By Kathryn White
Three chapters into “Groundswell” by North Denver debut novelist E.J. Fretz, a reader could take pencil to paper and draw an accurate map of places they may never have seen: Ōhope Beach and the nearby town of Whakatāne on New Zealand’s North Island. They might feel the warm wind on their skin and salty coastal air filling their lungs as they embellish their map with features of the landscape like crimson-bloomed pōhutukawa trees, kawakawa plants and the finer lines needed to depict the spiky leaves of tall totara trees.
In those same chapters, readers will have met protagonist and private investigator Julian Braxton, his wife, Parvati, and Julian’s surfing buddies Toby, Nico and Ezra. Braxton has left a career as a lawyer in Los Angeles for a fresh start in Ōhope Beach, where Parvati would work at a local hospital and Braxton would become a P.I., learn to surf and, as readers will learn, escape the fallout from his last case in the U.S.
Friendships between Julian, Toby, Nico and Ezra take center stage in this novel, as does Fretz’s weavings-in of local politics, Māori history, culture and contemporary issues and the region’s connections to global issues.
Fretz, West Highland resident and Regis University professor, sets the scene for his debut novel in the coastal area of New Zealand where he and his family lived in 2017 and 2018. He invites readers into the surf culture he had himself come to know, detailing everything from the actual experience of surfing—get ready for a new vocabulary—to snapshots of iconic New Zealand surfers, surfer history, surfboard types and the mechanics of prepping and repairing boards.
And while the book is a satisfying immersion into the places and subcultures where the mystery unfolds, it is as much an exploration into undercurrents operating in a place where one death after another is being passed off to unlikely causes by local authorities.
Braxton won’t have it. He’s curious from the outset. Then, when one of his own friends is found dead on a trail leading from Ōhope to adjacent Ōtarawairere Beach, Braxton kicks into gear. Trying to find answers to his friend’s mysterious death, Braxton finds himself at an intersection between the high stakes interests of international drug cartels, corporate greed and Māori land rights.
“Groundswell” is a well-crafted first novel written from the vantage point of an author who, like Braxton, was a newcomer to Ōhope, who fell in love with his surroundings and the people he came to know. Fretz’s tale imparts an openness and curiosity about his temporary home in New Zealand, and reveals—through the way he approaches Braxton’s grief over the loss of friends—the emotional weight that comes when you’ve left a place you have fallen in love with.