Roy O’Malley is a professional Auckland gambler, with a weakness for a sob-story. When a distraught father asks him to find his missing 15-year-old daughter, Sefina, O’Malley agrees. The case gets a little more complicated than O’Malley first thought, and he and his girlfriend, Claire, are wondering what he has got himself into. Then they hear that the body of one of O’Malley’s acquaintances “has been found on the outskirts of the business district”. O’Malley’s professional life and his amateur sleuthing come together, and things get a lot more than a little complicated.
O’Malley has a tragic backstory and has spent time in Paremoremo Prison. This has provided him with empathy for those at the mercy of toxic masculinity. And it has also given him allies in strange places, as well as access to a slightly untrusting but still hanging-in-there cop, Senior Sergeant Keith Buxton. Buxton believes somewhere inside O’Malley is a decent human being trying to get out. O’Malley also has connections with an ex-Paremoremo prison mate, Jimmy Tua, head of one of the Auckland gangs. And now he has sort of settled down, he’s got Claire, a bartender midway through a psychology PhD.
Claire is a more than competent partner. She’s smart, tough and perceptive. The latter is an asset, as O’Malley is not a great judge of character, the reader is satisfyingly ahead of him regarding some of his bad calls. O’Malley is playing a part and Claire understands he is a bit of a liability. She puts up with him calling her “baby” and “babe”, despite sending any bar client who would dare to “the back of the line”. She calls him “babe” too, as she knows he has night terrors, and almost every time he goes out on a “project”, she ends up tending his wounds. But then he does do all the cooking.
O’Malley doesn’t listen to jazz, but he knows he should, as he reads crime novels and watches crime shows on TV. The Slow Roll has all the stock elements of literary and screen thrillers – two mysteries that end up related, an amateur sleuth who falls under the suspicion of the cops, allies with smarts in computing, insights into the criminal underworld, a cop frustrated that the amateur is getting the jump on the professionals. O’Malley’s self-effacing attitude towards Claire is reminiscent of the Andy Carpenter novels, but The Slow Roll is much more hard-edged. There are slick fight scenes and heart-stopping thrills. What I really liked was Tua’s tour-de-force explanation of the movements and laundering of illegal gains, inclusive of an extraordinary array of people.
As with all good thrillers, it is character and setting that carries the plot. Damaged O’Malley, staunch Claire, Tua and his henchmen, Chatbox and Manu, are all great characters. There are blurred lines around right and wrong – O’Malley doesn’t do all his gambling at Sky City. Goodies and baddies are relative terms. And there are conspiracies that go right up to the Beehive. We go from luxury suites at Sky City, to O’Malley’s swanky Viaduct Basin apartment, to illegal gambling houses and remote properties where nefarious meetings are taking place.
And there are mysteries to be solved: Sefina has stumbled into some sort of bad business – but what? The dead man saw something he shouldn’t have – but what? When O’Malley has an encounter with a car driving aggressively against him on the highway, he isn’t surprised – he has a choice of options of who might be out to get him. The slow roll of the title is a gambling term for a player taking too long to reveal an extremely strong hand in poker. The manoeuvre plays a role in the story, but O’Malley is also juggling when to tell the cops what he has found out – too soon and people, including himself, will be in danger – too late and he might be heading back to Paremoremo.
The Slow Roll is a great debut novel, and I am sure we will be reading more of O’Malley and Claire.