Ben Sanders: From Auckland with murder and mayhem

Ben Sanders
Allen & Unwin, $29.99

There are only a couple of moments in Ben Sanders' sixth novel, The Stakes, set breathlessly in Los Angeles and New York, that give you a clue that he is not what he appears to be.

Early on, his main character, Miles Keller, a detective in hot water for having shot dead a hitman in uncertain circumstances, halts his audio book before he robs a bent lawyer of $200,000. The book he is listening to is Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries.

Along with a reference to New Zealand's foreign trust industry in relation to laundering the proceeds of crime, that's all that tells you that rather than being written by someone holed up in New York or Los Angeles with an intimate knowledge of the US demi-monde, its author is actually a 28-year-old New Zealander who lives in Auckland. "She's obviously a brilliant New Zealand writer and I thought it was a funny way to tip my hat to her."

The Stakes is a book that has echoes of Elmore Leonard, not simply in its prose but in the caper characteristics of its plot. And given its title, the stakes are sky high.

Keller is being pursued by Bobby Deen???, cousin of the guy he plugged; Nina Stone, a femme fatale from his past whom he let off the hook when she stole $1 million, has turned up after five years in tow with Deen, who saved her from being murdered by people who had fallen out with her film-producer husband; and there are big cash offers being made to Keller who somehow also has to keep safe his erstwhile flame, Lucy, who inconveniently suffers from emphysema and is carting round an oxygen tank that makes quick exits tricky.

Sanders acknowledges Leonard's "relaxed colloquial rhythm" as an influence but doesn't adhere to the great man's rule of simple language. In terms of prose he is more a Pete Dexter man: "He would break the rules and use elegant language if the situation demanded it. I think that's a nice way to go."

Sanders wrote three novels set in New Zealand, inspired by Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly. But it's a small market and he wanted more readers. He submitted his books to an American publishing company but it wasn't confident of his commercial appeal and suggested he set a book in the USA. The publisher was right.

"US settings have been way more appealing. I've gone from someone who sells 1200-2000 books to suddenly moving sufficient volumes of paper that I can make it my job. I'm not in any hurry to change that, but I am a New Zealand writer and I want to be a voice in New Zealand so ultimately I would like to come back to my roots."

What is striking about The Stakes is the strength of Sanders' women characters. He says his first three novels were "very blokey" and he was conscious of that when he came to write Marshall's Law and American Blood, the earlier books set in the USA.

"Obviously being a male writer there's an instinctive kind of ease with which male characters are created. With this book I made a real effort to try to bring women characters to life. Nina, in particular, I really enjoyed writing and loved the fact that she always seemed five steps ahead [of the other characters]. There was an impression throughout that things were in orbit around her."

Sanders started writing as a diversion from an engineering degree. He'd always been a big reader and says writing stories seemed a natural next step. "Obviously it was something I wanted to become good at. When something's a hobby and a passion, practice comes naturally without you realising you're doing it."

He has honed his working method but to the outsider it still sounds precarious. He doesn't plot, has an idea for the first three or four chapters and then tries to follow through logically. He uses the analogy of a drive in the dark: "You know the general shape of your journey but it's only when you arrive at a certain point and the headlights reveal the next 100 metres that you see the detail in an incremental manner."

Now he has reached the point where his hobby is his career, even if his week has a funny balance. "On Monday and Tuesday, I'm a structural engineer, and Wednesday to Friday I'm a mystery writer," he says. "It's a case of each being the other's antidote."

This story Ben Sanders: From Auckland with murder and mayhem first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.