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Interview: NZ crime writer Paul Thomas

The godfather of contemporary NZ crime writing has brought back offbeat local hero Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka.

Paul Thomas, photo by Marty Melville.

December 2, 2013: Paul Thomas has won the 2013 Ngaio Marsh Award for his novel Death on Demand. The Listener spoke to him about the book in 2012.

Knight errant, ronin, wandering cowboy, hardboiled private eye – the maverick cop of modern-day crime fiction is the latest in a long lineage of loner archetypes: mysterious and conflicted heroes who for centuries have fascinated those who’ve sat themselves down to read a book, watch a performance or listen to a storyteller; to absorb tales of daring, adventure and justice brought to those in need.

“[It’s] the Shane figure that rides into town and gets embroiled in a situation that may not be any of his business, but he can see it’s a bad situation for people who maybe can’t stand up for themselves,” says Paul Thomas, the godfather of contemporary New Zealand crime writing. “It’s that loner, that person who stands outside of society and who is maybe untroubled by some of the scruples that respectable society abides by, but when you get into that sort of situation, that sort of self-reliant person – physically tough and able to handle themselves – is what you want.

It’s like Charles Upham: he wasn’t much good at school, and I doubt the teachers at Christ’s College thought he was going to cover himself in glory in adult life, but in war he had attributes that made him an extraordinary hero.” In the 1990s, Thomas exploded onto the local fiction scene with a series of fastpaced crime thrillers packed with mayhem, spiralling subplots, humour and his very own maverick cop. Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka, a hulking investigator who, like his literary antecedents, stood slightly apart from society and was somewhat untroubled by expected scruples, first appeared in Old School Tie, Thomas’s groundbreaking 1994 debut that one critic described as “Elmore Leonard on acid”.

Ihaka was again part of the cast in Inside Dope, which in 1996 won the inaugural Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel (Thomas was living in Sydney at the time), before coming to the fore in Guerrilla Season, completing what has become known as “The Ihaka Trilogy”. Then Ihaka disappeared. Not so much AWOL as absent without intention. “If you’d said to me in 1996 after I’d written three of the Ihaka novels in a row that it would be 15 years before the next one came out, I wouldn’t have believed you,” says Thomas, as we talk about the publication this month of Death on Demand, a long-awaited return to the crime fiction scene for both Ihaka and Thomas. “There’s never been a point where I thought, ‘I’m never going to write crime again’, or ‘I’m never going to go back to Ihaka again.’ ”The long absence was “just the way it turned out”, and certainly not anything he “sat down and planned out to do”.

Death on Demand finds Ihaka exiled in the Wairarapa, five years after his handling of the hit-and-run death of a prominent businesswoman, coupled with a bathroom brawl with a colleague, stalled any career advancement. Out of the blue, he’s recalled to Auckland, where his long-held suspicions are vindicated by a confession from the hit-and-run victim’s terminally ill husband – that he hired an unknown hit man – before he is murdered himself. More deaths follow, and Ihaka finds himself dancing around police politics and old grudges as part of an investigation complicated by blackmail, gang activities and a faceless and prolific hit man who may now be hunting Ihaka.

Death on Demand
puts the maverick cop front and centre far more than Thomas’s earlier trilogy, while still demonstrating the author’s deft touch for the helter-skelter storylines and subplots, witty dialogue and casts packed with intriguing characters that has garnered him acclaim from readers and critics alike. Local hero, local setting, world-class crime writing: Ihaka’s return is a rollicking read. There’s something about Ihaka that grabs readers. Interestingly, in the long years since he last appeared – in which time Thomas has written several more books, ranging from stand-alone thrillers, to short-story collections, to sports biographies featuring the likes of John Hart, John Wright and Tana Umaga, as well as teleplays and film scripts and numerous columns for newspapers and magazines (including this one) – it was Ihaka readers asked about most.

Even though he was more of a supporting character, if largerthan- life, in Thomas’s first two novels, which centred more on journalist Reggie Sparks and disgraced former cop Duane Ricketts, respectively. “I just got a lot of feedback from readers saying, ‘We really like this character, are you going to continue with him?’” says Thomas. “In that long hiatus between Guerrilla Season and Death on Demand, the questions when they did arise were always, ‘Are you going to do another Ihaka book?’, rather than, ‘Are you going to do another Duane Ricketts book?’ or whatever.”

So what is it that makes the maverick Maori cop so interesting, so memorable, that he’s fondly thought of so many years later? “I like to think he’s funny,” says Thomas, “and I think that irreverence, that kind of anarchic personality, is quite appealing.” Ihaka also has a relentless nature when it comes to solving crimes. “There’s that famous quote from Raymond Chandler talking about the emotional basis of the crime novel, talking about ‘that justice will not be done unless some very determined individual ensures it is done’ – and that’s the way I see Ihaka,” says Thomas. “Once he decides there’s something going on, he will not let go until it’s resolved.”

In-between book appearances, Ihaka (well, a very loose adaptation of him) has appeared onscreen in the 2000 telemovie Ihaka: Blunt Instrument, starring a chiselled Temuera Morrison in the lead role. Thomas wrote the teleplay, but in the end had little control of how his character was portrayed onscreen. “Now, after that experience, I understood every tragic screenwriting story to come out of Hollywood, in terms of writing something and then what you’ve written getting mysteriously altered in the process,” he says, describing the whole project as “eye-opening”.

One advantage of such a loose adaptation, however, was that when Thomas sat down to write about Ihaka again in Death on Demand so many years later, the image he had in his mind of the character wasn’t muddied by the television version. “I didn’t recognise the character Tem played as Ihaka,” says Thomas. “Tem did a good job, [but] that character that ended up onscreen certainly doesn’t conform to how I Ihaka. I didn’t feel, in a nutshell, that it got the essence of the character.”

Looking back, Thomas says Ihaka was originally born from a mix of influences, including Chandler’s Philip Marlowe – “a hero character who gave you an insight into his own psychological make-up, and his own depressions and concerns and self-loathing” – and formidable Maori rugby players and soldiers Thomas met growing up. “People you would love to have beside you if you were in the shit but on the other hand you would hate to have coming after you. And that’s the sort of character I wanted.”

Of course, the twist with Ihaka is that although he has the formidable and relentless nature of those soldiers and rugby players Thomas knew, the author also imbued him with less creditworthy traits. “He was the complete opposite in his personal behaviour – undisciplined in his personal habits, he was overweight, he drank too much and he was just a bit of a slob.” That contrast is just part of what makes Ihaka, a modern-day knight errant, so complex and compelling. It’s great to see him riding back into town.

DEATH ON DEMAND, by Paul Thomas (Hodder Moa).