Tauranga was the capital of New Zealand literature in the weekend, with numerous authors in town giving talks at the Tauranga Arts Festival. Emily Perkins was there, louche in her trademark peagreen military jacket. Gaylene Preston was there, as film-maker turned author (the veteran director has written a memoir). Tusiata Avia was there, rarking up whitey in her popular Savage Coloniser show. And there was Jared Savage, as journalist turned author of Gangster’s Paradise, his new bestselling sequel to Ganglands, both books obsessed with organised crime and the methamphetamine trade in New Zealand. Surely the day will come when his audience at arts festivals will include at least a few gangsters but his appearance at the festival on Sunday drew a crowd of about 120, 140 who very much appeared to be law-abiding citizens. I can make this observation because I was there, too, to chair the event.

Everything about the session was peak Tauranga, including the cast. I was born and raised at 143 Valley Rd in Mt Maunganui. Jared Savage was born and raised in Tauranga, left to work for the Herald as an ace reporter in Auckland, and has returned to Tauranga with his wife Becs to raise their two children. One of the core subects of Gangster’s Paradise is Tauranga. It plays an important role in the book. Throughout Sunday’s event, Jared talked of gang shoot-outs in Greerton and Te Puke, the formation of The Mongols gang in Papamoa and Mt Maunganui, and told a story about the suit he wore onstage – he bought it recently at Bond & Co menswear in Devonport Rd, Tauranga, and the sales assistant mentioned in passing that a gang leader had come into the store only a few days earlier and bought up large (including many pairs of size 13 boots) and paid for it in hard cash, peeling off $50 and $20 notes from his wallet. Methamphetamine is a $300 million a year business.

Likely the scariest chapter in Gangster’s Paradise is set in Valley Rd, Mt Maunganui. Jared writes of two pensioners in my hometown street who were subjected to a home invasion. Their invaders came prepared. They brought socks to put over their victim’s faces, and zipties to bound their hands and feet. They were later arrested, and sent to jail. “This,” said the sentencing judge, “was the most carefully planned and professionally executed aggravated robbery of its kind in New Zealand.” But why did the invaders target two nice old Tauranga retirees? Incredibly, they got the address wrong. They were supposed to attack the house next door. It was supposed to be a gang hit on a rival gang, which is a regular feature of organised crime and the methamphetamine trade in New Zealand, but not for the first time the general public and innocent passersby were dragged into an industry of violence and terror and armed warfare.

All of which very possibly put the fear of God into the audience, average age oh say 60, but it would be a gross error to suggest they were all lawn order freaks who helped form the blue tide which has brought National to power. There was loud and sustained mocking from the crowd at the mention of National MP Mark Mitchell’s notion last week that gang members ought to apply make-up foundation over their facial tattoos when seen in public. They were a lively, intelligent mob, and they asked good questions towards the end of the session. There were other good questions, too, from Newsroom readers. I staged a free giveaway of Gangster’s Paradise at ReadingRoom on Friday; to enter the draw, readers had to send in a question about organised crime, or methamphetamine, or gangs, or policing, or any of those associated subjects, that they thought I should put to Jared at our session in Tauranga. I chose three questions to put to him. Sheryl wanted to know whether he had ever been “genuinely terrified for his life” when reporting on organised crime (answer: no), David wanted to know whether the handling of the 501 deportees could have been done better (answer: yes), and Jeremy wrote, “I think it might be a myth but it’s often said that the father of John F Kennedy built his huge wealth from bootlegging. Has Jared come across any figures in the New Zealand underworld who he could imagine making the jump from pushers of drugs to legitimate business people?”

Great question! Answer: yes.

Gangster’s Paradise by Jared Savage (HarperCollins, $39.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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