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RANGIORA IS A small (population around twelve thousand) country town twenty-five kilometres north of Christchurch. It has an interesting town hall, which was damaged in the September 2010 earthquake, and a cluster of historic – as in more than fifty years old – High Street buildings known collectively and somewhat grandiosely as the 'heritage precinct'. There's also a first-class cricket oval, New Zealand's only commercial meadery and the second-largest high school in the South Island, whose alumni include three cabinet ministers and an All Black captain. New Zealand's highest official temperature – 42.4 degrees – was recorded in Rangiora on 7 February 1973.

Every year petrol heads converge on the town for a motor show called 'Street machines and muscle car madness'. Lest that leaves an impression of boganism without the saving grace of metropolitanism, there are two theatre companies and a speech and drama school. Furthermore, it's said the emergence of nearby Waipara Valley as a wine-growing region has raised the tone of Rangiora's hospitality sector.

All in all, a nice enough place to live if you like that kind of thing, but not one you'd necessarily go out of your way to visit. A quiet, orderly, homogenous, relatively prosperous and, therefore, largely crime-free community: the fatal stabbing of Tony Lochhead on Friday, 13 September 2013, was the first murder in Rangiora since 1992.

Short of strangling the weatherperson on the six o'clock national news, it was about as far from the perfect crime as you could imagine. A silver Subaru station wagon with a blown-out tyre was seen proceeding erratically from the scene of the crime. When it was found abandoned in the middle of nowhere a few kilometres away and on the off-chance that the person or persons unknown they were seeking were exceptionally stupid and/or lazy, the police appealed for anyone who had picked up a hitchhiker in the vicinity that night to come forward.

Someone answered the call. Within a few days, two men were arrested and subsequently charged with murder with intent to facilitate an armed robbery. We shall have to wait until the trial which is set down for September 2014 for the facts to emerge but, on the face of it, this seems like just another mad, bad night in the demimonde: theft as a means of making a living; violence as a means to an end; death as an occupational hazard. (The 1992 murder saw Bevan Buckeridge – aka Ziggy Stardust Buckeridge – then twenty-nine, cut fourteen-year-old Julie Sands' throat on the bank of the Ashley River after engaging in unlawful sexual relations.)

 

BARRING SENSATIONALLY ODDBALL or sordid revelations, it seems unlikely that Rangiora will be forever associated with this crime: the notorious Rangiora 'how not to make a getaway' murder. Now and again, though, the scene becomes synonymous with the crime.

Take the Bassett Road machine gun murders. On 7 December 1963 Frederick Walker and Kevin Speight were shot dead at 115 Bassett Road in the affluent Auckland eastern suburbs, then – as now – an improbable setting for a gangland slaying. The pair was involved in the sly grog trade, in those days an underworld staple. Their bodies were invariably referred to as 'bullet-riddled' even though the murder weapon, a .45 calibre Reising submachine gun, had been set to single shot rather than rapid fire.

The machine gun murders occurred a week before my twelfth birthday and within a five-minute walk of my home. In this case, 'five-minute walk' is not an approximation: I'd often made that short trek to see my best friend who lived at 52 Bassett Road. I can't summon up a clear picture of 115 Bassett Road because the route from my place to his didn't take me past it, and that way lay indeterminate suburbia, home to nobody we knew. Even when it was no longer officially a crime scene, on those odd occasions when we passed by we quickened our pace and restricted ourselves to furtive sidelong glances out of superstition and a vague sense of respect for the dead.

Ronald Jorgensen, one of the two men convicted of the murders, took up painting in prison and sold a number of his works. He was eventually paroled on the condition that he lived with his father in Kaikoura, a seaside town north of Rangiora which has since become New Zealand's whale watching capital. After his car was found at the bottom of a cliff, Jorgensen was declared legally dead despite suspicions that he'd faked his death. There were rumours that he'd fled across the Tasman and become a police informant and reported sightings of him in Western Australia. It's unclear whether the rumours pre-dated the sightings or vice versa.

I shall always associate the Huka Falls on the Waikato River just north of Lake Taupo, Australasia's largest freshwater lake, with an incident that few writers of crime fiction would have the nerve to present to their readers. Imagine a Carry On film crossed with Fifty Shades of Grey. Peter Plumley-Walker, an ex-RAF man turned cricket umpire with an extravagant moustache, passed out during a bondage and discipline session with a teenage dominatrix. Thinking her client was dead, the dominatrix and her boyfriend trussed Plumley-Walker like a turkey, drove from Auckland to Taupo with him in the boot of their car, and threw him over the Huka Falls. (When details of Plumley-Walker's singular fate emerged, a spokesman for the Auckland Cricket Umpires' Association wailed, 'We can't go on losing umpires like this.')

 

WHILE STANLEY GRAHAM fits a stereotype with which we have become all too familiar – the surly loner who can't get on with his neighbours; the failure who blames everyone but himself; the gun nut with a persecution complex – his crimes and the manhunt they sparked seem very much of his time and place: the West Coast, 1941.

Since its disorderly settlement during the 1860s gold rush, the West Coast of the South Island had been a land apart, over the Southern Alps and far away, a law unto itself, unrestrained and untroubled by the Protestant earnestness that prevailed in other provinces which had developed according to plan.

Graham farmed at Kowhitirangi, twenty kilometres from Hokitika. The dairy company had rejected his cream and he'd lost money on a cattle-breeding venture. After he brandished a firearm during a spat with a neighbour, four policemen visited his property. He shot all four dead. The following day he killed two home guardsmen and an agricultural inspector before going bush.

The narrative of the man alone hunted down by police and soldiers ferried in from all parts of the country – the constable who fatally wounded Graham was from Auckland, the biggest of the big smokes – struck a chord with some Coasters who resented the state's intrusions, particularly its efforts to enforce the law requiring pubs to close at six o'clock in the evening. In their telling, Graham was transformed into a righteous man pushed to breaking point by authoritarian officialdom.

When conscription was introduced the following year, some West Coast menfolk simply disappeared into the bush where they remained for the duration of the war. Graham's killing spree persuaded the authorities that it was simply not worth pursuing these runaways who would have been well-armed and probably inclined to view anyone in uniform as their enemy.

But while time and tall stories can give such crimes a picaresque tinge, that can't be said of more recent and more terrible events that have made their settings synonymous with horror. Like Port Arthur, Tasmania, and the Belanglo State Forest in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, the tiny seaside settlement of Aramoana twenty-seven kilometres north of Dunedin will forever be associated with a slaughter of the innocents. In November 1990, following a dispute with a neighbour, thirty-three year old unemployed David Gray shot dead thirteen people who had the dreadful misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 

CRIME IS AS universal as Coca-Cola. But it's also a numbers game: two murders in twenty-odd years seem about right for a South Island country town, but in the big city two murders in twenty-odd years is a typing error. Proximity is not just an aphrodisiac; it's also an obstacle, a provocation, a temptation.

Dspite middle class fear of crime, diligently fanned by politicians and Hollywood, most crime is carried out by poor people at the expense of other poor people. Crimes against children and young women are like plane crashes in the sense that the emotional shocks they administer and the prominence they are accorded by the media cause them to linger in the collective consciousness. People end up believing these things are commonplace, which they aren't. Likewise, smash and grab assaults on family homes in leafy suburbs. To be more specific, most perpetrators and many victims are young males from the bottom of the socio-economic heap.

Drugs have blurred the geography of crime. Drugs are everywhere, ergo crime is everywhere. Arguing the case for legalisation, former Drug Squad detective and Member of Parliament Ross Meurant has estimated that half of all crime in New Zealand is drug-related. If policing extended to low-level supply and personal consumption, drug-related crime would account for an ever larger portion of the total. The most preposterous point of view in contemporary society is the advocacy of zero tolerance of drug use. The police don't have the resources –or the remotest inclination –to investigate, process and prosecute the victimless crimes of individual consumers, and if those resources were somehow magically forthcoming, the judicial system would swiftly grind to a halt.

 

FOR A MORE clearly delineated geography we must turn to crime fiction.

Raymond Chandler, the author of seven novels featuring the Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe, published between 1939 and 1958, revolutionised crime fiction in two respects. Together with Dashiell Hammett, he popularised the hard-boiled crime story. Out went the formal mystery novel – predominantly British, plot-driven, law-abiding, middle-class, semi-rural; in came the realistic crime novel – predominantly American, character-driven, extra-legal, uncouthly democratic, urban. Secondly, Chandler located his novels in a specific time and place. As reviewers would become fond of saying, 'the setting is a character.'

Chandler didn't particularly like LA – as soon as he became successful he decamped to La Jolla, an affluent seaside suburb of San Diego – but he saw the fictional possibilities of its oil and Hollywood-based boomtown economy and the febrile atmosphere and social mobility it generated. The promise of stardom drew pretty young people like a magnet, but only a handful became stars. Some of those who didn't make it were open to other ways of making a name and fortune; some ended up selling themselves on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Fast money drew organised crime to the west coast and bred corruption at city hall and within the police department. Into this moral vacuum Chandler dispatched his creation. As he wrote in his famous 1944 essay 'The simple art of murder' for the Atlantic Monthly: 'Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it and certainly without saying it.'

Ross Macdonald, who succeeded as the master of the Southern Californian private eye novel, said Chandler wrote 'like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.' It was exactly that romantic presence that James Ellroy, the third great practitioner of LA noir, objected to and set about deconstructing. In Ellroy's dark and sometimes demonic vision, the streets are meaner, the bit players riff-raff rather than raffish, and the police more fascistic and corrupt. His 'heroes', invariably mean and tarnished, are driven by lust, rage and vengefulness, rather than a desire to see justice done.

The tidal wave of narco-dollars that washed through Florida in the 1980s and '90s made Miami a similarly fertile setting for crime fiction. Charles Willeford set a sly, deadpan tone with his Hoke Moseley novels and Carl Hiaasen pushed the comedy further into the black, yoking the crime novel to Tom Sharpe-style farce. Asked how he came up with his outlandishly grisly scenarios, Hiaasen replied, 'I open the local newspaper.'

With its brash cosmopolitanism, postcard vistas and melting pot contrasts, Sydney appeals as an ideal setting for crime fiction. Sandwiched between the big end of town and the eastern bays where old money and new rub shoulders is Kings Cross, a lurid combination of tourist attraction and vice den. Some fine crime novels have been set in Sydney, but the Emerald City is still waiting for its Chandler.

 

MORE OFTEN THAN not, however, the setting plays second fiddle to the conventions of the genre and its escapist tendencies. In the current growth area, the sub-genre devoted to serial killers, the geography of crime is often ignored if not denied.

Generally speaking, serial killers are able to avoid detection for long enough to commit multiple murders because they target the socially isolated: those who won't be missed. They prey on drifters, runaways, fringe dwellers and, of course, prostitutes. Their geographic ambit takes in red light districts where creepy males come and go without attracting attention, skid row whose residents are too addled to be reliable witnesses, and the open road where there are no witnesses. At any given time there are around fifty-thousand unidentified bodies held at morgues across the US and twice that number of open missing persons cases.

But fictional serial killers don't lurk in the darkness at the edge of town; they are in our streets, beneath our windows. This is because the serial killer novel's rightful genre home is horror rather than crime. Hannibal Lecter and his fellow predators are our unsuperstitious and scientifically enlightened age's equivalent of vampires, werewolves, creatures from the black lagoon and things that go bump in the night. Like them, serial killers respond to opportunity and the urgings of their deformed natures. Unlike them, serial killers are real.

By having his heroine FBI agent Clarice Starling fall for Lecter in the third book in the series (Hannibal, Arrow, 2000), author Thomas Harris is placing his creation in a direct line of descent from Count Dracula. The classic vampire story has two linked themes: it's a rape/seduction fantasy that speaks to the repressed society's most twisted fixation – that once a girl gets a taste for it, she can't get enough.

It's no accident that vampire tales share these themes with pornography. Horror's raison d'être, like that of pornography, is titillation. Because their potency is measured by the degree of arousal they generate, both are obliged to push the boundaries of explicitness and abnormality.

To return to Rangiora: while two murders in twenty-one years would seem to make it an unlikely setting for a crime novel, the genre has never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Few branches of literature demand the willing suspension of disbelief as insistently.

Take the fictional village of St Mary Mead located forty kilometres from London, although Agatha Christie never got around to specifying in which direction it lay. St Mary Mead was home to Christie's amateur sleuth Miss Marple who appears in twelve novels, beginning with The Murder at the Vicarage (Collins, 1930), and twenty short stories, most of which involve at least one murder. Given this hit rate, on a per capita basis St Mary Mead would give Ciudad Juarez, the epicentre of the Mexican drug war, a run for its money in the most violent place on earth stakes.

PG Wodehouse's oeuvre would be about as far from social realism as one could imagine: he described his approach as 'making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether.' Yet the unlikely shenanigans that take place in Wodehouse's fictional English villages such as Steeple Bumpleigh and Market Snodsbury are more believable than the carnage in St Mary Mead.

Readers of crime fiction are predisposed to suspend disbelief because it focuses on a marginal area of human experience – so marginal, in fact, that most people never experience it. Moreover, the action often takes place in or on the fringes of the criminal milieu which is also unfamiliar territory. It's realistic only in the sense of 'who's to say it couldn't happen? Who's to say that this kempt corner of suburbiaor that sleepy hollow doesn't house a branch office of the underworld?' The killing of Tony Lochhead suggests that Rangiora did have at least a sub-branch, now closed until further notice.

 

DIFFICULTIES ARISE WHEN the writer wants to locate his or her story in the real, as opposed to an imaginary, world. When I began writing New Zealand-based crime novels in the early 1990s, the realities that inform the American school of 'social' crime novel – organised crime, disparities of wealth, a mobile underclass, ghettoisation, easy access to firearms – either didn't exist or existed in a watered down form. I was forced to import elements and characters – which in its own way was just as restrictive, since there was a limit to the number of rogue DEA agents or Sydney mafioso I could parachute into New Zealand before falling into the escapist trap I was trying to avoid.

I have recently resumed writing New Zealand-based crime novels after a fifteen-year break. The country has changed a great deal during my hiatus. Some of that change has led directly or indirectly to social developments, such as wealth inequality and the emergence of an underclass, that threaten New Zealand's egalitarian tradition while making it a more authentic setting for crime fiction.

New Zealand is less isolated now and therefore less able to quarantine itself from global events and trends. New Zealand provided the first major drug syndicate in this part of the world – the Mr Asia syndicate – but while the personnel were mainly Kiwis, the bulk of its activity took place offshore. Now, we boast an entrenched home-grown drug/crime culture, with communities where lighting a joint is as routine as putting the kettle on and sociopathic gangs have industrialised the methamphetamine trade.

 

Griffith Review