Death of an Agent by David McGill – 2019

Death of an AgentWe first met Dan Delaney as a young wannabe detective holding the fort on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour in 1935, then again back in Wellington after having been a POW in the Second World War, and then in Auckland in the mid-1950s.  He is now an Auckland vintner, and reluctantly down in Wellington again – “What possessed anyone to live in this godforsaken city?” – to visit his ex-POW mate, now radio personality, Ru Patterson, and Patterson’s daughter Hine, Dan’s goddaughter.  It is Easter 1965, and the worst thing about Dan’s trip is the weather, until he accompanies Ru to a party for planning anti-Vietnam War protests, and a woman is found dead in a hot tub and Ru is discovered in a compromising position.

The dead woman is an Australian agent, working under the radar in New Zealand, as the Australians and the Americans are beginning to think New Zealand is the weak link in their ANZUS Treaty partnership. And Henry Cabot Lodge is on his way to New Zealand to talk to Prime Minister Holyoake about getting New Zealand troops on the ground in Vietnam.  And Australian spies aren’t the only ones trying to infiltrate the anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-Vietnam War groups – the New Zealand SIS are also active, slightly laughable, considered ‘clowns’ by the activists, but they are just the agents they know about.

With Ru in hospital, Dan stays in Wellington, hovering on the periphery of the growing protest movement, and getting a bit concerned about Hine’s flatmate, Oliver, a skinny theatrical type, who appears to be getting overly-friendly with his goddaughter.  He would have been happy though to quit the city and get back to his family in Auckland, and to pruning his vines, but then he, Hine and her strange flatmate are arrested.  And Dan’s old colleague, and far-from-favourite person, Detective Chief Inspector Milton, gives Daniel an ultimatum: Feed him information on the planned protests, or Ru and Hine will suffer the consequences.

The hectic environment of Wellington is well-described: The art scene, the café scene, the experimenting with drugs, and the still raw memories of war experiences.  The stories being spun about the ‘yellow peril’ and the ‘domino theory of communist expansion’ creating hysteria among some, scorn among others.  Political theories of communism, socialism, nationalism are being openly debated, and we have a Prime Minister who you can just call in on and be invited in for a cup of tea.  Among the array of characters there is tension building between those wanting to take peaceful protest action and those in favour of taking a more aggressive stance.  And an anarchist group has gone missing, and the threat of direct action against Cabot Lodge is of concern.  Having no useful information about when and where an attack may take place is driving the SIS, the Police and U.S. agents to distraction.

The characters are complex: Dan is not sure what to think for most of the novel but then “He realized he wanted for the first time in his life to stand next to this thin line of unlikely protesters” – unfortunately at the time of his epiphany, he has a more important role to play.  Ru does not feature much in the novel, being in hospital for most of it, but Dan finds out that he has entered a pretty dodgy relationship with a local gang, uses drugs and that Hine is totally aware of this.  Oliver is very conflicted; privileged but abused, he has taken refuge in self-harm, religion, and a desire to act in the theatre.  He is committed to stopping the various groups that are threatening his idealised world, and his Catholicism – that is until he realises that there is something more real and down to earth to adore – Hine.

The novel is full of cultural references that will resonate with anyone who lived in New Zealand, especially Wellington, during the mid- to late-1960s.  At times I felt there were a few too many historical details added, and an over-abundance of adjectives and quotes – there is even mention of the dreaded short story about an earwig; the cause of my not being able to sleep with my ears uncovered since I was at high school – although it is attributed to Dahl, and I am sure it was by Oscar Cook.  But this slight over-enthusiasm for the times and background aside, there are some very thrilling moments, and the politics are fascinating – especially considering recent events in New Zealand – when we are once again realising sections of our community are being dangerously swayed by myths of imminent threat.  Another great New Zealand read and although it is part of a series, it can be read as a stand-alone.



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