Verdict: PANCAKE MONEY's triumph lies not only in powerful storytelling, but showing us—beyond butch and bravado—our paradoxical capacity for hope in a world of rising divisiveness and brutality.
Homicide detectives Bobby Ress and Pollo Latu’s investigation of the media-branded Holy Man Killer reveals a promiscuous devastation of lives rooted in family trauma, the ethical ambiguity of institutions, and blood-loyal culture. Catastrophic horrors force the detectives (hence us) to confront existence stripped of dogma and hypocrisy—exploding into an emotional search for meaning: of pain, grief, identity and—ultimately—whether love and life are worth the very human cost of protecting them.
What matters is pain: too much will change you. Good or evil, strong or weak, sane or insane, right or wrong . . . you’ll do whatever you can to stop the pain. Author Bell’s narrative explores this undeniable truism with a voice whose devotion to philosophical integrity and restraint neither exploits nor disrespects our fear of nothingness and annihilation, nor allows reprieve from personal responsibility—rare attributes in a genre often criticized for nihilistic dismissal of ethics and morality, and failure to offer viable replacements.
In and around New Zealand’s Dunedin, someone is killing elderly priests. The first, found in a condition defying easy explanation, soon is joined in death by another—leaving detectives Ress and Pollo uncharacteristically repulsed and intrigued. We learn, “People tend to die on the weekends, when they have the time.” Ress’s dark humor (more of a coping mechanism), after deeper enquiry and closer attention in Ann Bowlby’s Forensic Psychology 702 class, blossoms into fascination stabilized by Pollo’s experience (roughly two decades on Ress’s) and quiet aphorisms: “You have to look at people and see what’s really there. Not just what you want to be there…”
After meeting with a priest who knew the decedents and little else, the partners are tipped—via Becca Patrick, news reporter—that they’ve been lied to: the three priests founded a secluded Catholic retreat, Tegere Servare. Could the Holy Man Killer’s medieval savagery be linked to this mysterious (publicly unacknowledged) place? Distracted by another case—inmate Jones Maihi’s inexplicable flight from compassionate-leave during his son’s funeral—the detectives soon cover another killing, wondering whether the method points toward the Manga Kahu, a Māori gang. Bell’s taut pace falters only when Ress explains at length to gang president Alkaline Ben (who could charm Lucifer) the staggeringly sad reality driving the killings.
PANCAKE MONEY’s triumph lies not only in powerful storytelling, but showing us—beyond butch and bravado—our paradoxical capacity for hope in a world of rising divisiveness and brutality.
~William Grabowski for IndieReader