The Death Ray Debacle by David McGill – 2015

death-ray-debacle“There was no puzzle to solve, like those lady crime writers devised. This was simply a matter of stopping another effort by other German agents … “ so Dan Delaney muses while holding the fort on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour in 1935 – but things are not that simple, and there is a mystery as to who is leaking intelligence and who is going to such violent lengths to get the plans for the ‘death ray’ that may be being developed on the island.  Dan is a young Auckland lad who wants to be a detective and is determined not to muck up his first assignment. He is added to a team investigating the Auckland German Club and its growing sympathies to the Nazi regime.  Dan’s task moves from casing out the Club to protecting an amateur scientist who may or may not have invented a way of remotely stalling airplane engines causing them to fall out of the sky – and whose invention is plausible enough for him to have been so viciously attacked at the Takapuna bus depot that he required hospitalisation.  It is all pretty wacky stuff – but it is all true!  The version of this book that I read started out with a precis of events and a description of historical context, which I initially thought a bit unfortunate, but it did mean that when Dan was dropped like a rat into a maze of investigating I had more information than the scurrying characters.  As well as inter-nation rivalry there are inter-personal tensions and also a healthy lack of respect between the police and the army.  Dan is a delightful protagonist, human and humble, not knowing if he is left- or right- leaning, just trying really earnestly to be a good detective.  When he travels with Victor Penny, the inventor, to Somes Island – for Penny’s safety as well as so the government can keep tabs on his research – Dan ends up suspicious of everybody’s motives, including those of Penny.  And as to the power who might be ‘turning’ the locals? – it’s not just Germany who would want the aircraft disabling technology with war looming.  And of course there are always those idealists who want everyone to have the same technology to minimise the benefits of attack.  And there is the charming suggestion that if the technology does work the Brits would want it as their own invention and not one coming out of the colonies.  I had some issues with the writing: at first finding the dialogue a bit forced, but that soon settled down; I was puzzled by some similes: “His throat was as dry as a wooden god”, and there may be a few anachronisms – I’m fairly sure Kilroy didn’t start leaving graffiti until the Second World War, Foo was his predecessor, and lumbar rolls in the 1930s?  I also got a bit lost in the personal pronouns – easily done when most of your characters are blokes.  And as a social historian McGill crams as much historical detail he can into the book – but why not? – it is a fascinating time in New Zealand and global history, and Dan is totally plausible as someone who would be interested in what is going on around him.  So read this book and learn about an amazing piece of New Zealand history, and at the same time try to work out who is after the plans and why, along with the lovely Dan Delaney.


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