Reviewed by Shane Donald
Duane Ricketts had planned to steer clear of drugs once he got out of the Thai jail, but it's tough turning down a dying man's last request - even if he's a hardened criminal with a fatal weakness for transvestites. So now Ricketts is looking for the lost treasure of the notorious Mr Asia syndicate: ten kilos of high-grade cocaine.
In 1983, a shipment of drugs disappears in the Coromandel. In 1995, a cast of characters tries to trace the shipment. Who has the drugs?
Pal Thomas’s Inside Dope opens with Dale Varty attempting to smuggle a shipment of drugs into New Zealand. In the dead of night, on the Coromandel Coast, someone steals the shipment and sets into motion a chain of events that escalate into murder in Auckland 12 years later.
The story moves to 1995 with Dale Varty dying in a Thai jail after being stabbed. He asks fellow New Zealander (and former cop) Duane Ricketts to do him some favours when he returns to New Zealand in a few days, one of which is to visit his wife and daughter. Short of funds and lacking a better idea, Ricketts agrees to do so.
Duane Ricketts makes for a flawed but interesting lead character. As with other characters in the story, Thomas seamlessly works in his backstory and how he came to be in a Thai jail. A real strength of the story is Thomas’ ability to make his characters seem real and there are no cardboard cutouts here. This is a bonus in a novel populated with so many characters; in a few lines Thomas is able to give the reader insights into the people who make up the world of story, from CIA agent Buddy Funke to lawyer Bart Clegg.
There is also a strong sense of place in the novel. An example of this is when Ricketts returns to his house in Mt Roskill:
‘When people told Ricketts that Mt Roskill had no redeeming features, he’d reply that was what made it affordable. He’d also point out that it was one of the few, if only, parts of Auckland where you could get a three-bedroom house for under 150 grand within five minutes drive of two reasonable golf courses’.
Yes, house prices in Auckland used to be a bit lower than now…
Tito Ihaka doesn’t make an appearance until chapter four. He serves as an antagonist of Ricketts, distrusting the latter’s motives and encouraging him to come clean once it’s clear that there are many competing groups trying to find the missing drugs. The reader does get glimpses into the character Ihaka will become, however, and more attention is given to Ihaka’s relationships as he attempts to get closer to CIA assassin CC Hellicar.
Thomas skillfully moves the story along to a denouement in which the complicated plot strands come together in a satisfying conclusion. As I read this novel I felt that Thomas was more in command of the plot than in Old School Tie and was able to shape the story into a more cohesive whole than his earlier novel. To me this indicates Thomas’ growing skill as a writer. Inside Dope was joint winner of the first-ever Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel, which has since been won by writers such as Peter Temple. This is an excellent crime novel and was well-deserving of that accolade.
Twenty years after its original release, Inside Dope can be found in omnibus The Ihaka Trilogy (Hachette, 2010) as well as in a new ebook version from around the same time.
Shane Donald is a New Zealander living in Taiwan. An avid reader with 3,000 books in his home, he completed a dissertation on Ngaio Marsh for his MA degree, and also has a PhD in applied linguistics.