I stopped only on the other side of calling Steve Braunias our greatest writer when reviewing the small, self-published volume of political satire – because not only is he funny and engaging, sharp, wise, wordy and worldly, he also displays his contempt; has made his living from it, arguably. He finds us all – readers, writers, interview subjects, the backgrounders adding colour in his features – fascinating and preposterous, annoying and interesting, painful and necessary. He writes as much for himself as any audience. But he never (really) writes about himself. He writes about New Zealand. That is his subject. He is one of the best at studying us.
And so here, with his latest collection we turn away from satire – although not always, and sometimes only just – to see Braunias The Crime Reporter (that’s the other thing, a great columnist and feature writer, the best – most likely, but Braunias is a bunch of different writers, a new version turning up with each new volume) and/or Steve Braunias the observer of and on crime reporting.
The Scene of the Crime features a dozen true-crime stories, though nearly half the book is given over to the Mark Lundy case. Outside of that we get lurid tales of botched deals and cold-blooded murders, of abuse and murk. And the not at all tall but towering-in-their-own-way crime reports from Timaru.
From sneaking in to have a look at the Rolf Harris trial in England while ostensibly on a book-reading gig, to sitting down with Lundy, possibly sympathising with Clint Rickards and drawing out both dark humour and genuine pathos, The Scene of the Crime is a page-turner, indeed it reads – speeding by – like a crime thriller.
And just what is the problem here – that bad people do bad things; that some people get caught out; or that the justice system allows a bunch of fascinating and preposterous, annoying and interesting, painful and (apparently) necessary Kiwis, with our foibles and prejudices and thin-end-of-the-wedge grasp, to be the jury?
It isn’t that Braunias has all of the answers, or even asks all of the questions. But he does provide the most comprehensive overview of a collective psyche.
There’s no one else writing in New Zealand and about New Zealand that so deeply gets the oddness and isolation of this country and has a worldview both shaped by it and bigger than it. Braunias is also the journalistic equivalent of an unreliable narrator – we trust he will turn up and we learn to trust that he is speaking his truth, his version of it, but we can never quite be sure when the whim of finding almost everything contemptible will surprise and delight or startle possibly disappoint. Which is why you keep on reading. And sincerely hope he keeps on writing. He’s getting better with each book – forgive the churlishness of that but it’s true – better even with each and every article.
And if you need one further recommendation for this must-read book pop on over to the Amazon page where the final customer review simply says: The author shows no knowledge of the law. Instead he shows his conceit and disgust. Full of tabloid style gossip, this is not to be taken seriously.
Why, you could almost believe it’s Steve Braunias in disguise, smirking to himself as he hides that comment behind a pen-name. At any rate it could work as the blurb. Just as the best New Zealand writer writing the best New Zealand book about New Zealand and for New Zealanders might also work.