Old School Tie (1994) is the first of three Paul Thomas’s crime fiction novels to feature DS Tito Ihaka, a Maori detective based in Auckland. It demonstrates his blackly comic and witty writing style, despite some of the dark deeds involved, as well as shining something of a light on contemporary Auckland society. One critic described it as “Elmore Leonard on acid”, and the novel was widely acclaimed – which was particularly notable at a time when there was little if any New Zealand crime or thriller writing. Some commentators have thus called Thomas “groundbreaking” in terms of the modern era of New Zealand crime fiction. Written in an edgy style, in Old School Tie businessman Victor Appleyard jumps from the Harbour Bridge with a suitcase of evidence connected to a wealthy woman’s death 20 years earlier. Police investigator Tito Ihaka finds himself entangled with the local mafia, a Maori street gang, a small-time loser, and some big-time ex-SAS psychos (Crimewatch).
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).