Some say Morrieson's books are a mix of popular genres from Mark Twain to Ed McBain, while others see Erskine Caldwell and Raymond Chandler in the plots.
Even the author himself wasn't sure. Of The Scarecrow he said, “It's a kind of thriller, I suppose, but I think it's also a work of art - at least I hope it is.”
The Scarecrow established his trademark style - a blend of boy's own adventure and Gothic parody - influenced by Hollywood gangster movies, adventure novels, comic books and adolescent sexual yearning. Lurching from theft to murder, Ned Poindexter, the novel's young narrator, spies on a local gang and learns about sex from his elder brother while dodging an alcoholic uncle. Throw in a psychopathic necrophiliac stalker and there's not a lot left out.
The blurb on the cover of Came a Hot Friday also asks the questions: Thriller? Bizarre comedy? Ruthless exposure of crime and sex in a New Zealand country town? Sympathetic study of a young man's relations with his Anzac father? Before dodging them altogether and settling for 'a fascinating a medley as was Ronald Morrieson's first novel’.
In Came a Hot Friday Morrieson keeps a slanted eye on small town New Zealand as two young men dream up a scam to outsmart the local bookie. Multiplying their winnings at a crown and anchor game, they attract the unwanted attentions of a crime boss. Eventually, they are saved by a Zorro type figure, the Te Whakinga Kid.
Morrieson's third novel, Predicament, sees 15 year-old Cedric Williamson wasting away from boredom and shame because his nutty father is building a seven-storied tower in their front yard. After getting matey with two drifters short of cash, the trio decide to blackmail a bloke caught with an under-aged girl, which leads to further sinister complications, including murder.
Pallet on the Floor, full of brutal violence in the imaginary town of Kurikino, turned away from comic adventure and became Morrieson's most serious and realistic work.
With elements of repression, Calvinism and the grotesque noted in his work, as well as the cinematic qualities that worked well on screen, Morrieson created a whole new genre, that of Taranaki Gothic Horror.
As Jenny Lawn of Massey University wrote: 'The innocent excitability of Morrison's young males is counterbalanced by a deeply sexualised fictional world and the idea that perversion sits uncomfortably near, and perhaps even within, more 'healthy' desires.'
The cinematic qualities of his novels, as well as his ear for local jargon, humour, sound pacing and suspense leading to unexpected climax meant they adapted well to screen. The Scarecrow, Came a Hot Friday (starring comedian Billy Te James and filmed in Eltham and Manaia) and Pallet on the Floor were all made into successful films.
Maurice Shadbolt once wrote of being 'dazzled by his ribald verve' while CK Stead described the author as 'hugely talented but also manifestly flawed.' It's interesting to note how the reviews picked up the moment he was dead.
Morrieson wrote well, sometimes brilliantly, but he was never given his proper due as a writer or celebrated while alive. He died alone and disappointed by the New Zealand literary world, destined to become exactly what he'd predicted he might be: 'One of those poor buggers who get discovered when they're dead.'
But his books can still be found on the library shelves and his films in video libraries. Check them out.
First published 22 February 2005
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- from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
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PLACES TO VISIT
Morrieson's Café Bar
60 Victoria St
See the staircase and fireplaces from Morrieson's demolished home. They were crafted by Morrieson's grandfather.
Private Bag 902
Freephone 0800 111 323