Reviewed by Shane Donald
A private eye is shot dead in a parking garage. A businessman jumps to his death from Auckland Harbour Bridge. How are these events linked to the suicide of a girl at a school ball many years ago?
These days Paul Thomas is sometimes referred to as the ‘Godfather’ of New Zealand crime fiction. It’s easy to forget that when he first wrote Old School Tie, New Zealand crime writing was thin on the ground.
I first discovered Paul Thomas when I went to buy a gift for my dad. I couldn’t think of what to buy and settled on a sports book, probably one about John Hart. Later I read in the news that Paul Thomas had written a detective story set in Auckland. My first thought was, can detective stories be set in Auckland? To me it didn’t seem likely. Auckland was my hometown and the sorts of things that happened in the detective stories I read just couldn’t happen in Auckland. When I saw Old School Tie sitting on the shelf at the public library a few days later I decided I’d give it a go, not knowing what to expect. I was captivated from the opening sentence which describes Wallace Guttle, private detective’s, final moments on earth.
The story then shifts into police procedural territory, with Tito Ihaka and Finbar McGrail being introduced to the reader. In the space of little more than a page we come to know that Ihaka is blunt to the point of rudeness, while McGrail is more soft-spoken and focused on the rulebook. What stands out, now that the series contains five entries, is that Ihaka is not the protagonist of this story. Reggie Sparks is hired by New Nation Magazine to write a piece on the death of Victor Appleyard, who appears to have committed suicide. The central mystery here is why a man who seems to have everything would kill himself. Does the suicide of a girl at his college ball have anything to do with it? Sparks tries to find out.
Reading the Ihaka series now, it’s interesting to note how little presence Ihaka has in this novel. Sparks makes for an engaging main character and his journalistic background may have felt like safer territory for Paul Thomas, himself a journalist at the time of writing. The follow-up to this novel, Inside Dope also has a protagonist other than Ihaka, former cop Duane Ricketts. Both novels have Ihaka interacting with the lead character, but it’s not until Guerilla Season that Ihaka emerges as the series’ lead. I recall in an interview that Paul Thomas wrote Old School Tie with Sparks as the protagonist but that people kept telling him that they found Ihaka to be the most interesting character from the first two novels. It seems to be something he took on board, as Ihaka has been the main character in every novel from Guerilla Season on.
The tone of ‘Old School Tie’ differs a great deal from later novels in the series, such as the more recent Death on Demand and Fallout. Less depth is given to Ihaka, who seems a darker creation and more realized character in these later works. As the first novel in what would go on to be a series, Old School Tie has events careen along as Auckland society figures, hired muscle, and the determined Reggie Sparks come together in a story that shows the reader an Auckland that may no longer exist now.
This is a plot-driven story, populated by characters which represent ideas about an Auckland of the time in which the novel is set and they move the plot along. Casper Quedley, for example, exists as an image of the slick PR man of the early 1990s. The dinner party scene where the new Aotea Centre is discussed may seem jarring for readers unaware of Auckland’s recent history. However, these are not meant as criticisms, rather observations on how the novel is grounded in the times in which it is set. Old School Tie is a novel which showed me that detective fiction could be set in Auckland and that New Zealand writers could produce stories about us that people would want to read. When I reread it, I’m as entertained as I first was back in 1994, which shows that Old School Tie is a classic that more people should know about.
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.