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Stealing Secrets

Book Review
The Lost Taonga, by Edmund Bohan (Lucano, $35)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

taonga_front_finalThere’s actually not a whole lot of Inspector Patrick O’Rorke in Edmund Bohan’s sixth and latest Inspector O’Rorke novel The Lost Taonga. There’s not a lot of New Zealand in it either, despite its very New Zealand subject matter. Set in the late 1800s, the books tackles a painful issue that’s still very much with us — the theft and expatriation of Māori artefacts and treasures — the taonga of Bohan’s title.

In an historical note, Bohan offers the real-life example of the theft in the early 1880s of mummified tūpāpaku (dead bodies) from Tainui’s burial caves by the Austrian collector Andreas Reischek, who sold them to Vienna’s Imperial Natural History Museum. (Bohan writes that the bodies are still in the museum, though according to media reports, they’ve been progressively repatratiated.) It was this story that gave him the idea for a previous novel A Present for the Czar. “Now,” Bohan writes, “The Lost Taonga describes the background of that theft and follows the subsequent journeyings of both taonga and the characters drawn into its orbit.”

It’s a great idea for an historical crime novel and Bohan’s fictional version is well-written and plotted. Real-life historical figure Julius von Haast features as an unwitting dupe of the crafty and beautiful Polish Countess Margarita Szechnyi and her partner in crime, “Boyland the Collector”. Haast helps guide the thieves to the scene of the crime — “secret burial caves containing rare treasures, situated in the valley of the Wairau River in a region called Murihiku” — but insists nothing be removed from the caves. Margarita and Boyland have other plans, however, and sneak back later for a raid.

Much of the rest of the novel is set offshore, in Chile, where Margarita keeps her collection of native artifacts, England where a now retired O’Rorke is drawn into the effort to recover the stolen taonga and finally, to Greece for the climactic scene.

Bohan’s work as a writer of historical non-fiction clearly provides a wealth of ideas for his fiction, and he draws on it throughout this book in fleshing out places and characters and plot-lines. But it can also be something of a burden. It feels like he’s trying to pack too much historical detail into the novel at the expense of character and narrative flow. I confess to getting lost in the complexities of the 19th-century Polish-Russian politics — uprisings, plots, exiles, assassinations — that swirl around Countess Margarita and Boyland. And O’Rorke himself is a walking history book, as Margarita’s father explains:

“He’s Irish, but I like him in spite of that. Supposed to have a shady past as a Fenian. Soldier in the Crimea as a boy, though, and then in the American Civil War. On Grant’s staff, y’know, and that’s a damned interesting time I’d like to know more about, I can tell you. Appeared here in the early seventies. God knows why. He’s been a Pinkerton detective in California.”

Impressive, what! But while they’re educational, the storied résumés and historical baggage of O’Rorke and other characters are a bit weighty for an otherwise deftly told tale of international crime and intrigue.