The lost dead is a psychological thriller, not at all lacking in thrills but also working hard to round out the characters: the Rarua brothers, young Sophie, Eustus Grey and her fellow cops, and the psychopath: Charles Atkins – The Accountant.
The story opens with Tarana, Nikau and Googs Rarua – the older brothers already jaded by their lives, being hated by their West Coast community, being constantly let down by their father. But Googs is still hopeful about their escaping and “going up north together.” Fast forward ten years and we start learning about the warped views of The Accountant and find out the Rarua brothers have a plan to score some money and get Googs to a scholarship interview in Christchurch, which will enable him to finally escape their life on the Coast.
Given that the brothers’ plan involves stealing from drug dealers, things are bound to get complicated. A new cop makes a right/wrong decision and the boys end up having to flee the Coast, but Googs wants to say goodbye to his girlfriend Sophie in Moana first. Which is where they are, along with Sophie and The Accountant, when the earthquake and landslide hit. The reader finds out about the methods and identity of The Accountant, and when the cops arrive things have got pretty topsy-turvy.
The main theme through the novel is an analysis of “the right thing to do”, and how that often depends on who you are and what choices you have: “Doing good things for other people means nothing, it only matters if doing that good thing actually costs you something and you still do it.” Key to pulling this off in the middle of a thriller is good character building.
The Rarua brothers have the odds stacked against them: “No getting out. No getting clean.” Bell has done a good job of presenting them as decent blokes who just can’t get a break. As Tarana and Nikau explain to Googs about mana: “when you’re born, you get given as much of it as your parents got.” Googs is a smart cookie (nick-named after the search engine), and he gets it: “Mana’s like karma working backwards.” The brothers decide: “Doing bad shit doesn’t count if you got no choice.”
Eustus and her fellow cops Sheryl and Caldwell walk a similarly fragile ethical line. Caldwell is a highly educated city cop who has been sent to the remote West Coast due to breaking the rules for the ‘right’ reasons, but he finds himself in an area where his colleagues expect him not to follow strict rules, in order to get the best results for their small isolated community. All the cops have found the Police Force to be somewhere where “Your choices can’t match your ethics.”
Bell’s attempts to get inside the head of a psychopath are most successful when the character moves into delusion, believing nature is arranging things just for his ends. The Accountant’s methods are chilling and calculating, and the tension in the novel doesn’t come from any understanding or sympathy for him, but from just wishing he gets caught soon enough. And there is one aspect of his methodology that has you wondering …
I read The lost dead really wanting to know what was going to happen. And there is a fair amount of trying to guess what has already happened – in a great device Bell has Googs working out the latter, linking all the clues dotted through the text. The environment of a small remote community where drugs are a scourge is well depicted, as is the addiction to violence, on both sides of the law. While the brothers are drawn sympathetically, my favourite character was Eustus, finding herself in one of those weeks “where every single day is its very own special kind of bastard.” Another good read from Finn Bell.