Tugga's Mob, Stephen Johnson

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

TUGGA'S MOB by Stephen Johnson has been shortlisted for the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel (see the end of this review for all the shortlisted entries).

Set across two timelines, this is a story that starts out in the 1980's, on one of those young people, mad house type tours of foreign climes that were particularly popular back then. Many of us will remember tales of people (or were those people) who went on the slightly madcap charge around Europe, normally in a bus, camping out at various locations or in the cheapest possible accommodation, with a heap of other young people around the same age. There were stories of tour romances, much fun, huge drinking sessions, and less well known maybe, some seriously appalling behaviour.

In TUGGA'S MOB we have the story of Waikato-born Judy Williams, a quiet, hard-working young woman who saved for her trip of a lifetime, and ended up on one of these tours. Unfortunately on the same tour as Tugga Tancred and a bunch of his yobbo Kiwi mates. Tugga developed quite an obsession with Judy, and he and his friends turned her trip of a lifetime into a nightmare, with sexual harassment and controlling and abusive behaviour. Which everyone else on the tour appeared happy to ignore, even when obsession turned to murder.

30 years later and Tugga's last trip down the Great Ocean Road could have something to do with those events all those years ago. Does the same fate await Andrew Hackett, an Australian on the same tour, happy to party hard with Tugga's Mob, now a hatchet man in the news business? One of his own news rooms might be about to find out.

The investigative aspects of TUGGA'S MOB are set within the world of news gathering - a cutthroat, time-pressured, manic environment well portrayed in this novel, with journo Curly Rogers in a clear cut search for the truth contrasted sharply with the self-serving nature of party boy turned boss Hackett. The discovery of Judy's hand-written diary provides the spark for revenge, and the full story of what happened back then. There are plenty of red herrings along the way to keep the reader working hard, and the ending, whilst predictable is apt, and nicely closed off, although there is a bit of a tendency to over explain when things start to get complicated.

The use of the investigative journalist as the central protagonist is a nice touch, and TUGGA'S MOB overall is an entertaining romp styled novel.

The entire shortlist for the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel is:

Tugga's Mob, Stephen Johnson
Aue, Becky Manawatu (also shortlisted for Best Novel)
The Nancys, R.W.R. McDonald
Into the Void, Christina O'Reilly


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Year of Publication

What happens on tour stays on tour was the mantra for the southern hemisphere backpackers who swarmed Europe in the 1980s. Foreign countries had to be explored and devoured in every way possible.

Waikato-born Judy Williams worked hard for her big OE: London, Paris, Rome, Gallipoli; and her adventures were dutifully recorded in her diary.

A diary that also recorded how the obsessive Tugga Tancred and his Kiwi mates turned Judy's trip of a lifetime into a nightmare of sly sexual harassment. Their bad behaviour went unnoticed, or was ignored by fellow passengers like Australian Andrew Hackett who chose to party hard with Tugga's Mob. After all, they were in Europe for a good time, not a long time.

And what a time it was, until Tugga's fixation ultimately led to murder: a crime that went unpunished for 30 years.

But few things remain hidden forever. The rediscovery of Judy's hand-written diary sparks a trail of revenge that the original perpetrators never see coming.

Review Tugga's Mob, Stephen Johnson
Karen Chisholm
Wednesday, August 26, 2020

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