Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Story Behind the Story:
“Red Herring,” by Jonothan Cullinane

(Editor’s note: This is the 72nd installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s contribution comes New Zealand writer Jonothan Cullinane, whose 2016 historical crime yarn, Red Herring, is a finalist for a 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award in the Best Crime Novel category. Cullinane worked in the film and television industry in New Zealand for a quarter-century before finally publishing Red Herring. He writes below about the long, slow, and sometimes surprising process of becoming a published author.)

In 1971, when I was 29, I saw a terrific British movie called Gumshoe, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Neville Smith. 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 Las Vegas.” The Maltese Falcon rang a bell, so I got it out of the library, read it, and was hooked. I read all of Hammett and then Chandler, James M.Cain, Eric Ambler … Ruined for life.

A few years later I was living in San Francisco, where The Maltese Falcon was set. And a few years after that I was back in Auckland. There are steep streets in the old part of the city, around the High Court and the University, that are lined with lovely Art Deco and arts-and-crafts apartment buildings, and I thought the film version of The Maltese Falcon could well have been shot there. I was working as an assistant director in the film business then, and I started to think about writing a script that would use all the tropes of film noir, but would be set not in San Francisco or L.A., but in New Zealand. I thought Red Herring would be a good title.

In 1951, a noir year if ever there was one, there was a major waterfront dispute in New Zealand that saw the left-wing “watersiders” locked out, their union deregistered, and the ports run by soldiers and sailors for five bitter months. This was at the height of the Korean War, and the United States wanted to buy up the country’s entire wool clip for the manufacture of uniforms and blankets for their forces in Korea. Had the wool not been able to be shipped through the ports, then the Americans would have looked elsewhere, to Australia or South America. The chance for fortunes to be made would have been lost. Uncles of mine paid off their farms overnight. In 1950 they were driving Model A Fords—in 1951, Cadillacs.

I love the epigraph Mario Puzo uses at the beginning of The Godfather: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” In the case of Red Herring, based on that ’51 lockout, I decided wool would be the source of the fortune. The crime would be doing whatever it took to ensure that the wool was exported. But who are the criminals? New Zealand didn’t have much in the way of a criminal class back then. While I was pondering this aspect, a writer named Dean Parker published an article in a local magazine called The Black Prince about a prominent 20th-century New Zealand union figure, Finton Patrick Walsh.

I had heard of Walsh in the same way I had heard of The Maltese Falcon a few years earlier—that is to say, vaguely. But Parker’s article brought him to life. Walsh had shipped out to San Francisco before the First World War, following the shooting of a “scab” during a miners’ strike, and become an enforcer for the Wobblies in Montana. He may have killed a Pinkerton detective in Idaho, then went to Ireland in 1920 for a few months, and did something there that was never fully explained, but which necessitated his return to New Zealand under a new name. He founded the Communist Party of New Zealand in 1921; moved steadily to the political right; and amassed a fortune by New Zealand standards, in a manner never quite understood.

Walsh took a very strong position against the waterfront unions in 1951 and advised the government on their destruction. So he was my villain. I made the hero—Johnny Molloy—a disillusioned former member of the Communist Party, and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and New Zealand’s campaigns in Greece and Crete and Italy during World War II. The other characters in my story, including a feisty reporter and an ex-IRA gunman, fell into place after that. The script, unfortunately, did not. But I always thought its bones were good, so I stuck it in a drawer and hoped I’d get to it eventually.

About 10 years ago I wrote and directed a feature film called We’re Here to Help, a true story about a Christchurch businessman named Dave Henderson, who had a titanic run-in with the Inland Revenue Department. An IRD officer made a crass and upsetting remark to one of Henderson’s employees about the length of her skirt. Henderson went into the IRD office and publicly threatened to “kick [the officer’s] fat arse from one end of Cashell Street to the other” if he spoke to one of his people like that again. A couple of weeks later, Dave received an audit notice from the department, the first of dozens, and within two years he was bankrupted and had lost everything. But he got back on his feet and ended up buying the downtown building in which the IRD had its offices—and renaming it Henderson House.*

Regrettably, the world lacked imagination enough for a drama with comedic overtones about the Inland Revenue Department, and the film bombed, its death knell being a review in the New Zealand Herald which described it as “dull, lifeless, otherwise solid.”† The New Zealand film industry isn’t very big, and my project’s failure rendered me unemployable. I stared at the wall for a few months, made a serious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get back to off-shore oil rigs—something I’d done in the 1970s and loved—and then got a job as a postman (something I’d done in the 1980s and loved). And I decided to dust off the script for Red Herring and see if I could turn it into a novel.

(Right) Author Jonothan Cullinane

It wasn’t the first time I had attempted such an exercise, but I was never able to get beyond a page or two. Although I’d always been a big reader, I had never given any thought to how novels are written—to the craft of writing. At a friend’s suggestion, I enrolled in a creative-writing course at the University of Auckland. I was skeptical. I thought that such courses were a con. How can you teach someone to write? In a year? And in an academic year at that, which is only about three months. My friend, a playwright named Stuart Hoar, who was a supervisor on the course, said, “I don’t know! But what I do know is that by the end of the year everyone in the class will have the equivalent of a 50,000-word first draft in whatever area they’re working.” And that was the case. The two things I got out of the course in particular were discipline—everyone else was turning in work each week, so why shouldn’t I?—and an understanding of that adage, “the perfect is the enemy of the good”—word count is what matters, work on its majesty later.

At some point in the year we had a visit from an executive at publisher Random House, who said that it was a very difficult time for New Zealand fiction and that essentially, unless we were able to weave recipes or gardening advice into our plots, we would be lucky to find a publisher. I found this liberating. It removed a lot of the pressure and made the writing pure enjoyment. I was writing the novel I wanted to read, which is what any how-to-write book will tell you. When I finished, I looked into self-publishing about 50 copies and selling them to friends and family, or giving them away as presents. Of course I secretly imagined some publisher picking it up by accident, quickly seeing it as a work of staggering genius … and six months later I’d be bashfully accepting the Man Booker.

I went to a talk by the retired publisher at Penguin New Zealand, Geoff Walker, who was giving informal advice about self-publishing.

He read Red Herring, liked it, and showed it to Finlay MacDonald at HarperCollins, who also liked it and made me an offer to publish.

Simple as that.

Still can’t believe it.

* Henderson is a very funny man. He was once accused by an MP, under privilege, of running the sex industry in Christchurch (a masseur had rented a space in an office building he owned). He said, “Running the sex industry in Christchurch? I’m too busy to run the sex industry in my own home.” On another occasion, he was defending himself in a libel action brought by an officer of the IRD. It was his turn to cross-examine the officer. He said, “May I remind the witness he is under oath?” The witness said,” I understand that.” Henderson said, “Do you dye your hair?”

† The writer of the review was one Russell Bailey. I was later looking for a name for a minor character in Red Herring, a corrupt and feckless policeman, and “Russell Bailey” just popped into my head. Pathetic, I know.

* * *

This essay is part of a month-long, worldwide blog tour booked by Ngaio Marsh Awards organizer Craig Sisterson to celebrate this year’s contenders for those prizes. The tour began in Liz Loves Books and will continue through October 1; The Rap Sheet is its 10th stop. Follow the day-to-day progress of this venture on Facebook or on Twitter. A list of participating blogs is below. Click it for an enlargement.

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