As 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.