In praise of our best crime writer and his new creepy home-invasion novel

It takes a cold eye, steady hand and a healthy dose of bare-faced cheek for any crime writer to open a thriller with an epigram from Hitchcock’s peeping Tom classic Rear Window. JP Pomare’s fourth novel, The Last Guests, gets away with murder.

Cain and Lina Phillips narrate most of the novel. He’s an ex-SAS soldier whose failed business isn’t helping a rocky return to civilian life that includes increasingly pointed questions about his role in civilian deaths in Afghanistan. She’s a paramedic whose own career is about to blow up after a call goes tragically bad.  Both have secrets that come to light when they’re not as good at scrubbing their internet histories as they think.

The path out of at least some of their problems is to rent out an isolated lake house Lina has inherited for weekends, while they prepare it for sale. What could possibly go wrong?

Around the mid-point of the book, rather a lot. Starting with a brutal home invasion that has been live-streamed to a paying audience of online voyeurs whose banal yet malign live-chat is woven throughout. It all ends with a corpse both Lina and Cain know rather better than they’re willing to admit. As the mystery of who planted the cameras – and why – ticks down to an ambivalent conclusion, like a precision tooled Swiss watch attached to a pipe bomb, it’s wise to remember that not only is seeing not believing, but thinking you fully understand what you’ve seen is unwise.

Pomare’s mastery of story construction and smoothly readable prose has been solid since his Ngaio Marsh Award winning 2018 debut Call Me Evie, and the standard has remained admirably high ever since. That first book was a claustrophobic tale of a teenage girl being held prisoner in a New Zealand coastal town. His next book In The Clearing was set in another isolated community, this time in rural Victoria, and its protagonist was another woman with secrets and unreliable memories. His third novel Tell Me Lies went to town – Margot Scott is an inner-city Melbourne psychologist living the white collar Aussie dream. Two kids, one husband, a nice house, a thriving career, and a propensity for crossing lines with patients who definitely are not your commonplace middle-class neurotics. 

Pomare’s strength is in the way he works the tension between his crisp writing and the often horrific instability of what it describes.  Not just the violent events, but the sense of how fragile and easily manipulated our sense of self and relationship to the world around us can be. 

Where his latest novel marks a welcome advance is in the depth and complexity of the characters. Lina, who narrates most of the book is no Girl in the Window on a Train self-medicating her way from one PTSD-induced freakout to the next, until required to be incredibly dim so a man who might as well have “I will kill you” carved on his forehead can have a crack at it. Nor is she the even more troubling and persistent genre trope of the Fallen Woman who must be shown the error of her ways, and the more sexualized violence involved the better.  Cain also benefits from a cliché-free and nuanced treatment of the aftermath of his military service.  Both are intelligent, endearing if terribly flawed, people whose broken marriage isn’t a plot device or a collection of psychopathological bric-a-brac. In any long relationship, sometimes you just end up in a world of hurt.

It opens with a chilling prologue where an unnamed figure plants cameras in a house, for reasons as yet unknown, and pauses to wonder, “How many viewers will I lose if I don’t have the pillows in the frame? Full HD streams with night vision, it doesn’t matter if you miss the pillows, the viewers will still flood the streams.”

He’s right.  But Peephole, the dark website where paying subscribers can spy to their heart’s content, isn’t where the uncomfortable questions about voyeurism and complicity end.  Most people would take it as read that it is beyond the pale to place live recording devices in someone’s home and record them without their consent. But how many of us watch grainy atrocities without worrying about the finer points of informed consent when its on CNN or the six o’clock bulletin? How much incredibly intimate information do we give away, endlessly presuming we’re immune from the laws of unintended consequences?

There’s no simple answer to those questions, and Pomare doesn’t presume to have any.  Lina idly Googles the first couple who book the lake house and visits their LinkedIn profile, she thinks nothing of it. After they’ve become a global media cause célèbre, the couple describe her act (which they’re aware of) as “creepy” and “stalking.” Lina shouts at the television: You are not the victims

The Last Guests is the first novel I’ve read in years I wish was longer. The final irony is that the worse lies the Phillips tell each other, tell themselves, and hug tight to get through the day, are strictly analogue: “We move on. Silent but knowing. That’s the key, I think now, to a long and happy marriage. That’s the grease that keeps family life turning.”

The Last Guests by JP Pomare (Hachette, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Craig Ranapia is a freelance critic based in Auckland. His work has appeared in Public Address and The Listener, and is currently secretary of the Auckland Film Society.

Leave a comment