Black Swan, $36.99,
Penguin Books, $28.00,
Cut and Run
Penguin Books, $37.00,
What Remains Behind
Black Swan, $29.99,
New Zealand’s reputation as a peaceful Pacific paradise is in serious danger from our crime novelists, as they paint a darker and darker picture of New Zealand society. Leading the revision is Paul Cleave, a world-class writer whose narrator in Blood Men says that Christchurch is in the grip of a crime virus spreading through the city. Events in the book give ample evidence for such a view.
Edward Hunter is an accountant, and the son of a serial killer – Jack the Hunter, who killed 11 prostitutes because “the darkness” told him to. Edward has his own voice in his head; he calls it “the monster”. When he was a child the monster led him to kill two dogs that were annoying him, but after that he kept it under control, started a respectable career, married Jodie and fathered a daughter.
One day Edward and Jodie are in a bank when six robbers burst in. A robber shoots Jodie dead, for no apparent reason. Edward’s monster reappears, urging him to seek and kill the robbers, who have so far evaded the police. His father calls him to prison, gives him the name and address of one of the robbers, and tells him to listen to the voice. Edward and the monster swing into action and grisly action it is too – Cleave is always happy to supply clear anatomical details of the ways in which people can be killed or maimed: “When I opened the door the three fingers that were jammed there were dislodged, all three connected by the back of the guy’s hand and a long piece of skin resembling torn wallpaper.”
Obviously there is an element of vigilante justice here. Edward, and presumably Cleave, believe the justice system is failing, the police are under-resourced, and too many criminals get away with their crimes. If the crims do get caught, they will just spend their too-short sentences learning how to become worse criminals. Of course plenty of people are saying that right now, but Cleave makes it believable. Edward fears that even if the cops do catch the men who killed Jodie, the robbers could be out again in 10 years. That is not enough to make up for the death of his wife.
At the same time, this book – like much of Cleave’s earlier writing – is also an examination of the attractions of evil. Edward’s monster really enjoys his work, just as Jack’s darkness did. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on inside the head of a really bad person, read Cleave. I very much admire Cleave’s writing but he is so good at describing the thought processes of evil people that if I ever met him I’d be looking nervously around to make sure there was an escape route available.
Another theme from Cleave’s earlier books is his contempt for the news media: “Of course that’s just journalists being journalists, not caring if they turn my life upside down for the chance of a story. Every year the competition gets edgier and edgier, compelling them to give up their ethics.”
Cleave describes Christchurch’s landscape, its weather, its attitudes. He describes its worst suburbs, shabby houses with broken cars out front, and he sees these areas becoming larger and larger as the virus spreads. It’s a bleak vision and Cleave offers no remedies. In this respect his work reminds me a little of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books, which lament the decline of Swedish society but fail to provide any solutions.
Above all, Cleave can write. He has his own voice, a dark one lightened only slightly by barbs of grim humour but compelling and readable all the same. He does not waste words, and his books move swiftly along. This is his fourth book, and the first three have sold three-quarters of a million worldwide; the first, The Cleaner, sold 250,000 copies in Germany alone. All the books are set in Christchurch, so if there is a sudden drop in German tourists visiting the Garden City, you’ll know who to blame.
Containment is Vanda Symon’s third book featuring young female cop Sam Shephard, and the best so far. It begins with a striking scene – a container ship has gone aground at Aramoana at the mouth of Otago Harbour, containers have floated ashore and hundreds of local citizens are looting them. “In all my years I’ve never seen behaviour like this, so much for us being a civilised society,” Sam’s colleague John from Port Chalmers tells her.
Sam tries to stop one looter but a savage punch puts her out of action. Her assailant is then almost killed by another man. Symon does not spell it out as Cleave does but, as Constable John says, this is not the way Kiwis are supposed to behave.
Nor are Kiwis supposed to murder people, stuff their corpses into diving outfits and dump them in the harbour hoping it will look like an accident, but nevertheless someone has done just that. So there’s the looting and the murder and later drug smuggling, dodgy antique dealing and more murder. Sam is a detective constable, at the bottom of the pecking order and given a hard time by the nasty Detective Inspector Johns, but she is resourceful and determined. She finds she has to bend the rules to get the perps, but not at all in the same way as Edward does.
Sam is an engaging and credible character. In contrast with fiction’s stereotypical detectives, she is young, female, perky and unburdened by angst. She is not a super-sleuth but she plugs away and gets the job done. She has a life outside the police force, including her parents, her flatmate Maggie and her boyfriend Paul.
Characterisation is a strong point of Symon’s writing. She has a fair-sized cast and they all have their own distinct personalities. One, a highly intelligent young man with a decrepit body, is called Spaz, which is brave of Symon – but then Spaz is a brave man who insists that people call him by that name. The dialogue is very natural, very Kiwi, and the ending is better handled than in Symon’s first two books. The fourth Sam Shephard book, Bound, should be out this year.
From Christchurch and Dunedin we move to Auckland for the setting of Cut and Run, Alix Bosco’s first novel. Most of us would expect Auckland to be New Zealand’s real Sin City, and Bosco does not try to dispel that notion. A celebrity murder – of a top rugby player, no less – leads to a story involving drugs, gangs, sleazy businessmen and plenty of violence.
The narrator is Anna Markunas, researcher for the high-profile legal firm defending the young Pacific man accused of the murder. Anna is a bit fragile, and her son is even more so – he is trying to recover from drug addiction, and begin his own legal career.
At first the accused, Kamal, says he is guilty but Anna has her doubts and starts digging around. She knows Kamal’s mother from an earlier career as a social worker – a career that burnt her out. Kamal’s young brother Joey is dealing drugs, and comes to a sticky end. Anna is threatened and the threats become very scary.
This is an accomplished debut. Bosco, like Symon, gives her characters credibility by providing details of their real lives, their back-stories. She writes clearly and fluently, with some nice little digs at bureaucracies and other inviting targets. The complex plot is well resolved, with moments of high tension. You couldn’t ask for too much more from a crime novel.
What Remains Behind is also a debut novel, written while Fowler was gaining her Master of Creative Writing degree at Auckland University. It appears to be the first of a series, as Fowler is already writing a second book featuring archaeologist Chloe Davis. Yes, an archaeologist crime hero – there’s another niche filled.
Ratbags from the 19th and 21st centuries feature in this novel, but this is a much less sensational book than the first three. Indeed, it takes rather a long time before much evidence of any crime appears. Perhaps that’s the nature of archaeology.
Chloe and her team are excavating a site where a church stood before it burnt to the ground in the 19th century; the excavation is required by the resource consent for a development in the area where she grew up, the Kaipara Harbour. There is speculation as to how the church – belonging to a small cult with a charismatic preacher – burnt and why all inside perished, and also about the disappearance in the late 20th century of a much-disliked local farmer.
As well as the contemporary narrative, there is also a diary written by a girl who had been a member of the cult. Eventually the two strands come together, murders from two centuries are revealed, and present dangers become intense.
Chloe’s relationship with her mercurial, manipulative sister Phaedra is an important part of this novel, and helps give it an emotional foundation. Chloe is solid and sensible, so Phaedra makes a lively contrast. However, some of the other characters are little more than names, and at times I had trouble remembering who was who.
The rural setting makes a nice change and the idea of an archaeologist hero is quite cool. And the historical aspect does make the point that bad buggers are not exactly a novelty in New Zealand.
Bernard Carpinter is a journalist in Napier.