Welcome to the first of four special editions of In The Spotlight. I got requests from a few folks to say a bit more about the finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel, so I decided to do just that. Starting today and going on for the next three weeks, I’ll put the spotlight on each of the four finalists, so that you can learn (I hope!) a little more about them. Let’s begin with this year’s winner, Ray Berard’s Inside the Black Horse.
The Black Horse Bar and Casino is a pub that also offers off-course betting services (Incidentally, Berard was a supervisor for off-course betting outlets for the New Zealand government). Located in a rural town on New Zealand’s North Island, The Black Horse is owned by Toni Bourke, a recently widowed Māori who’s trying to do the best she can for her children. She’s not wealthy, but she’s making ends meet, most of the time.
The Black Horse becomes the nexus for several characters one fateful night. Pio Morgan’s been watching the place, looking for a good opportunity for a robbery. He’s in debt to a vicious local pot grower who’s duped him; in fact he’s already been given a ‘friendly warning’ to pay up. He feels trapped and sees no other option but to rob the place. He chooses a bad time for the heist, though. For one thing, local drugs courier Rangi Wells happens to be in the pub at the time of the robbery, and his drug deal is interrupted. That’s going to have serious consequences. For another, it’s been a good day of betting business for Toni, so there’s quite a lot of money in the till. The robbery goes terribly wrong when there’s a murder. Pio flees, and now Toni is out several thousands of dollars that she owes to the betting authorities.
Toni’s insurance company is set to pay out a considerable amount, so they hire PI Brian Duncan to investigate the circumstances of the robbery. Duncan is an ex-pat American former police detective who’s moved to New Zealand to start over. When he’s first assigned to this case, he quite logically assumes that Toni must have something to do with the loss of money. But it’s not long before he comes to believe that she’s innocent.
Together, Brian and Toni try to find out the truth behind the robbery. To do that, they have to go up against the insurance company (that still suspects Toni) and two drugs groups (Pio’s employer and Rangi Wells’ employer). There’s also the fact that Pio, who knows exactly what happened, has gone missing. The TAB (Totalisator Agency Board), which supervises off-track betting for the New Zealand Racing Board, is also interested. And the police are, as you can imagine, investigating everything, too. If Brian and Toni are going to clear her name and stay alive, they’re going to have to find Pio if they can, and learn what happened to the money and drugs.
This novel has elements of the thriller to it. There is action, a fast pace, and quite a lot at stake. There are also several plot twists. There’s violence, too, and some of it is ugly.
That said, though, this is as much a look at the various characters as it is anything else. And all of these characters’ lives intersect because of what happens at the Black Horse. The story is told from a variety of points of view, so we get to know them. For example, there’s Toni, who’s trying to save her bar and take care of her children. In her way, she’s vulnerable, but she’s no shrinking violet. Readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate her. She is Māori, and keeps with many of those traditions, so we also get a perspective on life for modern Māoris.
There’s also Brian, who’s trying to start over again after seeing enough for several lifetimes while he was in the police force. He’s by no means naïve, and he is weary. But he’s not the jaded, hardened, wallowing sort of former copper who populates so many crime novels. He and Toni find each other through the events that happen in the story, but readers who don’t care for romance in their novels need not worry: this isn’t a soppy story.
There are other connections among the characters, too. For instance, Pio’s brother Kincaid ‘King’ is a leader of the group that hired Rangi Wells. And all of the characters’ lives intersect because of what happens at the Black Horse. As we get to know the characters, we learn more about their backgrounds. On the one hand, Berard makes no excuses for the events of the novel. On the other, we come to understand why the characters behave as they do. Readers who enjoy character explorations will appreciate this.
The novel takes place in contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand, so we get to see life on the North Island. But it’s not the North Island that the tourists see. Some of the novel is gritty and quite dangerous. It’s an uncompromising look at some of the underside of, especially, rural New Zealand society.
But for all that, it’s not a completely bleak, gloomy novel. There are strong, sympathetic characters. And without giving away too much, I can say that there are some positive outcomes and some reason to hope. Readers who don’t care for unrelentingly black stories will appreciate this.
Inside the Black Horse is a character-driven thriller that starts with one crucial decision. It has a distinctive New Zealand context, and features protagonists who have their flaws and scars, but who are doing the best they can to manage their lives and move on. But what’s your view? Have you read Inside the Black Horse? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 17 October/Tuesday, 18 October – The Gentlemen’s Club – Jen Shieff
Monday, 24 October/Tuesday, 25 October – The Fixer – John Daniell
Monday, 31 October/Tuesday, 1 November – Twister – Jane Woodham