Death on Demand by Paul Thomas
Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) is the fourth novel featuring a Maori cop, Tito Ihaka, the other three being Old School Tie, Inside Dope and Guerilla Season. Curiously, there’s been a fifteen year hiatus during which our intemperate maverick has been living in exile in the Wairarapa. He enjoyed a protected status in Auckland until he insisted a local wealthy businessman had arranged for his wife to be killed. When he rose to the bait and beat a fellow detective for racially abusing him, the price of him remaining in the force was relocation. Now the man he suspected of murder is dying and calls his would-be nemesis back to hear his confession. His return triggers a number of deaths. With this sudden increase in police workload, Ihaka is persuaded to stay on to help out. But not in the original case. Having heard the confession, he’s now a witness. His ex-colleagues insist in taking that on. This leaves him with the death of a young man. It looks like a gang hit. Later the body of a woman turns up with almost identical injuries. Then a somewhat notorious fixer is shot. Auckland is a happening city when it comes to violent crime.
There are two allied issues surrounding this book. The first is the apparent fascination with death in general and murder in particular. There’s quite a long prologue in which we review a parade of deaths. Each one is detailed separately. The fact we are shown these people dying is evidence their deaths are related but it’s not until quite a significant way into the book that we understand the significance. There’s nothing wrong with this narrative structure. The hook is set early and we rise to the bait. But it does set the tone of the book which belies New Zealand’s image as a land where there are more sheep than people and some of those people get to dress up as hobbits and orcs when the film crews come into town. This is a hyper-real version of this twin spit of southern land in which most of the people we meet have a darker side. Even the hero speculates the most likely reason he became a police officer was to inoculate him against the crime bug. Except he’s hardly the most law-abiding of police officers.
All of which brings us to the second issue. I have on a number of occasions this last year been moved to comment on the increasing amorality of lead characters in books and films. It seems the level of “anti” ness in anti-hero has been increasing in power. Whereas the early examples in the last century tended to be part-time criminals with redeeming features, the more recent characters have become more completely criminal, not to say thoroughly evil. We’re not just expected to accept thieves, but also contract killers and other serious gangland felons, as heroes. I’m not so uncomfortable with plots requiring protagonists to kill in self-defence. The fact they may provoke the bad guys into attacking and so justify the killings is broadly acceptable — it would be even more so if the books and films would also show the trials in which the self-defence pleas were successful. But I grow increasingly unhappy when the protagonists literally fight fire with fire. There have been a number of recent examples of “heroes” finding the need to get their self-defensive strikes in first. Vigilanteism is an increasingly common motif with stone-cold killers keeping their neighbours safe by taking out the predatory criminals around them. This book has a police officer prepared to do deals with some of the criminals he meets in order to get justice done. Indeed, it would be fair to call him relentless in his pursuit of what he considers justice. He may not always like himself very much — not many people do like him — but he’s remarkably effective. All his superiors have to do is look at the big picture and overlook the transgressions on the way to the solution of the high-profile cases and the unmasking of criminals whether they be the common or garden thugs or members of the wealthy elite. After all, it’s the arrests and public trials that earn the public’s gratitude and support. Solving crimes is a vote-winner for politicians and when they are happy, the senior police officers can relax. No system is free from corruption.
So whether you will enjoy this book depends on your approach to ethically-challenged heroes. Death on Demand is a great piece of writing. There’s a vividness and power about the prose and plot (once it gets going) that drives through to the end. But you’re invited to support a police officer who bends all the rules in the book and, if the need arises, throws the book away, to get the right result. He’s a vigilante with a badge. Perhaps societies always need some officers like him who can get things done, but should they be heroes? Your choice.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.