"Utu" by Caryl Ferey

What a wild ride this was. From Europa Editions’ World Noir series, French author Caryl Ferey presents a very dark - and I mean dark - and quite violent police procedural. Noir fiction has gone through quite an evolution over the decades - from the type that Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett penned over a half-century ago to today’s more genre bending stories, exemplified by those coming out of Italy and France the last fifteen or so years, known as “Mediterranean Noir”. These latter novels tend to be culturally specific and though many trade in the usual trappings of Noir fiction, they take the form well into the twenty-first century and give it a unique feel of its own. 

 

Caryl Ferey, although a French writer, sets Utu (a Maori word which roughly translates to “Vengeance”) and populates it with the most undesirable characters imaginable. The main protagonist, a cop named Paul Osborne, a man completely out of control and full of booze, drugs and self-loathing, who we are introduced to passing out on a beach in Sydney suffering from severe sunstroke - completely wrecked on drugs - and unable to remember how he wound up there. If not for a helpful nurse on the beach, he may not even made it home that morning. When he does arrive home - in a ramshackle hotel in the heart of Sydney, he is confronted by another cop from the Auckland Police Department who managed to track him down and wants him back in New Zealand to help them on a particularly vexing case involving a serial killer known as Kirk, a revolutionary Maori cult and the suicide of Osborne’s friend Jack Fitzgerald, who was just on the cusp of solving the case. Osborne - half Maori himself - is chosen due to his extensive knowledge in Maori culture. Refusing the believe that his friend had committed suicide, he decides to go back on the job, returning to New Zealand to work on the case. 

 

However his return to his home town is not without its baggage. From the time he was a teenager, he had fallen in love with a Maori girl named Hana, who lived next door to him, and ever since peeking in on her while she undressed one night, held a candle for her for the rest of his life. Their relationship is recounted in a series of flashbacks throughout the novel, it’s purpose being to slowly get into what it was that made Osborne the violent and troubled man he is. 

 

As he delves further into the case, the more closer to home it becomes and as the story unfolds we are treated not only to a page turning thriller but the intricate and troubled history of New Zealand itself with its history of repression of Maori culture. There is a strong statement about colonization, racial hatred, political corruption. “Utu” - vengeance - is the motivating force behind all that takes place within the very intricate plot, which weaves in and out of not only New Zealand’s own past but the past of our very troubled protagonist. It’s worth the read for its historical context alone but for those who want something that will keep them on the edge of their seat to literally the last line of the story, this is most definitely something you should check out. 

 

There are moments where it seems a little over the top but overall, Ferey achieved something incredibly unique, in my view, taking the genre a few steps further than most writers of this type of fiction had done in the past couple of years. Always a huge fan of Noir fiction, I enjoyed this immensely, despite some of the minor criticisms I had of it. Definitely recommended. 

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