by Riley Chance
This most competently-written thriller of 127,000 words in 267 pages is a welcome addition to the canon of New Zealand-based contemporary fiction. In fact, “contemporary” is surely the apposite word, for the third page discusses the aborted merger of RNZ and TVNZ, something announced only as recently as early February 2023.
The story unfolds against a background of rising US-style populism in NZ politics; in particular the rise of the alt-right ‘ProtectNZ ’ political party which, overtly, aims to protect “ordinary New Zealanders,” and in particular their “way of life”, from the welter of change that modern concerns such as climate change, gay rights, pandemic vaccination and organic farming require of them. Hard-nosed investigative journalist Grace Marks comes up with the conviction that the volume of protest is so ubiquitous and multi-faceted that orchestration is far more likely than coincidence as an explanation of its origins. As ‘ProtectNZ’ is the umbrella of the varied and various causes of protest, she sets out to know more about the people and influences behind an apparent “grassroots” organisation that is in the process of turning into something very different — a party that will contest the next election. Marks’ inimitable style and refusal to be intimidated create enemies, and she rapidly becomes a target for reactions that go beyond live-and-let-live.
At this point, a previous acquaintance re-enters her life. Marla Simmons is a renegade US ex-Secret Service operative now living in New Zealand, and her function in the story is to provide the sort of assistance, whether legal, borderline or illegal, that will both keep Marks from serious harm and assist her enquiries, for Simmons has herself suffered from covert conspiracy. Needless to say, ‘ProtectNZ’ and its charismatic head prove to have a rat or two in its pedigree, and its shadowy backers don’t hesitate to target and remove obstacles and obstructions which, but for Simmons’ timely interventions, would surely include Marks. Is this, one wonders, what populism inevitably becomes? “Find me 11,000 votes” — “Lock her up” — “Fight to reclaim your nation”. . . .all echo within the reader’s memory.
As noted, ‘The Democracy Game’ is an engaging, convincing and contemporary piece of work set in a landscape familiar to most New Zealanders, and all the better for that, as it is for the tension-relieving efforts of Marks to introduce Simmons to the convolutions and nuances of NewZild slang. It is best understood as the second in a series, for Simmons’ involvement is a tad hard to understand without knowledge of the first book, ‘Surveillance’, for she is one step ahead of everyone all of the time yet, with no apparent means of support she’s living in NZ, buying expensive drones and summoning up cars at will.
The author leaves no-one in doubt where he stands on issues of the day, albeit through the mouthpiece of Grace Marks, but the later stages of this thought-inducing book reveal the depth of his own thought, in noting that the only way to make democracy more effective in countering all its weaknesses is to become undemocratic. It really doesn’t matter where one stands on a continuum of protest issues ranging from John Minto to Posie Parker — in the end, all opinions are equally worthy of expression and airing, for the line separating freedom of expression from hate speech is surely drawn at incitement to break the law.
Perhaps the last word should lie, as it so often did, with Winston Churchill’s assertion of 1947 that, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”
Author: Riley Chance
Publisher: Copy Press Books