As part of a nationwide tour to herald the launch of his latest book, The Scene of the Crime, Steve Braunias swung by Unity Wellington for a lunchtime event on Wednesday 18th of November. And people turned up in droves, packing out all the available seats and leaning on the edges of nearby tables.
Steve got right down to business, in what seemed like an uncharacteristically sombre place to start, telling us that the ‘most chilling’ crime in the book was right in the middle of the book, at its ‘epicentre’ – before changing tack somewhat. ‘I say chilling, because the man was arrested for riding a bicycle naked, in winter, in Timaru.’
This particularly moment of levity – both in book and speech – serves, he said, partly to break up the more dire parts into more easily consumed chunks – but also to remind us that ‘most crimes in New Zealand are very petty’.
He outlined a few of the crimes covered in the book, but was also quick to point out that it’s the people that are the really interesting part, not necessarily the crime itself. When it came to influential works, it was television, rather than other books, that proved to be the format with a style he was on board with.
‘HBO’s True Detective set-up proved useful for the book. It wasn’t really concerned with the crime – what it was fascinated and obsessed by was the characters.’
He was also quick to point out the reality of working with the people involved in these crimes – whether it’s those convicted, or the victims, or people working the case. ‘Interview subjects are not material – they are just people caught up in something extraordinary.’
There was a book that retrospectively came up in discussion – Steve talked about being interviewed by Jack Tame (complete with a bit of ribbing regarding Tame’s youthful looks) and having In Cold Blood by Truman Capote posed as a possible influence. Steve hadn’t actually read it at the time, but did so, and promptly called it brilliant.
With the publication of this book – and his earlier journalism that much of the content has been influenced by – Steve is understandably asked, on a fairly regular basis, about justice and criminology, and topics of that ilk. ‘I happily open my mouth and yap away, because that’s what I do – but I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.’
When the floor was opened for questions, all manner of things came up. He spoke very highly of The Journalist & the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (‘I read her crime non-fiction for the absolute pleasure’). The ways in which he selected the crimes in the book was brought up. ‘Some were too obvious to ignore.’ But some appeared by chance, through wandering around near Auckland’s High Court, and decided to look in on what was happening in the courtrooms.
‘I try to be a good sort of a moral person, but it’s not some highfalutin thing I just go along to these things, and I don’t know what happened.’
Photos by Laura Munro and words by Briar Lawry.