A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse by Brannavan Gnanalingam
The title of this novel refers to a true incident in 1981 when one of our top SIS spooks lost his briefcase; when it was discovered by a journalist it had been left in the Aro Valley and found to contain his business cards, a diary of scurrilous gossip, three mince pies, two fruit pies, the NZ Listener, and a Penthouse magazine.
The novel isn’t about this embarrassing incident, it is however about the inanity of government agencies, especially those tasked with impossible jobs – like for example keeping all New Zealanders safe from an ill- defined threat. If you have ever worked in a government department, especially a risk-averse one, you will sympathise with Rachel McManus. Rachel has just started working for the New Zealand Alarm and Response Ministry. She has previously been a civil servant so isn’t totally unprepared for the experience – but this is a time of global panic in the face of the unfortunately termed ‘Islamic Threat’. Rachel faces the usual misogyny and racism – but writ large due to the ridiculously heightened stress levels. She suffers the lecherous co-workers, the embarrassing after-work drinks, the insane meetings where no one wants to admit they don’t know or don’t understand, the slavish subservience to hierarchy – but all dialled up to 11.5. Rachel is tasked – sort of – with tracking a terror suspect. Having the most invasive technologies at her fingertips she plunges in. The suspect is suspected of inculcating youth with radical ideas picked up overseas, and there is a consequential concern that he might be planning an attack somewhere in Wellington. The novel becomes farcical when the evidence and the suspicions grow further and further apart; and there is a crazy sequence where Rachel decides to do some old fashioned on-foot surveillance to try and clarify matters. She has no surveillance skills whatsoever. In fact, she has no skills full stop given her parlous training – but possibly because of this rather than despite it, she is the only one in the Ministry who has any common sense. But due to her being young and a woman, she might as well be yelling into a Wellington gale when attempting to inform her colleagues and bosses of her views. Given the novel’s inexorable style it has no real shape – but makes its point very compellingly regarding racial profiling and bureaucracy gone mad. And there are enough real world incidents thrown in (not out of place at all amongst the absurdity) to keep the novel worryingly grounded. So, given there are still questions to be answered around how a country should position itself in a world at threat from terror attacks, A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse is at once funny, tragic and disturbing.