Red Herring by Jonothan Cullinane – 2016


red-herringWhat a cracker!  A noir novel set in tea-drenched 1950s New Zealand.  With the 1951 waterfront strike as the backdrop, Red Herring sets PI Johnny Molloy on the track of a murky character who has supposedly drowned in the Gulf of Alaska but who has turned up in a photo taken in New Zealand alongside the organisers of the strike.  Molloy’s case is one of probable insurance fraud but more nefarious stuff and interesting characters keep emerging – including a feisty Caitlin O’Carolan, a reporter with a dream of being a war correspondent for a UK paper.  For this is a New Zealand where for many ‘home’ is still seen as somewhere else – the place we send frozen mutton to, or the place we may look to for political guidance.  But the recent war has allowed some characters to gain a “New Zealand perspective” on those countries once thought to have all the answers.  And having been in the conflict also allows guys like Molloy to have a gun, which comes in handy when his hunt puts him in the firing line.  It is a dark and complex tale; people’s allegiances and choices of allies often not being what you would expect.  The writing is solid and blokey: “A look passed between them of such intensity that two strong men could have carried a double bed across it”, and not without humour – Prime Minister Sid Holland spends a lot of his time in his underwear, and an historian might have called Fintan Patrick Walsh the closest New Zealand had to an American-style industrial gangster, but in the book Walsh is the one bemoaning the fact that people keep misinterpreting his desire for them to ‘get rid of’ people.  Who was doing what to whom and why was never entirely clear to me, but I think that was part of why I liked this book – the reader is like the ordinary citizen at the end of whatever deals and decisions are being made, supposedly on their behalf, but without their knowledge or consent.  A great debut novel – and hopefully we haven’t seen the last of Johnny Molloy.


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