Wednesday, June 3, 2015


THE CRIME OF HUEY DUNSTAN by James McNeish (Random House, 2010)

Reviewed by Ngaire Atmore Pattison

I was intrigued by this title purely because it was written by James McNeish – a New Zealand author who I confess I hadn’t yet read. THE CRIME OF HUEY DUNSTAN is narrated by Professor Chesney (a psychologist who specialises in trauma and also happens to blind) who recounts to us his involvement in the trial of Huey Dunstan – a young man accused of a killing that he very definitely did commit – but the question that Professor Chesney investigates is why? And what could this mean within New Zealand’s laws regarding provocation?

You can probably see where this is going by now, and really it doesn’t take much. The story is not so much in the plot points but in the head space of its characters and the machinations of the legal system they’re dealing with. McNeish has done a fine job of exploring the implications, both social and legal, of the provocation defense within the New Zealand system. All very timely [at the time of publication] considering recent cases that had provoked both impassioned and ill-thought-out responses.

In some ways the book reads a bit like a whodunnit – not who-dun what Huey-dun, but who-dun it to Huey. Ches finds that Huey’s actions may have been beyond his control due to an unacknowledged trauma in his childhood. There’s some talk of “buried memories” here but I’ll be honest, to me the idea of a buried memory is that you hold on to it a lot harder than Huey does, which points to the only real fault of the book – pacing. Some of the early “investigation” by Ches seems to happen a little too fast and the revelations come out a little too easily. Then we got into a lot of the courtroom drama and, as a reader, I started to feel bogged down. Fortunately McNeish does a better job of picking the story up in the final quarter.

McNeish also does an excellent job of portraying the back story and concurrent lives of Huey’s family and his superb study of the character of “back country” North Island towns is both restrained and immediately recognisable, and these are some of the most enjoyable passages to read. The details of the relationship of Ches and his wife and Ches’ family and acquaintances are also nicely handled as are the practical details of Ches’ working life as a blind person.

In the end I have to confess to not being entirely sure of where I was with Huey – did I believe him? Did it matter whether I believed him? And, just as importantly, did I believe Ches? Of course these are exactly the questions that arise whenever the defense of provocation was used. I don’t feel that McNeish answered any of these questions, which I hope wasn't really his intention.

My final summing up (see what I did there, with the legal laffs?) though is McNeish hasn't quite pulled this all together and pulled it off. I was left with a distinct feeling of the end not quite mashing with the middle not quite mashing with the beginning not quite mashing with the whole. A book of good parts mixed with bad parts and unfortunately marred by the inconsistency.


THE CRIME OF HUEY DUNSTAN was longlisted for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. 

Ngaire Atmore Pattison is one of New Zealand's foremost book bloggers and reviewers. You can keep up with the New Zealand book trade and read her reviews of a wide variety of local and overseas books at She also reviews books for the Herald on Sunday newspaper. She will be sharing some of her crime reviews on Crime Watch


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