Forty-seven years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, colonised New Zealand was in a state of depression. The promise of land retention and sovereignty that was made to Maori in the Treaty had morphed into a state-sanctioned landgrab, in which the rich and powerful dominated, and Maori and ordinary settlers sank further into the hole of economic and social depression.
This is the setting for Dinah Holmans’ first novel, A History of Crime – The Southern Double Cross, in which history is re-written to feature full scale corruption and intrigue against the backdrop of well-known New Zealand politicians, public figures and actual events.
Fréderique Bonnell – or Riki – is a French opera singer on her way to complete a singing tour of New Zealand. A descendent of Kokako, who accompanied the French explorer Dumont d’Urville back to France, Riki is looking for answers to the puzzles of her part-Maori heritage. When Riki gets drawn into the attempted murder of young Tuhoe Maori Kaituhi on the boat taking her to New Zealand, she finds herself pulled into a web of lies and treachery, involving land-speculator Thomas Russell and other prominent political figures such as Sir Frederick Whittaker, Treasurer Sir Julius Vogel and Minister of Native Affairs John Ballance.
Parallel to Riki’s story runs the narrative of another European in New Zealand, the Italian tenor and viticulturalist Franceso Bartellin, who arrives in New Zealand to advise landholders on the suitability of wine production, and also to accompany Riki on the singing tour. Francesco has secrets of his own, which made it necessary for him to leave his native Italy, and which come back to haunt him when he is recruited into a plot to try and gather evidence of Russel and co.’s corrupt behaviour. When Riki and Francesco meet in Auckland for the beginning of the tour, it doesn’t take long for them to realise that each has been forced into a dangerous and secret agenda.
There are a lot of good ideas in A History of Crime. A former chairwoman of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, Dinah Holman has a good grasp on New Zealand’s heritage, and it is obvious that she has done a great amount of historical research for this book, resulting in a vivid exhibition of the times, places and personalities of 1887 New Zealand. I like the idea of appropriating what we know of New Zealand history, and what we live with to this day – the mass alienation of Maori land by Europeans – and putting it within the context of crime and ruthless murder. In A History of Crime, the historical political figures of the time will stop for nothing and no-one in their pursuit of land, money and power.
There are a variety of themes that run alongside the exploration of the dark side of this Victorian era in New Zealand, including a budding romance, which basically means that there is a lot going on in this book. The author tries very hard to convey every detail not just of the historical context, but also of the characters’ thinking and feeling, much of which is conveyed in lengthy conversations. It is almost as though there is very little left to the reader’s imagination, as the narrative seeks to explain itself.
The character of Kaituhi, who at the beginning of the novel comes across as a strong and interesting Maori character, becomes strangely dependent on Riki’s advice and schemes, and amidst repeated changes of hair-styles and appearance contrived by Riki, ends up a much less genuine and believable addition to the story, becoming one of the more two-dimensional portrayals in this novel.
A History of Crime is a novel with a lot of historical information and meshing of ideas – and while it is at times a somewhat plodding read, as a first novel it has to be congratulated for having a well-considered and innovative take on New Zealand history.