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Panning for literary success: "The Luminaries" is set on New Zealand's South Island during the gold rush

What were the Booker Prize judges thinking? A hundred and fifty-one books were submitted for the prize this year; somewhere among that vast array of novels there must, surely, have been one that could have beaten this unenthralling whodunnit to the award. Maybe it was simply that, having trudged through all 836 pages of The Luminaries, they couldn't bear to admit that such an exhausting journey had been in vain. But hundreds of pages doesn't transform a mediocre novel into an epic — it just leaves you with an awfully large amount of mediocrity.  

It's frustrating, because Eleanor Catton begins her novel so well. It's 1866 and Walter Moody, a young man hoping to make his fortune, has just arrived in a small frontier town during the New Zealand gold rush. Encountering a strikingly disparate group of men gathered in the hotel smoking room — including a legal clerk, a whoremonger, a Chinese opium dealer and a heavily tattooed Maori — he quickly discovers that this motley crew has come together to try to make sense of a series of unexplained events.

 One man has been found dead beside a vast fortune of solid gold, another man is missing and the town's favourite whore seems to somehow be at the heart of it. Like the start of a good Agatha Christie, it all seems very intriguing.

But while the godmother of crime writing knew how to lure you in, hold you gripped and leave you satisfied all within a modest average of 300 pages, Catton has assembled everything she needs to construct a tight, captivating mystery novel and then bewilderingly ballooned it into a book so big that the characters have to keep giving each other mini plot summaries along the way, because even they are in danger of getting lost among the avalanche of narrative jigsaw pieces.

 If all of these pieces fitted together to create the greatest and most intricate puzzle ever seen, the effort might, perhaps, have been worth it. But this whodunnit is no more intriguing than the pacier, reasonable-size variety and Catton's readers are more likely to continue turning the pages in an attempt to see what all the Booker Prize fuss is about, than out of any desperate desire to know what happens next.

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