The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Chapter 6: the Fifties I: The War in Fiction, and Some Light Relief
Chapter 6: the Fifties I: The War in Fiction, and Some Light Relief
Oh some have killed in angry love
And some have killed in hate,
And some have killed in foreign lands
To serve the business State.
James K. Baxter—A Rope for Harry Fat
It was Dan Davin who in For the Rest of Our Lives, 1947, made the first real attempt to get the 2 N.Z.E.F. on to paper. The scope of this book is the war in the Middle East from the desert offensive of November 1941 to the fall of Tunis. Davin in a foreword announces that the characters are imaginary, while the historical events are to be taken as "a frame, a background, conditioning the fictitious". There is no plot, only the chronological march of events, accidentally determined as these things are in war. Thus there can be no causal relationship between what people think and feel, and what happens. Such unity as the novel has is a tonal one, its impression of disjointedness, of waste, of futility; in addition some unity comes from its focus on three chief characters, Tom, Tony, Frank, who may be taken to reveal between them various facets of war experience.
Frank, an officer convalescent from the Greek campaign, is seen mostly in Cairo, where booze, books, and bodies occupy him, especially the first and the last. Tom, a political rebel, with Otago University and the Spanish War in his background, is out in the desert, defeating foe in battle and friend in Communist argument. He reads books, avoids bodies. Tony enjoys life, war included, without afterthought or foresight. Around these mix in and out sundry females, sundry males, and some half-and-halfers. It makes a nasty picture.
There is a lot of background, painstakingly detailed, often with a strident satirical note. Davin seems to have been in a thoroughly savage mood, but without the critical discipline which turns anger and pity into literature.
The book, of course, was attacked, more perhaps for its frankness of speech than for its picture of war. In 1947 there were not many war page 80 novels about, and few breaches had been made in the sentimental curtain of reticence hung over the private soldier's memories. "Was soldiers' talk as coarse as here appears? It was, lady, and more so," wrote Sir Howard Kippenberger in his review in the New Zealand Listener for 12 September 1947. "If you want realism, you must put up with realism; it isn't nice," Sir Howard continued, adding that his own preference was for a degree of reticence. He was aware that the book would have a mixed reception. "You will be pleased or shocked, delighted or disgusted, but in any case deeply impressed." In his opinion, the theme of Cairo life is thin and unreal, and most Kiwis who "had said their goodbyes and borne the wrench years before and far away" were not more than casually concerned with "desks and flats and bedrooms in Cairo". While admitting the truth of the picture of "that rabbit warren G.H.Q. Middle East", Kippenberger felt that it is only when Davin moves to the battlefield that "he touches greatness". Out in the desert, the reportage is brilliant, "there is not a false note". There is high praise for the documentary value of the novel. Readers may wish to compare it with Davin's Crete , 1953.
Brave Company has the great advantage of a brief central episode to give it the unity which war as a whole can seldom have. Wilson's heroes are a company of the New Zealand Division in the mountains of North Italy. The actual battle incident from which the novel springs is described in chapter seventeen of Sir Edward Puttick's History of 25 Battalion, 2NZ.E.F. Second-Lieutenant Guthrie Wilson was in charge of a platoon sent to a position 400 yards in advance of the battalion's outposts on the Senio River in January-February 1945. It was a raid to take prisoners, inflict casualties, and obtain information about enemy dispositions. They held an impossible position for some fifteen to sixteen hours. Guthrie Wilson was awarded the M.C. for his leadership and gallantry.
The novel at once won overseas acclaim. It is the narrative of "Lawyer", the survivor of an infantry platoon in the bitter campaign of 1944-5. Nothing explicit identifies the men as ours ; this may be intentional, to make them stand for any men in any war, but it leaves them rather one-dimensional. The characters are flat, typical, not personal, Hadfield being the fullest picture. The point of the novel lies, however, not in the separate individuality of these men, but in their community, with its suffering, stoic philosophy, endurance, humour. Brave Company is at its best in rendering the things heard, seen, felt, in warfare. In particular the night climb to Costa San Paulo and the company's leave spell in Forli are memorable.
Brave Company is not the usual type of war novel. There is no direct assault on the horror and the waste; there is no wide sweep of page 81 strategy and national effects ; there is little exploration of the inner man. There is some philosophising on the meaning, if any, of war experiences, but no prolonged analysis. It concentrates upon one small area of experience, moving with an economical strength, in a deliberately underplayed prose style. Sometimes Guthrie Wilson moves disastrously from this objective documentary manner into conventional novelese. Taken as a whole, however, the book convinces by its honesty, its singleness of aim, its occasional flashes of anger (especially about the "bloody base bludgers"), and by its refusal to be heroic. (Notes for a critical discussion appear in the Appendix.)
Guthrie Wilson's next novel, Julien Ware, 1952, will be discussed later. In 1954 came his second war novel, The Feared and the Fearless, also set in Italy. This is a deliberately violent study of "Brutto" (Scarface), the New Zealand leader of a partisan group; it is about blood and guts and murder and madness, about evil inextricably mixed with good, about pity for suffering and admiration for strength. Brutto, made repulsive by his raw head wound in the manner of Gothic terror novelists, terrifies all about him. Probably he is meant to symbolise the horror of war in what it does to the body and to the spirit. In both Brutto is feared, is fearless, is maimed, is strong.
However this psychological theme is too much for the author, whose obsession with brutality exploited in strained rhetoric reminds one of the turgidities of cheap sensational fiction. The climax of the novel is when Brutto returns to New Zealand, murders, and has to be hunted down, a sacrificial "Christ with a Sten gun". This book raises doubts about Guthrie Wilson's artistic control. Is he merely making a blatant appeal to the popular market for blood-and-sex? Or is he writing out his obsessions after a tragic personal experience of what war does to men?
Fear in the Night. Very different is Errol Brathwaite's Fear in the Night, 1959, a story of the crew of a Ventura bomber forced to land in Japanese territory, and struggling desperately through the brief hours to effect repairs before the enemy can arrive to the attack. The crisis, described with mounting tension, through which the technical terms thread their realistic way, tests and reveals the individual quality of the men. Brathwaite had a tour of duty as an air-gunner in the Pacific during the war. Those to whom Air Force lingo is an open book appreciate his verbal accuracy and effective excitement. His method of switching from the consciousness of one man to that of another, and from friend to Japanese foe as time slides relentlessly on, is a factor in the success of the book. (See also chapter eight.)
I'll Soldier No More. M. K. Joseph's I'll Soldier No More, 1958, is about everyday life in the Army, without heroics, excitement, or too much blood. Joseph follows a group of soldiers through their page 82 behind-the-lines training, with its intolerable boredom, to France and then to occupied Germany. This is a balanced, quiet book, mature, sensible, and bitter. Joseph is concerned more to recapture the atmosphere of war than to reveal individual character. He renders well its normality within abnormality, its film of surface decency over personal tensions. But because the central topic of the book is ordinary men busy at ordinary life even within the circle of the Army, interest tends to be dissipated over too many persons and happenings, none of them exciting. It cannot be said that this novel avoids the trap of being dull because it is about a dull war. Interest is diffused over a series of short episodes, but there is a most striking prologue. I'll Soldier No More is valued highly by those who knew the life M. K. Joseph describes.
The Home Front. Where do old soldiers go in peace time? The period of readjustment after a war is legitimately to be thought of as the field of a war novelist. Davin followed For the Rest of Our Lives with The Sullen Bell; Robin Hyde wrote Nor the Years Condemn as a logical sequel to Passport to Hell. Only one novel has appeared so far which concentrates on the experience of a World War II serviceman after his return to New Zealand, Gordon Slatter's A Gun in My Hand, 1959.
This first novel has all the uninhibited vigour of John Lee's stories, without their propaganda. Like Frank Sargeson, too, although without his scrupulously selective art, Slatter produces a sense of reality by a rush of words colloquially ordered. A Gun in My Hand has a genuine Kiwi gusto.
It covers twenty-four hours in the life of Sefton, who has brought back from his war a gun and a grudge; he sets off to a battalion reunion in Christchurch determined to use the gun on the girl he had left behind him and on the man who married her. Sefton's neurotic state is an opportunity to canvass every aspect of New Zealand life since the war. Like Wilson's hero in Brave Company, and like the cobbers of Sargeson's many stories, he prefers the uninvolved comradeship of war to the domestic cosiness of home and women. As he boozes his way round, he meets and rejects all the compensations which New Zealand since 1945 has offered to a man tired of adventure.
With lively satiric distaste, Gordon Slatter looks at the different levels of our activities, whether the level of races, pubs, football, and R.S.A. dinners, or that of "quarter-acre sections neatly fenced", concrete mixers, seaside baches, and devotion to Mum, the kids, and the vegetable garden. Our life in this land is evoked with exasperated, affectionate accuracy. English reviewers commented on this "strong rich flavour of New Zealand".
Is A Gun in My Hand a good novel? A question difficult to answer, because one's judgment at present is liable to be distorted by arguments page 83 about its documentary accuracy. How much of it all is the author's own onslaught, how much is Sefton's? Is the New Zealand flavour relevant to Sefton's dissatisfactions, or would he have been as futile as this wherever he had ended up, in a foreign land of some sort, for instance? What, in the end, is the novel really about? The protagonist's neurosis is less convincing than the background of the action and the incidental descriptions. The book is almost too full of good things!
Light Relief. The years 1950-60 were notable in New Zealand fiction for two trends, one the increase in the volume and quality of popular novels, the other the appearance of novels which won overseas recognition at high levels, and which are worth serious critical investigation. No longer does one need to feel apologetic when visitors say, "Now what about your novels?"
The rest of this chapter will deal with the popular exploiting novels up to 1960. (See chapter eight for trends from 1960 to 1965.)
A rough grouping may be attempted. First, and by far the most numerous, there are the novels of love and of domestic life, written exclusively by women, and read probably only by women. This is the tradition begun nearly 100 years ago by our first women writers, Isabella Aylmer, Charlotte Evans, and continued in the nineties by such women as Jessie Weston, Louisa Baker, Edith Grossmann, and Anne Glenny Wilson. In the 1930s and 1940s Rosemary Rees, Mary Scott, Nelle Scanlan continued the type. Today, twenty or more women could be named who are steady suppliers of light romances.
Second, and to some extent overlapping the first, is the group of "historical-settler" novels, which range all the way on a scale from those of quite serious intention to those which are frankly potboilers like John Guthrie's The Seekers.
Third comes a set of stories in the class of thrillers and detective puzzles; the women in this group go in for the puzzles, the men for the horror and the violence.
Love Makes the World Go Round. Writing in the New Statesman Pamela Hansford Johnson makes the following comment as a preamble to her review of a bunch of new novels:
"In England at present , we are publishing far more novels per annum than any other country. This means, of course, that we are publishing an enormous amount of muck; and that, in the dead seasons, a reviewer may be landed with a batch of novels that might never have been published at all, for all the good or the harm they do to anybody. Now, I have an idea that this is not altogether a bad thing. It seems to me probable that really good literature needs a great weight of other literature, or written words, beneath it, for it to have any real strength; and I suspect that if a country publishes page 84 very few novels, the number floating to the top is likely to be less impressive than the top level of a country which publishes too much. In short, it is better to read any old rubbish than not to read at all. It is better to read the modern equivalent of Sexton Blake or Varney the Vampire, whatever that equivalent may be, than to gawp at comic strips. It is better to have a large reading public, no matter what it reads, than no reading public."18
Today's writers of light fiction have built up, both in New Zealand and overseas, a public willing to read New Zealand stories, and a body of work large enough for standards of criticism to come to definition. It is a commonplace to say that the bad or the average illuminates the good, but it is true. Both in supplying readers at all levels of literary taste with fictional pictures of New Zealand life, and in making the treatment of ourselves in novels quite a normal affair (as it is to Englishmen to find English life described), our entertainers have done us a service.
It's Nothing Serious. To take the stories for the feminine market first. In addition to Rosemary Rees, Mary Scott, Nelle Scan-Ian, whose work continues to be widely read, there are a number of authors who have become popular only within the last ten years, when opportunities for publication have so greatly improved.
These novels vary greatly not only in their competence, but in their range. Some are wholly concerned with personal relationships, some are religious, some aim at farcical comedy, some give an unpretentious but lively picture of New Zealand life as the average woman-in-the-home knows it. None of them questions the assumptions of our society, or explores it in any depth; but several of them do achieve a minor authenticity of a delightful kind; several writers are successful in certain elements, such as the portraiture of girls, without being able to control a whole novel.
Dulce Carman writes artless rose-tinted stories for an overseas romance series, and has to date published fifteen ; Mavis Winder, who also writes as Mavis Areta, has scored up fourteen, several with a strongly-toned religious message, and all riotously emotional. Similar colourful unreality is offered by Margot McClymont, A. L. Cherrill, Phyllis Sutton, Rosaline Redwood, March Wingate, Ivy Preston and Catherine Mann. Hamilton Grieve, best known for her Sketches from Maoriland, 1939, also wrote three love stories, gay trifles with merit in their kind. One of her titles, Its Nothing Serious, 1950, might well stand for this group as a whole.
Indeed, so saleable at present is the New Zealand romance—how different the situation from that thirty years ago—that several overseas manufacturers of entertainment have paused in their production to place a story in New Zealand. Elizabeth Goudge, for instance, in her Green Dolphin Country, 1945, tells of an 1840 Channel Islands page 85 emigrant; she admits that she has not been here, but has taken her historical material from Maning's Old New Zealand. Later writers are neither so honest nor so successful. Usually these yarns are unredeemed by any of those moments of truth, of humour, or of shrewd observation which even unsophisticated local writers can often provide. Kathleen Lindsay, Dorothy Quentin, Elizabeth Fenton are very amusing reading for New Zealanders, though not perhaps in the way which their authors intended. Their novels are concocted of those elements of local colour which may be taken to be known to overseas library readers. Plots are complicated, with geysers, kiwis, Maori maids, sexy surgeons, tattooed tohungas, rich widowers, long-lost uncles; heroines are lithe, slim, have flame-coloured hair, and an astonishing toughness in resisting every kind of disaster in the interests of a happy ending. Occasionally the hero is not a doctor or a big sheep man, but a bee-keeper—echoes of Sir Edmund Hillary? One is even noted as having "the shapely feet of a man of breeding"!
Good in Parts. Higher up the ladder of serious artistic purpose comes a group of writers who are endeavouring to get something truthfully observed on to paper, as well as to provide satisfaction for the daydreams of their readers. Often their novels are marred by the stock conventions of plot and character adopted, and by the uncritical manipulation of tired language. Yet they will always be good in parts. There will be neat satirical glimpses of home life, of men's ways as women see them, of social habits; there will be bits of genre painting, observations of places and people, flashes of psychological perception, evocative echoes of New Zealand speech among children or womenfolk. It is for these things that this body of work should be valued.
Margaret Jeffery's first novel The Forsaken Orchard was produced as a radio programme in 1953, and published in book form in 1955. It is set in the apple lands of Nelson, where the author grew up, and is a natural readable story of a girl's adolescence, marriage, griefs and happiness. On the community doings of a small place the author writes well; there is much enthusiastic but rather irrelevant scenery, a rich uncle, and some melodramatic horrors, but such amateurishness can be pardoned for the sake of the real attempt which the novel makes to interpret something to somebody. Two later novels were disappointing, but Mairangi, 1964, triumphantly redeems the promise of the first book. (See chapter eight.)
Florence Preston has published four novels. Her first, A Gallows Tree, 1956, will recall to readers the themes of Edith Grossmann, Jean Devanny, and Jane Mander, for the "tree" is the experience of a woman tortured by a difficult marriage. Her sufferings are rather dramatically overdrawn, so that the writing tends to be hysterical, but there is power behind it. The style has a literary air, page 86 especially in the rendering of speech, but the plot is not imposed, arising logically and truthfully from the premises of the story. As so often in these "Wives and Daughters" novels—the phrase is Mrs Gaskell's—the men are not drawn as well as the women and children.
Harvest of Daring and its sequel Great Refusals, 1957-8, make up a family chronicle beginning in Otago in the second half of the nineteenth century and coming to the present day. Without overmuch explaining, the author gets us into life on Seven Levels, the big Lakes station. She is knowledgeable about Otago history, about the land and the life, about emotions. The writing is straightforward, the result a sensible romance with something of the feel of New Zealand. The Gay Pretensions, 1959, breaks new ground, not very happily. Caroline is a teenage "case", who is seduced, is tried for attempted murder, finds that her supposed mother has gone off with the seducer, escapes from Borstal to take refuge with her loved foster father, and finally marries him. This summary, however, does not do justice to the realism of the book, which obviously has a theme too big for it. In all her writing, Florence Preston's professional skill is not equal to her emotional impulse, but she is serious, and worth watching.
In The Dark Water, 1954, Margot Campbell uses a hackneyed idea, that of the girl who makes her life on a big sheep station, and is wooed by a farmer hero. The book gives convincing detail about the technicalities of managing a high-country run, for Bess is that rare phenomenon, the woman owner who really knows the job. (So few of the glamorised heroines of romances ever look out of the lounge window!) The writing is rather dull, and the construction is lame, but a picture of the life does emerge through the expected trappings.
Also set in the South Island are the six novels of Essie Summers, of which the first, New Zealand Inheritance, 1957, is the best. The English reader is obviously in the writer's mind; scenery and Maori motifs are exploited for their exotic effects. But the story is well contrived and the dialogue easy. Essie Summers has salt as well as sugar in her mixture, which has a bite now and then.
Women in the Family. Quite a fresh track has been followed by Grace Phipps, whose first two stories present with a keen eye the minor excitements of the domestic round. Marriage with Eve, 1955, is a series of sketches rather than a novel, a fault which is not remedied in The Women of the Family, 1956, by the addition of a perfunctory plot. Grace Phipps's real achievement is her capturing of the unsentimental, humorous, native-born flavour of feminine life in the dormitory suburbs. After an excursion into an impossible daydream story, she returns to Eve's growing family in Concerning Eve, 1959, not however with the gaiety of her first portrayal.
A North Islander with a similar light touch in sketches of family affairs is Eva Burfield. Yellow Kowhai, 1957, is a love story rendered page 87 mostly in dialogue, with a refreshing absence of scenery in spite of the title and the dust cover, and with some well-drawn children. A Chair to Sit On, 1958, shows assorted, quite likely boarders in Mrs Daw-lish's guesthouse at Napier, working out their personal destinies during Christmas week. Again, a feature is the use of dialogue.
Jean Hill has written two novels; Sun at Noon, 1956, brings an English girl out to New Zealand adventure. There are some acid detached observations upon us colonials, and some neat genre painting, such as the account of the local competitions, and the dances in the district hall, and the A. & P. show. Her work has a religious trend, being related in this way to the preaching fiction of an earlier time, and, like it, does not really transmute its ideas into art.
Finally, mention must be made of Henrietta Mason, whose first novel White Orchid, 1953, tells of a New Zealand girl's experiences in the New Hebrides as governess to the children of a mixed French-Polynesian marriage. The heroine is well drawn, and the background is unusual, though the authenticity is hard to judge; the plot is, to say the least, eventful. A later novel, Fool's Gold, 1960, is historical romance set in Hokitika in the 1860s. An adventurous woman looks back on some very melodramatic experiences of the gold rush days.
History—Maori and Settler All over Again! The historical novel does not arise in a country's literature until there is both a history and a consciousness of history. William Satchell, writing in 1914, could almost have given The Greenstone Door the same subtitle as that which Scott gave to his first novel, Waverley; 'Tis Sixty Years Since. There were those alive among Scott's readers who, like Scott himself, had heard such tales from the lips of elders in their boyhood. Robin Hyde, writing Check to Your King in 1936, was required, on the other hand, to reconstruct a past with which she had no actual contact.
Only the more difficult reconstructed historical novel is now possible for writers who wish to go back to the Maori and the settler of the nineteenth century. With the approach of the national centennial celebrations in the late 1930s, interest began to grow, and was stimulated by novels such as Robin Hyde's and Nelle Scanlan's. The centennial itself called forth a good deal of community self-congratulation, in which the politicians, "Rose to the platform, hanging in every place/Their comfortable platitudes like plush/Without one word of our failures".19
Most of the historical novels which were written in the tide of our increasing national self-consciousness then and since, have, like the politicians, not remembered our failures. Hero and heroine in these stories, it is true, suffer great hardships; but they "win through". It is certain that success was not always the pioneer's reward. But in page 88 historical fiction, we pretend otherwise. No one yet—unless it is Robin Hyde—has written for us a tragedy.
Two stories with an honest purpose not quite realised in achievement are Helen Wilson's Land of my Children, 1955, and Georgina McDonald's Grand Hills for Sheep, 1949. As in Moonshine, Helen Wilson has fictionalised experiences from her own lifetime. The book is an interesting pageant, strongest where near to truth, weakest where the author tries to manipulate her material. The land, not the individual pioneer, is its theme. Grand Hills for Sheep won the literary prize offered in Otago to mark the provincial centennial. It concentrates on the personal relationships of colonial life, and on the experience of the women. Within these limits Georgina McDonald writes well, being successful in particular with the girl Shona, her stepmother, and the women at home. The meeting at which the opening tea for the church is planned is delightful; women writers today often record these minor community manifestations with shrewd witty pens. The men are cardboard figures, the goldfields over-dramatised. The family moves on in time through settlement, gold, wool, refrigeration, to prosperity. Sincerity, feminine sympathy, and an ear for the Scots tongue enable Georgina McDonald to make a quiet book in the domestic tradition. Her later story, Stinson's Bush, 1954, which deals with the Southland Irish, is not as effective.
As history began to sell, more and more tried their hands at it, most exploiting its supposed drama and frontier freedom from conventions. Somehow, our settler ancestors seem to have been more sex-obsessed than was ever acknowledged on the centennial platforms— or so a perusal of historical romances would lead one to suppose!
Brief mention should be made of several writers. Julian Mountain, in The Pioneers; A Romance, 1946, covers 1850-80, beginning with the emigrant voyage in the good old style, bringing in a back-country run, a Maori wife and half-caste baby, racial tensions, childbirth, villains, madness. All's well that ends well, however.
David King's The Mountains are Still Green, 1950, which covers 1836-1948, is a costume romance of the "and then" type. The Long White Cloud, 1960, a racing yarn by R. M. Rogers, is set in Hawke's Bay in the early 1900s. Will Lawson has written several stories with goldfield settings. Gold in Their Hearts, 1951, has a basis of historical research sufficient to provide interesting detail about the West Coast goldfields. Forbidden Gold, 1946, deals with the goldmining days of the 1860s in the Cape Terawhiti district, near Wellington.
Two "Pops". Two recent novels exhibit neatly the way in which the writers of popular entertainment exploit history for their own ends. Frank Bruno's Black Noon at Ngutu, 1960, is yet another tale of the Taranaki War, a sadistic blood-and-guts yarn of the tough he-man type. Bruno has been soldier, cartoonist, journalist, boxer, page 89 seaman, and according to the blurb "writes about fights and fighters in unique bare-knuckle competent prose". This involves plenty of blasphemy, as well as the cliches of the literature of violence, "mashing fists", "alert as a cornered cougar", "you b—— b——s". Both this novel and his earlier one The Hell-Buster, 1959, offer good value for your money if that is what you like—savages, mutilation, beer, guns, bashings, bosoms, tohungas, E hoa! py korry, flaying alive in full Technicolor, drinking of the blood of victims, gouging out of eyes, screams, biting your enemy's throat in half, and so on. You don't have to go to history to write like this, of course, but it provides, perhaps, some fresh possibilities.
Exploitation of the feminine kind is not so strongly flavoured, and may be seen in a novel such as Dorothy Eden's Sleep in the Woods, 1960. Most of Dorothy Eden's stories are thrillers, but in this venture into history—her second, counting a bad first novel in 1940—she writes a skilful Cinderella romance also set in Taranaki at the time of the Maori Wars. (What would our romancers have done without the wars and the Maoris?) The basis of the novel is not any attempt to evoke or to understand the past, but just the wish to place a strong love story in a setting likely to be attractive to overseas Eden fans. There is a lot of elaborate, erotic skirmishing. Unlike the men, however, the women writers avoid blasphemy and bashing.
Of this same exploiting type, but with much more strength in the writing, and with some historical flavour and knowledge of maori-tanga, is Olga Stringfellow's Mary Bravender, 1960. Her heroine gets involved with the Hauhau troubles, as well as marrying the wrong man, and then taking the whole book to come to terms with the right one. But the story has verve, and some sense of period.
Serious Attempts. More serious in intention are J. F. Cody's The Red Kaka, 1955, and Leo Fowler's Brown Conflict, 1959. J. F. Cody is well known as the biographer of Sir Maui Pomare (Man of Two Worlds), and as author of several volumes of New Zealand war history. The Red Kaka is not as impressive as these; like John White and G. H. Wilson, J. F. Cody has more information than he can work naturally into the fabric of his novel. The facts of the Maori background, of the whaling, sealing and Marsden period have had to be pumped in. His red-headed, Irish ex-convict hero, Timothy O'Hara, goes native, bringing us among cannibals, tohungas, tribal wars and extensive Maori oratory. But one gets lost, even with the best will in the world, among the chaos of successive combats. Perhaps Cody's failure with his material—like our earlier failures—is due to the extraordinary difficulty of making the issue of such conflicts matter to readers. Walter Scott's bloodshed in Ivanhoe is open to the same charge, but we are more familiar with and perhaps more receptive page 90 to knights in armour as elements in a historical pageant. The Maori warrior of ancient times is still intractable literary material.
Brown Conflict is a pro-Maori romance of events leading up to the 1860 wars, with the settlers on one side clamouring for land, and the Maori leaders on the other unwilling to forfeit their heritage. Somewhere between are those Europeans who by birth or experience are aware of the claims of both sides. Such is the hero, blood-brother to a chief, who tells an artless story of what happened and how he felt. Actual personages such as Governor Gore Browne and General Cameron, Rewi and Tamihana, appear.
Fowler's literary skill is not equal to his knowledge of Maori matters; his characters do not come to life, the writing is often stale, the plot a bundle of cliches. But the novel is redeemed by its sincerity, and by the interest of its details, such as those of the flax-cutting industry and of Maori life. Compare it with The Greenstone Door.
A complete contrast to Brown Conflict is offered by Ruth Park's One-a-pecker, Two-a-pecker, 1957, a story of the Otago gold rush of 1863. For the preparatory research Ruth Park had a grant from the Literary Fund. All the events are authentic, and the details based on papers, interviews with old diggers, letters, and so on. It is a conscious attempt to recreate old Otago. Unhappily, the habit of popularisation has been too strong for the author, who has seen our history largely through the distorting mists of romantic preconceptions. The balance of the book does not lie in the picture of Otago life, but in the exhausting emotional trials and ecstasies of the heroine. Far too much happens to her. She moves through events and scenes which are overdramatised, overwritten. Characters talk in synthetic Scots, in Irish, in pidgin English; Chinese are "Celestials", babies are "wee" and "bonny"; there are fights, snowstorms, births, love, violent death, old songs, and a good deal of luscious sentimentality.
Ruth Park. Ruth Park was born and educated in the King Country, became a journalist in Auckland, and later moved to Sydney. Her story may be read in her autobiography, Drums Go Bang. It was with two novels born of her bread-line poverty in the Sydney slums that she made her name, Harp in the South, and Poor Man's Orange. In these, what impressed was the emotional turbulence, the rhetorical colour and drama of the life depicted. Each had a strikingly sordid background, quite unfamiliar to us dwellers in respectable suburbs, and each had at its centre an agonised but lovable girl. In addition, Irish turns of speech, Irish faith and fury, gave the books a Celtic lift.
That was Sydney, where anything may happen. When however, Ruth Park applies the same formula to Te Kano, a small King Country town, in The Witch's Thorn, 1951, and Pink Flannel, 1955, page 91 her falsifying exaggerations are exposed. Our submerged tenth have less roaring extrovert eloquence than the Sydney slums. These novels have exuberance, but they are frankly exploiting, though there are moments of perception in Pink Flannel, especially about the child Jenny and the experience of being a girl in the 1920s. Both novels suffer from the author's insistently effervescent style. (A review of The Witch's Thorn in Landfall for June 1953 should provoke argument.)
Thrillers. This group divides neatly into two, the thrillers of violence, by the men, the thrillers of tension or puzzle, by the women. On the whole the women's work is more sophisticated.
Several of the men who write international yarns to the standard recipe visit New Zealand now and then for their locale. Cecil M. Wills's Death in the Dark, 1955, is a detective thriller in which the victim dies in the Waitomo Caves. Wills is as dully informative about our tourist attractions as G. A. Henty was sixty years before. Others who exploit our setting are John Boswell, that indefatigable Australian F. J. Thwaites, Wallace Reyburn, Andrew Mackenzie, George Joseph, the last two being regulars in the "American Bloodhound" series. They combine tourist titbits with sadistic thrills, disposing of their victims in geysers, caves, glaciers, or in mysterious spots impregnated with Maori tapu. George Joseph's Lie Fallow My Acre, 1957, has a sheep-station setting, an American hero, and some surprising material on the colour bar. Arthur E. Jones, known as a ZB serialist, writes red-hot adventure featuring Felix Halliday, but deliberately avoids any recognisable milieu except the undefined Austral-Anglo-American world of crime stories. Ken Sandford, on the other hand, has kept to the local scene for his blondes and bashers, with the result that he drew down on his head in the New Zealand Listener one of Denis Glover's most mocking reviews.* Dead Reckoning, 1955, offers sex and violence in the Coromandel area; Dead Secret, 1957, involves atomic security and a bomb at Waiouru. Maxim Hale is the hero of both, a swift-talking guy, shooting Runyonese sideways at the foe who are significantly named Ratface, Tollatti, Neckie, Chelkar. Maybe (Max's favourite word, that), maybe this sort of "death-and-six-dame thriller" is more bearable when you are not familiar with the territory, and are not brought up short continually by its local enormities. In this world of male make-believe perhaps everything should be pretence, even the scenery.
Kiwi Cowboy. Another standard line in male fiction is the cowboy story, not easily naturalised in New Zealand, where a cow is a cow, and not glamorous at that. Our only equivalent for the page 92 cowboy is the sheep king, but it seems to be the women who have cornered him.
Albert Lord's Kauri Hill, 1957, was first published as a serial in the Auckland Star. It is a sheep king yarn in the cowboy manner, with more of the outdoors than the women usually manage. There are horsemanship, some clean fisticuffs, riding, gumland fires in the fern, Maori lasses, and some nice guitar work. The dialogue is natural, the plot simple, the writing often fresh. At the level of entertainment, this has distinct merits.
Mystery Novel. Arthur Manning, in his first novel We Never Die in the Winter, 1958, made a mystery melodrama out of a quite probable New Zealand incident, the stranding of a busload of people caught between slips on the Kaikoura Coast road. The idea is that the personalities of the little group will clash and develop under strain. Manning is not very serious, of course, but makes something of the resulting tension.
Denis Rhodes in Fly Away Peter, 1952, set out to spin a good yarn in the John Buchan manner, utilising the Canterbury foothills, fire, flood, snowstorm and mountaineering for the machinery of the plot. The basis is secret service intrigue, a crabbed old man's will, two heroes, two heroines, and enough cloak-and-dagger stuff to make a good brew.
Peter Llewellyn, who wrote fiction as Michael Ellis, published two novels, The Score at Teatime, 1958, and The Angel in the Coffin, 1960. The first is a thriller of the Korean War, with New Zealand characters whose idiom and behaviour are very well caught, a British officer who is a Communist and some Rabelaisian scenes in Tokyo. The second is set on board a Dutch emigrant ship en route to New Zealand. In both books, the incidental material is interesting, but the stories are too confused to be impressive.
Detection. The doyen of our New Zealand detective-story writers is of course Ngaio Marsh, whose stories were noted in chapter three. She remains queen of her own territory. There are only two challenges from New Zealand women writers, though neither threatens to dethrone her. The most direct is that from Elizabeth Messenger, who has written four crime novels, all set in this country. Her first, Murder Stalks the Bay, 1958, is her best.*
What is the most effective procedure for the local murder story? Surely, to exploit what our setting offers, not to import imitation plots from abroad. Smuggling of diamonds, of atomic bombs, of space secrets, is not our cup of tea. Our murders need to be cosy and credible within our normal set-up. It is in this respect that Murder page 93 Stalks the Bay is—like Ngaio Marsh's Died in the Wool —so successful. Agatha Christie picks a snow-bound Christmas house party for her puzzles, so as to limit the clues and the suspects, as well as to provide a smallish group whose personalities can quickly be outlined in action and conversation. The reader can then form his theories for himself. Elizabeth Messenger appreciates the value, on exactly similar grounds, of a holiday group in a Sounds bay, cut off by road and engine trouble. She caters for the overseas reader's need of explanations by the old device of making the heroine an English girl to whom her hostess can describe such things as party-line telephones, the "bush", the glow-worms and gold prospecting. The heat, the claustrophobic effect of isolation, the fraying of nerves, are well evoked. Swimming, boating, fishing, provide useful plot movements. Even the method of murder is local, for one victim is strangled with a teatowel. Finally, Mary Scott and Joyce West collaborated in a mystery with a racing background, Fatal Lady, 1960. It makes use both of New Zealand opportunities and of the standard devices. It is, however, less a detective puzzle than a romance with a plot involving murder and detection.
Dorothy Eden. As we have seen, overseas entertainers sometimes set a story here. One such is Elizabeth Salter, an Australian, who has clearly been reading Ngaio Marsh. Another is Tom Gurr, who fictionalised the Parker-Hulme murder.
It is not these, but Dorothy Eden, who comes nearest to a successful challenge to Ngaio Marsh, though not on the same ground. Her line is not puzzle, but suspense, centred upon a heroine. This is, of course, a traditional type, pioneered in the late eighteenth century by Mrs Ann Radcliffe, whose The Mysteries of Udolpho established the Gothic tale of terror. Mrs Radcliffe's Emily goes through some hair-raising experiences, defenceless, alone, unfriended, in a foreign land; only at the very end do the hero's comforting arms enfold her.
Settings, conventions of behaviour, prose style, all have changed, but the core remains, the build up of suspense by devices variously contrived. A good exponent of the genre today is that 'feminine John Buchan', Mary Stewart. One of Ngaio Marsh's titles would do for the class as a whole, Spinisters in Jeopardy. Sometimes the heroine is not a spinster, but a widow, or a wife temporarily parted from her protector, but the effect is the same.
This is Dorothy Eden's type of story. Five of her novels have New Zealand settings. The Schoolmaster's Daughters, 1948, and Walk into My Parlour, 1947, are not thrillers, but suggest that if she had so chosen she might have given us a proper novel dealing with home tensions among womenfolk. After 1948, she moved into the suspense story, using the New Zealand background for Cat's Prey, 1952, Lamb to the Slaughter, 1953, and Bride by Candlelight, 1954. These three page 94 entertainments are not among her snappiest, but are very readable. Like Elizabeth Messenger, who may have learnt the lesson from her, she utilises local possibilities. One story dumps the English heroine down by a bush bach on the West Coast Road in the rain, with a missing friend, candles only for illumination, keas, glaciers, isolation, and three men to speculate about. Another takes for heroine an English girl who makes the voyage out here alone after the war to marry a soldier from whom she has been parted for several years. Add the possibilities of a change in looks owing to wounds, a little wicked juggling, a snowstorm, a power failure, and some sinister old women. It is quite a good story. Dorothy Eden's heroines suffer, rather than act, and she is sometimes hard put to it to account for their adventures; often a bit of direct action would be welcome, but that would short circuit the plot, which naturally wouldn't do!
Ngaio Marsh is read by every kind of person, male and female, blockhead and egghead. Dorothy Eden's market is obviously more restricted, because the novel of romantic presuppositions has never had the general intellectual appeal of the detective puzzle. Moreover she has none of Ngaio Marsh's champagne sparkle. But her success in her genre is a considerable one.
(Topics for Study and Discussion are given in the Appendix.)