Paul Thomas’s fifth crime novel, The Empty Bed (1999), is like his fourth, The Final Cut, set in Australia, where he lived for a period. Thomas’s hriller is more of a character study of the dissolution of a marriage, alongside something of a stylish murder mystery. In this novel, which was also nominated for a Ned Kelly Award, main character Nick has his world turned upside down when he accidentally discovers a love note to his wife Anne, and realises there are plenty of secrets in the marriage he thought was happy and rock-solid. Bad becomes worse when Anne is murdered, and the finger of blame turns to Nick. Facing the fact he is the prime (and only) suspect, Nick starts his own hunt for the killer, uncovering along the way that Anne is not the only person in his life guilty of deception. Everyone has something to hide. A reviewer in Wellington newspaper The Evening Post (now merged into The Dominion Post), said: “Thomas doesn’t put a foot wrong in this bleakly brilliant depiction of a marriage unravelling… That makes the book sound very grim. But in fact it’s a compulsive and acerbic read.” With five acclaimed crime and thriller novels in less than 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 (2002, chapter 8), 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).