Showing posts with label New Zealand. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New Zealand. Show all posts

12 March 2017

International GoodBooks

by Leigh Lundin

I love Looking Glass Alice and good books and well-done animation and charitable causes. When they come together, that's Wonderland. Check out this lovely Alice clip from the land of Stephen Ross— New Zealand.


The good folks at International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) can apparently deliver pretty much anything worldwide through Amazon channels. I haven’t tried it yet, but if you use their portal rather than Amazon’s, purchases are supposed to work the same but they get credit.

Brilliant, both the sentiment and the advert. Let me know how you make out.

For fans of the surreal Alice like me, Disney’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland is delightful and much better than the 2016 Through the Looking Glass follow-up. I also admired the computer game America McGee’s Alice for its brilliant music and surrealism.

Before leaving New Zealand and the phantasmagorical, check out this 1967 NZ classic by House of Nimrod, Slightly-Delic. (Page includes a free download.)

24 August 2015

Queen of Crime

by Stephen Ross

I met Sam Neill (the movie actor) once. For a short time, in a galaxy far, far away (the 1980s), I worked as a bank clerk on campus at the University of Auckland, and Mr Neill came in one quiet afternoon to make enquiries about foreign exchanges. His brother was a lecturer at the university (his brother, Michael, would later be one of my English professors). I mention this brush with movie stardom simply because I can state that I have met and spoken to someone who not only knew, but was a good friend of, writer Ngaio Marsh.

Ngaio Marsh sold four stories to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I mention this upfront, because it's the only other connection (albeit tenuous) that I can claim to her; I too have had stories appear in the same magazine.

Ngaio Marsh's 
short stories 
in EQMM
I Can't Find My Way Out (August 1946)
Death on the Air (January 1948)
Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery (August 1973)
A Fool About Money (December 1974)

A couple of Dames at the Savoy (Christie and Marsh)
Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in 1895 (April 23; same birthday as Shakespeare) and died in 1982. In both instances, in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you want to talk about New Zealand and crime/mystery fiction, you start (and can pretty much end) with Ngaio Marsh. From the 1930s through to the 1980s, Ngaio Marsh wrote 32 novels (most still in print). She is considered to be one the leading writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and along with her stable mates Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers, has been described as one of the original four Queens of Crime. The actual Queen (Elizabeth 2), made Marsh a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1966, and in 1978 (along with Dame Daphne du Maurier), Dame Ngaio Marsh became a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's highest honour: the Grand Master Award. No other New Zealand writer of mystery fiction has yet achieved her standing. In fact, no other New Zealand writer. Period.

Ngaio Marsh's parents met in Christchurch. Her mother, Rose, was a New Zealander and an actress, and her father, Henry, was British and a bank clerk with an interest in the theatre. They were married in 1894 and Edith, their only child, was born the following year. An uncle fluent in Maori was asked to provide an indigenous middle name (a custom at the time, apparently), and he came up with "Ngaio", which is a Maori word for a type of tree, with the additional connotations of clever, methodical, and restless.


So, how do you pronounce Ngaio? And I have been asked. Being an authority on the New Zealand vocabulary and accent (because I be one), I can tell you it's pronounced Nigh-Oh [ /ˈnaɪ.oʊ/ ].


Marsh's childhood, from all accounts, was reasonably spiffing and splendid (we'll skip over the fact that she was bullied at school and for a time (10-14 years) was home-schooled). She read everybody. Ah... pause for a moment to imagine a life before the Internet, before television. Imagine summer afternoons in the countryside reading Kipling, Dickens, Henry Fielding, Smollett, Shakespeare, and Conan Doyle. You can just picture her, in Edwardian attire, basking on a blanket in a soft breeze, with a flask of lemonade, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and thoroughly absorbed in Smollet's The Adventures of Roderick Random (mark the name Roderick well).

In addition to reading, Marsh also had a taste for the theatre, like her parents, and while still in school she mounted several amateur theatrical productions. She also began writing: short stories and plays. At first, her audience was her school peers, but by her 20s, she was in print, with stories and poems appearing regularly in Christchurch's The Sun newspaper. She also had a strong passion for painting, and she graduated in 1917 with an Arts diploma (first-class honours) from Canterbury University College (Christchurch is located in the Canterbury province of New Zealand).

By the time Marsh was in her early twenties, the three corners of her world had been set. It's no surprise, then, that theatre and the arts would later form the backdrop to several of her novels. And although painting would figure prominently throughout her life (dare I call it a hobby), it was to the gravitational pull of words, both those written down and those spoken aloud, where her heart fell.

For the next ten years after graduation, until 1928, Marsh continued developing her talents as a writer: writing plays and working on a "New Zealand" novel. Together with a group of likeminded artists she formed "The Group" (a group, mostly women, with avant-garde leanings). And she found on-going employment with a handful of professional theatre companies. It was in this time that she "paid her dues" and learnt her theatre craft. In fact, had Marsh never written a single novel, she would still be recognized as one of the doyens of 20th Century New Zealand theatre. Indeed, my first introduction to her was in a theatre, when I was 14. I had joined an amateur repertory company (the other members were mostly adults), and I remember Marsh being spoken about with reverence on winter evenings over cups of hot tea and crumbly digestives (a type of cookie).

Marsh (in beret) with "The Group", 1936
My first introduction to Ngaio Marsh the author had come about earlier, when I was about 6 or 7, only I hadn't been aware of it at the time. There was a bookshelf in my parents' living room. The upper shelves were lined with the classics of literature, and the lower shelves with a healthy selection of crime fiction (Cat among the Pigeons, Death on the Nile, etc.). One title on the bottom shelf always caught my eye: "Surfeit of Lampreys". I was a small boy. The title may as well have been written in Klingon. Or Latin.

In April 2012, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine published my short story Pueri Alleynienses, and a friend asked me if the Latin title was a reference to Ngaio Marsh's detective, the principal character of all 32 of her novels, Roderick Alleyn. No, it wasn't, but then I discovered, unintentionally, that it was. My story was about two old men who, many years earlier, had attended Dulwich College in London. Pueri Alleynienses is the title of the Dulwich school song. It translates from the Latin as "Boys of Alleyn" (the founder of Dulwich College was Edward Alleyn). My interest in Dulwich had been based on the fact that Raymond Chandler had been a pupil there (1900-1905). In 1882, part of Dulwich College was annexed as a separate school, to be known simply as Alleyn's School, and it was at this school that Ngaio Marsh's father received an education, and from where she took a name for her character.

And a home for her character, too. London. Inspector Roderick Alleyn worked for Scotland Yard. He was British, a member of the gentry (his older brother was a baronet). He was an Oxford graduate, and had a background in the British army and the Foreign Service before he joined the Met. Almost all of Marsh's 32 books are set in England, with just four set in New Zealand, where Alleyn is either on secondment to the New Zealand Police, or is on holiday (Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool, Vintage Murder, Photo Finish). A fifth, Surfeit of Lampreys, starts out in New Zealand, but promptly returns to London and stays there.

Why London? Because in 1928, Marsh went to live there. Why? Probably because, like most other New Zealand artists and creatives (and even more so 80 odd years ago), New Zealand is a bit empty. Even today, the population is well under five million, spread out over a land mass equivalent in size to the United Kingdom, or California, and not a lot of people in that population could give a flying truck about the local arts scene. Unless it involves Peter Jackson and lots of loud noises.

Nowadays it's called going on The Big OE (Overseas Experience). Yes, there is actually a name for it: when young New Zealanders venture overseas to find fame and fortune, or to get a life. Nowadays, an OE could mean venturing anywhere: Spain, Norway, the US, South America; but until about 20 years ago, it meant only one thing: London. There are very few New Zealanders who work, or have worked, in the arts who haven't done it. Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, to name two others. Even I’ve done it. I lived in Soho for a year (before decamping for the continent). The Big OE is written into the DNA of many New Zealanders.

Marsh (1935)
London's (and Europe's) appeal to Marsh would have been great. To quote Eddie Izzard, "It's where the history comes from." Marsh's father was British, her mother a second-generation New Zealander with strong family connections to the "old" country. And through her connections in the New Zealand theatre world, Marsh landed in London on her feet running and co-opened an arts and crafts shop in Knightsbridge. She wrote a series of travel articles that were syndicated by the Associated Press, the strength of which gained her admission to the Society of Authors in 1929. And she gave up on her New Zealand novel. The "colonial novel" had by this time become a little passé, and not something an artistic, sophisticated, independent lady of London would care for.

And then one wet winter's weekend in 1931, trapped indoors with nothing much else to do, a bored Marsh thought she would try her hand at a detective novel. She had been reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries since she had been a child, and she was au fait with the emerging detective genre (she had read Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al). The Golden Age of Mystery Fiction had begun, and Marsh probably didn't realize it when she put pen to paper that weekend, but she was about to join it. Her first book, A Man Lay Dying was published three years later in 1934. Inspector Roderick Alleyn entered the minds of readers and found their favour, along with most critics'.

Marsh was back in Christchurch when the book went to print, having returned in 1932 to nurse her ill mother. She wouldn't return to Europe until the late 1930s, and from then on she largely made her home in New Zealand. The Big OE was over. If I was to write a movie script about Marsh, that's where I'd end it: The publication of her first book to great reception. The end. Roll credits. The rest of her life is largely a matter of bibliography and milestone. She wrote 31 more novels featuring Inspector Alleyn (about one every 1-2 years), cementing her place in the literary pantheon. She wrote numerous plays, short stories, articles, and three works of non-fiction, including an autobiography. And she dedicated the remainder of her time to her other love: theatre.

Selected Milestones 
(not mentioned above)



1949
Penguin Books publishes the Marsh Million, in which one million copies of ten of her titles (i.e. 100,000 x 10) were released on the same day.

1950
Marsh produces her favourite play (Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author) at the Embassy Theatre in London.

It's interesting that this was her favourite play, given her love of Shakespeare. It's an oddball piece of theatre (in my tainted opinion -- I sat through a million amateur performances of it in the 1980s as a lighting designer). I much prefer Rod Serling's Five Characters in Search of an Exit, if you know your Twilight Zone.

1951 
An Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reader's poll votes Marsh one of the best mystery writers currently active.

1963 
Receives an honorary doctorate in literature from Canterbury University.

1967 
The Ngaio Marsh Theatre opens. It is a 400-seat proscenium-arch theatre on campus at the University of Canterbury (currently closed due to earthquake damage). Opening night was a Ngaio Marsh produced production of Twelfth Night.

1967 
Death at the Dolphin nominated for the Edgar Award

1969 
Marsh produces A Midsummer's Night's Dream, starring Sam Neill.

1973 
Tied up in Tinsel nominated for the Edgar Award

1978 
South Pacific Pictures (a NZ television company) produces four feature-length adaptations of the New Zealand-set novels, starring George Baker as Inspector Alleyn.

Click here to watch online: Died in the Wool

1990-94
The BBC produces The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, adapting nine of the novels.

2010 
The Ngaio Marsh Award is established by journalist Craig Sisterson. The award is given each year to the best crime novel written by a citizen (or resident) of New Zealand. 

Roderick Alleyn

Roderick Alleyn's initials are RA. As a painter, Marsh would have known that the initials "RA" after an artist's name stand for Royal Academician, i.e. an artist elected (to the distinguished title) by members of the Royal Academy of Arts. I mention this purely as an observation.

Agatha Troy 

Agatha Troy first appears in Artists in Crime (1938). She is a famous painter. She is Marsh's version of Agatha Christie's  Ariadne Oliver -- i.e. a character through which the author can vicariously live in the story. Troy reappears in the later books and becomes Alleyn's wife.

Ngaio Marsh's 
Mystery Books 
1. A Man Lay Dead (1934)
2. Enter a Murderer (1935)
3. The Nursing Home Murder (1935)
4. Death in Ecstasy (1936)
5. Vintage Murder (1937)
6. Artists in Crime (1938)
7. Death in a White Tie (1938)
8. Overture to Death (1939)
9. Death at the Bar (1940)
10. Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) [US: Death of a Peer]
11. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)
12. Colour Scheme (1943)
13. Died in the Wool (1945)
14. Final Curtain (1947)
15. Swing Brother Swing (1949) [US: A Wreath for Rivera]
16. Opening Night (1951) [US: Night at the Vulcan]
17. Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954) [US: The Bride of Death (abridged, 1955)]
18. Scales of Justice (1955)
19. Off With His Head (1957) [US: Death of a Fool]
20. Singing in the Shrouds (1959)
21. False Scent (1960)
22. Hand in Glove (1962)
23. Dead Water (1964)
24. Death at the Dolphin (1967) [US: Killer Dolphin]
25. Clutch of Constables (1968)
26. When in Rome (1970)
27. Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)
28. Black As He's Painted (1974)
29. Last Ditch (1977)
30. Grave Mistake (1978)
31. Photo Finish (1980)
32. Light Thickens (1982)

Don’t ask me to name a favourite Marsh. I've only read two of them, and a long time ago at that. The word tardy is applicable. In researching this little post, I turned up the fact that the bafflingly titled book on my parent's bookshelf, Surfeit of Lampreys, is considered her best book. I've left a memo on my desk to get a copy and read it.

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.

Light Thickens was Marsh's final novel (1982). The title is taken from a line in Shakespeare's Macbeth (quoted above), and a principal element of the book concerns the theatrical taboo of "the Scottish play". Marsh completed the book shortly before her death. The Golden Age was over. The last queen was dead.


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Photos: The Christchurch Press, The NZ National Library

20 January 2015

The Long White Cloud

by Raymond Chandler

You probably didn't expect to read an entry from me in this slot. I'm in New Zealand house-sitting for the kid (Stephen Ross); he's gone on vacation to work on his book. I suspect he's really gone on vacation to catch up on his reading; he's a prince among procrastinators, and there's a gap on the bookshelf where his collection of Perry Mason mysteries used to reside.

The kid asked me look after his house, feed his cat, and ghost write this blog entry. I have no interest in being a ghost, and blog is not a word to inspire confidence; it has a connotation best left to outhouses. I offered to write him a journal entry. He said, "Call it what you like, dude." The kid is under the misapprehension I am a cowboy.

There's no cash remuneration involved. He's left me with the run of his house, a full refrigerator, access to the Internet, WiFi, satellite television, and a Kindle. I'm not entirely sure what a Kindle is supposed to do, but it's convenient as a tray for my cup of coffee.

I may be of antique vintage, but I don't shy away from technology. I owned one of the first television sets in my building and on the block. The old woman in the neighboring apartment thought it was the work of the devil. She left bibles outside my door. The kid has a television set. It has the dimensions of a pool table and is about as thick as a paperback. For three days, I thought it was a room divider. I also invented Google, apparently.

So, what can I say? It's January and the weather is summer, which is strange to my Northern Hemisphere sensibilities. I'm sitting here at the kid's desk in a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts. My socks are English (they're plain and polite). The electric fan that's oscillating nearby came from Korea. The kid's desk was made in Canada, and he bought it in Germany. I suppose the carpet came from the Moon.
The kid's house is in Whangaparaoa; a peninsula that juts out like a finger, pointing across the Pacific at North America. I'm about 25 miles north of Auckland, which is the country's largest city (pop 1.3 million), and until 1865 the country's capital (until they relocated the government down to Wellington, at the request of Sir Peter Jackson). Do I like the Lord of The Rings and the Hobbit movies? No. I'd rather watch cloud formations.

New Zealand is located at the foot of the Pacific Ocean, and it's so damp, it may as well lie at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It has a population of 4.5 million and a climate that I would describe as peculiar, as in you'd walk on the other side of the street to avoid talking to it. I'm sitting here in the heat and humidity of the sub tropics and in winter you can go snow skiing.

New Zealand is so far south (by the way, only Australians are ever truly considered "downunder") that the southern city of Christchurch is the last gas station before Antarctica (Scott, Shackleton, and every scientist currently down there now has swung by at some point).

I can hear the cat scratching at the front door.

For the life of me, I don't know how to pronounce Whangaparaoa correctly, and any word that requires five "a"s to get about its task of being a word is plainly asking for trouble. According to Starchild, the waitress at the Pacific Bar (about a block from the kid's house), Whangaparaoa is a Maori word and it translates as "bay of whales". This may be correct, as I'm sure I heard the echoing sound of one in the distance yesterday morning.

They used to hunt whales in this country. A couple of hundred years ago, there were a handful of whaling stations dotted along the country's coastline, worked chiefly by British, Scots, Irish, Scandinavian, and North American whaling teams. These impromptu towns were the original "Hellholes of the Pacific"; cheap rum, prostitution, and absolutely no law whatsoever. Shoot a man dead and he'd lie in the street until someone downwind got fed up enough to move him.

According to Starchild, whales are now a protected species (it's a jail-able offence to kill one), and anyone who tries to hunt one down within 200 nautical miles of the New Zealand coastline will in turn be hunted down by the Royal New Zealand Navy (and their harpoons have fancier names... like torpedo).

I just went and fed the cat (it's the late afternoon). The cat didn't seem remotely interested in the bowl of colorful kitten nibbles I laid out for it. It had a quizzical look and held its paw up, as though it was requesting a menu, and it seemed miffed there was none. I have no idea if cats are a protected species in this country, but I do know that we human people should be a protected species from them.

The kid's cat is a feisty little furred creature that shifts the doormat each day, leaves fur balls on the pavement leading up to the door, and is considering a life of crime, as most cats are. You can tell by the eyes. Go look at your cat and it'll show you its innocent eyes; its ain't I as adorably cute as a button eyes. Slip a couple of drops of catnip into its milk and it'll lose that veneer. Then you'll see the other face: The 3 a.m. face, when it drops its guard and truly reveals how it feels. It's going to kill something: a mouse, an insect, a bird... maybe even you.

Cats are one of the few animals that kill for the hell of it. Humans are the other one. Most animals kill for survival or out of fear. A cat will dispatch a mouse with as little thought as Lucky Luciano. It'll even leave the body on your doorstep as a "present", which is its thinly veiled way of saying: "You could be next."

Charles Darwin was the first to observe it: Cats don't have opposable thumbs. That's why they can't open doors or load hand guns. If they had them, my name would be "Fluffy Chandler" and we human people would all be in the cat pampering business. Wait a minute...

It's now about 11 in the evening, and I'm sitting here with a glass of wine and am quietly contemplating names. The kid left me the key to his liquor cabinet, but the only thing in it was a half-drunk bottle of Le Chat Noir. My New Year resolution for 2015, by the way, was to quit drinking. This has become my traditional way of starting a new year.

Why is this little country at the foot of the world named "New Zealand"? Where's the old Zealand? Does everyone here have a lot of Zeal? I made a long arm for the kid's bookshelf and his encyclopedia. According to what I read:

The first European to sight the country was the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman (in 1642). He named the country Niew Zeeland, after the Dutch province of Zeeland. He didn't stick around. After making landfall, four members of his crew were killed by a local Maori tribe. Tasman named the place it happened "Murderer's Bay". He never came back, but he is remembered: the stretch of water between New Zealand and Australia is named the Tasman Sea.

In 1769 (126 years later), the British Admiralty dispatched Captain James Cook down to the bottom of the Pacific (to look for the mythical Great Southern Continent), and he rediscovered Tasman's New Zealand (the anglicized spelling of the Dutch). Cook circumnavigated the country and drew the first map. He discovered that New Zealand was a long country (about 500 miles) and principally divided into two islands: the North Island and the South Island; with a land mass equivalent to the United Kingdom or Japan.

Around this time, the French had a serious sniff of New Zealand, and at least one Spanish and Portuguese expedition took respective peeks. The reason the kid speaks English today can be attributed to the British Admiralty -- they sent Cook back on several more expeditions, and firmly established the notion that if any colonial power was going to shove a flag into the turf, it was going to be the British. Oui.

The Maori people didn't have a flag, and their name for the country was "Aotearoa" -- a name largely ignored by the Pakeha (Gringos) until the mid 20th century. Today, the kid's passport bears both names. Like the European settlers, the Maori also sailed to New Zealand, arriving around AD 750 (they were part of the great Polynesian migration that populated all the islands of the Pacific). According to Starchild, Aotearoa translates roughly as "land of the long white cloud".

And at least the Maori people had a bit more imagination when it came to naming things (North Island, South Island, FFS!? to use the modern vernacular). And the country would have been better known as the land of the long goodbye, given how long it would have taken to sail to the bottom of the world in those days, and the lack of certainty you'd ever arrive there in the end. The breath of the wind is not the most reliable of ways to travel.

Starchild told me a joke: A man tells a woman if she marries him, he'll take her to the end of the world. She marries him. He drives her to Invercargill.

The kid left the following note for inclusion in this journal entry.

Many thanks to Raymond for ghostwriting this blog entry for me. I seem to have so many writing tasks on my list of things to do at the moment, it's crazy! I will be back as soon as my workload lightens up a bit. Thanks to all of you! You guys are the best! Be seeing you soon...


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30 December 2014

The Ponsonby Post Office Murder

by Stephen Ross

On the evening of Saturday, March 13, a person or persons unknown entered the house of Mr. Augustus Braithwaite, the postmaster of Ponsonby. Braithwaite was shot dead and the keys to his post office stolen from his pocket.

Ponsonby is a central city neighborhood in Auckland, and the post office (built in the Edwardian era and featuring a clock tower) has long been a focal point and landmark in the neighborhood.

The postmaster's inert body was discovered by his wife. He was still warm, and a doctor was telephoned for. The attending doctor immediately recognized that he was looking at bullet wounds (one to the abdomen and a second to the throat), that Braithwaite had been murdered, and a police constable was summoned.

It quickly became apparent that the postmaster's keys were missing. Within an hour, the police constable, together with officers from the detective branch of the Auckland police, made their way to the Ponsonby post office...  It had been robbed. The strong room had been unlocked and the cashboxes inside jimmied open. Clear fingerprints were evident on three of the boxes.

On March 15, the cashboxes, together with a list of the usual suspects (24 known criminals thought to be in Auckland on the night) were sent by train down to the CRB (Criminal Registration Branch) at the headquarters of the New Zealand police in Wellington. They arrived on the desk of the nation's fingerprint expert: Senior Sergeant E. W. Dinnie (ex Scotland Yard and 17 years of fingerprint investigative work to his name).

No fingerprint match was found.

Three days after the murder, which had gripped the nation and had taken up residence on the front page of every daily newspaper, a retired prison warder thought he might drop by the Auckland police headquarters. The retired warder had seen a man by the name of Dennis Gunn in the vicinity of the Ponsonby post office. In fact, he had seen Gunn loitering several times near the building on the day of the murder/robbery.

Dennis Gunn wasn't a known criminal, but he had two years earlier served a two week sentence in jail for the conviction of evading military service, and the retired warder had recognized him. Subsequent to the criminal conviction, Gunn's fingerprints were on file.

A telephone call was put into the CRB in Wellington. Within hours, they had a fingerprint match, and four days after the robbery, Dennis Gunn was arrested and charged with the postmaster's murder.

Gunn is on record as having smugly remarked to the arresting detective: "You'll have the devil of a job to prove it."

Three days after Gunn's arrest, a recently-fired revolver was located in a canvas bag in the bush down a steep gully near his mother's house (where he lived), together with the stolen post office keys, a jimmy, and a bag containing 229 pennies. A fingerprint matching Gunn's was taken from the revolver.

Gunn was still confidently smug.

A ballistics match was quickly made with the revolver: Grooves were matched. There was little doubt the gun (a .38) had fired the two bullets that had killed Braithwaite.

Gunn was still confidently smug. He was probably sitting in his police cell, clipping his fingernails, and thinking about hopping aboard a steamer bound for the islands for his summer vacation.

Gunn was smug because this was 1920, forensic science was still in its infancy, and no New Zealand citizen (in fact, no citizen in the entire British Empire) had ever been convicted of murder based solely on the evidence of fingerprints.

And there was no other evidence. The two gunshots had been heard, but in 1920, it wasn't an uncommon occurrence to hear a gun being fired (it was only two years after the Great War, and many a man still had his service revolver tucked away in his sock drawer).

There were no eyewitnesses, no convenient boot impressions left in the mud, no left-behind telltale strands of hair or threads of fabric. Nothing (not even the gun proved traceable). All there was were sets of damp little etchings, where a man's hands had touched several metal surfaces and had left behind little impressions of whorls and ridges.

Gunn had no alibi. He had no plausible explanation as to why he had hung around the post office that day, and he couldn't account for his whereabouts at the time of the murder. His trial began on Monday, May 24 at the Auckland Supreme Court, and quickly became a test case.

The matching fingerprints were the only things that tied Gunn to the gun and to the cashboxes; and the reliability of fingerprints as evidence was furiously argued against and discredited by his lawyer. As Gunn's lawyer correctly pointed out, there was simply no precedent for such a serious conviction based on such evidence.

After five days of heated courtroom debate, the jury retired for deliberation. Given that this was only two years after the First World War, when New Zealand's population was around 1.2 million, and that the country had recently lost more than 17000 men in the fighting; and given the fact that Gunn's earlier conviction was for desertion (a fact known to the jury); they'd have probably hung him for jaywalking.

A verdict of Guilty was returned for the robbery (the takings from the post office had amounted to 67 pounds, 14 shillings, and 5 pence), and a verdict of guilty was returned for the murder of Augustus Braithwaite. Gunn was promptly sentenced to death.

On that afternoon, Friday 28 May, 1920, a legal precedent was set for New Zealand and the British Commonwealth. As Sir Samuel Griffith, Chief Justice of Australia, concisely remarked at the time: "He who leaves a finger-print behind him, leaves an unforgettable signature".

Gunn was hung in Auckland on the grounds of Mt Eden prison, on Tuesday June 22, 1920. He was 25.

Gunn never confessed to the murder and had remained largely quiet throughout his trial. After the verdict was returned and the death sentence passed, he immediately attempted to blame two others: He confessed to the robbery, but claimed he hadn't pulled the trigger. The two others he fingered (a brother-in-law and an associate) both had alibis and neither of their fingerprints had been found on the gun or at the post office.

It should be noted that there were two other .38 revolvers found in that canvas bag retrieved from the gully, together with 30-odd rounds of ammunition. Neither of the other two guns was traced to an owner and neither held any fingerprints.

I've once or twice wondered if Gunn's keeping his mouth shut during the trial was some kind of thieve's code of silence (he clearly thought he would get away with it), and that once the verdict came in, all bets were off... It's unlikely we'll ever know.

Gunn is buried in Waikumete Cemetery: A vast cemetery in West Auckland that I often rode past on my bicycle as a kid. Gunn's mother never believed in her son's guilt. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: In loving memory of Dennis Gunn. Sadly wronged.


Be seeing you!


Newspaper Clippings form the National Library of NZ:
Dennis Gunn :  Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 67, 18 March 1920
Fingerprints : Observer, Volume XL, Issue 40, 5 June 1920
Death notice : Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 145, 18 June 1920

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18 November 2014

Postcards from the River

by Stephen Ross

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."

BOUNDARY BRIDGE
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

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18 May 2014

The Nothing

Stephen Ross
Stephen Ross
Stephen Ross is a New Zealand mystery writer. His stories have appeared in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine where he appears in the current July/August issue, and other publications. 

Many of you know Stephen through his long, strong friendship with Criminal Brief, where he became one of our most loyal supporters. No man is a prophet in his own land, or at least a writer in the land of Ngaio Marsh. We followed his efforts toward recognition in his own nation as the rest of the world honoured his talent. We at SleuthSayers have great admiration for this author, commentator, and friend, Stephen Ross, who writes…

Before the Internet, there was nothing

by Stephen Ross

Before the Internet, there was nothing. It was like living in a tent at an outpost at the end of the world. I'm talking about writing. Books were only in the library or at the bookstore. Finding a magazine full of fiction in my hometown (Auckland City) was like embarking on a quest to find a three-toed sloth. Finding mystery fiction in a magazine was like looking for the dodo. Other writers simply didn't exist. I wrote in isolation.

There's a black and white photo of me (somewhere, I lost the print and I never owned the negative) sitting at a typewriter with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. It could have been taken in 1930. It was taken in 1988.

By 1990, I had come to know only two other writers, and both of them were playwrights -- both 10 years older than me and hardened to the rule that you can't make any money out of writing, and no one will ever publish you. And maybe you should just shoot yourself.

And then the Internet happened… Actually, personal computers happened first, and that changed everything.

1969 Triumph
The typewriter I wrote on was a 1969 Triumph Gabriele 10. It belonged to my mother and I had been bashing away on it since I was 5. Stories and screenplays: sci-fi, horror, and mystery.

Not one thing I ever wrote on that poor, long suffering machine ever got past my bedroom door. The world is lucky.

In the late 1980s, one of those playwright friends of mine acquired a personal computer. I have no memory of what operating system it was running, but it had a word processor on it (the other playwright hated technology and wrote in long hand (and probably by candlelight, and with a quill)). I could immediately see the benefit of writing on a word processor: Freedom & Fluidity.

Writing on a typewriter forces the writer to commit to the typed. It was a rigid way to work; like trying to dance in concrete. It meant hours of retyping for corrections, or adding a permafrost layer of correction fluid to each page.

I used to cheat. I did a lot of paragraph snipping. If there was a typo or something that needed to be changed on a page, I'd simply retype the offending paragraph and cut and paste it over the faulty one.

Once I eventually got onto a PC, my writing method changed overnight. I became an abstract expressionist. Think Jackson Pollock, only instead of oils, words.

My first drafts (even of this short piece) are complete messes of text. In fact, I often write my firsts on my iPhone, bluetoothing to it via a wireless keyboard. I don't even look at the screen while I type.

For me, writing is rewriting. That's where the good stuff lies. The first draft is like– I'm trying to think of an analogy that doesn't sound like projectile vomiting. Here we go: It's like leaping off a tall building… and maybe the parachute will open.
current writing desk

I haven't written anything on a typewriter since 1991.

And then the Internet happened. And that changed everything else.

My computer connected to the Internet in 1996. Instead of just seeing what was residing on my PC's hard drive, I could now look out into the world. What I found there were a handful websites about writing– and all of them decked out in the glorious three-tone website design of the day: gray background, black text, blue hyperlinks (does anyone still say "hyperlink" anymore?). And I found other writers– for a long time I lurked in the background of writing newsgroups, soaking up the chatter, tips, and experiences.

As more and more websites and resources came online, the Internet started to make research easier, and it began to make it easier to find magazines. In fact, when I got up the nerve to finally submit a story to one, I had gotten the address and submission instructions off the magazine's website (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, if you're curious).

The last ten years has seen the rise of the blog. There are now countless blogs on the Internet catering to writers. The first one of these I followed (right from its beginning) was Criminal Brief. Naturally, I followed along when it evolved in SleuthSayers, which is now my current place of background lurkage.

There are also cool new things happening on the Net, like writers.StackExchange.com, which in many ways is like the newsgroups of yesteryear: People ask questions about writing, and people respond with help, tips, and advice. It's not very chatty, but at least it's spared the newsgroups' old habit of descending into chaos (and the subsequent invention of Godwin's Law).

For me, writing has a learning curve that began with a nice slow upward ascent, which quickly went vertical. The Internet has made climbing that a lot easier.