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September 6, 2019

The Great Adventure: Why New Zealand Is My Character’s New Home


Sara E. Johnson worked as a middle-school reading specialist and newspaper contributor in North Carolina, before she and her husband relocated to New Zealand for a year. This big move served as the inspiration for her series featuring forensics expert Alexa Glock, the first installment of which, MOLTEN MUD MURDER, is now available. “There are countless ways this brutal landscape can swallow a body,” Sara warns in this fascinating essay about her adventures in New Zealand, making it a perfect setting for these mysteries.


People sometimes ask how I got the idea to set the Alexa Glock mysteries in New Zealand. It started when my husband proposed living in Aotearoa, “the land of the long white cloud,” for a year. Could we do it? I left my teaching job, three children (the youngest was a college sophomore) and cat to find out.

My first glimpse of the Southern Alps from an airplane left me chilled: jagged rows of snow-capped peaks raked the spine of the South Island not far from where we rented a house in Christchurch. The Canterbury area welcomed us with a three-day “active front” that blew cars off the road and two trees down in our back “garden.” I loved the newspaper headline describing gusts of more than 222 kmh: “By Crikey it was windy.”

A headline during our first week also caused me chills: “Chance of finding tourists alive very remote.” A Canadian couple driving a camper van disappeared while crossing Haast Pass. We planned to cross the same pass, one of three that bisect the Alps. We followed the story closely. It played out like this: First, the wheels and chassis of the van were discovered 80 meters down a gorge in the Haast River. Most likely a rock slide from the same storm that welcomed us to this rugged country swept their van off the road. The next week, the young woman's body was found on a downriver stretch of beach. The man's thigh bone was discovered three years later.

People actually disappear in New Zealand.

An early adventure was to the tip of the North Island, Cape Reinga, where the Maori believe the soul departs. It's a wild and spiritual place, and we could watch the Tasman Sea crash into the Pacific Ocean. Nearby, the Te Peki sand dunes rise 140 meters above the sea and attract attention. I joined a line of twenty-somethings trudging up the dunes in gale winds, my boogie board trying to escape, or carry me aloft, my bare feet sinking into the fine sand, so I could “depart” from the crest.

A body could disappear in this sand, I thought...and the idea for a mystery series crystallized.

Thermal activity abounds on the North Island. The Rotorua area has the highest concentration of geysers, boiling springs, sinter terraces, sulphur pools and mud pots in the world, and I was hot to visit. Skull and crossbone signs warned us, but even so, my husband dipped a finger into a steaming stream. “Get back,” I yelled, like a good wife. The year before, a boy slipped off the path and into one of the pools. Headline: Boy dies after being boiled alive in NZ thermal spring.

At the thermal mud pots, I oohed at the bubbling stinking Hades and knew I had to kill someone there. MOLTEN MUD MURDER takes place at those mud pots. My protagonist, Alexa Glock, must identify the remains through dental X-rays. Everything else boiled away.

Foveaux Strait, separating the South Island and Stewart Island, is notoriously rough. The Maori call the wind whipping the strait hau-mate, or death wind. The year before we made the crossing, a rogue wave capsized a fishing boat, killing eight men. Tourists, like my husband and me, visit Stewart Island for many reasons: hiking (yes), birding (yes), hunting (no) and shark cage diving (NO). There are at least 44 tagged great white sharks in the area. They like to visit, too, and certainly could be blamed for a ravaged body washing ashore.

That is the situation that happens in the second Alexa Glock mystery, CHUM(coming September 2020). Was the shark really the culprit?

My husband and I hiked the 33-mile Milford Track, “the finest walk in the world,” in sunshine. We could actually see the glacial streams, alpine passes, gushing waterfalls, sheer cliffs and not fall off swing bridges. This is unusual. The area gets 268 inches of rain each year. One hiker blogged about being airlifted out halfway through, after 15 inches submerged the track. Shortly after we completed Milford, a hiker, right in front of her partner, was swept away in a swollen creek.

But what if the partner gave a little shove? In Book Three, Alexa hikes the Milford Track. As she clutches the flimsy rail of a swinging bridge, she spots a body in the river below.

We reached the Cape Kidnappers gannet colony on a trailer pulled by a 1949 Minneapolis-Moline tractor. The old tractor pulled us between the breaking waves and spectacular cliff formations. I was shocked to spot a golf course atop one cliff. Our tractor driver told us a rich American bought the land, built a house and golf course. Many Silicon Valley hedge fund managers have also bought New Zealand property, perhaps as doomsday escape hatches. New Zealand has since banned foreigners from buying homes. But this man already had, and what if his neighbors didn't like it? The clamor of thousands of gannets protecting their chicks would eclipse a scream for help.

Book Four, I think...

There are countless ways this brutal landscape can swallow a body, and thus New Zealand makes a perfect setting for the Alexa Glock mysteries. The cat is on my lap as I peck away back home in North Carolina, half a world away.