Reviewed by Alyson Baker
Nick Chester is working as a sergeant for the Havelock police in the Marlborough Sound, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. If the river isn’t flooded and the land hasn’t slipped, it’s paradise. Unless you are also hiding from a ruthless man with a grudge, in which case, remote beauty has its own kind of danger. In the last couple of weeks, two local boys have vanished. Their bodies are found, but the Pied Piper is still at large. Marlborough Man is a gripping story about the hunter and the hunted, and about what happens when evil takes hold in a small town.
What makes a great thriller great is nerve-wracking plotting, rich atmospheric settings, and complex characters – Marlborough Man has the lot – and it treats the ‘Top of the South’ as Paul Cleave has been treating Christchurch for years – describing a heightened scuzzy substrate that tourists, and many residents, will never glimpse: “In rural New Zealand, calling police out at the sound of shots fired is like calling them out for the sound of cows mooing”.
Nick Chester, a Geordie cop, has been relocated to the Wakamarina Valley, near Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds, after an undercover job back home went South. Chester makes fun of the Zild accent, double takes at the literary references to The Hobbit, and settles in to continue his class-based grudges, and to get to know Latifa Rapata, his new partner.
Rapata is 24 and is often the voice of reason; for Chester is a rebel; happy to toe the line when his duties only stretch to bad drivers and petty theft, but when it emerges there is a sexual predator preying on young boys in the area he just wants “… to catch the prick who’s been murdering the kids” – and he starts playing by his own rules. He builds a case with the help of Rapata and her whanau. And his interest is galvanized when he starts suspecting that the press-named “Pied Piper” may be one of the local arrogant-ocracy – those people that “… never get looked at …” – and to make matters worse one of them starts a logging operation in the valley that is ruining his view!
In Marlborough Man Carter breaks all the rules about not hurting animals, and he pulls no punches in showing the many sides of Chester – who makes some very bad choices. Chester’s shaky marriage and his concern for their special needs son back-drop the story, as does the fact that comeuppance for the botched undercover job back in Geordie-land is stalking “the feral hills of the Wakamarina”.
The wild weather and visual beauty of the valley give you a sense of place in sand-fly-filled spades, and the mud and slips from the frequent downpours nicely echo Chester’s roller coaster ride. A trip back to the old country triggers a new look at the Wakamarina, and Chester’s re-entry into “A magic roundabout of people who won’t let go.” It also gives Vanessa, Chester’s wife, a chance to become a more interesting character, and another foil to Chester’s excitability. The crime plotting keeps you guessing the whole way, and the cliff hanger ending comforts me that there will be more.
Read this book!
Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review will also appear on her blog, which you can check out here.