The truth or else, Bernard Carpinter

Collecting Cooper
Paul Cleave
Penguin Books, $35.00,
ISBN 9780143568025

The Laughterhouse
Paul Cleave
Penguin Books, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143568292

The Faceless
Vanda Symon
Penguin Books, $30.00,
ISBN 9780143567202

By Any Means
Ben Sanders
HarperCollins, $24.99,
ISBN 9781869508777

New Zealand crime fiction is getting tough on criminals. Vigilante justice is a theme of all four of these books and police are happy to go along with it – or even take part in it. It’s a lot different from the traditional police procedural or tales of brilliant private investigators.

I’m not sure about the reasons for this trend. It could be the politicians clamouring about “getting tough on crime” at election time (although we already have a very high incarceration rate); it could be the noise from the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust; it could be all the violence in television, Hollywood movies and computer games giving the impression that it’s fine to kill perpetrators and beat up people to get information out of them. Perhaps it reflects a loss of faith in the police and the official justice system. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the latest stats show crime rates are actually falling in New Zealand, so there is really no need for hysteria on the subject.

Two Paul Cleaves in one year – a rare treat for fans of New Zealand crime writing. (Collecting Cooper was actually published overseas in 2011 but only arrived in New Zealand this year.) Both novels feature his recurring character Theo Tate, who is a prime example of a vigilante – when he was a cop, he shot dead the recidivist drunk-driver who had killed his daughter and put his wife into a coma. He buried the body in a remote location and got away with it, but he left the force because he knew his colleagues believed he had murdered the driver. No sign of repentance has appeared in later books.

At the start of Collecting Cooper Tate has just been released from four months in prison … for driving drunk and seriously injuring a young woman, Emma Green. Emma recovered but has now gone missing, and her father insists that Tate find her. Senior cop Carl Schroder wants Tate to help him track down ball-breaking (she uses pliers) serial killer Michelle X. Tate understands the deal:

You’re one of the good guys, Carl, and that restricts you. I don’t know how you justified it to yourself, but when you gave me that file this morning that wasn’t just you asking for my insight, that was you asking me to get my hands dirty.

 

Cooper Riley, a psychology professor and serial-killer expert at Canterbury University, is kidnapped by Adrian, a Taser-wielding former mental patient who is obsessed with serial killers and believes that Cooper is one himself. Adrian sees Cooper as the centrepiece of his “collection”.

Christchurch seems to be teeming with serial killers; I counted at least eight characters featured or mentioned in the book who killed twice or more, including Tate. This may seem implausible at first glance but the sheer power of Cleave’s narrative and writing sweep away any such doubts. Surprising and shocking things keep happening. Adrian offers Cooper, as a present, a woman to kill. Tate comes home to find a six-month-old corpse hanging from his house. Cleave has always liked to put a touch of the macabre, or even of the horror story, in his novels. Sometimes it’s offset by some very black humour.

Psychology is one of Cleave’s strengths. He can convey the inner workings of his characters’ minds so well that you almost empathise with the bad guys. This book is not without social comment either, for example regarding the closure of the mental hospitals that put people like Adrian out on the streets.

Tate helps deal out some rough justice at the end of Collecting Cooper but vigilantism reaches new extremes in The Laughterhouse, as Caleb Cole kills four people on the first night of his campaign to punish those he considers responsible for the murder of his young daughter Jessica more than 15 years earlier.

Cole has just spent 15 years in jail for killing James Whitby, the man who murdered his daughter, and, accidentally, a police officer. Earlier Whitby had abducted another girl, Tabitha, but she was rescued alive. At Whitby’s trial for the first abduction, evidence about his psychological state and terrible abuse by his mother led to his being sentenced to a mental health institution rather than prison. Two years later he was freed and killed Cole’s daughter.

Now Cole wants to deal to those he considers responsible for Whitby’s release, especially psychiatrist Stanton who testified at the trial. He kidnaps Stanton and his three daughters, and takes them to the “Laughterhouse” – the place where his daughter was murdered, and actually a disused slaughterhouse where some wit has painted out the initial “s”. Cole tells the doctor he is going to kill the daughters, so that he will know what it’s like to have a child murdered.

Tate does recognise the similarities to his own case but he knows that Cole is going much too far and that the entirely innocent daughters must be saved. He is called back into the police who are over-stretched – especially in responding to the first murder, when all the officers are drunk because they have just been at a wake for a colleague killed in the line of duty.

Near the end of the book Tate and Schroder face an awful moral dilemma, a choice between two terrible evils. They make a decision, and the consequences are to be covered up by the police.

Vanda Symon makes a change of direction with The Faceless. Her first four novels were all narrated by female detective Sam Shephard, based mainly in Dunedin, and since Sam was a positive young woman these books were relatively upbeat by crime-fiction standards, even though they included some nasty crimes.

The new book is told in the third person, and the language is a little more sophisticated (well, no one expects a young cop to write like Hemingway). It centres on stressed-out Auckland accountant Bradley, who picks up teenage prostitute Billy – and lashes out at her when he thinks she is laughing at him. She is knocked unconscious so he takes her to a disused building he owns, ties her up and leaves her.

He comes back and gives Billy water to drink, but she vomits. Reflexively, he hits her again. “He had to face the truth: this time it had felt good,” Symon writes. “It had felt so very good.” Nice accountant Bradley turns very nasty; he keeps Billy prisoner and torments her.

Symon is great at showing the way some women can instil guilt in people who have done no wrong; Sam’s mum is a classic example. When pressures of work force Bradley to cancel a date for a family lunch his wife Ange says to their daughters, so that Bradley can hear, things like “I know, honey, but sometimes daddies can be really mean” and “Because to daddy work is more important than us”. So Bradley is overworked and henpecked; one can almost understand why he would go off the rails.

Billy, an accomplished graffiti artist, is sustained by thoughts of her Pasifika heritage and by the hope that her friend Max will somehow come to her rescue. Max, a former policeman, and Billy have helped each other while living on the streets. Billy’s disappearance kicks Max out of his funk, and he starts investigating, calling on a former colleague for help. Max also enlists his estranged son in the campaign.

So this is a deeper and darker book than the Shephard series and it has a dark ending with, you guessed it, vigilante justice and police connivance. Not something that Sam Shephard would ever have countenanced.

By Any Means is not deep, it is just a straightforward thriller, the second from young Aucklander Ben Sanders and again featuring cop Sean Devereaux. It starts with a bus driver getting shot dead in central Auckland and a woman and her daughter being murdered in their home. The husband is the obvious suspect in the second case, but Devereaux is not convinced.

Devereaux is prepared to bend the rules, for example by picking locks or opening mail, but his friend John Hale – a former cop turned private eye – is more enterprising, having no qualms about beating up people to get information out of them. Both career around Auckland pursuing cases, Hale showing a near-suicidal disregard for his own safety.

Apparently Devereaux would approve of Tate-style justice. When asked what he would do if someone killed his wife and child, assuming he had same, he replies: “ ‘I reckon I’d find whoever did it and clock them out early … I think if your family was murdered, it would shake up your priorities. Revenge might end up transcending black-letter law.’ ”

There is plenty of action and tough-guy dialogue but Devereaux, who narrates his sections, is a curiously characterless character. He thinks about crime, cigarettes and his music collection, and nothing else. No mention of any family, romance or real friends, and he has remarkably little interaction with his colleagues. He’s a sort of Robocop with a nicotine addiction.

Still, the writing’s not bad, and this could be a suitable light read for a summer holiday or long plane trip.

The book that won the 2012 Ngaio Marsh Award for New Zealand crime fiction, The Calling by Neil Cross, also presents a morally dubious “hero” who is tough on crime. Detective Inspector John Luther (who apparently features in a TV series) is another who is happy to employ violence as a method of extracting information, and his superiors don’t seem too worried about his methods. Cross is an English writer and the book is set entirely in England, but the book was eligible for the awards because he now lives in New Zealand.

 

Bernard Carpinter, a Napier journalist, was a judge of the 2011 and 2012 Ngaio Marsh Awards.

 

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