Fresh Blood

Name: Jonothan Cullinane

Title of Book: Red Herring

'If Raymond Chandler had been a New Zealander, I am sure he would have produced a class story like ‘Red Herring’.'

Auckland, 1951and the dock workers and government are heading for a confrontation and the waterfront is the frontline.

Involved in this drama, Johnny Molloy is hired to find a man who is alleged to be dead, but information has come to light that maybe his funeral was a little premature. The only thing is, this wanted man is up there with the big boys who are steering the waterfront strikes, stopping imports and exports inNew Zealand. It has all come to a strained gridlock, and now Johnny has to infiltrate this highly emotional situation and find a dead man who is alive and well.

However, asking too many questions can get you attention you don’t want, and soon Johnny is being beaten up and shot at as he steers across unchartered waters and steps on the toes of people who have their own agenda and won’t have it upset by an ex-commo P.I.

What I loved about this debut is how Cullinane immediately transported me to 1951. He wafted smells under my nose and assaulted my ears with sounds of industry. I wasn’t so much parachuted, but landed with a big bang. There is no settling down here, Cullinane cracks on with his story without nonsense. His P.I. Molloy is always centre stage and quite rightly. Johnny has been through the mill with war echoing throughout the world with different threats, not leaving any of the men time to really heal from WWII, which is fresh in everyone’s mind. No counselling, you just accepted the punches and picked yourself up until the next blow.

Cullinane brings to the fore of ‘Red Herring’ real people who were well-known figures during that time like Jock Barnes and Toby Hill who were the leaders of the Waterfront dispute. Cullinane is like a magpie, collecting quotes from that era to bolster up his horror of WWII and how life was for many damaged men at that time.

It isn’t only the description of that time that entranced me. Cullinane has a wonderful ear for dialogue, conveying much in the conversations between characters. I very much enjoyed Molloy’s sarcastic asides and bluntness. The people in ‘Red Herring’ certainly mean business and they don’t mince their words!

I have tried not to say too much about the story as I don’t want to ruin the plot. This is a very strong debut and I look forward to meeting up with Johnny again soon. It has a wonderful evocation of time and place, cracking dialogue, colourful characters and a story that rockets along. If Raymond Chandler had been a New Zealander, I am sure he would have produced a class story like ‘Red Herring’.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What made you place your debut, ‘Red Herring’ during the New Zealand waterfront dispute of 1951?
Red Herring started off as a film idea. I had lived in San Francisco for a couple of years in the mid-70s. When I came back to New Zealand I moved to Auckland. This was about 1980. I was struck by how similar the architecture of the two cities was – it was easy to imagine a film like The Maltese Falcon being shot here. Then I thought it might be interesting to take all the stylistic devices of noir films – the cynical gumshoe, his feisty off-sider, the corrupt cop, the this the that – and put them not in San Francisco or L.A. but in Auckland. If you accept that the classic noir period was between 1947 (Out of the Past) and 1955 (Kiss Me Deadly”) then 1951 falls conveniently in the middle, and 1951 - and in particular the 1951 waterfront dispute which lasted for nearly six bitter months – was a dramatic turning point for New Zealand, both socially and politically. So the 1951 dispute was a great event to set the story against. There was violence, there was corruption, there was political interference both local and international.

Private detectives in fiction usually have some burden from their past – alcohol, mostly. Because the waterfront dispute had a strong political theme I thought I’d make my gumshoe a former member of the Communist Party burnt out by his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Guns aren’t a big thing here (and what’s a private detective without a piece?) but this was fairly soon after the war and a lot of servicemen had brought back weapons as souvineers – so that was credible. And the Korean War was going full blast in 1951 - another interesting element. There’s a great quote at the beginning of “The Godfather” – “Behind every great fortune is a great crime”. The US was buying up New Zealand’s entire wool clip that year for the manufacture of uniforms for their boys freezing away in Korea – and here are these (as they saw it) Communist-dominated unions trying to prevent the export of that wool, probably on the orders of Stalin or some other Red. They had to be stopped! Plus, one of the key figures of the dispute, Fintan Patrick Walsh, was “the nearest thing New Zealand had to an American-style industrial gangster”, according to the Penguin History of New Zealand. In Walsh I had the perfect villain.
2) You include real people in ‘Red Herring’ such as Jock Barnes, Toby Hill and Fintan Patrick Walsh. Most of these people you make out as troublemakers. Did you have to be wary not to slander the dead?
“The dead cannot currently be defamed under English (and New Zealand) law. This is because defamation, whether it is libel or slander, is a personal action which cannot be assigned or brought on someone’s behalf.” I just checked this on Google. Besides, Walsh has few defenders still. He offended and betrayed everyone. He was a very interesting man though. He left New Zealand in a hurry following the death of a scab and the shooting of a policeman during a miners’ strike in 1912, ended up in San Francisco, became an enforcer for the Wobblies, is supposed to have killed a Pinkerton detective in Idaho, went to Ireland in 1919 and left a year or so later with a new name and rumours of involvement in the assassination of members of the Cairo Gang in Dublin, was a founder member of the Communist Party of New Zealand but died as one of the largest land-owners in the province of Wairarapa. A friend of mine at school once told me that he was related to Walsh. I reminded him of this claim recently. My friend said: “Yes, dad told us we were related but he said DON’T TELL ANYONE!”! As for Toby Hill and Jock Barnes, they would have been furious not to have been made out as troublemakers! Jock’s autobiography is entitled “Never A White Flag” – he fought till he died, Toby too.
3) Johnny Molloy is an ex-Communist private detective. He seems to be cut from the same cloth as Chandler’s creation, Philip Marlowe and there is a touch of Noir in your novel. Have you always been a fan of this genre?
In 1971, when I was twenty, I saw a terrific British film called Gumshoe, written by Neville Smith and directed by Stephen Frears. Albert Finney plays a bingo caller and would-be stand-up comedian in a Liverpool workingmen’s club who claims to dream of “writing The Maltese Falcon, recording Blue Suede Shoes, and playing Vegas.” The Maltese Falcon rang a bell so I got it from the library, read it and was hooked. I read all of Hammett (Red Herring/Red Harvest! It’s an homage!) and then James M. Cain, Eric Ambler, and of course Raymond Chandler… . Ruined for life. In The Simple Art of Murder Chandler created such a wonderful template for a character like Johnny Molloy, one who is “neither tarnished nor afraid”, one who “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.” Who wouldn’t want to write a version of that person? These characters have all been damaged in some way and one of the pleasures you have as a writer is slowly accounting for their condition. Plus it’s the 1950s! They’d all been through the Depression and at least one war- and they’re still fighting! And we somehow end up with Donald Trump! My God, the mess Marlowe would have made of that schmuck!
4) Mainly through your dialogue, I got a great sense of time and place of New Zealand in 1951. Is atmosphere important to you as much as plot?
You mean ‘the tyranny of plot’?! I think it is. I love the American writer Alan Furst’s novels. A review in Time Magazine said of one of them that it was “like watching Casablanca for the first time,’ which is a perfect description. The opening paragraphs of Dark Star are ones I’ve read countless times. You feel cold and damp, you hear gulls and foghorns, you wonder about that quiet little man with the blank face and the bulge under his armpit, you sense all the fascist menace of pre-war Europe. Furst’s plots are almost secondary. His novels are often a series of connected incidents – but they somehow manage to have a beginning, middle and end. I’d love to be able to write like that.
5) Are we seeing Johnny Molloy in your next novel? Will it still be set in 1951 or will you move on to another year?
I’m working on a sequel called Yellow Peril, with the same setting and background and most of the same characters, but starting a few weeks later. The plot was suggested by a story a retired ship’s engineer and member of the Communist Party in the 1950s told me. After the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Nationalist Chinese, the KMT, moved to Burma and got involved in the opium business, with the assistance of an early iteration of the CIA (of course). There is a magnificent book about the this by Alfred W. McCoy called The Politics of Heroin In South-East Asia which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject. The KMT got the idea from the French Sûreté Générale in Indochina. The profits from the trade were to be used to finance the overthrow of Mao. Opium was smuggled to San Francisco not via the North Pacific but down through Sydney and Auckland and then up through the back door. According to the bloke who told me this story, Fintan Patrick Walsh, who had extensive connections in San Francisco from when he had lived there as a young man, facilitated the opium’s movement through the Port of Auckland and clipped the ticket along the way. So it’s sort of about that.
6) What one piece of advice would you give novice writers after your journey becoming published?
Do a serious Creative Writing programme. A friend of mine was a supervisor on such a course at the University of Auckland a few years ago and suggested I do it. I was sceptical. I said, “How can you teach someone to write? In a year?” He said, “I don’t know! But I do know that by the end of the year everyone will have the equivalent of a 50,000 word first draft of whatever it is they’re working on.” He was right. Whether it’s the fact that everyone else on the course is turning in work every week and they don’t seem that smart, or whether the idea of writing and of you being a writer is taken seriously is the secret… I don’t know. But I know I could not have written Red Herring without doing that course. And it’s a cocoon and you make good friends and spend a lot of time yakking about books, so…
7) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, what are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and you would wish to have on a deserted island?
I define crime fiction as anything with a gun or the possibility of a gun. I enjoy all sorts of writing, non-fiction more than fiction generally. I loved the hard-boiled stuff. I probably prefer certain novels rather than certain novelists, so not all of Robert B. Parker or Elmore Leonard or John Sanford or James Ellroy or Alan Furst – but most of it. Also, crime non-fiction. There was a book called Caught By His Past by Jan Corbett, published in New Zealand in the 1990s, about how painstaking police work and community involvement lead to the capture of a rampaging serial rapist. It is a beautifully-written, intensely moving thriller of a book. Or Tragedy at Pike River by Rebecca Macfie, an account of events that lead to an explosion in a coal mine on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand in 2010 in which 29 men were killed and for which no one has paid any sort of price. As you read about one penny-pinching, profit-driven, mean-spirited, inept decision after another you know that each clunky misstep is getting you closer to a terrible disaster. A brilliant book.

As for my top three…? Marathon Man by William Goldman is superb on all levels. Great dialogue, great characterisation, brilliant plotting. The Taking of Pelham 123 by John Godey – a tawdry piece of pulp sure, but hell it’s good! And maybe The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt – a Western more than a crime novel, but full of guns (see above). “I thought you was lawmen?” “We’re the opposite of lawmen.” The Sisters Brothers is also a terrific example of how a writer can wander off on tangents and take the reader along. And tons of others. James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones – mein Gott! You want crime?! You want guns?! The Kindly Ones is an amazing novel. Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines (not to be confused with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I haven’t read). My favourite novel, and one that I would happily take to a desert island, is Clancy Sigal’s Going Away. I’m fairly sure it has guns in it. It has cops and commies and strikebreakers so… . I don’t know why I love it so much but I do. The copy I have is one I stole from the Edmonton Public Library in 1974 – so you could say it’s a petty crime novel. Boom!