auckland Star, then went to the UK and was a travel writer in London and worked in France for a couple of years. Then I came back to New Zealand.
4) Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I have family, and obviously that’s been a huge part of my life for the last 13, 14 years anyway. So a lot of my time is involved around them, revolves around them. I love sport, so obviously watch a bit of sport on TV like most New Zealand males, and I walk the dog.
I still play cricket, social cricket, half a dozen times a summer or so. But it’s not exactly Lords. I played cricket right through school and played reasonably seriously for a few years after I left school, and I played in England a lot, so I’ve played over the years.
5) What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't a really famous thing in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I would suggest they go and take a walk through the Otari-Wilton's Bush, the last surviving native forest, native bush, in Wellington. It’s great; it’s well worth having a wander through. I would recommend it, it’s very restful.
6) If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
[laughing] I think you’d have trouble getting any well-known actor to play the part of Paul Thomas, because my life hasn’t really been the stuff of big-budget movies. The only way I could answer that question is to say I’ve often been told I look like James Woods... he was a charming sleazebag in Casino, I think that’s the last time I can remember seeing him in a movie.
Um, yeah, that’s tricky. I guess your first book is always a big event in your life, but of the others... I would probably say WORK IN PROGRESS because that’s the book I most enjoy picking up and reading a few pages of – and thinking that I achieved what I was trying to do with that. That’s probably the one I would pick. Sorry it’s not one of the crime books.
8) What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
Well, the thing with CHRISTMAS IN RAROTONGA, the genesis of the sports books is slightly different, because what happens is generally speaking the publisher goes to the subject, and says ‘we’d like you to do a book’, and then they go about finding a writer, and so it’s not like you’re pitching your own work, so to speak... But obviously the first time you see your name on a book it’s a bit of a thrill. My name was obviously a bit bigger on the cover of OLD SCHOOL TIE than it was on any of the sports books, for obvious reasons – because the athlete is the selling point, not the writer... I can’t imagine I let the occasion pass without opening a good bottle of wine.
9) What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I always remember on a Words on Wheels tour, somewhere down in Central Otago, there was a guy sitting in the front row with what was obviously a gigantic manuscript in a clear plastic folder, and the thrust of his questioning was resentment at his failure to get published, and an obvious belief – which he made no attempt whatsoever to conceal – that he could write the pants off the whole bunch of us who were sitting on stage. And there was just this palpable sense of burning resentment against anybody who’d ever been published. I often wondered what sort of manuscript, what his novel was about. UFOs seemed a popular choice when we discussed it afterwards. But yeah, that was something I remember.
With this guy, you felt he was a volcano waiting to explode, that the resentment had been building for some time... you do get a lot of questions from people, the implication there’s a magic formula, that there’s one step, they’re not sure what it is, but could you please tell them, because that’s the only thing between them and bestseller-dom. And they’re probably right – the trouble is the step is ‘luck’. And you can’t help them really with that.
Thank you Paul. We appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch
Have you read any of the Ihaka novels? Or Paul Thomas's sports biographies? What do you think of Detective Ihaka as a character? Comments welcome.