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Posted on 7 Sep 2023 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

RENÉE Blood Matters. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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Steeped in a sense of culture, people and place, Blood Matters is crime fiction set at the heart of a family and community.

Author Renée is a towering figure in New Zealand. A legendary playwright, novelist and activist, Renée is of Māori (Ngāti Kahungunu), Irish, English and Scottish ancestry. She describes herself as a ‘lesbian feminist with socialist working-class ideals’ and is renowned for exploring difficult subjects – racism, child abuse and misogyny. She is also a gifted writer of outstanding characters who inhabit place and culture with ease. No matter how confronting the subject matter, there is always a balance to her storytelling, contrasting the darkest moments with humour and pathos.

Blood Matters revolves around Puti Derrell, a woman with a lot on her plate. The death of her sister Ana has made her the custodian of a bookshop – Mainly Crime – and the guardian of her ten-year-old niece, Bella Rose. Both have bought memories, recriminations and difficult decisions.

Now she had a shop to run, a hundred emails to answer all saying the same thing, and the arid prospect of a life without a sister whom she should have forgiven properly all those years ago when she said sorry. Puti knew Ana was truly sorry, she’d even told Ana it was okay. A lie. If there was a Nobel prize for holding a grudge, Puti would be up there on the podium along with Bob singing ‘and time will tell …’

The bookshop itself, its quirky customers and transactions often conducted by shouting from the residence to the shop, are all things she can work with. Niece Bella Rose, however, isn’t such a straightforward undertaking, even with the guidance that Ana’s left her.

She could learn how to look after a ten-year-old girl, and Bella Rose could learn the difference between a mother and an auntie. Puti and Bella Rose knew each other pretty well, but until now they had not lived in close proximity without Ana for more than a weekend every six months or so. Puti had no idea what Bella Rose thought, but from her own point of view it seemed to be going okay. So far.

And then there’s Matthew Derrell, Puti’s estranged grandfather. A bitter, twisted, nasty old man who hates everybody and everything and does everything in his power to make Ana, Puti and their beloved Nan Adele miserable. Although somebody seems to have hated him even more, and poor Puti ends up being the person who, having had nothing to do with him for years, has to be there when he’s found, murdered brutally, his body adorned with a Judas mask that has a story all its own.

One look at the hall from the doorway was enough. Pictures had been thrown on the floor, the landline hung down from its cradle, a framed mirror was badly cracked. Someone had had a level-ten temper tantrum. Seven years bad luck for that person. And the smell, ugh, an invisible overwhelming miasma, a fog you couldn’t see but couldn’t ignore.

Authors in the Golden Age of crime fiction knew all too well the power of the unlikeable victim, and Renée is very comfortable with this trope. It frees anybody from having to mourn, concentrating instead on the curiosity of why and how. Of course there’s a bit of complication when the death is in a family, what with potential financial gain, but there are so many possible reasons why Matthew Derrell would be killed, inheritance is just another potential red herring in a very crowded net.

Things get a lot darker though as Puti and Bella Rose, with the assistance of ‘frenemy’ PC Jojo Jones, start to stick their noses into things others might prefer they stayed out of. But then what did they expect from a girl raised in a bookshop that specialises in crime fiction?

‘Tell Detective Inspector James what your ambition is, Bella Rose.’

She shrugged. ‘I’m training to be a private investigator. When I’m sixteen, I’ll open my own business.’

‘And when you’re eighteen you’ll go to uni,’ said Puti.

‘Yes, Auntie.’

‘Hmn,’ said James, ‘why not join the force?’

‘I want to be boss,’ said Bella Rose.

‘There’s a female assistant commissioner,’ said James.

‘Exactly,’ said Bella Rose.

Renée’s slightly tongue-in-cheek style of writing is an absolute pleasure to read in this and her earlier crime novel, The Wild Card. Her tone is dry and pointed, and scenes are set, described and played out with a playwright’s eye but an author’s voice. The text incorporates a lot of Māori terminology and phrasing, which for readers new to this language might mean a bit of googling, although context provides plenty of clues. Setting this particular tale in the confines of the bookshop also allows for plenty of references to a cast of both Golden Age and present-day crime writers. The author is obviously a fan. The other lovely touch is the use of simple snippets of community news as headings for each new chapter – some of these are heart-warming, some hilarious.

A woman charged with stealing four eggs from her neighbour’s henhouse said the neighbour had stolen chickens from her yard last year, so they were actually her eggs.

Police Notes, Porohiwi Star

In among the day-to-day of small-town living, and the threats that start to come much closer to home, there is also some telling exposition, and the activist in the author shows through.

‘You’re in the habit of being questioned by the police?’ said James.

Supercilious shit.

‘Every protest I’ve ever been on, any accident with the car, even though it isn’t my fault. The most recent was a couple of years ago when someone broke into the apartment block where I had a flat,’ Puti looked straight at James, ‘stole the Maro.’ She nodded at the wall behind him. ‘Cop was sure I’d set up the burglary. Interviewed me three times, while everybody else was only once. Searched my flat twice, everyone else once. Very disappointed when the thief was apprehended on another matter and among the haul were bits and pieces from the other flats and – tah dah – my Maro. No apology though. Never sure whether it’s my skin colour, the scar, or my father’s crime. Unconscious bias is the latest buzz term, Detective Inspector James. Works just like ordinary old bias but it gives racist profilers an out.’

In the end though, it comes back to the community of Porohiwi in which Puti is, at least, happy, and with that happiness there is potential for a better life. Back to the sort of life where the Star newspaper is reporting the important things in life:

Needlework Club members had a lively discussion about Mrs Grey’s entry in the cross stitch embroidered cushion cover competition. Mrs Lineham said there was no such thing as blue roses so it should be removed from the entries. Seconded by Mrs Tait. Mrs Grey said she only had blue thread and she wouldn’t get her licence back for another month so she couldn’t go to the mall, and anyway Mrs Lineham could get stuffed. Members will vote at the next Needlework Club meeting.

Club Notes, Porohiwi Star

Renée Blood Matters The Cuba Press 2022 318pp Available as an ebook (NZ$12) and paperback (NZ$40) from The Cuba Press

Postscript: Sadly, Renee died at the end of 2023. NZ’s The Spinoff has run a huge number of tributes, testament to the range and impact of Renee’s work, and the affection she inspired.

Karen Chisholm blogs from, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy Blood Matters from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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