The latest in the Dan Delaney series and Dan is nearing 70, he has lived through a lot and is disillusioned with politics, religion, life … He is in Sydney with his family to launch their Vukovich Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc onto the international market, but he is feeling more an observer than a participant. In the harbour, USS Buchanan waits for joint naval exercises, and for access to NZ waters, neither confirming nor denying it has nuclear capability. One priest has a diary, and another a revelation from a dying crime boss, both could destabilise Dan and his family. And preparations are being made for a secret meeting to determine the future of ANZUS.
Dan’s daughter Ali, who once considered a reclusive religious life but is now “manning the protest barricades”, has become involved with a deserter from the U.S. Navy named Brad, who is determined “the nuclear stockpiles had to be dismantled”. Ali thinks he is “Hollywood with a brain”, but he is a dope-head, not the best state for an eco-warrior. He also has a habit of getting kidnapped – but who is doing the kidnapping?
Dan’s second daughter, Maria, DS Pikowai, arrives like a whirlwind and never slows down. She is on a mission, preparing for the arrival of her charge – PM David Lange. She feels manipulated by the male chauvinist police force, and it doesn’t help her case that she is a magnet for trouble. Despite being suspicious of Brad, and recognising him for the misogynist jerk he is, she agrees to help Ali by finding out who might have snatched him, and as a result ends up not knowing who to trust amongst her temporary work colleagues in the Diplomatic Protection Squad – assembled to cover a secret meeting between Lange and Bob Hawke.
The Convict Stain is awash with characters, some of whom we know from previous Dan Delaney outings; once not so respectable Marty Webber is the new co-director of the Vukovich launch into Australia and beyond. He is now living in Sydney with Michelle, his flamboyant fiancée. And when an elderly gangster Ali is looking after, Frankie Frankuvich, asks to see Dan, Dan sees someone he didn’t think or hope he would ever see again. And there are new characters aplenty: the slobby journalist Portillo, who turns up in unexpected places. The aging Father Petrus, source of history for the Delaney family, associated with St Brigid’s Infirmary, where Brad keeps ending up. And Michelle, the fiancée who becomes central to the action.
There are also the larger than life characters of the different countries: Australians with their racist banter, speaking like low vaudeville comedians, their gangsters strutting around in eye-hurting silk suits; American military guys storming around like ‘ugly Americans’; the French wine merchant, slickly romantic and devious; the Pommy journalist, messily gross and devious. They all feed into the board game of patch protection and jingoistic manoeuvring that Dan has wearied of: The U.S. “The nuclear superpower”, Australia “the supplier of the vital uranium”, the U.K. “We’re last century’s power”, and the U.K. considering Aotearoa – “… you are, well, just a little island far, far away.” And the historical characters – Dame Kiri Te Kanawa makes an appearance, as does transgender role model Carmen, who plays a role in the plot, and of course David Lange: “He talked like an angel but was a devil to deal with.”
The book is partly about the fascinating politics of the time. The jockeying for position, influence, alliances. So resonant now with the damage to the international image of the U.S. caused by the Trump years, and the consequential flexing of Chinese and Russian ambitions. It suggests the role that comparatively small nations can play if they have a clear supported policy and the guts to implement it – even if the leader is a bit unpredictable! The social times are well presented too, although maybe with a few too many film and book references. Fashions help set the scene, as does the emergence of new technology like CCTV, and the description of Ali and Brad’s flat is spot on.
But the story is also about family dynamics, strengths, and fragilities – Dan resisting finding out the truth about his family, resistant to change and to having to absorb new information. And, in parallel with the larger arena of national politics, he must adjust to new ideas, new freedoms, new realities – unless he wants to isolate and become estranged from those who care about him and who support him, who see him as the anchor of their expanding family.
There are some great moments, such as the moving interchange between Dan’s wife, Jas, and Father Petrus, when Jas starts to see things from Dan’s point of view, rather than seeing him as “a witless study in puzzlement”; realising how unfair she has been and vowing to make amends. And the Dickensian will-reading scene, complete with idiosyncratic cat. And my favourite, when Jas and Maria go on the offensive, but are bedevilled by hysterical giggles due to the adrenalin running through their systems.
The Convict Stain is the sixth Dan Delaney novel, if you haven’t read them, give them a try. You will enjoy yourself while learning some great New Zealand political history.