Welcome to another special edition of In The Spotlight. For many people, New Zealand just wouldn’t be New Zealand without rugby. And plenty of Kiwis are true fans of the game. So it’s only natural that there’d be at least one rugby-themed book among this year’s finalists for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. Let’s take a look at that book today, and turn the spotlight on John Daniell’s The Fixer.
Mark Stevens is a former member of New Zealand’s legendary All-Blacks. Heading towards the end of his career, he’s now playing for a French professional team, and planning for the end of his playing days.
One day, he gets word that someone wants to interview him for a magazine. That someone turns out to be Rachel da Silva, who works for a Brazilian magazine. She’s been sent to France to do an in-depth piece on rugby, its popularity, and the rugby life. Rachel is both smart and attractive, and she seems genuinely interested in getting her material, so Stevens is only too happy to meet with her.
Soon, Rachel tells Mark about a friend of hers named Philip, a wealthy man who’s apparently made quite a bit of money betting on rugby. In fact, she tells Mark that it was Philip who suggested she do the rugby story. Before long, Mark finds himself the object of Philip’s (extremely generous) gratitude, and Rachel’s (extremely personal) attention. Soon drawn in, Mark finds out that what’s at stake is betting on matches using his ‘inside information.’
The chance to shore up the future for his sister and her family (and to secure a comfortable retirement for himself) is too alluring, and Mark goes in with Rachel and Philip’s plan. Then things change. Now the plan is match-fixing, which to Mark, crosses the line. He’s very uncomfortable with the idea, and he knows what it’ll do to his reputation, both in the club and with his family. And for Mark, that matters.
The only problem is that by now, Mark is in deep, as the saying goes. What’s more, his family back home in New Zealand has been threatened. If he and his family are to come out of this intact, and if he’s to maintain any kind of integrity, he’s going to have to shake off the people who have pulled him in. And that could prove to be a fatal decision.
Rugby features heavily in this novel, and it’s an important element. Readers who understand the game and have played it will appreciate the authentic descriptions of the matches. Readers who don’t know much about rugby will find that there’s a lot of useful information about the game, and for the most part, it’s clear even to the uninitiated. Readers who dislike sport, and would rather not read about it, will notice the focus on rugby. That said, though, there’s as much emphasis on the suspense of betting on and fixing matches as there is on the game itself.
Because the novel is about rugby, there’s also some focus on the behind-the-scenes interactions among team members. There’s a unique camaraderie that comes from playing on a team, being on the road with those people, drinking with them after games, and so on. This isn’t to say that everyone’s close friends. But we do see how team members depend on each other, and how intimately they know each other in some ways.
The questions of betting and match-fixing are central to the novel, so, as you can imagine, there are some really interesting ethical questions. Most people would probably agree that betting on a sport with ‘inside information’ is at least ethically questionable. Match-fixing is, for plenty of people, even more ethically wrong. But what happens if the reason isn’t to become rich? What happens if the goal is to help family members who are in difficult financial situations? Daniell doesn’t make light of the choices that Mark makes. But we do come to understand why he makes them.
I’m not sure you could really call this a noir story, but it certainly has a few elements. For example, Mark is presented with a situation where there really is no easy, ‘correct’ alternative. Whatever he decides to do, there will be serious consequences. And things are not made all right again at the end. This isn’t one of those stories where a ‘bad guy’ is led off in handcuffs.
There’s also the character of Rachel da Silva. As is the tradition in many noir novels, you could consider her a femme fatale. On the other hand, Daniell makes it clear that she is, in her way, a victim, too. Or is she? Readers who prefer complex characters will appreciate that Rachel is neither presented as an ‘angel who’s trapped’ or an ‘evil temptress.’
Mark is from rural New Zealand, and Daniell shares that growing-up experience with readers. There are flashback scenes to his uncle’s farm, for instance, that show the reader what that life is like. Daniell uses that to explain Mark’s character, and to show his relationships with his family members. Readers who dislike flashbacks will notice this.
The rest of the story is told more or less sequentially, in present tense. Readers who have a tense preference will either appreciate or be disappointed in that choice. It’s worth noting, too, that Daniell sets the flashback scenes apart by using past tense for those, so that readers know when the different parts of the story occur.
The Fixer is an inside look at rugby, at who plays it, and what it means to the players and fans. It’s also a look at what happens when a person is faced with a set of choices that don’t really have any good outcomes. It features a skilled player who’s looking back on his career and trying to leave whatever legacy he can, and is set in the distinct context of a sport team. But what’s your view? Have you read The Fixer? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 31 October/Tuesday, 1 November – Twister – Jane Woodham
Monday 7 November/Tuesday, 8 November – Montana, 1948 – Larry Watson
Monday 14 November/Tuesday, 15 November – The Eye of Jade – Diane Wei Liang