Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Have you read Paul Thomas?

For the seventh in this blog's regular series of author introductions on Kiwi crime, mystery, and thriller writers, we now take a look at the work of Paul Thomas, who wrote several crime novels and short stories between 1994-2003, and also won the very first Ned Kelly Award for his second crime novel INSIDE DOPE.

Thomas was born in Harrogate, Yorkshire in 1951. Moving to New Zealand as a youth, he studied at the University of Auckland, before embarking on a variety of jobs in the communications field. He worked as a public relations executive, consultant, journalist and editor before turning to writing full-time. When he did so, Thomas quickly established a reputation as quite a prolific writer - churning out newspaper articles, novels, short stories, and non-fiction work, particularly cricket and rugby-related sports biographies, at a steady pace over the years.

After writing three sports biographies (in conjunction with top rugby and cricket players and coaches), his first crime novel was released in 1994, OLD SCHOOL TIE (later released in Australia as DIRTY LAUNDRY).

The first of three Thomas novels to feature DS Tito Ihaka, a Maori detective based in Auckland, it demonstrated his blackly comic and witty writing style, despite some of the dark deeds involved, as well as shining something of a light on contemporary Auckland society. One critic described it as "Elmore Leonard on acid", and the novel was widely acclaimed - which was particularly notable at a time when there was little if any New Zealand crime or thriller writing. Some commentators have thus called Thomas "groundbreaking" in terms of the modern era of New Zealand crime fiction.

Written in an edgy style, in OLD SCHOOL TIE businessman Victor Appleyard jumps from the Harbour Bridge with a suitcase of evidence connected to a wealthy woman's death 20 years earlier. Police investigator Tito Ihaka finds himself entangled with the local mafia, a Maori street gang, a small-time loser, and some big-time ex-SAS psychos.

The following year the second Ihaka novel was released; the acclaimed INSIDE DOPE, which centred on a hunt for missing drugs from the notorious real-life Mr Asia gang which spanned Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia in the 1970s (and which was featured recently in the Australian TV series Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities). Disgraced former cop Duane Ricketts is on hand to hear the dying words of Frank Varty, the only man who knows the location of 10kg of high-grade cocaine misplaced after an aborted drug run a decade before. As Ricketts hunts for the drugs, he opens a Pandora's box of trouble, and Thomas has the reader racing along on a plot filled with bodies in spa pools, rogue CIA agents, indiscreet diplomats, crooked lawyers, hoods, and a CIA assassin. As well are recurring hero Ihaka and his police colleagues, of course.

When the then-new Crime Writers Association of Australia held their first Ned Kelly Awards, Thomas shared the inaugural prize for Best Novel with Barry Maitland (MALCONTENTA).

In 1996, Thomas published GUERRILLA SEASON, the third in the Ihaka trilogy. Once again Thomas produced a well-received novel full of his trademark witty writing, and fastpaced plots full of fun and mayhem. Terrorism has come to New Zealand: a rabid right-wing talkback host is forced to "walk the plank" fifteen stories up; the best known print journalist in the country is murdered; and a monarchist MP is roasted to death and his bodyguard fed to a pit bull. These killings are claimed by the previously unknown Aotearoa People's Army and the anti-terrorism experts from Wellington are sure they're the work of Maori extremists, but maverick cop Tito Ihaka reckons they haven't got a clue.

As one reviewer said: "Guerilla Season is the sequel to Inside Dope and proves once again that the more Paul Thomas writes, the better he becomes. This is an hilarous novel that speeds along quicker than Fred 'the Freckle' Freckleton's dive head-first into the pavement. Tito continues to grow as a character and really earns a place in the reader's heart and, of course, as we've come to expect from Thomas, we have a nail-biting plot full of violence, gore and dark humor."

Thomas set his next thriller, FINAL CUT (1999) in Australia (where he lived for a period), and after three acclaimed Ihaka novels, set the well-liked detective hero aside. When disgraced former merchant banker James Alabaster comes into the possession of an old porno featuring the women of his dreams - who just happens to be the wife of one of Australia's richest men - he thinks his luck is in. But then the cast members of the porno start dying, and things get very dicey for Alabaster and his would-be flame.

With four acclaimed crime and thriller novels in half a decade, Thomas had quickly developed a reputation as a quality crime writer. As noted on the NZ Book Council website, in Writing Gothic Matilda: The Amazing Visions of Australian Crime Fiction, Michael Pollack and Margaret MacNabb write about Thomas’ early novels, "These comic novels leave the reader laughing, that’s for sure. The sparkling dialogue, absurd situations and all the crackling one-liners are pure entertainment. But there is always the shadow of doubt falling over the page…After reading Paul Thomas… one never reads a newspaper or watches a television newscast with the quite the same degree of innocence again."

Thomas took a darker turn with his fifth thriller, THE EMPTY BED (2002), which was more of a character study of the dissolution of a marriage, alongside something of a stylish murder mystery.

In that novel, which was also nominated for a Ned Kelly Award, main character Nick has his world turned upside down when he accidentally discovers a love note to his wife Anne, and realises there are plenty of secrets in the marriage he thought was happy and rock-solid. Bad becomes worse when Anne is murdered, and the finger of blame turns to Nick. Facing the fact he is the prime (and only) suspect, Nick starts his own hunt for the killer, uncovering along the way that Anne is not the only person in his life guilty of deception. Everyone has something to hide.
A reviewer in Wellington newspaper The Evening Post (now merged into The Dominion Post), said: "Thomas doesn’t put a foot wrong in this bleakly brilliant depiction of a marriage unravelling… That makes the book sound very grim. But in fact it’s a compulsive and acerbic read."

During his thriller novel writing period, Thomas continued to work on other forms of writing as well, including more sports biographies. Then in 2003 he published what (as yet) is his last and most recent writings in the crime/thriller genre - the series of 7 short tales in SEX CRIMES.

The publisher's blurb states: "Paul Thomas's blackly humorous stories explore the unpredictable and sometimes fatal consequences that can occur when sex rears its not-so-ugly head. The author of the ground-breaking series of New Zealand comic thrillers featuring the Maori detective Tito Ihaka (Old School Tie, Inside Dope and Guerilla Season) takes us into a world of lust, deceit, betrayal and elaborate revenge, where nothing is as it seems and even the best-laid plots never unfold quite according to plan. Sex Crimes is seven delicious helpings of irony, intrigue and full-on entertainment from the writer who celebrated Australian author Marele Day described as 'a master of plot, pace and the killer one-liner'."

In addition to his novels, Thomas’ short stories have appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review, Metro, The Eye, Australian Penthouse and The New Zealand Herald. He has written the screenplay for a number of television movies, including one based on the adventures of his recurring hero, Detective Sergeant Ihaka. IHAKA: BLUNT INSTRUMENT (2000) starred Temuera Morrison (of Shortland Street, Once Were Warriors, and Star Wars fame) as the titular detective. A number of other well-known Australian and New Zealand TV stars featured, including Rebecca Gibney. Thomas has also adapted his novel INSIDE DOPE for the screen.
Since his last novel, WORK IN PROGRESS in 2006, which was general fiction rather than crime or thriller, Thomas has continued to write regularly, at least in terms of journalism - his sometimes biting or satirical opinion pieces and sports articles crop up regularly in various publications, including New Zealand's largest daily newspaper, The New Zealand Herald. It is unclear when, or if, he will turn his undoubtedly talented hand to crime and thriller writing again. We can only hope.

Have you read Paul Thomas? What do you think of his crime novels? Do you like a mixture of humour and crime? Comments welcome - please share your thoughts.


  1. I have not read Paul Thomas yet - but you have certainly made me want to try his books.

  2. I can finally answer "Yes!" to one of your questions; I have read Guerilla Season. It incessant jokiness started to get on my nerves, but I was highly impressed by Thomas' ability to construct a taut thriller plot. I'd have asked for one of his books had I won your recent competition. I wouldn't mind reading more of Thomas.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  3. I've just ordered a copy of OLD SCHOOL TIE from an online 2nd hand book store in NZ. Hoping to get my hands on copies of some of the others as well.

    1. I have them all, Craig -- you are welcome to pick them up if you'd like to take them for your collection.

  4. I read Old School Tie and Inside Dope in the 80s. Absolutely loved them and have given my copies away and converted them to be Thomas fans. Excellent NZ fiction.

  5. Death on Demand, Paul Thomas' latest book is fabulous! It's so darkly funny - it's excellent Kiwi crime with an edge.

  6. Agree with comment on Death on Demand. Now waiting to reading latest Ihaka, Fallout. My library has ordered the first three Ihaka novels, which have been published as a trilogy.

  7. I have just read 'Death On Demand'. A great read. am looking forward to reading more of Paul's books.