Winner of Text Publishing’s Michael Gifkins Prize, Tom Baragwanath’s debut Paper Cage is a New Zealand crime novel with plenty on its mind. And Baragwanath does all this by showing not telling or lecturing. Getting his message across through character and plot, in particular his very atypical crime fiction protagonist.
Lorraine is the filing clerk in the Masterton police station. But it seems that she might have some insights into the disappearances of two local children. At least Wellington detective Justin Hayes thinks so, even if the local police don’t feel like they need the help of an old woman with a dodgy hip. Soon Lorraine has a personal stake in the case when her niece’s son becomes one of the abducted. But things are complicated by local politics, racism and the fact that her niece’s partner is the leader of a local Māori gang.
Lorraine is also the perfect guide to the town of Masterton. A Pakeha (non-Māori) once married to a Māori police officer, she straddles both worlds. And working in the police station but not part of the police, she sees everything. Besides being an acute observer, Lorraine is also a mother and grandmother of one of the missing giving her a personal stake in the investigation.
Baragwanath is not interested in big twists and reveals and astute readers should work out what is going on well before the characters. But this just serves to increase the tension as Lorraine and Justin get closer to the truth. And that truth is rooted in the history of New Zealand, of colonisation and its impact on the Māori, and the paternalism that never seems to go away. This novel does what great crime fiction does – brings a community, with all of its complexities, to life – and while doing so deals with entrenched and persistent issues of colonialism, sexism and aging in a way that is both absorbing and thought provoking.