Wednesday, March 21, 2018


A PRESENT FOR THE CZAR by Edmund Bohan (Hazard Press, 2003)

Reviewed by Dorothy Hunt

In the spring of 1885, as New Zealand and Australia are gripped by fears of imminent Russian invasion, tension is heightened even more by the arrival in Lyttelton of a Russian scientific expedition under the command of Prince Alexis Gregorovitch Romanov - once known as the ‘Butcher of Warsaw’ but now intent on collecting rare Maori artifacts for his cousin the Czar of Russia.

This not only poses major political and security problems for the Colonial Volunteer Defence Force’s commander, General Sir George Whitmore, and his assistants the veteran Colonel Jamieson and Inspector Patrick O’Rorke, but Romanov’s visit stirs deep and dangerous passions amongst the country’s small Polish community. It also alarms local Maori seeking the return of priceless taonga stolen from their ancient and sacred burial sites of Murihiku, and their fears are increased by the simultaneous appearance in Christchurch of the mysterious and sinister Boyland the Collector and a second buyer of artifacts, the Prussian Count von Krefeld.

Written by New Zealand author Edmund Bohan, this is a detective story set in New Zealand in 1885. It is the fifth Inspector O'Rorke novel. It is the first I have read, but it certainly won't be the last.

It can be summed up as on the back of the cover as dealing with "a complex web of murder and mystery". It could also be described as a novel in which a complex web of themes is involved, and a wide range of characters realistically portrayed. Indeed it is a novel to be read with careful concentration so that the relationships among the characters whom Inspector O'Rorke encounters in his investigation can be recognised as far as their disguises will permit. There are new New Zealanders who have come from different and sometimes violent backgrounds and achieved success in the young country. Some strong women fearlessly defy Victorian conventions and express their concern about rights for women. Maori are deeply concerned about the theft and export of ancestral taonga (treasures). Some Polish refugees are trying to build a new life away from Russian domination while others seek vengeance against the Russians who have treated cruelly people in their homeland. The country is alarmed about the threat of Russian invasion. Into this explosive mix come high-ranking Russian visitors from a scientific expedition seeking a present for the Czar.

This gripping story is excellent reading for anyone who enjoys detective stories, but there is even more to this book than the gripping story line and the powerful mix of themes. It flows seemingly effortlessly from one chapter to the next, but this is no superficial story. It is a detective story in a historical setting and when I had finished reading it I realised how convincingly I had been drawn into identifying with life in the late nineteenth century. The details of the buildings and their furnishings, the transport, the lighting, and the means of communication combined to build up a picture which was made more real because of the clear presentation of social interaction in Victorian society and the impact of rank, social position and rituals.

The setting of the story was clearly the work of a social historian.

The author has the gift of creating a scene and by his skilful use of language conveying the visual setting, the sound, the atmosphere, the emotional tensions.

This is clearly seen in this passage on Page 153.

"She had already drawn back the long curtains from the windows so that the room was bathed in light. Birds were singing in the trees outside, the sun was already blazing, and the great nor'west arch high above the distant mountains foretold another stiflingly hot day. Yet for her the bedroom remained cold as an ice-house. Then as a new wave of shadows seemed to flow out from the mirror and swirl around her, threatening, stifling and imprisoning, she slammed the door fast and stumbled towards the stairs. Outside and clear of the house, with the warm wind bathing her face and the morning heat freeing her body from the deadening cold of her haunting, she started to run without caring in which direction she ran."

I strongly recommend this book for any readers interested in detective fiction and life in nineteenth century New Zealand and there is a romantic interest there too as Inspector O'Rorke has finally to choose between two beautiful women in his life.

Dorothy Hunt was the founder and editor NZine, a groundbreaking online magazine that began in the mid 1990s. Passionate about embracing and sharing stories of New Zealand life (travel, business, history, geography, social issues, and more) with the growing online community, Dorothy and her husband Peter grew their magazine for fifteen years. I interacted with Dorothy in the early days of Crime Watch. Unfortunately both Dorothy and Peter passed away in recent years, and the website they poured so much heart into fell defunct and is no longer online. In their honour I've decided to republish Dorothy's review of this New Zealand crime novel she enjoyed. 

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