Carl Nixon’s The Tally Stick: a strong contender for the Ngaio Marsh Award

The car containing the sleeping children left the earth. From the top of the wooded bluff, where the rain-slicked road had curved so treacherously, down to the swollen river at the base of the cliff, was easily sixty feet. There was no moon that night, only low, leaden cloud clogging the sky. As if suspended, the car hung in the air for a fraction – of a fraction – of a moment. Very soon the children would begin to fall. Towards the tops of the trees. Towards the headlong water rushing between the boulders. Into the future.

The Tally Stick

In April 1978 a family of six disappears into the wilds of Westland. Their car veers off the road, through dense pine forest and off a cliff. Those left alive survive as best they can, hoping that someone will find them. 

In 2010, the remains of Maurice, the eldest boy, are found miles away from any evidence of a car crash, along with nine hundred and fifty dollars and a broken stick with tally marks on it. Analysis indicates he was around seventeen years old: he had lived another four years after his family disappeared.

Whatever happened to him in the four years after he survived? What is the purpose of the tally stick? And what happened to the others? 

Author Carl Nixon has built up a compelling story around these mysterious remains, avoiding a forensic-type detective approach to imagine instead a life lived in the time between. 

Nixon describes the aftermath of the crash with such realism its almost like being in it, bar the pain of injury and loss. He conveys confusion in the English children; completely culture-shocked at where they find themselves after less than a week as new New Zealanders.

The West Coast had air you could roll around in your mouth.

Nixon's feel for the landscape is apparent in his gorgeous descriptive passages, in which he turns language into an art form. You can dip into this book and disappear into Westland yourself.

In The Tally Stick Nixon eloquently describes the harshness of the remote, changeable rain-forest environment. Its a sensual experience: with lines such as "... mountains which ran the length of the South Island like a spine..."  the author imbues scenes with a sense of wonder and fearfulness in a land very much different from the rolling fields and forested wilds of England.

They passed a small lake of black water that held reflections of the clouds, and she saw a blue and black-coloured bird the size of a chicken, standing on long red legs.

New Zealand's unique flora and fauna is seen through foreign eyes: the survivors are lost in the 'wop wops' - a place that Telecom had yet to reach (there are still some of those!) - rich in Greenstone, with 'itch bugs' (the West Coast is known for its Sandflies), long-drops and moreporks.

In this passage he relates Tommy's sense of wonder at the world around him:

Tommy is agog. He stands in Peters' top paddock and slowly revolves, head tilted back, slack mouthed. Above him are thousands of flashing lights. Burning raindrops. Tossed jewels. Each one reflects the afternoon sun. They're flowing like a river, heading in the direction of the bush, and back from the bush, vibrating with one urgent note. 

The book is not without a sense of horror, in one scene Maurice sees eels the width of a man's leg making a bee-line for the car and the deadly remains within. Enough to give you nightmares.

To his credit, Nixon correctly uses te reo in context, and offers gems of bush-lore medicine to add authenticity to the Kiwi-ness of this tale. He describes foods that were kiwi staples in the '70s - meat pies, custard squares and crunchie bars -  and adds suspense to the story with some 'unusual' horticultural practices.

The book's plot moves from the past to the present from the points of view of the children to that of their Aunt Suzanne, who never gives up hope that they will be found.

Who is the gruff and emotionless hunter that comes to their aid? Why does he throw their suitcase away?

What about their relatives in England? Is anyone looking for them?

What of a sighting of a girl, also carrying a large amount of cash, who, though much older, fits Katherine's description?

And who (or what!) is the bird-headed man? Is it a creature from the late great Bill Hammond's paintings?! 

Carl Nixon doesn't just write great crime novels. He's also an award-winning playwright and short story writer. His book, Fish n Chip Shop Song and Other Stories was a bestseller in Aotearoa and was nominated for best first book in the Commonwealth Writer's Prize (2007).

In 2006 Nixon was awarded the Ursula Bethell Creative New Zealand Writer in Residence at Canterbury University, where he wrote Rocking Horse Road. This was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2009), along with his second novel, Settler's Creek (2010).

The Virgin and the Whale (2013) is being adapted for the screen. Nixon wrote The Tally Stick while in Menton, as the recipient of the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship (2018).

The Tally Stick is one of five New Zealand Crime novels to be shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel, which will be announced on 30 October.

Further reading

More books set on the West Coast of New Zealand:

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