Review: The Slow Roll

Reviewed by Greg Fleming

Simon Lendrum’s The Slow Roll is a brilliantly written and intriguing debut crime novel, set in Auckland and featuring two lead characters with intelligence and empathy who just leave you wanting more to read.

The Slow Roll’s O’Malley isn’t your normal private eye. He doesn’t have an office or even PI license; he’s spent time in prison and makes his living playing poker. But if you ask around certain circles in Auckland, this rather large part Irish, part Polynesian “pretend detective” is the man to contact if the police, for whatever reason, won’t help. He’s a man who has connections on both sides of the law thanks to a rough upbringing and that prison stint.

When a father, whose teenage daughter has gone missing, sidles up to him at the poker table and asks him to help locate her, O’Malley, always a sucker for a sob story, begrudgingly says he’ll see what he can do. This seemingly simple mission will lead O’Malley deep into the Auckland underworld – from gang pads to private poker games to the plush offices of dodgy lawyers and businessmen.

That’s the premise for Simon Lendrum’s debut novel. Like the serial literary detectives created by crime fiction greats like George Pelecanos, Walter Mosely and Robert Crais before him, Lendrum’s O’Malley is an outlier, a man who pursues the truth and stands up for those without a voice while wrestling with his own inner demons (he suffers night terrors and has had to clear all the furniture from his bedroom otherwise he’d wake up to find the floor littered with debris).

O’Malley would be a formidable prospect on his own but his secret weapon is his girlfriend Claire, a beautiful, tattooed psychology student who works at one of the hipper city bars, keeping leery men in check with her quick witted, no bullshit demeanour.

She also keeps O’Malley in line, nudging him in the right direction when he’s struggling with a case, providing wise counsel when his demons surface, accepting his strange behaviours (he rarely gets to sleep before 4am and never stays over) and psychological baggage. She also comes in handy when O’Malley needs a new vehicle for a stakeout.

After many years of procrastination, Lendrum, who has spent decades at the top of Auckland’s advertising industry and is currently CEO of the Commercial Communications Council, seized the opportunity the 2020 lockdown gave him and completed this fantastic novel in less than five months.

A long-time fan of crime fiction (Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins series is an abiding inspiration), Lendrum also brings his skills and experience as a poker player to the book. The titular “slow roll” is a poker move that’s considered the height of bad etiquette; revealing your winning hand late, just as your opponent reaches to swoop in their winnings.

There are quite a few nasty surprises awaiting O’Malley in this wildly entertaining ride, one that captures Auckland, in all its small city glory, like few novels before it: “It’s a sleepy part of the world and the population is too small to sustain around-the-clock entertainment and wouldn’t have the inclination even if it were available. But for night owls like O’Malley, there’s always somewhere to go…”

Lendrum’s sharp, wry prose hooks readers in from the start, introducing some meaty social issues into the narrative – family violence, trauma, Aotearoa New Zealand’s social inequity - without slowing the pace. The two lead characters are expertly drawn and the minor ones are just as deftly sketched; a computer hacker Milo who “lives on Red Bull and intrigue” or Jimmy the gang boss turned entrepreneur who lays out for O’Malley - and the reader - exactly how drug money is laundered in New Zealand and sent back to China in an intriguing couple of pages. This is one of the finest crime fiction debuts of the year and I can’t wait for the pair’s next adventure.

Reviewed by Greg Fleming