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The Call
by Gavin Strawhan

A 'smart, complex, nuanced' crime story.

By March 20, 2024April 9th, 2024No Comments

Halfway through the first chapter it was immediately obvious to me why Gavin Strawhan’s first novel The Call had won Allen & Unwin’s Fiction Prize for 2023. It’s a cracking crime thriller that has all the slick polish and depth you expect of a top-of-the-range international offering, but still uncompromisingly Kiwi to the marrow of its bones. It’s genuinely gripping and suspenseful yet more layered and nuanced than most genre potboilers.

This is, perhaps, unsurprising. Strawhan has worked as a writer, executive producer and showrunner for television. He wrote Testify and Black Hands for Warner Bros NZ; he was co-creator of Go Girls and Nothing Trivial, a writer and showrunner for This Is Not My Life, and variously script editor, head writer, then producer on Shortland Street in the 90s. This is someone who knows the machinery of storytelling intimately in its most competitive setting and employs it to the full in this debut novel.

In places The Call reads as though it was intended to be adapted into a screenplay, in the best way. I suspect Strawhan had that in mind when he wrote it, and sometimes seems to allude to it: ‘Before Honey could answer, there was a throaty roar as the BMW fired up and pulled away with a Hollywood screech’. Indeed, an extended passage describing one character’s final moments reads exactly like a screen treatment.

Auckland Police Detective Sergeant Honey Chalmers has returned to her remote coastal hometown, the fictional Waitutū (aptly, ‘Churning Waters’), to nurse her wounds after a violent attempt on her life, and to take care of her mother, Rachel, who has dementia and is learning other languages to try and ward it off. Strawhan nails this with intelligence and empathy:

Now, three weeks later, her mother was putting bilingual Post-it notes all around the house. Table, Chair. Teapot. Some days she was unable to remember the thing in her hand with the sticky sweet dark coating (chocolate biscuit/ Qiăokèlì bĭnggān) but she wasn’t going gently. She applied her formidable will to the task of not getting to the point where Honey, with a clear conscience, could have her assigned to supported care. Or sent to the knacker’s, as Rachel would have it.

Honey has a complicated relationship with Waitutū – a character in its own right and a place that feels very authentic to small town Aotearoa:

There used to be a halfway decent Indian place, but that had closed along with the haberdashery and the hippie crystal and bead place where teenage Honey took a five-finger discount while her little sister gazed at the dreamcatchers. Now half the main street was for lease. After the plague, the floods had been the final straw.

‘Too many ghosts’ haunt this home town, including that of Honey’s younger sister Scarlett, who committed suicide – ‘air-walked off the South Head cliffs – when she was seventeen. But Honey needs to hide out as well as convalesce. Back in Auckland she got too close to a gang informant, mother-of-three Kloe Kovich, now missing. Waitutū, however, proves to be no safe haven: a couple of gang enforcers – an Australian 501 export called the Reapers – turn up there hoping that Honey, who they tried and failed to kill, will lead them to Kloe.

If that’s not complicated enough, Honey crosses paths with her childhood friend Marshall, for whom she has complicated feelings; he may have been having a relationship with Scarlett and was the last person to see her alive. Long buried secrets start emerging. And then Kloe arrives in town and Honey decides to try and save her.

This may sound like a standard crime-novel plot, but the writing here elevates it. Strawhan is able to sketch out an entire history of feelings with a deft, well observed economy:

‘Klo?’ It was Marty. She felt a flicker of hope. Of all the boys, he was the most considerate – polite towards her, a family friend. He had played with the kids, for fuck’s sake, helped them make a fort down the back last summer, let Nico ride him like a horse. But behind him, filling the doorway, was Keg, all dirty denim and leather and Ray-Ban wrap-around knock-offs.

Strawhan is also particularly good at getting inside characters who are nothing like him. Female crime novelists often write male protagonists, but the reverse is less usual: another recent example in local crime fiction is Michael Bennett’s detective Hana Westerman in Better the Blood (2022). The Call is largely written from Honey’s point of view, but includes sections of other perspectives, including several of the women characters: Kloe, her gang-loyal sister Renata, Kloe’s teenage daughter Shyla and Honey’s childhood friend Gemma.

Even writing the gang members, Strawhan manages to be empathetic, giving a sense of why they are what they are, but without soft-pedalling their brutality. The taut economy of the prose is impressive:

Hammer wasn’t a big man but that didn’t hold him back. In a stoush he was fast and relentless; like a pit bull you’d have to chop his head off to make him let go. He got that way by a familiar route. Born in the Hutt Valley to a struggling teenage mum, he spent his formative years in and out of a Catholic boy’s home; he was eleven when his older brother hung himself from a shelf in the work shed where Father Farley abused him. His mother finally took him away, to Elizabeth, a burnt, desolate satellite town north of Adelaide, where she had relatives. A fresh start for both. It didn’t take. She went through the windshield, three times over the limit, when he was seventeen.

The Call is a smart, complex, nuanced story; it’s a powerful tale of betrayal and redemption, forgiveness and despair, kindness and love. It’s also a surprisingly funny book at times, although it includes traumatic subjects – suicide, dementia, murder, rape. As you would hope with a crime thriller, there’s a twist at the end, and this one’s a doozy. I’m looking forward from more from Strawhan, and hope that Honey Chalmers gets some more outings.

The Call

by Gavin Strawhan

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781991006790

Published: March 2024

Format: Paperback, 304 pages

Andrew Paul Wood

Andrew Paul Wood is an independent art and cultural historian, critic, culture journalist and translator based in Ōtautahi Christchurch. His most recent book is Shadow Worlds: A History of the Occult and Esoteric in New Zealand.