Monday, November 23, 2015


INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE by Ray Berard (Mary Egan, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

An armed robbery interrupts a drug deal, igniting a compelling crime tale powered by intriguing characters that has a good feel for life in rural and small-town modern New Zealand. 

Toni Bourke is treading water, trying not to drown, as she operates the Black Horse pub in Rotorua. She's determined to keep the tills ringing as the months pass since the sudden loss of her husband, relying on the penchant of locals for both drinking and gambling while they socialise.

Outside in the dark, Pio Morgan nervously prepares himself. He's had a tough life and comes from a tough family, but he's not a tough guy. Duped by a local pot grower, he's backed into a corner, desperate for money. The lure of the Black Horse pub, with its treasure trove of pokie and TAB losings, is strong.

Gun in hand, Pio enters the pub. A moment of madness upends so many lives, lighting the fuse on a violent chain of events that pulls in locals and others from far away. Intertwined lives. Not all will survive.

Ray Berard's first published crime novel is a real cracker. An exciting beginning pulls the reader in, but it's the nice touch Berard has for a fascinating and diverse cast of characters, along with the way he evokes rural and small-town New Zealand life, that blends with the action and mystery to really elevate INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE to must-read crime novel territory. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started - Berard was a new author, a Canadian immigrant to New Zealand, setting a book in the central North Island. An area that combines tourist-enticing scenery with a blue-collar population and strong Maori influence.

For me, INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE started well and got even better as it went along, with Berard layering in depth to the characters and story as the action unfolded. I was curious at first, then intrigued, then enthralled. There was a good sense of balance between character and plot, with some interesting underlying themes and a well-evoked setting, sociologically and geographically.

This debut crime novel felt 'well-rounded', for want of a better phrase.

I understand that Berard is a former TAB supervisor (that's a New Zealand betting agency that has outlets all across the country, often attached to pubs and bars), and his experience and knowledge of the intricacies of that industry is well utilised. He does a great job evoking life in small-town New Zealand, including the focal point of the 'local', where various people from the community all meet to drink (and some to gamble), along with threading in the symbiosis between blue collar locals who keep the tills ringing and the 'corporate suits' in big city head offices who are focused more on numbers, bottom lines, and perceptions.

In some ways INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE feels like a snapshot of modern-day New Zealand, populated by a range of authentic characters: hard-working people, blue collar and white collar, bludgers, gang members, cops and criminals. The weak and the wounded, the courageous and the strong. Those trying to do right by their family and those willing to sacrifice others to get ahead. Everyone trying to survive.

Even when I thought I could see where INSIDE THE BLACK HORSE was going, plot-wise, Berard did a nice job at throwing in a few surprises, crafting an engaging story that felt fresh and unique even as it delivered the kinds of things fans of crime fiction expect and like to see from the genre.

Great characters, good action, some nice prose. A surprisingly excellent local crime thriller, and the best debut New Zealand crime novel I've read in a few years. Highly recommended.

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