The Chance to go Deeper

Article | Issue: Sep 2022

Award-winning Māori filmmaker MICHAEL BENNETT is confronting history, and making history, with his new indigenous detective novel that’s earning buzz worldwide. CRAIG SISTERSON reports.

 

It was a revelation for Michael Bennett when he realised he could linger. He loves writing for the screen, directing, or just settling into a comfy seat with some popcorn to enjoy other creators’ works. The Māori storyteller has spent two decades in the film and television industry, winning a dozen awards at home and overseas for a range of exciting, important tales – fictional and true. But when he ‘came to prose writing late’ a few years ago, penning an account both harrowing and hopeful of one of New Zealand’s worst miscarriages of justice, Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue) had his eyes opened to new possibilities.

‘I think the big difference when you’re moving from the screen to a novel is just the ability to go far and deep with it, which was the thrill for me when I first wrote prose,’ says Bennett.

After winning more awards for his 2016 non-fiction book In Dark Places: The Confessions of Teina Pora and an Ex-cop’s Fight for Justice, Bennett is now turning heads in global publishing with his engrossing debut crime novel, Better the Blood, published in August 2022.

‘I’m so grateful now, to be able to write in this form,’ he says, noting that novels and narrative non-fiction allow writers to spend time going deeply into character psychology in a way film cannot, free from the burden of continual movement.

‘Readers have bought into a more contemplative experience, and I feel that very much having written Better the Blood,’ adds Bennett. ‘While there’s absolutely this commitment and responsibility to give the reader a fascinating, pacy, thrilling storyline, there’s also the opportunity to spend a chapter with a character where the plot doesn’t move forward a centimetre, but your understanding of the character becomes much deeper.’

In books, says Bennett, readers and authors can sit with a character at a table, while thoughts, fears, memories and hopes race through their mind – revealing so much – and yet ‘in real time all that’s happened is that they’ve sat at a table for a minute’.

Bennett’s first crime novel, Better the Blood, delivers plenty of pace and action, while also deep-diving into character, place, and some confronting issues facing Aotearoa New Zealand.

Hana Westerman is a middle-aged Māori woman with plenty on her plate. She’s a single mother to an activist daughter, a senior Auckland detective trying to work alongside her ex, and the lead on a case that may involve New Zealand’s first serial killer. As the body count mounts, she’s forced to confront hard truths about how she’s handled her own heritage.

Along with being a terrific read, Better the Blood is a ground-breaking book in several ways, from the fact it’s the first book by a Māori author about a Māori detective, to the ways it highlights the ongoing impacts of colonisation, to its pre-release success abroad.

For Bennett, it all began with a love of crime fiction, a character inspired by the amazing Māori women in his life, and a drive to tell stories that explore big issues.

‘While I’ve visited New Zealand, the darker aspects of its colonial history are not something I – and probably many people in the UK – know a lot about,’ said top London editor Katherine Armstrong when the book deal was announced in February. ‘Michael has not only shone a light on the Māori community and what many have suffered over the years, but he’s also found a way to integrate that past with an engrossing and exciting thriller.’

A ‘hot’ book following last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, translations of Better the Blood are already underway into German, French, Italian, Dutch, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Finnish and Czech. Bennett, who last year also created and wrote hit crime drama Vegas – the first mainstream TV production helmed by a predominantly Māori cast and crew – says he’s delighted and rather overwhelmed by how his debut novel has been embraced overseas.

For Bennett, it all began with a love of crime fiction, a character inspired by the amazing Māori women in his life, and a drive to tell stories that explore big issues.

‘I love the high energy, the unravelling, the peeling away of the onion skin of a mystery,’ says Bennett, confessing that he first became deeply interested in crime and human psychology as a 10 year old – when he secreted away the abnormal psychology textbook and copy of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote that his older brother brought home.

‘It just blew my mind, this peek through the curtain into the dark areas of the human mind, when previously I’d been reading MAD magazine and Archie comics,’ he says with a laugh. ‘It just gave me an absolute passion to try and figure out how human beings can go to the wonderful and extraordinary places we go to, but also the very dark places we go to.’

So it was only natural that Bennett’s first adult novel would be crime fiction.

‘I’m always drawn to finding a way to take something exciting and thrilling, and explore things I’m passionate about,’ he says. ‘With Better the Blood I’m exploring some big, fundamental issues that face a whole lot of colonised peoples and cultures around the world. But specifically in New Zealand, 200 years after colonisation there are still many, many raw scars. The social consequences and mamae (cultural pain) of colonisation remain unhealed.’

Bringing it all together and providing the main viewpoint which underlines the idea of ‘crime as the modern social novel’ (as Dennis Lehane, et al. say), is an extraordinary central character: Māori detective Hana Westerman.

Bennett’s father flew Spitfires in World War II and his uncles served in the famed Māori Battalion, but Hana Westerman honours the wahine (woman) of his life and culture.

‘All around me there are many strong Māori women in my history and family and from generations before,’ he says.

But I’m also the father of two strong, brilliant Māori women who blow me away every day that I look at them. Being able to put on the page a character that I hadn’t seen before in crime fiction and is dealing with a whole lot of the questions that I want to raise about where we are as a society and where we are in terms of race relations and history within New Zealand, just felt like an incredibly unique opportunity.

Author: Michael Bennett

Category: Fiction & related items

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK

ISBN: 9781398512245

RRP: $22.99

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