To the Land of the Long White Cloud*

waitangi-day-2017As this is posted, it’s 177 years since the Treaty of Waitangi, which officially made New Zealand part of the British Empire. What’s interesting about this treaty, among other things, is that it protected Māori forests and lands, and made them full British subjects. Although the treaty hasn’t always been fully respected, it was the basis for what’s been a more amicable than contentious relationship. And in today’s New Zealand (which is, by the way, officially bilingual in English and Māori), the indigenous people have a say in their political, educational and social lives. That’s not by any means to say that things are perfect and there are never problems or disputes. But it’s interesting to contrast the relatively respectful relations among ethnic groups in New Zealand with the indigenous history of other countries, including the US.

It’s interesting, too, to look at the Māori presence in contemporary New Zealand crime fiction. Paul Thomas’ series, for instance, features Tito Ihaka, a Māori Auckland police officer. He has his own way of doing things. In Guerilla Season, when he first makes an appearance, Ihaka investigates a series of murders that’s said to have been committed by an extremist group called Aotearoa People’s Army. Ihaka isn’t sure the group’s responsible, though, and wants to pursue other angles. His superiors, though, don’t see it that way. So, Ihaka is removed from that case, and put onto another case involving suspected blackmail. That doesn’t stop Ihaka, though. In this and the earlier novels, there isn’t a great deal of discussion of Ihaka’s ethnic identity. But in more recent novels, there is more discussion of race, and of the challenge of race relations, no matter the society.

Ray Berard’s Inside the Black Horse features Toni Bourke, a recently-widowed Māori who’s doing the best she can to support her children and take care of them. She is the owner of The Black Horse Bar and Casino, a pub that also offers off-course betting services. Toni isn’t wealthy, but the pub provides her and her family a living. Everything changes one night when a series of events and people come together at the Black Horse. Pio Morgan lies in wait outside, desperate to rob the place so he can pay a debt to a ruthless local gangster. He picks a bad time, though. For one thing, drugs dealer Rangi Wells is in the pub at the time of the robbery; in fact, it interrupts a drug deal. For another, there’s quite a lot of money in the pub – money from people who placed bets. So, Toni will now be out a great deal of money that she’ll have to account for to the authorities. Her insurance company is set to lose quite a lot, so they send PI Brian Duncan to investigate. They want him to find evidence that Toni is behind the robbery. He can’t, though, and she insists she had nothing to do with it. And, as time proves, she is right. Together, Brian and Toni work to find out who’s really behind the robbery and where the money is. But that’s going to pit them against some dangerous forces. This novel offers some interesting insights into modern Māori life. Toni is, in many ways, a traditional Māori. She sees the world from the perspective of that culture, and she observes those ways. But she functions well among non-Māori people as well. Among other things, the novel offers a look at the way Māori people preserve their identity, while at the same time being active parts of 21st Century New Zealand life.

Some authors don’t make a special point of calling a lot of attention to their Māori characters. Instead, they are people who figure into the novel, and who are distinctly Māori, but who simply interact with other characters. In other words, they’re characters who happen to be Māori. Both Jane Woodham and Geoffrey Robert take this approach.

One focus of Woodham’s Twister is the death of Tracey Wenlock, whose body is discovered after a five-day rain, followed by a twister. Dunedin Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd heads up the investigation. It’s difficult for him, because his own daughter, Beth, disappeared nine years earlier, and has never been found. Still, he does his best to conduct a solid investigation. Then, word comes that another young woman, Larayne Smaill, has gone missing. The cases Judd’s investigating might or might not be related, so he has to keep both possibilities in mind. One source he taps for information is Larayne’s boyfriend, Tamati, who is Māori. He’s cleared of suspicion because he was away at a tangi, a Māori funeral. When Judd interviews Tamati, there isn’t any discussion of his culture or background. He’s simply a bereaved person trying to help the police.

In Robert’s The Alo Release, we are introduced to environmentalist Jay Duggan, who’s been working with the Los Angeles-based Millbrook Foundation. That group has been trying to stop a company called Vestco from releasing a genetically modified seed coating that it claims will do much to end world hunger. Millbrook has good reason to doubt both the company’s claims and its motives. But, with nine days to go until the release, there’s not much Millbrook can do. Duggan decides to retire and return to his native New Zealand. He’s invited Science Director Dr. Catherine ‘Cat’ Taylor, and IT director Matthew Liddell to join him for a short visit to New Zealand before they go back to work. During their flight, word comes out that one of Vestco’s employees, Henry Beck, has been murdered. Unbeknownst to Duggan, Taylor and Liddell, they’re being framed for the killing. So, when they arrive in New Zealand, they become fugitives. Now, they have to go up against some well-heeled enemies, and the New Zealand police, if they’re to get to the truth about the murder, and stop the release of the seed coating. Both DI Hansen, who’s assigned to catch the three fugitives, and Whatu, an elder who helps them, are Māori. And readers do learn about the Māori culture. But Robert doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on that aspect of these characters. They’re simply two New Zealanders who get involved in the story.

There are other crime stories that feature Māori characters. One for instance, is Caryl Férey’s Haka (sorry, as far as I can see, that one’s only available in French). I’ll admit I’ve not yet read that one, but it takes up, among other things, different aspects of the white/ Māori dynamic. And it’s an interesting one. It’s distinctive, and so is the way it’s depicted in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eddie Low’s Songs of Home.


Filed under Caryl Férey, Geoffrey Robert, Jane Woodham, Paul Thomas, Ray Berard

30 responses to “To the Land of the Long White Cloud*

  1. Timely and interesting post Margot for which those of us in Kiwi land thank you. Outside of the crime scene (but sometimes in sync with it as in Alan Duff’s work starting with Once Were Warriors) the whole issue has had some great commentary over the years. Ihaka is one of the great characters in recent NZ literature, period, and the seam is likely to become richer still through the crime novels that are now flooding out of here. Well done

    • Thank you very much, Brian – much appreciated. And it really is good to know that there’s been more discussion lately (thanks for mentioning Duff’s work). I’m hoping that there will continue to be some solid indigenous characters in the Kiwi crime fiction to come. I’m eager to see whats coming next.

  2. It’s very interesting to see how this particular treaty was so forward thinking in respect to respecting the indigenous population. I didn’t realise that New Zealand was bi-lingual, one of the reasons I love your posts and they inform me about things outside the crime fiction genre.

    • Thanks, Cleo. I’m glad you like what you find here. And I’ve always thought that treaty was forward-thinking, too. As I say, it hasn’t always been respected as it should be. But it did give the indigenous people rights and a voice, especially for the times. In my unsophisticated opinion, I think that’s had a lot to do with the character of the country.

  3. Pingback: To the Land of the Long White Cloud* | picardykatt's Blog

  4. I’m glad some of the books simply have Maori characters without that being the central thing – I reckon that’s a real sign of forward progression when people don’t feel they have to comment on race as an specific issue. Maybe we’re heading in the right direction – or at least, maybe New Zealand is…

    • I’d like to think so, FictionFan. It is nice to read stories where the characters are simply people. I prefer them fleshed-out, so that I know something about their backgrounds. But, like you, I think race is only one part of what makes a person’s identity. I don’t mind it being woven in (in fact, I like to learn different ways of thinking and different experiences). But I do think people are much more than their race, if I can put it that way.

  5. I wish I knew more about contemporary NZ crime fiction – I intend to catch up. As it is, I know my Ngaio Marsh – not very PC by modern standards, but she did try in books like the marvellous Colour Scheme.

    • She did, indeed, Moira. I think it’s hard not to be a product of one’s times. There is some great contemporary NZ crime fiction out there. If you get the chance, I recommend trying it.

  6. Helen Tilley

    Just an aside – make it tri-lingual since New Zealand sign language is also an official language. Thank you for your many posts over the years featuring NZ crime writing. Good to know that NZ writers are registering on the international scene.
    I often get ideas for new writers to follow from your posts.

    • Thank you, Helen, for the kind words. And thank you for pointing that out about New Zealand Sign Language. I’d thought that was true, but wasn’t 100% sure. Thanks for adding that in. And I like it, too, when talented NZ crime writers get some of the attention they deserve.

  7. Nobody can touch your knowledge of the genre.

  8. kathy d

    I don’t think I’ve read any books set in New Zealand which deal with the Maori peoples or culture. I only know about Emily Tempest in Adrian Hyland’s excellent books set in Australia.
    And Nicole Watson’s book The Boundary, also set in Australia, dealing with the Indigenous peoples’ right to their land.

    • Those are both excellent books, Kathy. I hope you’ll get the chance to try some books that feature New Zealand’s indigenous population. Some of them focus more on that issue than others, do, but all of them are interesting perspectives.

  9. Terrific post, Margot. And in Australia, we really need to work on an equivalent of the Treaty of Waitangi.

  10. Margot: Reading your interesting post led me to read the Treaty. Having representing Indian bands in Saskatchewan with regard to land claims I have read and studied the two treaties from 1876 that covered much of Saskatchewan. In comparing the treaties I was struck by how much simpler was the NZ treaty and that the Maori retained their land unless it was sold. In Western Canada the Indian peoples gave up the land except for reserves. Each band member as of the date of treaty was designated a certain number of acres. The bands then chose their reserves.

    • Thanks, Bill, for that perspective. I didn’t know what the terms were of the treaties in Western Canada, and it’s really interesting to compare their terms and major provisions. Now you mention it, the Treaty of Waitangi is simple; yet, more or less, it’s held. I give a lot of credit to those who wrote it, signed it, and abide by it.

  11. Margot, I enjoy your posts for so many reasons and one of those is for the exposure I get to writers from other countries. I enjoy learning about the land the people through the various characters. Thanks for enriching my reading habits.

  12. Margot, I’m afraid I have never read fiction from New Zealand leave alone about the Maori tribe but, thank you, for bringing so many wonderful contemporary writers to my attention. Every one of these sound interesting to read. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share this post.

    • It’s be an honour if you share the post, Prashant – thank you. And there really is a lot of fine New Zealand crime fiction out there. I hope that, at some point, you get a chance to try it.

  13. I found how the authors approached writing about the Maori tribe fascinating, because the other day I was researching the best way to subtly shine a spotlight on a tribe, or any minority, race, or group that differs from the author. In many of the articles, I was surprised to learn how even an innocent reference (something simple like, “The hard lines in his bronze complexion showed a life of pain”) can upset members of the group. Relating skin color to food is an even bigger no-no, apparently. The bias being this: if we, crime writers, describe, say, the skin color of a specific group, yet don’t describe the skin color of the white characters, then by exclusion it comes across as racist (that’s an ugly word, but you get the picture), because the author assumes mostly white Anglo Saxons will read/relate to the story. In my case, my antagonist is Cherokee. The tap dance to tribute the tribe rather than degrade them, unintentionally, is a slippery slope that’s not easy to navigate. This post helps with the struggle. For that, I thank you!

    • I give you credit, Sue, for facing this challenge. To write about people from a different group is not easy. I’ve had the same challenge in my own writing. In my opinion, the best way to address this issue is to create realistic characters first, and then put in the touches that make them distinct. It may be race, or disability status, or something else. In any case, I try to keep in mind that people’s ethnic heritage is only one part of identity. It’s a very important part, but it’s only one part. For what it’s worth, I’ve found that Craig Johnson, Margaret Coel, Tony Hillerman, R.J. Harlick and Giles Blunt all write about First Nations/Native American characters in ways that identify them culturally/ethnically without losing sight of them as rounded characters.

      • You’re so right. We do need to address them as people first, tribe second. Usually I try to skirt the issue and let the reader imagine what they look like and why by merely hinting, but the plot demands more in this case. OMG, I almost forgot about Craig Johnson. Thank you so much! That’s an excellent idea to use them as a reference. I’m so glad I mentioned it.

        • I think Johnson strikes that balance quite well, Sue. And I know I’ve found it helpful to pay attention to his approach. And you put that very well: characters need to be people first. Anything else comes after that.

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  15. janmorrison12

    I wrote a big long reply to this but couldn’t post it – durn wordpress! Now I have a whole new bunch of passwords to forget.
    What did I say? I said that I’m envious that New Zealand has the Treaty of Waitangi. That is such a fine achievement. Canada has been both slack and ungenerous with our aboriginal peoples. Every First Nations tribe and all of the groups of Inuit suffer from the effects of colonization. Living near a reserve and working on one has opened my eyes. The mystery I’m currently working on is set on this reserve and deals with the crime and corruption that enters into a community that has been previously laid low. I cannot speak for these people, and because of that I’ve made my protagonist a white woman, who, like me, works on the reserve. She has to deal with her own preconceptions and in that way I hope to shine a light on how complicated and layered the politics of a small community can be. Thanks for sharing these books – I will most definitely be finding them!

    • So sorry you weren’t able to post at first, Jan! Thank you for taking the time to do it again. Also, thanks for sharing your insights about the impact of colonization. Everyone has been affected – on both sides – and it’s something that is very much worth exploring in reading and in writing. I’m glad to hear that you’ve set your novel on a reserve, because I think that gives you an opportunity to look at some of those issues. As far as the Treaty of Waitangi goes, I admire it, too. Of course there’ve been clashes, and the treaty hasn’t always been respected. But it’s a very forward-thinking, if I can put it that way, sort of document. It’s the sort of thing I wish the US had done, too…

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