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Lawyer vaults into crime fiction set close to home

Flagstaff Team

Barrister William McCartney has been tackling some different challenges lately, undertaking a solo overland adventure across Europe and Asia and publishing a debut novel partly set in Devonport. He tells the Flagstaff about trying his hand at fiction – and the upcoming excitement of his daughter Eliza competing at the Paris Olympics.

Nervous spectator… Barrister, travel blogger and first-time crime novelist William McCartney admits he can find it stressful watching daughter Eliza compete

Real-life Devonport, its volcanoes, beaches, harbour views, cruise-ship tourists – and rats – make an early appearance in A Fly Under the Radar, barrister William McCartney’s first novel.
Even an unnamed newspaper, “published only fortnightly because not a lot happened” and featuring a letter in support of architectural heritage, might bear a passing resemblance to an actual publication.
But these details provide just some of the setting for a rollicking yarn, which has a cast of characters that rate as notably eccentric, even by Devonport standards.
Gisborne-raised and Otago University-educated McCartney, who arrived in Devonport with his partner, city GP Donna Marshall, and their three young children in 2008, wrote his book at the Vauxhall Rd home where a dining-room door frame still bears faint markings recording the heights over the years of first-born Eliza – future Olympic-medal-winning pole-vaulter – and her two younger brothers, Finn and Hamish.
McCartney has had to do plenty of writing over a legal career dating back to the 1980s, and thought vaguely over the years of trying his hand at fiction. But, like others, he found Covid lockdown finally provided the opportunity to make a start.
He hadn’t been a particular reader of crime fiction, preferring science fiction, non-fiction and classics such as Dickens. But his own book was always destined for the crime shelves, given it began from an idea “about the maggots” – though McCartney urges the Flagstaff not to reveal any spoilers – around which the story is constructed.
The bulk of it was finished when the lockdowns ended, though the reviewing process dragged on subsequently. “I wouldn’t leave it alone.” He found the dialogue easy enough but the rewriting “tedious”.
The central character is a lawyer, who lives in Devonport. The rest of the cast includes the lawyer’s young sidekick, a conniving landlord, a couple of police officers and one or two judges.
“The courtroom scenes are pretty realistic,” McCartney says. “There are judges who will recognise themselves.” That said, McCartney’s treatment of them might reflect the fact his own courtroom career is ongoing. “I treat all the judges well,” he notes with a smile.
He has ideas for a sequel, perhaps following the adventures of that young legal offsider, though McCartney’s work as a barrister specialising in land and construction law keeps him busy for now.
His next writing project seems more likely to be the packaging of a popular series of blogs he wrote and posted during a 41-day solo overland journey he made in September and October last year from the Atlantic coast of Western Europe to China. “Mostly sand,” he says wryly of the journey which took him through the likes of Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, generally traveling by rail and bus.
A first attempt at the trip, in 2019, began in Dunkirk, included a swim across the Dardanelles Strait in Turkey and continued as far as Iran before a leg infection forced him to call it off.
This year’s version, starting in Amsterdam, followed a different route. “Parts of it were a lot better than I expected,” he says, mentioning Tbilisi in Georgia as a particular highlight.
Eventual arrival in Hong Kong was a “huge relief”, after the trials of negotiating China’s packed rail services.

“The courtroom scenes are pretty realistic,” McCartney says. “There are judges who will recognise themselves.”

The travel should be simpler when he and Donna and their sons head to Paris to see Eliza compete again on the Olympic stage in early August, though McCartney expects the women’s pole-vault to generate sufficient tension in itself.
“It’s stressful watching that stuff,” he admits.
Injury prevented Rio 2016 bronze-medallist Eliza from competing at the Tokyo Games in 2021 and Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022, but she has had a heartening return to form since then.
William was watching in Glasgow in February when she soared to a silver medal at the World Athletics Indoor Championships. “It’s nice to have her reasonably healthy,” he says.
Both parents had a school-days sporting background, Donna as a gymnast and William as a self-described “adequate” high jumper who came third in the national secondary school champs in the sixth form before opting to prioritise rugby in his final year.
Surprisingly, it was the high jump rather than rugby injuries that took a long-term toll: the effect on his teenage frame of the Fosbury flop, which puts particular strain on one leg, is thought to have contributed to him having to undergo a hip replacement not too long before that first, truncated, overland adventure.
He has had an ankle replacement in the other leg since then, but at age 61 remains physically active, ocean swimming all year round, cycling and skiing. The lanky resemblance to his famous daughter is easy to pick.
McCartney recalls Eliza being physically adept even as a young infant, effortlessly sitting up from a reclined position in her cot. “She was always very athletic, from day one.” At primary school, “she immediately started winning running races and it carried on from there”.
When she comes to compete in Paris, New Zealand athletics fans will be on the edge of their seats, hoping she can add even more lustre to her determined come-back.
They might also spare a thought for a certain dad in the stands, going through his own competition anxiety.
“You can’t do anything about it,” he says. “You’re just sitting there biting your nails.”

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