Paul Thomas’s Death on Demand, his first Ihaka novel in almost two decades, was published in 2012. It marks an odd shift in the series, as if we are being introduced to a new character for a new era. Ihaka has been extensively reconfigured. In Death On Demand Ihaka is recalled from exile in the Wairarapa, back to Auckland, to deal with a series of murders, which may or may not have a police connection. He now inhabits a world where race is an issue, a tension, and even a means of seduction: “Ihaka’s strategy, based on several optimistic assumptions was to hang in there nodding gravely for a few more minutes, get another margarita into her, then steer her onto the subject of race relations in the here and now and exactly what conciliatory gestures she was prepared to make to atone for the rapacity of her forbears.” It is immediately apparent the novel is less of a pastiche than the previous novels in the series. The hokiness of the first Ihaka novels has matured, making a smoother product. His characters are now a gallery of effectively backgrounded and recognisable New Zealand types, without the comedic edge. In fact, much of Thomas’ talent lies in these quick sketches of individuals, with their plethora of telling local detail. Thomas is particularly aware of nuance, the difference in signification between Point Chevalier and St Heliers, the Northern Club and the Panmure RSA. Death On Demand is regarded as part of a ‘new’ flourishing of the Antipodean crime genre, a view which seems to conveniently forget other historic assertions of the genre, particularly that of the 1960s when an equal if not larger number of New Zealand writers were producing crime fiction set in New Zealand for both local and international audiences. The future of New Zealand crime fiction, however, requires a voice that will twist convention to make it something other than a pale reflection of generic style.
Following in the late wake of Valerie Grayland’s Maori detective Hoani Mata, conceived in the 1960s, Paul Thomas would introduce New Zealand’s next Maori detective, Tito Ihaka, in a series of police-procedurals. Thomas’ first three novels, Old School Tie (1994), Inside Dope (1995), Guerilla Season(1996) were “a part tongue-in-cheek sendup of the hard-boiled sub-genre”, as Carolina Miranda and Barbara Pezzotti have remarked in “Foreigners in their own country: The Maori Detective in New Zealand Crime Fiction”, one of the few comparative studies of New Zealand crime writing. Tito Ihaka may be a Maori but in the first three books of the series, he is largely without cultural background. It takes ten chapters of Old School Tie, as Miranda and Pezzotti observe, before Ihaka is actually referenced as Maori. He is also deracinated in more ways than one. While Grayland’s Hoani Mata, has a family and a milieu, Ihaka has neither. His being as a Maori seems more a writer’s or a publisher’s product gimmick, than something intrinsic. In an era of hyper-sensitivity to the Maori-Pakeha demarcation, it is a strange absence. The first Ihaka plots are ‘relentlessly tough yet hilarious’, according to the back-jacket of their collected publication. They feature characters with names like Harold Funke, Al Grills, Caspar Quedley, Amanda Hayhoe, Fred Freckleton, Dermot Looms and Chas Gundry, whose cumulative nominative presence seems to contort the novels, immediately taking them much closer to parody than realism. Thomas’ reliance on daily news for much of the currency of the initial Ihaka novels also tends to age them before their time. They are yesterday’s stories, and too often their details are things we’d prefer to forget rather than revive. In conjunction with the exaggerated characteristics of the secondary cast, the wincing litany of bad fashion and the gawky slang tend to balloon the early Ihaka novels distractingly towards the cartoon (David Herkt in Landfall).