4 out of 4 stars
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Pancake Money is specifically about a policeman and his partner trying to find a serial killer in New Zealand, and generally about pain.
I do not mean an isolated incident, like a headache or a paper cut. As is discussed in the book, Abraham Maslow came up with his pyramid of human needs theory after a long study on what it means to be alive. Every living thing, from an amoeba to a human, needs. Something is dead by virtue of the fact that its needs have not been met in the amount of time before death will occur. For example, in humans, lack of oxygen causes death quickly, while lack of food causes it eventually.
The part of the body that needs is different across the spectrum. Not all flora and fauna have fully-functioning minds. In humans, it is the brain that decides both what we need and how to get it.
All living things require pain avoidance. Human brains will go to great lengths to circumvent it, and, as the author points out, the mind will eventually cause its own “illness,” in quotes because to a human’s mind, it is not sickness at all. Behaviors attributed to instability are a way to achieve isolation, and thus, again, avoid pain.
To that end, the author posits (based on copious amounts of research) that pain is the most effective way to get anyone to do anything. In the book, the example is overeating:
At issue is not only the idea of pain producing results, but that you might get what you want in the short term, but there's always "something extra" in the long term.... truly unexpected results.Now, I’m reliably informed that bone breaks are some of the most intense forms of pain you can experience. So, the first time I do it, I guarantee you this person isn’t going to keep eating. I know what you’re thinking. Eventually they get back from the hospital and the painkillers and all the sympathy from friends and family dulls the trauma. And, after a few hours, that piece of chocolate cake starts looking pretty good again. This time, as soon as they reach for it, I take my hammer and hit them again. Same place. Same break again.
…Maybe I have to break your arm only once. Maybe a few times. But eventually, the only difference between people is time [Emphasis mine].
This theme repeats over and over as the investigation of horrifically brutal murders continues. Where the police get stuck is that the people being murdered are Catholic priests, and the primary motivations for murder are sex, power, and money… sometimes two or all of them combined.
The immediate conclusion one might draw, given current events, is that the murders are being carried out by a victim of a holy pedophile, the oxymoron at the heart of that scandal. But these priests are above reproach, which makes case resolution even more difficult. The priests being murdered have neither power nor money. They are just the rank and file…. No golden chalices, no expensive jewelry, no art worth millions. The only thing left the police have to go on is pain. Who has it? Who’s trying to avoid it? Who has the means and skill to avoid pain using these extreme methods?
The cops at the center of the investigation are Bobby and Pollo.
Pollo is an experienced beat cop and a Maori. Both of these things are central to his personality. He has the gruff exterior of the policeman archetype and the laidback mindset of an islander. These traits seem as if they would be at odds with each other, but this character is two friends holding hands in one body. Being Maori also enhances Pollo’s ability to police New Zealand, because he innately understands tribal customs, the law, and the reasons why they sometimes diverge. There is an almost parental aspect to his relationship with Bobby, because Pollo takes pride in his accomplishments, ultimately trying to get Bobby to the point where he is no longer needed and can retire. The pain theme is not immune to him because of his rough upbringing, which now serves his current outlook, mostly to his advantage.
Bobby looks up to Pollo as a mentor, a deep love story in its own way, as evidenced by both men’s thoughts and emotions.
However, the story is told in Bobby’s first person account of what happened, which creates a deeper understanding of his background, life choices, and thought processes. Bobby is white, one of the reasons why his partnership with Pollo is important, because he cannot innately understand the old Maori ways. He does his best for someone not brought up in that community, but Pollo’s advice and counsel is invaluable. The pain theme for Bobby is centered around the amount of time he has to spend away from his family and all of the secrets he holds, because sometimes, he’s just not at liberty to say what’s going on out loud. His wife and daughter have to intuit it by his body language, and at times, his physical injuries. Bobby’s guilt is magnified by his daughter being introverted to the point of agoraphobia, because he feels her pain as much as he does his own. He wants to help her overcome the problem, and it is a constant conflict in him that as much as his wife and daughter need him, his job has already made plans for his time.
Character development in this novel is solid. You will feel like you know all of them by the conclusion, but there’s just no way around the fact that it is Bobby’s story, and everyone else’s is told through him. I realized fairly early on that I didn’t know the characters themselves, but what Bobby said they felt and thought. His reliability as a narrator is never in doubt, though. What makes the descriptions of the other characters engaging is that Bobby is both self– and other-aware. His voice is authentic and truthful. Part of the thrill is his hour-by-hour account, and not only was I excited by the action, but interested in what it means to him to be a policeman who willingly walks toward danger.
Narration, though, is just one aspect of the way a great story is told; Bell’s structure is also gripping. Chapters are broken up by days, and sections by times.
Their journey takes them from city settings to the remote bush, from churches to the coast; moreover, from gang violence to the possibility of an individual actor. Additionally, this novel creates a great discussion regarding tension between Maori natives and the whites who colonized them. This is because some of the suspects belong to a native gang… or is it?
One faction is about preserving Maori customs and practices, the emphasis on family and keeping everyone safe. Another is known for violent crime with no apology, because in their minds, revenge against whites is justified. The cops, and the reader, are both encouraged to take a hard look at this, because again, it’s the theme of pain. The Maori have been systematically hurt over time. The “something extra” that has shown itself is violence against whites who aren’t responsible for colonization because it happened so long ago, but representative of it. Whites are not to be trusted. It is these kinds of issues that make the book extraordinary, because it is not limited to discussion about the story, but global implications as well.
Finn Bell is an exemplary writer, and for those who approach “whodunit” books trying to figure out the end before it arrives, please just relax and enjoy the ride. The way Bell slowly ropes you into the story is magnificent, as if stepping into the book’s current and letting it take you down its meandering path. Nothing in the book is off-topic. Everything relates to everything, whether or not you realize it on the first pass.
Like other extraordinary thrillers, I will want to read it a second time to pick up all the clues I missed. Then, after some time has passed, read it again for even more. It is the type of book that even after you have reached the last page, you want it to keep going… Both for the experience of decoding symbols and to spend time in the world Bell has created. The characters are incredibly likable (well, the ones that are supposed to be, anyway), and pacing is one of the things the author does best.
One thing that Pollo points out relatively early in the novel is that the best thinking does not often happen critically, but are moments that come out of nowhere when you are thinking about something else. It is also the best advice that I have for reading the book as well.
I let the story reach its conclusion, and had epiphanies about it long after the fact. The best ones arrived when I was sleeping, or doing the dishes, or walking quietly toward the bus. Revelations happen regarding both story and theme. My own centered on what it means to have all your needs met, growing into a healthy adult… And how not having those needs met leads to both researched conclusions and unintended consequences.
The novel left me unsettled, not because of the story, but regarding society needing to do a better job of helping the mentally unhealthy. In the long run, it may do more to keep horrific crimes from happening.
It was interesting to read this particular book in the United States, in the days leading up to massive protests against gun control by students who feel they are under attack by some of their classmates. Because of the nature of mental pain avoidance techniques, there are no easy answers. This book, though, seems to shed light into how those attacks organically arise. These types of crimes are meticulously planned over time, and therefore cannot be snap decisions.
The novel is as sharp as a knife, because it does not just lead one to think about the crimes committed in the book, but crime itself.
Now, the only thing I want after this novel written by Finn Bell is another one.
I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars, not given lightly. This novel is truly exceptional.
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