Review: DEATH ON DEMAND by Paul Thomas (Hodder, 2012)
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
Pavlova. Phar Lap. Various Kiwi musicians and sportspeople. Our cousins across the Tasman have a regular habit of claiming things of Aotearoa origin as their own. And back in 1996, when the convict colony decided to establish its own ‘local’ crime fiction award, it was New Zealand author Paul Thomas who found himself receiving the inaugural Ned Kelly trophy. Inside Dope, a rollicking tale centred on a hunt for missing drugs from the notorious Mr Asia gang, where disgraced former cop Duane Ricketts opens a Pandora’s Box of trouble – involving bodies in spa pools, rogue CIA agents, indiscreet diplomats, crooked lawyers, gangsters, and a CIA assassin – was also the second Thomas novel to feature, in ways big or small, maverick detective Tito Ihaka.
Thomas’s three Ihaka novels in the mid-1990s (Old School Tie, Inside Dope, and Guerilla Season, re-released in one volume, The Ihaka Trilogy, in 2010) tore New Zealand crime writing from the cosy confines of the classic British-style murder mystery into mayhem-filled modernity. “Elmore Leonard on acid,” was the reaction of one overseas critic. But then Ihaka disappeared. And readers have had to wait 15 years for Thomas to bring the hulking Maori detective, an anarchic knight errant of a copper, back to the page
And in Death on Demand, we have to wait a little while longer before Ihaka makes an appearance. The crime novel kick-starts with a prologue filled with seemingly unrelated vignettes: a young man follows an older woman out of town; four middle-aged men share secrets on a boys’ weekend; a rich Auckland woman dies in a hit-and-run accident; a media lothario is mugged; an elderly widow falls; a bored wife seeks out some excitement; and a man faces his mortality. Of course, all of this becomes important as the cracking storyline unfolds. So where is Ihaka, and where has he been all these years?
Exiled to the Wairarapa, it turns out. Thanks to his handling of the hit-and-run death, coupled with a bathroom brawl with a colleague. But when the dying husband of the hit-and-run victim demands to see him, Ihaka is recalled to Auckland, where his long-held suspicions are vindicated by a confession: the husband hired a hit man to kill his wife. The problem? The hit man’s identity is unknown. Then the husband is murdered, and more deaths follow. Ihaka finds himself dancing around police politics and old grudges as part of an investigation complicated by blackmail, gang activities, and much more.
Overall, Death on Demand is a very enjoyable read, mixing helter-skelter action and storylines with witty dialogue and fascinating characters. Thomas creates a delightful hyper-reality that is still believable, and puts the memorable and intriguing Ihaka – “unkempt, overweight, intemperate, unruly, unorthodox and profane” – front and centre far more than in the earlier trilogy. Older, and perhaps a shade wiser, Ihaka still gives readers that feeling of a time bomb waiting to detonate. That anything could happen. Thomas dances us along a tightrope of intrigue, and it’s a heck of a fun ride.
This review was first published in the print issue of NZLawyer magazine, issue 195, 19 October 2012, and is reprinted here with permission.