The mauri of the mountain is harmed again. ...Violence has returned to our maunga. Another life taken here.
Michael Bennett's first novel is a story with a broken heart. With terrific characters, Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue) has written a brilliant vehicle for a thrilling police procedural that blurs the lines of culpability; a confronting story set against the background of abhorrent acts during Aotearoa's history.
Better the Blood opens with the historic violation and execution of a revered Māori Rangitira, Hahona Tuakana, during the colonisation of Aotearoa by the British. Tuakana has evaded the British Army for an embarrassing amount of time; hindering English annexation of a sacred Tāmaki Makaurau headland for military use.
The abhorrent scene of the chief's body hanging above six mocking soldiers, preserved for eternity in daguerrotype, sets the background for a chilling set of crimes of revenge.
In present-day Auckland a pattern emerges of a killer with an agenda; to avenge their tupuna (ancestor). Victims mirror the ancient wrong in what appears to be an act of Utu - a way of righting the balance. However, as the deaths escalate, the murderer's actions spiral out of control into something Kaumātua describe as rānaki - perpetuating violence.
Senior Sergeant Hana Westerman is a police detective receiving video clues from the murderer. Strong, dedicated, Māori, she has a deep-seated conflict with the unfolding nature of this case. Its unsettlingly linked to her rookie days, when she was detailed to the front line of a sit-in on the same headland, forcing her to choose between her the career she was born for and her respect for her people.
Hana's a character I'd like to see more of.
Bennett gives Hana more depth juggling challenging cases, the finalisation of her divorce and a headstrong daughter (Addison, 'born brown and screaming') who iterates her immutable views on sexuality and colonisation through music.
"The total amount (of land) returned or compensated equated to a figure that represented less than a fiftieth of what was taken."
Although Bennett has built tthe scenes and motivations around a work of fiction, his text reflects real moments in New Zealand's history, imbuing the story with deeper understanding of the hurt still felt today. It's heartbreaking.
Hana's great shame, that as a young policewoman she did not resist her orders to remove her own people from an occupation on their sacred hill, brought to mind the 1977-8 protests at Bastion Point and nineteenth-century peaceful protests at Parihaka.
The occupation at Bastion Point brought the issue of land annexation to the forefront of Kiwi life in the 1970s. The poignant scenes depicted in Better The Blood underpin Hana's whole association with the Police Force and turn the spotlight of the murderer on her family.
Better the Blood has been nominated for both the Jan Medlicott Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and the ILP John Creasey (New Blood) Award at the prestigious Dagger Awards for Crime Fiction.
Michael Bennett's non-fiction work, In Dark Places, the story of Teina Pora; won the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award for Crime Non-Fiction.
Bennett is also known for his career in film and television; In Dark Places was made into a film in 2018, while he recently wrote and produced Vegas - the TV series adapted from Ray Berards' book, Inside The Dark Horse . He's worked on Outrageous Fortune and Maddigan's Quest, a Margaret Mahy story adapted for television, and worked with Ant Sang on a graphic novel, Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas!
The Ockham Award winners will be announced on 17 May, while the Daggers shortlist will be out on 12 May. Bennett has done well with this book overseas, receiving acclaim when it premiered at Bloody Scotland; the highlight of the northern hemisphere's crime calendar. I wish him the best with this book.