Tuesday, September 20, 2016


RED HERRING by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins, 2016)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

A man overboard, a murder and a lot of loose ends ... In Auckland 1951 the workers and the government are heading for bloody confrontation and the waterfront is the frontline. But this is a war with more than two sides and nothing is what it seems.

Into the secret world of rival union politics, dark political agendas and worldwide anti-communist hysteria steps Johnny Molloy, a private detective with secrets of his own. Caitlin O'Carolan, a feisty young reporter, is following her own leads. Together they begin to uncover a conspiracy that goes to the heart of the Establishment - and which will threaten their own lives in the process.

What a cracker!  A noir novel set in tea-drenched 1950s New Zealand. With the 1951 waterfront strike as the backdrop, Red Herring sets PI Johnny Molloy on the track of a murky character who has supposedly drowned in the Gulf of Alaska but who has turned up in a photo taken in New Zealand alongside the organisers of the strike.

Molloy is engaged by Furst, an investigator for a California insurance company, and his case is one of probable insurance fraud, but more nefarious stuff and interesting characters keep emerging – including a feisty Caitlin O’Carolan, a reporter with a dream of being a war correspondent for a UK paper. For this is a New Zealand where for many ‘home’ is still seen as somewhere else – the place we send frozen mutton to, or the place we may look to for political guidance. #

And even if the recent war has some thinking that it might not be true that any good idea must be one imported from overseas, we still see representatives of the U.S. persuading us of the ‘yellow peril’ and the eagerness of the heads of big business to compromise those here to protect their overseas markets. But being in the recent war also allows guys like Molloy – who have lived through the Great Depression as well as the war - to have a fair amount of cynicism, and a gun, which comes in handy when his hunt puts him in the firing line.

Red Herring is a dark and complex tale; people's allegiances and choices of allies often not being what you would expect, but making a ‘long game’ sense. And of course civil unrest is a handy rationale for those in support of ‘Public Safety’ legislation. This book reminds us how rich and interesting New Zealand history is; at once unique to us and also continuous with the political tides that shaped the rest of the world. The writing is solid and blokey: “A look passed between them of such intensity that two strong men could have carried a double bed across it” and everyone answers the phone by demanding “Are you there?”

And it is not without humour – Prime Minister Sid Holland spends a lot of his time in his underwear; Molloy’s landlady is ‘unable to get to grips with the physics’ to enquire too much into the relationship of sisters with little family resemblance who live together in her boarding house; and an historian might have called Fintan Patrick Walsh the closest New Zealand had to an American-style industrial gangster, but in the book Walsh is the one bemoaning the fact that people keep misinterpreting his desire for them to ‘get rid of’ people.  There is even early Auckland/Wellington rivalry: “But wouldn’t that mean living in Manchester?” said Molloy. “I’ve been there. It’s like Wellington.”

Who was doing what to whom and why was never entirely clear to me, but I think that was part of why I liked this book – the reader is like the ordinary citizen at the end of whatever deals and decisions are being made by those in charge, supposedly on their behalf, but without their knowledge or consent.  A great debut novel – and hopefully we haven’t seen the last of Johnny Malloy.

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. You can check out her blog here

No comments:

Post a Comment