Victims and villains, Bernard Carpinter

Joe Victim
Paul Cleave
Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143570424

Drowning City
Ben Atkins
Vintage
ISBN 9781775535522

“The Christchurch Carver” is the name bestowed by the media upon Joe Middleton, the central character of Paul Cleave’s debut novel, The Cleaner. Joe is a serial rapist and killer of attractive young women and – a brave but successful move by Cleave – the narrator. Joe enjoys his criminal adventures, describing them with relish and flashes of dark humour. He also enjoys being smarter than all the cops, especially as he works as a cleaner at the police station, where he pretends to be retarded.

The Cleaner was highly successful internationally, although I feel Cleave has never achieved the sales and recognition he deserves in New Zealand. Since his debut, he has written several other very good books, which include references to the Christchurch Carver, but do not continue his story.

Now, Joe is back. He is in prison – the cops were not all that thick, after all – and feeling sorry for himself. He is altogether too smart when he takes a psychiatric test to determine whether he is sane and gets all 60 questions wrong which, the psychiatrist smugly tells him, proves that he is sane.

Joe hated the psychiatrist even before this, partly because he has leather patches on the elbows of his jacket:

The psychiatrist leans forward and interlocks his fingers. He must have seen other psychiatrists doing that on TV or maybe they taught it in psych 101 just before they taught him how to sew on his leather patches. Wherever he learned it, he doesn’t look as good doing it as he must think.

 

That gives you a good idea of Cleave’s writing style, packed with smart, slightly cynical comments. He’s quite funny for a crime writer, but funny in a wry-grin way, rather than a roll-around-the-floor way.

Having your hero in jail is a challenge for a writer; it can make the story claustrophobic and static. But Cleave makes enough things happen to keep the story alive: visits from shrinks and lawyers; trouble with obnoxious guards and prisoners; trying to communicate with his loopy mother. Then there are Joe’s interior monologues, mostly about how unfair it is for him to be locked up and what mayhem he dreams of causing when he gets out. He even thinks of himself as “Joe Victim”.

Then there’s the television show featuring a psychic. The show engages an ex-cop to approach Joe and offer him a lot of money to reveal where he buried a murdered cop. The idea is that the psychic will then venture forth, accompanied by cameras, and “find” the body. A nice bit of satire.

More excitingly, things are happening on the outside, and Michelle X is making them happen. Michelle X is also a serial killer. Indeed, in The Cleaner she came close to serially killing Joe, after realising he was the Carver. She contented herself with crushing one of his testicles with a pair of pliers, her signature modus operandi. Apparently, it hurts a lot.

Then Joe and Michelle fell in love – after all, they had a lot in common – and now Michelle is plotting to free her man. It’s urgent, as the trial is approaching and there are moves to bring back the death penalty, with Joe a prime candidate for this terminal punishment. He is not popular with the media or the public.

Michelle is smart, resourceful and ruthless. She is on a mission and doesn’t hesitate to eliminate anyone who stands in the way of her grand plan. Even those who help her can find themselves in the firing line. Characters in Cleave books tend to have a short life expectancy.

There are reasons for Michelle being the way she is: her sister was raped and killed by a policeman, and she herself was raped by her university professor:

There is something wrong inside of her, something terribly, terribly wrong … But knowing you’re fucked-up doesn’t solve anything, not when you like how it feels, and Melissa likes how it feels. In fact she’s come to like it a lot. It makes her feel alive.

 

Joe’s predilection for killing women may have something to do with his loopy mother, but Cleave is more into action than introspection. The action gathers pace as Melissa furthers her plan, which involves guns, explosives and further reductions in the population of Christchurch.

Cleave says there is an element of horror in his novels, and there is. Joe Victim is not the goriest of his books – nobody gets killed by being stabbed through an eyeball, for instance – but there is a general gung-ho approach to the killings, and it builds to a bloodily magnificent climax. In a way, it’s a bit like the old midnight horror shows at the movies, which did not frighten too much because you knew it wasn’t real and it was a bit silly anyway. I think it’s that dry, dark humour in Cleave’s writing that distances the reader slightly from the sometimes horrific things he makes happen, and reduces the impact.

This is forceful and intelligent entertainment. Cleave gives us action, unexpected plot twists, social comment, and that fizzing writing style with its dry humour. A great package.

Aucklander Ben Atkins was only 17 when he completed the first draft of Drowning City, and 19 when he signed a publishing deal. He must have been reading a lot of classic American crime fiction, because he has set his novel in Depression-era United States. The story is told by Fontana, a bootlegger making good money during the prohibition period.

It all takes place in one night. Part of a shipment of booze from Canada has been stolen, raising the ire of the mysterious and dangerous Frenchman to whom it had been consigned. The Frenchman wants the culprit caught before the night is through.

Fontana accomplishes that, of course; everything seems to fall into place for him – usually in such stories the hero encounters more setbacks along the way. He also meets a beautiful woman, and they appear to fall in love. Quite a night.

But this is not supposed to be a gritty, realistic novel, or one with important things to say, or even one that you really believe as you read it. It’s more about style, and Atkins does have style. His prose flows easily, and he decorates it with apt flourishes:

Extreme politicians could come across as intelligent people. Ordinary and over-polite. Yet you picked up hints of zeal here and there, like nervous twitches, simultaneously eye-catching and off-putting. You’d notice their refusal to return to regular talk until the depth of their beliefs had been revealed.

 

Politics intrude, unusually for such a book. Fontana visits a party of fascists and runs into a Russian communist. Both sides try to convert him, but he is not impressed. He is, however, interested in the policies of the newly elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt and particularly his promise to abolish prohibition, which would probably destroy his illegal but profitable business:

It’s complicated. FDR does want to make changes, big changes, and a lot of them are good. But some of them will mess with my business. My life. And you’ve got to balance out what you want for society with what you want for yourself. Otherwise you’ll never get anywhere.

 

Fontana doesn’t talk much about himself or reveal too much about himself in his thoughts. You don’t really feel you know him. He and his friends are criminals, but he has a certain code; he doesn’t want to kill anyone and, indeed, he hates guns. He learns more about himself as the night’s events unfold and might even end up on the road to redemption. This assessment of Fontana’s character is supplied by his criminal associate Franco: “Fonty, I don’t understand how someone can be so moral and so wicked at the same time. You’re a damn riddle. A big freaking mystery. That’s why everyone likes you, even though you’re such a prick.” Fontana seems to take it as a compliment.

Personally, I want more from a novel than style – more substance, more ideas and surprises. But that’s my taste, not a criticism. Atkins set out to write a certain sort of book and he has succeeded.

 

Bernard Carpinter is a journalist based in Napier.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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