Reviewed by Ian Lipke
“She’s alive, breathing, but only just. She’s on her side, hands cable tied behind her and a roll of electrical tape over her mouth,” – she has become caught up in the nightmare of Marlborough Man.
And so the lives of those associated with Sergeant Nick Chester dice with danger as a ruthless villain with a mind bent on murder pursues this former undercover policeman from the grey skies of England into the unimaginable beauty of the Marlborough Sound in New Zealand’s South Island. The ordinariness of policing work is a powerful presence in Nick’s life, as he and his co-worker chase the unlicensed boat owner, the speeding motorist or the trigger-happy hunter. But all is not right. Lurking in the strikingly beautiful part of the world is a predator who feeds on the lives of children.
This is Alan Carter’s story about a hunter and the hunted, about the events that unfold and the fears that must be conquered when evil walks the streets of a country town. A seasoned writer, Alan Carter has written four novels dealing with the seedier side of mankind. Carter writes with a narrative style that never intrudes but, workmanlike, carries the events of the tale to its conclusion. It is an excellent way of letting the story tell itself. Each episode is stitched into the general fabric so that the effect is not episodic but a flawless expanse of a slice of life that is both believable and entertaining.
A characteristic of Carter’s writing is this ability to tell a story that is completely plausible and thoroughly entertaining. Carter’s success is due partly to the acceptability of the characters, partly to the quirky humour that unexpectedly bubbles to the surface, and partly to the snappy dialogue that conveys the plot along a tortuous path from the beginning to the end.
This novel works for me because the nucleus of its characters is defined. Nick Chester is part of the police family and shares in the mutual obligations that bind the police together. More importantly, he is the alpha male in a family comprising his partner and their simpleminded son. The boy is very much an integral part of this group. Nick has no hesitation in putting aside the danger he is facing to build a run for two goats that his son Paulie wants. The regular high-fives when Paulie’s chooks produce more eggs than usual is a means of informing the reader that these are ‘regular’ human beings. The villains form a readily distinguishable group. They are evil — and this is never in doubt.
Alan Carter’s quirky humour appeals. It sneaks up on the reader and invariably produces a chuckle or two. Some of it is insane. Who, but Alan Carter, would tell of a villain hiding a hot take-away chook in his underpants so that when a young police woman chases, tackles and handcuffs him, the gravy scalds his equipment and she has to administer first aid? An amusing example illustrating Carter’s capacity to comment wryly on the human condition (or perhaps in this case, the human predicament). Humour is a subtle tool in Carter’s arsenal. The Maori name for Sergeant Chester Weka-tane is a touch of fun but also highly appropriate, given the development of the story to this point.
“He already has a name for you. Weka-tane.”
“Weka-man. Like the flightless bird. Running around in the undergrowth, burying your beak in the dirt, digging stuff up and annoying everybody.”
“Weka-tane. I can live with that”. (122)
The author’s ability to create and maintain characters is a highly developed skill. Carter’s comments are brief but perfectly clear. Sammy’s gang are “a motley collection of beer guts, dead eyes, and cruel mirth. Sammy keeps a few of us lads close: some are hard men like Marty, and some are clever or useful to him, like me. Some are just useless twats who are always good for a laugh” (18). Marty Stringfellow is very handy with a knife, and makes it clear that he doesn’t trust Nick Chester. Nor does he hide the fact that, given the opportunity, he would take over the gang when his boss, Sammy, can no longer lead them.
It is the hard man, Marty, who pursues Nick. It is another hard man who figures prominently in the story when Marty and Nick eventually meet. A hard man from early days in England to a hard man in New Zealand, Marty never drops out of character. Carter’s people are distinctive. Nick’s partner Vanessa loves film nights since Nick invariably comes home aroused. She can show hurt and, within the parameters she sets, she can forgive. She can fight for the welfare of her son and protect her mate when he needs her. She is the person who sees good in obviously bad characters and, innocent of her effect on them, earns their loyalty. They are the tough men who fight to the death for her and her family.
This is a story of perversion and vengeance, made more gripping by the fact that it is set in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Beneath the mask of a landscape clothed in loveliness lies a hidden seedbed of filth and hatred. It is a fascinating mix that only a skilled writer should attempt. Alan Carter succeeds admirably.
By Alan Carter