Novelists track anarchists, drug fiends and Islamic militants in Wellington.
It’s a return to “the worst place in the world” for Danyl, the returning protagonist of Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley – and to a very productive genius loci for his creator. Danyl McLauchlan originally put his wretched alter-ego protagonist through a mostly well-received misadventure in a suburb riddled with occultists and dark conspiracy. The novel’s Danyl is not a well man – and his previous encounter with a secret society run by acolytes of a sinister video-store owner has not helped. He can’t resist returning to Wellington’s Te Aro to start over with his estranged girlfriend, but he stumbles into trouble even deeper than last time.
McLauchlan’s brand of quasi-Lovecraft comic shaggy-dog mystery has hit its stride in this second outing. Our protagonist is even more entertainingly unlikeable, yet drawn with a new level of sympathetic detail. At the same time, several other characters step up to the plate, some rivalling Danyl for desperate, inventive egotism and destructive curiosity. In contrast to the first novel, it’s now common knowledge that Te Aro swarms with anarchists, drug fiends and pre-Christian secret societies, which both ramps up the humour and allows a bigger, more genuinely sinister mystery to fall into place beneath.
McLauchlan concocts elements of esoteric mathematics, folklore and speculative fiction into a fully engaging mystery story, which blossoms at regular intervals into blindingly funny comic set pieces. There’s a masterpiece confrontation late in the book between Danyl, his friend and raging egomaniac Steve and an unexpected third party; and readers who remember a particularly queasy sex scene from Unspeakable Secrets can expect the bar to be raised, possibly as far as it can go. It’s bigger, more audacious and better in every way than its predecessor, and those seeking intellectual intrigue and helpless giggling will find this right up their (dark, non-Euclidean) alley.
Brannavan Gnanalingam’s latest novel also inhabits a Wellington adjacent to our own, where a government intelligence agency, NZARM, sets its newest employee on the trail of a suspected Islamic militant. Gnanalingam’s key achievement here is an uncomfortably believable caricature of spycraft the New Zealand way – near-enough-is-good-enough recycling of overseas information; Google searches aided by a few specialised snooping tools; grubby “independent contractors” just a fax away. It’s an effective funhouse-mirror reflection of the local character in general, and since the reader ends up wondering if it really might work this way, the satire lands its hits.
The title’s reference to a semi-legendary intelligence bungle of the 1980s captures the mood rather than the plot. The setting and issues are firmly contemporary, but NZARM itself inhabits a residual pocket of the Muldoon era – bureaucratically hidebound, manned by David Brent-level nightmare managers, blokey would-be masters of the universe and unapologetic sexists. Some of the characters ring true; others, however, are broad caricatures we’ve seen in other riffs on public-sector life, and the moments of surreal comedy they provide don’t always seem at home in the surrounding plot.
The novel hovers somewhere between workplace farce and pointed satire on geopolitical threats du jour, with a few flashes of espionage played effectively straight. These shifts in tone don’t quite convince as a stylistic choice, and the moral feels like a foregone conclusion: once we’ve met the NZARM staff, it’s clear few of them will come out of this well. It doesn’t obscure the humour and intelligence at work, but it’s hard not to wonder what a more consistent approach to this morally murky content might have yielded.
MYSTERIOUS MYSTERIES OF THE ARO VALLEY, Danyl McLauchlan (VUP, $30)
A BRIEFCASE, TWO PIES AND A PENTHOUSE, Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, $23)
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