Paul Thomas’s fourth crime novel, Final Cut (1999), is set in Australia, where he lived for a period, and after three acclaimed Ihaka novels, it sets Tito Ihaka, his Maori detective hero, aside. When disgraced former merchant banker James Alabaster comes into the possession of an old porno featuring the women of his dreams – who just happens to be the wife of one of Australia’s richest men – he thinks his luck is in. But then the cast members of the porno start dying, and things get very dicey for Alabaster and his would-be flame. With four acclaimed crime and thriller novels in half a decade, Thomas quickly developed a reputation as a quality crime writer. As noted on the NZ Book Council website, in Writing Gothic Matilda: The Amazing Visions of Australian Crime Fiction, Michael Pollack and Margaret MacNabb write about Thomas’ early novels, “These comic novels leave the reader laughing, that’s for sure. The sparkling dialogue, absurd situations and all the crackling one-liners are pure entertainment. But there is always the shadow of doubt falling over the page…After reading Paul Thomas… one never reads a newspaper or watches a television newscast with the quite the same degree of innocence again.”
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).