18 November 2014

Postcards from the River

A couple of years ago, I was living in a city called Hamilton. It's one of New Zealand's few inland cities; New Zealand is a long, thin slice of country and the ocean (Pacific Ocean to the right, Tasman Sea to the left) is never more than an hour or two's drive away. Although inland, Hamilton is not without water frontage, as the Waikato River flows through the center of the city and effectively splits it into two.

I lived a couple of blocks from the river, and the office building I worked in downtown was located riverside on London Street. Naturally, I often walked to and from the office each day along the river, taking advantage of the excellent system of paved city walkways that hugged the river bank.

Given the remoteness of some parts of the track, and the signs of nocturnal delinquency (graffiti, condoms, needles, etc.), I expected most mornings to find a body. I did "find" a couple of drunks and several shifty teenagers, but thankfully never anyone dead. My mind had other ideas. Although I've never used the riverbank walkway specifically as a setting, it has inspired two short stories: Boundary Bridge (where an angry, American TV writer shoves a young man off one of Hamilton's five bridges into the river); and The Riverboat (which curiously ended up being set in the early 20th century, in the deep south of the US).

The Waikato River flows through the Waikato Plains region of the North Island of New Zealand, and at 425 kilometers (265 miles), it's the country's longest waterway. The Waikato Plains are one of the country's dairy heartlands, and Hamilton is the region's largest city (the fourth largest in the country). Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross

One Monday morning, however, there was a dead body at the end of my walk. It was in the alleyway next to the front entrance of the office building I worked in (located about 20 yards from the river).

Actually, the body was no longer there; there wasn't even a chalk outline (they don't actually draw those). There was, however, a police line, a couple of dozen evidence markers, a frozen police officer, and a sea of fingerprint powder residue -- every inch of the alley and the building's entrance, every rock, every piece of litter, all of it caked in the stuff.

The police officer was frozen because he was dressed in his uniform of a blue shirt and dark slacks. I, by contrast, was dressed for an Antarctic expedition -- it was the middle of winter. It doesn't snow in Hamilton, but we were down to about 2°C that morning (that's less than 36°F).

According to the slowly-turning-blue representative of the thin blue line, the dead body of a man had been discovered in the early hours of the morning. The street had been closed off and a forensics team brought in to examine the scene. Yes, the man had been murdered.

The body had been taken away about 30 minutes before I arrived. The remaining officer was standing watch, preserving the scene (possibly forever) as the detective in charge hadn't given the all clear, which meant access to the building was a no go.

"You're not going in there, mate," said the officer, who must have been made out of concrete -- or was slowly turning into concrete.

"When can I go in? I work on the second floor of that building."

"I think you might be getting the day off, mate."

That was nice of him.

My boss (who arrived a few minutes later), when informed of this hindrance in our approach to our desks, and at our being given a day's holiday by the constabulary, said, "This is not good enough." Actually, he didn't say that, but that was the implication I could extract from the obscenities.

After about an hour, the all clear was finally given and we were allowed to enter the building -- to thaw out from the cold. It was a gloomy day at the office; not a joke was uttered. Bad taste took that offered day's holiday. The media had a vulture's picnic on the doorstep, and the scene of the crime became a tourist destination for Hamilton's lowlifes.

Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross "The Waikato River flowed through Hamilton like a dark freeway. I spent afternoons sitting at the table in the living room staring down at its cool, shady water. Any day, damn it, I was going to jump in and hitch a ride out of town."

Stephen Ross

In the afternoon, a friend said: "I suppose you'll use this murder in a story?"

My reply was "No".

I make a very clear separation in my mind between real murder and imaginary murder, and I don't have a lot to do with the real stuff. Sure, I read about such stories in the newspaper, but note them only in passing. I don't believe I've written any story inspired by real life events.

The thing about writing crime fiction (and the operative word here is fiction) is that I get to make it all up. And importantly, I get to serve up justice where and how I see fit. Murder in the real world isn't that neat and tidy, and most writers, I guess, write because we want to bring order to that chaos...  And I won't write anymore on that line of thought, as I'm sure there are at least 50,000 university papers already collecting dust.

Real murder is complicated. It's ugly and banal. The "wonderful" killers I get to write about don't exist in the real world (inventing "Moriarty" types is a big part of the fun of writing).

Hamilton, New Zealand, June 2010

The dead man in London Street was Donald Alfred Stewart. He was 74. Towards midnight on Sunday 27 June, he stopped his car to use a public restroom in the central city. He was murdered for his car keys. His killer, a boy aged 14, and his accomplices, aged 15 and 17, were caught within days. All three were tried, convicted, and jailed.

Click here for New Zealand Herald report
Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross

Be seeing you…



  1. Beautiful pix. I agree about keeping true crime away from fiction. By the way, i enjoyed your Gallery of the Dead in the latest AHMM. Congrats!

  2. Stephen, I know what you mean. I borrow heavily from real-life characters, er, people and observations and events, but an actual murder is something else entirely.

    Great use of the layout, Stephen. It looks sharp.

  3. Stephen, even with murder as the topic, those photos show a great, beautiful place to live. I admire Anne Rule and others who write true crime, but like you, I separate reality from fiction. I'm asked frequently why I don't write about my best friend who was beaten to death during an in home invasion or the man I dated who was shot and killed by his teenaged son. The young man had mental problems. The truth is that I require that line between the horrible reality of murder and fiction where justice is usually just.
    How's the film coming along?

  4. I'm in line with everyone else on this. Real crime is generally sordid, and depressing, and I'm not writing it into fiction. No one would believe it anyway.

    Enjoyed this, Stephen. As I've written in several forums, your story, "The Riverboat," was excellent. I have a story set in the antebellum South coming out in EQMM in the March issue (I think).

  5. Stephen, I always enjoy learning about other countries. Thanks for your descriptions and excellent photos.
    As for writing about true crimes and criminals, like you, I don't write about the actual horrific stuff. However, I do borrow characters from my 25 years on the street and use some part of them as protagonists, antagonists and fill in characters. And, I frequently find myself using some aspects of their cons, scams and crimes in a short story plot. Most of my story killings take place off scene anyway, so it's not been a problem.
    Like Rob, I enjoyed your "Gallery of the Dead," but then I've liked all your short stories to date. Keep 'em coming.

  6. I realize I wrote about true v fictional crime a few years ago: http://criminalbrief.com/?p=14120

    Nothing about rivers, though.

  7. Thanks, Rob. I took those photos one foggy January morning (2011) while walking into the office. Glad you liked GOTD!

  8. Fran, the river was a beautiful sight to see every morning, and again in the late afternoon on the return trip.

    The film is in post production. It's looking good. I had hoped for a December premiere, but I'm thinking it'll be more likely January, now.

  9. Thanks, David! I'm looking forward to that story you mention!

  10. Thanks, RT! I plan to write some more about NZ soon. BTW, I sometimes wish I had your 25 years of experience to draw upon when writing. I have about 25 years of "office" experience. It's not quite the same thing :)

  11. And thanks to Leigh, for spotting and correcting my inaccurate conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit! Sometimes, Google lies. Who'd have known?!?

  12. A thought-provoking article, Stephen. And an interesting point re: real murder vs. fictional killing. Really enjoyed the way you entwined it with the flowing river, too.

    I have actually written a story or two that were inspired by actual murders I'd read about in the paper, or were associated with events which I ran into at work. One story hasn't sold, and I doubt it will. The other is still out, so we'll see what happens. Nonetheless, I have to agree that I fictionalized things tremendously for the stories, and probably altered them to the point where any resemblance to reality had completely disappeared. So, perhaps, I too hold with your writing theory in this way.


  13. Stephen, when I was a kid, I saw photographs of New Zealand. The one that stuck with me showed a lush valley, sheep grazing, and mountains rising above the distant horizon. It was so beautiful, I decided I wanted to visit it one day. I've set foot on four continents, but I still haven't made it to Oceania.

  14. Thanks, Dixon! Best of luck with those stories!

  15. Leigh, the trouble with New Zealand (since time began) is that it's SO far away from EVERYWHERE. Australia doesn't count ;)


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