Murder most foul, Bernard Carpinter

Cemetery Lake
Paul Cleave
Random House, $34.99,
ISBN 9781869418908

The Ringmaster 
Vanda Symon
Penguin Books, $28.00,
ISBN 9780143008347

The Devils Are Here
Cam Stokes
Cape Catley, $29.99,
ISBN 9781877340192

Christ Clone
David McLeod
Random House, $35.99,
ISBN 9781869419592

Christchurch is now the crime-fiction capital of New Zealand, thanks to the work of Paul Cleave. Cemetery Lake is his third crime novel set in Christchurch and the picture he paints of his city is such a bleak one that it could well affect the tourism business there. This is a Garden City overgrown with weeds; murder is commonplace, and decent people are not.

Yes, Cleave is dark, possibly noir or even Gothic. The thing is, he is such a good writer that he is convincingly these things. In Cemetery Lake he gets straight down to his black business. Former cop turned private investigator Theo Tate is overseeing the exhumation of a man who died two years earlier, Henry Martins. The disturbance of the earth causes bodies that had been at the bottom of the eponymous cemetery lake to float to the surface. When Martins’ coffin is opened, it contains the body of a young woman who has been murdered; Martins is in the lake. Someone has been murdering young women, digging up coffins, putting the murdered women in the coffins, and throwing the original bodies in the lake. That should be dark enough for anybody, but there is more to come.

Tate regularly visits his wife Bridget, who is a vegetable in a care home because she was run over by a drunk driver. Their daughter Emily was killed in the incident. The drunk driver, a repeat offender, disappeared and there are increasingly clear hints that Tate disappeared him. He may or may not have confessed his part in the driver’s disappearance to Father Julian, who holds his congregation‘s guilty secrets and some of his own as well. Then there is an obnoxious TV reporter hounding Tate and bending the facts to make her story better.

Of course Tate starts investigating by himself and of course he is one step ahead of the cops, his former colleagues and friends. Most of the time they suspect – not without reason – that Tate has more involvement in the mounting series of crimes than he is letting on. He is taking the law into his own hands.

Cleave does not shrink from detailing the gory bits, such as telling the reader what a body looks like after two years of decomposition. This is the scene after a man has shot his head off in front of Tate:

The smell – the smell of cooking flesh, the coppery smell of blood, the gunpowder, the stench as his bowels let go, the sweat. The air tastes hot, it dries out my mouth and makes my tongue stick to its roof. All I hear is a ringing sound that seems as though it will never diminish.

 

Cleave, in his persona as Tate, does not revel in all this nastiness. He laments it, he laments all the murders and the fact that no one seems to care about them:

Four women missing from Christchurch but the world kept on spinning. Nobody took a moment to figure out what in the hell was going on. Four women from four different backgrounds, all of them young – born within five years of each other – and no one made the connection. They didn’t make it because they didn’t want to.

 

Some serious questions underlie the many twists and turns of the well-executed plot. Why do people do bad things like drive drunk? How can people survive personal tragedies? Is the system really capable of sorting out the wrongdoing in our society? Cleave doesn’t really have the answers, but then who does and at least he is thinking about them.

At one point he allows himself a little literary joke. This novel is set at the same time as his first, The Cleaner, in which the protagonist is a serial killer labelled the Christchurch Carver. At one point in Cemetery Lake Tate has a passing, oblivious encounter with the Carver, and, as Cleave writes in the first person, he is here, in a sense, meeting himself.

The cover carries a recommendation from American crime writer Tess Gerritsen and perhaps Cleave is now thinking international markets as the text contains a few Americanisms, such as “pled” instead of “pleaded” and “elevator” instead of “lift” (why have four syllables where one would suffice?). Anyway Cleave writes well enough to deserve international success, so I wish him well. And next time I go home to Christchurch I will be very careful if I go out at night.

The Ringmaster is Symon’s second novel and features the same policewoman as the first, Overkill. Sam Shepherd has graduated from being a sole-charge cop at Mataura in Southland to become a trainee detective in Dunedin – against the wishes of the fabulously grumpy Detective Inspector Johns.

Dunedin sounds a distinctly safer place than Cleave’s Christchurch:

This was the first murder investigation here since I had been accepted for detective training and quit the bright lights of Mataura for the great metropolis of Dunedin. Considering I’d been here half a year, it said something about the serious crime rate in the city.

 

But a lovely young woman has been murdered by the Leith and Sam discovers there have been other murders in the South Island – apparently unrelated, but all happening at the same time as the Darling Brothers circus has been in town. Is there a killer in the circus, or has someone been practising murder so they could efficiently eliminate their real target?

Sam is an unusual hero in crime fiction. Most fictional detectives are male, middle-aged, jaded and cynical, poor at handling relationships and alcohol (I once asked Ian Rankin why all fictional police were miserable buggers and he said it was because real police were that way). But Sam is young, female and dead keen; she loves her job in spite of the ghastly DI Johns and she is good at it. She is an engaging character, smart and determined yet emotional and vulnerable. In short, she’s very human. Her relationships are important, including those with her flatmate Maggie, her parents, and Detective Frost who belies his name by being very hot.

This is a more Kiwi book than Cemetery Lake. Symon’s Dunedin is more recognisable than Cleave’s Christchurch, which could be a bad city anywhere in the Western world, and the dialogue and casual writing style sound authentically local. It bounces along and has a wonderful scene where a rampaging elephant is on the loose in central Dunedin. My only criticism concerns the ending, which I found somewhat unconvincing (I thought the same about her first book). I can’t say any more because that would give the plot away – read it and see what you think.

The Devils Are Here is written by a former policeman and purports to be an inside view of the gang scene. The story is told in the first person by Rotten, a fortyish prospect for the Devils gang in Auckland. The Devils ride Harley Davidsons, sell drugs, steal stuff, beat people up and treat women badly, and all of this is made brutally clear in the book.

Rotten explains the ethos and the workings of the gang, and indeed there is quite a lot of explanation. The gang includes members with such evocative nicknames as Psycho, Ugly, Bottle and Reknaw (try reading that one backwards), and there are usually good reasons for those names. The first rule of the club is that the club always comes first. Rotten’s partner Mel has trouble understanding this rule:

Mel wanted to know what I was doing all the time and she really resented the time I was spending at the club. It was starting to piss me off. Chicks always want commitment and I had plenty of that, just not for her. The club comes first and that’s the way it is.

 

Mel is also upset that Rotten’s increasing use of P is turning him into a “dickhead”. The club itself is concerned about P and narrowly passes a rule banning its use by members, although it is happy to sell the stuff.

There’s not much in the way of a real plot and the writing is basic, as it has to be since Rotten is the narrator. It is not great literature but, to be fair, the book achieves what it sets out to do, which is to give the reader an idea of the nasty ways gangs work and to tell the world that taking drugs is a bad idea.

Christ Clone is included here because the English author is living in New Zealand, but it doesn’t really belong. Partly because it is not in any way a New Zealand book, and partly because it is essentially an airport thriller, and no one reading this magazine would enjoy reading it.

The plot has some mysterious outfit offering $20 million to anyone who can clone Jesus Christ. Labs around the world start by stealing items like the true cross so they can get Christ’s DNA. Then they have ways of making the child grow at a hugely accelerated rate. Even if you were stuck with this book on a long flight, you would soon be thinking “This is just too silly” and start checking out the films.

 

Bernard Carpinter is a journalist in Napier.