I have to confess; I pulled Paul Thomas' novel off the 'to read' shelf as soon as I returned from a too-short trip to New Zealand, and tore through it. It may be the most Chandlerian detective novel I've read in a long time. This is a compliment, but not in the way you might think.
What Death on Demand is not is descriptive of Aotearoa, neither the land nor the cities in which the action takes place. Neighbourhoods are barely sketched in, there's little of the background life, and even individual locations have none of the detail which Chandler uses to give clues about the nature of his characters and the character and the nature of Los Angeles. Nor is it written in the kind of wise-cracking first-person prose, full of evocative similies and wry commentary that translated so well into the mouths of actors like Bogart, or closer to Marlowe himself, Dick Powell or James Garner.
Tito Ihaka shares with Marlowe is a healthy disrespect for authority—though unlike Chandler's idealist, he is a realist who has stayed in his job in the police, because, as one character puts it, what else would he do? Plus, Tito is a Maori, and as such has a healthy outsider's scepticism about the pakeha who run New Zealand. Scepticism, in Marlowe's case, is idealism smashed on the shores of reality, but Ihaka was never an idealist. This seems to appeal to women; like Marlowe he sometimes has them throwing themselves at him, but where Marlowe, ever the schoolboyish knight of Chandler's imagination, usually keeps them at arm's length, always aware of the potential for ulterior motives, Ihaka again is more realistic.
But what made me think of Chandler was the depth of the story, the way it works back in time, through layers of society, through people who are not the people they seem, and through intense corruption, personal and institutional, at every layer. Thomas' picture of New Zealand society is drawn through the aspirations and limitations of the characters, through the goals of success they've been set within their society, and the brilliant way every personal conversation can have many layers. This works best when Ihaka is involved, and as I write this, it strikes me that he bears more relation to Hammett's Continental Op than to Chandler's Marlowe, but Ihaka is, in effect, a sounding-board for all sections of the society he protects.
Not least in the police department itself. I'm partial to tales of the infighting within the police, the way the bureaucracy often works against crime-solving, especially as one moves up the social strata. In that sense New Zealand is a small town, and you very much get the sense that to some cops, 'it's Chinatown', that, as in the best hard-boiled fictions, many crimes cannot be solved, or if solved, cannot be punished.
Ihaka is brought back to Auckland from exile in Greytown (both places I know) because a well-connected man Ihaka was convinced had staged his wife's accidental death wants to speak to him. Ihaka's refusal to leave the man alone was what had hime shipped to the Wairapa in the first place, that and knocking out his police nemesis in a men's room and pissing, literally, all over him. Now he's back, and he's looking for an anonymous hitman who did commit that murder, and others besides. The story is as compicated as the best of Chandler, with as many twists; I thought of The Little Sister, Farewell My Lovely, and The Lady In The Lake at various times, and that is high praise indeed. As I said, it's told in the third person, with the narration jumping times and characters, but the prose works best when Ihaka's on stage, and he's drawn well enough to get the reader identifying with him, and making it almost like the first-person when you see through Marlowe's eyes. The first three Ihaka novels appeared in the mid-1990s; is so good I'd lobby for Bitter Lemon to bring them all back into print in this country.
Death On Demand by Paul Thomas
Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99, ISBN 9781908524171
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)