“Shocking the model” John McCrystal

Five Minutes Alone
Paul Cleave
Penguin, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143572312

The Legend of Winstone Blackhat
Tanya Moir
Vintage, $38.00,
ISBN 9781775537755

MiSTORY
Philip Temple
Font Publishing, $35.00,
ISBN 978047328204

You could argue that the artistic imagination is like one of those massively complex algorithms that scientists and economists use to search for patterns and rules in quotidian chaos. By constructing a simulacrum of reality and then tweaking the parameters – computer modellers call this “shocking the model” – they develop an understanding of the elasticity and sensitivity of the status quo to change. And by running a model forwards, they sometimes seek to construct a vision of the future, a probabilistic telling of our fortune.

You need only settle into the first few pages of a Paul Cleave novel to sense that you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. But there is also a depth to Cleave’s writing that at least partly explains his books’ appeal. That depth is necessary, as the market for contemporary crime fiction is quite sophisticated. Action, no matter how well rendered, and suspense, no matter how well managed, won’t cut it these days, and cops-and-robbers stories where criminals are archetypical victims and policemen/private investigators are always on the side of the angels just won’t do. Moral complexity is de rigueur. Heroes must be flawed. Villains must have a spark of the divine.

Detective Inspector Theodore Tate, the main protagonist (hero doesn’t seem quite right) of Five Minutes Alone, is known to us. This is the fourth Cleave novel in which he appears. He is, as his wife assures him when both he and the reader have reason for doubt, essentially a good man. But he has done bad things in previous novels, and he has lately crossed the line between agent of the justice system and self-appointed judge, jury and executioner.

That line is the central question in Five Minutes Alone. It’s at the forefront of the minds of many of the senior police in Tate’s department, not least because they have recently been the victims of crime themselves. Tate has lost his daughter, and his wife has received a serious brain injury in a drink-driving accident. Tate’s former partner, Carl Schroder, is also brain-injured, and has been invalided out of the force. Tate’s current partner, Rebecca Kent, has a grisly scar on her otherwise beautiful face. Each of them is conscious that there are bad people out there who have served a bit of prison time, but who have been freed or will soon be free to carry on their lives as before, including (in many cases) reoffending. The novel opens with one such example, a rapist who has spent his time in the slammer ruing the fact he didn’t murder his victim. Now, in the arresting opening pages, he has been presented with the chance to do it again and, this time, get it right.

Cleave’s modus operandi in Five Minutes Alone is highly intelligent. He plays with the reader’s emotional and moral responses, even as he sets the action against a New Zealand that has voted to reinstate the death penalty for serious crime. You badly want Kelly Summers, the victim, to be delivered from the clutches of Dwight Smith, the rapist. No harm will be done, you feel – quite the contrary – if he meets a sticky end. Why, as one of the characters in the novel asks, should bad people get to live the rest of their lives when they have deprived innocent people of theirs? Capital punishment appeals to our sense of symmetry. So does vigilantism. Tate and his colleagues are well accustomed to being asked by victims or their relatives to allow them “five minutes alone” with the perpetrator. And now there is someone on the mean streets of Christchurch who has apparently dedicated himself to giving victims those five minutes. But what happens when the vigilante (and, by extension, the justice system, wearing its black cap) gets it wrong?

Those who come to Cleave for the first time with Five Minutes Alone will be hunting out the back catalogue. It simply delivers. The author plays his cards with his usual deft timing, and tells his story in his characteristically slick and stylish prose. Humour abounds: the best action sequence (set in an abandoned mental institution) is also darkly hilarious. There are genre set pieces (not to say clichés), there is a cartoonish quality to the violence, the tremendously high body count and to the tidy ending, but these are characteristic of the genre. When you’ve signed up for entertainment of this quality and the author asks you to suspend disbelief, your only question is “How high?”. To be made to think along the way: that’s bonus territory.

It’s strange how Cleave can kill off dozens by any manner of macabre means and you’re left exhilarated, whereas another novelist can snuff out one little life and leave you sick and shaking for days. That’s the effect of Tanya Moir’s The Legend of Winstone Blackhat. Winstone Haskett is in hiding up in Central Otago, living rough, sleeping in a cave and raiding a set of nearby cribs for his livelihood. We know, because he tells us, that he has done something bad, perhaps even very bad. But, as we get to know him, we develop the sense that he is not a bad person, and that he has not exactly had many advantages in life. He’s from bogan stock: his name was chosen because his parents liked the sound of the name on the side of the gravel trucks. His parents, of course, are separated: his mum in Australia “dealing with issues” and his dad out on the piss most nights. The latter has the nickname “Bic”, because you push a button and his colour comes through like a red Biro. Winstone has an older brother, Bodun, who sneaks out most nights to hang out with the wrong crowd. Winstone and his little sister Marlene are left to their own devices and have all but mastered the art of keeping their heads down, to avoid their dad’s violent rages and the bullying and taunting of their schoolmates. It says everything about Winstone’s background that the only person who genuinely seems to care for him is the paedophile who abuses him.

In parallel with Winstone’s story, there is a Western. A kid – known as The Kid – and his older pard, Cooper, are on the trail of an evildoer. Their story is told in full technicolour – the dazzling range of Moir’s facility with prose is fully on display – and you have the sense that the narratives are converging. Sure enough, we learn why Winstone is on the run, but, seeing as we do with the eye of God, we both understand and forgive. And when the stories do intersect, there is a mild and maudlin twist in the tale. Wherever you go, it seems – be it the wilds of the West or the lonely heights of Central – there you are, and there will always be a psychic posse to track you down and hold you to account. This is a wonderful novel, but bleak as the Maniototo in full snow.

Something is rotten in the state of New Zild, and it is not to Philip Temple’s liking. MiSTORY is best viewed as a kind of update of C K Stead’s Smith’s Dream – it’s a cautionary tale, a drawing of the worrying trends in contemporary society to their logical conclusions not too far down the track.

The novel purports to be a journal kept by a man whose nom-de-guerre is John 21, with inserts and editorialising from his sister Sophie. A short while after the untimely death of his wife Annie, “John” began to drift under the influence of a group called the Strikers, who are opposed to the régime of Prime Minister John Locke (not the polar opposite of John Key, as his name might suggest, and certainly with little or nothing in common with the 17th-century British philosopher). Locke’s New Zealand is an Orwellian nightmare, where everyone is subject to SS – Security and Surveillance – and where the freedoms that we take for granted, such as free association, movement etc, are severely curtailed. The justification is The Emergency, a euphemism for the war that is being fought against Eastasia, but, in reality, the apparatus of state control has been hijacked. Hope, “a place of the heart”, a citadel of sorts, is offered in the Chatham Islands, of all places, established by the complement of the portentously named sailing vessel, the Spirit of Scotland. But Temple also evokes the claustrophobic sense of a wider apocalypse, where environmental degradation and climate change are forcing humanity to scrap like rats in a cage. MiSTORY reaches a little further than it can grasp, but it is vividly enough realised to provoke thought. The mere fact that the bland newspeak of Locke’s totalitarian régime is familiar from any government department website is alone cause enough for sleepless nights.

John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.

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