Inside Dope (1995) is the second of three Paul Thomas’s crime fiction novels to feature DS Tito Ihaka, a Maori detective based in Auckland. This acclaimed thriller centres on a hunt for missing drugs from the notorious real-life Mr Asia gang which spanned Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia in the 1970s (and which was featured recently in the Australian TV series Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities). Disgraced former cop Duane Ricketts is on hand to hear the dying words of Frank Varty, the only man who knows the location of 10kg of high-grade cocaine misplaced after an aborted drug run a decade before. As Ricketts hunts for the drugs, he opens a Pandora’s box of trouble, and Thomas has the reader racing along on a plot filled with bodies in spa pools, rogue CIA agents, indiscreet diplomats, crooked lawyers, hoods, and a CIA assassin. As well are recurring hero Ihaka and his police colleagues, of course. When the then-new Crime Writers Association of Australia held their first Ned Kelly Awards, Thomas shared the inaugural prize for Best Novel with Barry Maitland with The Malcontenta.
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).