Coming of age for Kiwi baddies, Bernard Carpinter

The Cleaner
Paul Cleave
Black Swan, $29.95,
ISBN 9781869417604

The Killing Hour
Paul Cleave
Black Swan, $27.99,
ISBN 9781869418663

Vanda Symon
Penguin, $28.00,
ISBN 9780143006657

From My Cold, Cold Hands
David McGill
Silver Owl Press, $34.99, 
ISBN 9780958245159

The Shadow World
P C Laird
Fraser Books, $35.00,
ISBN 0958264546

Some years ago I reviewed a selection of New Zealand crime fiction for this journal and noted that in every case the villains turned out to be foreigners. I thought this showed a lamentable lack of faith in Kiwi villainy, and ended by saying something like “New Zealand crime fiction will not be fully mature until we have some convincing bad buggers of our own.”

Perhaps in those days it was harder to imagine Kiwis doing really nasty stuff. Now, in the age of P and child murders, these writers under review (except one, who is a special case) don’t hesitate to depict Kiwi criminality on an heroic scale. Indeed one, Paul Cleave, adopts the persona of a very bad bugger himself as he narrates The Cleaner in the first person, and his protagonist is a serial killer. So one might conclude that New Zealand crime fiction has grown up, while regretting the social conditions that have helped it to do so.

Of these four authors, Cleave is the one who can really write. His first two novels show an original approach which combines psychopathic gruesomeness, dark humour, sophisticated plotting and adroit use of language. Both are set in Christchurch, Cleave’s home town, and they convey a picture somewhat at variance with the usual one of the sedate Garden City.

Joe is The Cleaner, working in the Christchurch police station. He is also the Christchurch Carver, a serial killer of women. The cops think Joe is a moron, and gave him his menial job in a misguided effort to help the handicapped. But, as Joe gleefully tells us (he is the narrator), behind his “dumb Joe” mask he is actually a mastermind, infinitely smarter than the stupid cops. His job gives him the opportunity to monitor the investigation, for example by hiding a tape recorder in the conference room.

Joe describes his murders with relish, which some readers might find disturbing. But then, presumably, serial killers do enjoy their work. His tone is flip: “I find that at some point the egg has slipped to the back of her mouth, at which point it proceeded to choke her, successfully. That explains the gurgling I heard and, at the time, mistook for something else. Oops.”

But one of the murders attributed to the Christ-church Carver is actually not Joe’s. Peeved, he begins his own investigation – and concludes that it was really a cop who committed that murder. But meanwhile the mysterious and beautiful Melissa turns from intended victim to persecutor, causing excruciating damage with a pair of pliers. And Sally, who feels responsible for the death of her retarded brother, wants to help Joe. Joe thinks she’s thick, but then the cops think he’s thick …

As the book goes on, it becomes apparent that Joe actually isn’t quite as smart as he thinks he is. For one thing, he’s in thrall to his dotty mother in New Brighton. Unsettling events from his past are gradually revealed, and Joe starts coming apart, although he doesn’t realise it. Cleave handles Joe’s disintegration with genuine skill; this is not easy to pull off, especially in a first-person narrative.

The Killing Hour is also told in the first person, by schoolteacher Charlie. Charlie helps two women escape from a killer called Cyris, but then Cyris comes back and kills them both with metal stakes through the heart. Cancer-ridden cop Landry believes Charlie did it himself – and so does Charlie’s ex-wife Jo, whom Charlie then feels obliged to kidnap. Does Cyris really exist, or is Charlie a demented killer? It takes quite a few adventures before we find out. This book moves faster than the first one, which was a bit long at 427 pages, but is told in a similar vein.

These descriptions probably make Cleave’s books sound grimmer than they are. He tells his stories with a sort of ironic detachment and a series of wry one-liners, so that the reader never feels too trapped in the nastiness that is going on. See it more as entertainment of the noir kind.

Overkill, Vanda Symon’s first novel, starts with a particularly chilling murder. A man comes to Gaby Knowes’s house, threatens her daughter Angel with a knife, and tells Gaby: “Let me spell it out for you. You are going to die. I want you to write a simple, fitting suicide note. That’s it. It’s not that hard. Now write.” Gaby, who of course loves her daughter, complies and takes the tablets. Her body is found in the river. Everyone assumes it’s suicide but Sam Shephard, sole-charge constable at Mataura, thinks the note looks suspicious. She starts investigating – till her bosses pull her off the case, because Gaby’s husband Lockie is Sam’s ex. Indeed the police hierarchy suspects that Sam killed the woman she might have regarded as her rival.

Sam is a believable heroine, as crime fiction goes. She is human – she has fears, she still has feelings for Lockie and regrets their split, she makes mistakes, she gets angry. But she’s gutsy, she keeps plugging away, and of course she cracks the case – although the ending is not as credible as one might wish. Symon succeeds in conveying the feel of rural New Zealand (Mataura is a township near Gore in Southland), which makes a nice change of scene as most crime fiction is urban, and she tells her story in clear, direct prose. And Sam will be in action again soon, as Penguin has agreed to make her the star of a series.

David McGill is the only established writer of this group and indeed he is very well established, with a long list of books both fiction and non-fiction. In this book he brings back one of his earlier characters, the opinionated and irascible Professor Ben Duffie first seen in Whakaari. He’s not the main character – that’s his coming-of-age student nephew Greg – but he is by far the most entertaining. He says things like: “These twigs and tweeters are so holier than thou, they adopt the moral high ground, but as far as I’m concerned they’re just a bunch of eco-fascists.”

Prof Duffie goes on the run because everybody is after him, from the government to evil oil interests. He has data apparently showing that planned oil exploration off Northland could cause an ecological disaster. Greg gets caught up in the action, and also has his own problems – sorting out the traumas that led him to attempt suicide, dealing with his strange father (a Charlton Heston nut) and his devious brother, and trying to get together with the lovely Lena. All this happens mostly in Wellington and the Kapiti Coast.

The convoluted plot brings in a lot of different elements – climate change, geology, psychology, lust, the inadequacies of the news media, plenty of action – and perhaps it is all a bit much for one book. The tone is quite light some of the time – especially when Ben is ranting or driving badly – but things get surprisingly tough towards the end. McGill is a determinedly Kiwi writer and makes frequent reference to local culture and landmarks, while his characters’ patterns of speech are those you’ll hear in the streets. And most of his villainy is Kiwi too.

The Shadow World is a different sort of book altogether. It’s a fictionalised account of the killing by a group of Japanese students in Auckland of one of their number, in 2003. Four students take it in turns to tell the story of their time at academy, where most have been sent as punishment for indiscretions in Japan. They are separated from both their homeland and from New Zealand society, treated harshly by the academy, and put under great pressure to succeed in their tests.

One of the students has Asperger’s syndrome and does not fit in. Eventually a large group of the students kills him. Laird’s narrative helps the New Zealand reader understand the societal norms and tensions that led the students into this terrible, apparently senseless action. The irony is that most of the students had been sent to New Zealand because they were not fitting into their own society in Japan.

These five books show that New Zealand crime fiction has emerged from a period of hibernation. Not long ago we had people like Paul Thomas and Michael Wall writing crime fiction of international quality, and several others producing competent to good work. Then things went very quiet – I don’t know why; perhaps the publishers found there was not a profitable market for local crime fiction, perhaps the writers got discouraged. Or perhaps the genre was just taking some time out while it grew up.


Bernard Carpinter is a journalist in Napier.


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