Ex-MP Clare Curran is writing a crime novel. We asked her to review the latest by a master of the form
I read a lot of crime. The first draft of my inaugural crime novel, almost complete, contains its fair share of gore but is more of a frolic through the daffodils of Hagley Park compared with the hard-boiled brutality of Paul Cleave’s latest novel The Quiet People.
Writing good violence isn’t all about blood and gore and mob behaviour. The very suggestion of violence and the fear and pain that accompanies it that can heighten the experience more than a vivid description.
Scottish crime writers and good buddies Val McDermid and Ian Rankin have had a long-running feud following Rankin’s suggestion that “the people writing the most graphic violence today are women … they are mostly lesbians as well”.
Identifying as one of the above, I’ve followed this debate with interest and mostly concur with McDermid that men and women crime novelists write differently, especially violence. She argues the difference is largely social conditioning as women grow up thinking of themselves as victims and therefore can write from the victim’s perspective, writing from the inside as opposed to an observer’s perspective.
Cleave likes to make bad things happen. And boy do bad things happen in The Quiet People. On almost every page. So many that I sometimes wanted to put a blanket over my head and hide from them.
In The Quiet People, Cameron and Lisa Murdoch live and work together as crime writers. They’re a successful partnership, based in the leafy suburbs of Christchurch, spending a lot of time overseas promoting their books.
Then their seven-year-old son Zach goes missing. The world turns upside down especially for Cameron Murdoch, who as the dad, comes under immediate suspicion. The story is told mostly through his eyes as his universe crumbles and those of lead detective inspector Rebecca Kent, who, determined to solve the case, fixates early on her suspects.
The grim but obvious question underlying the investigation is that if a couple who make writing crime their profession publicly boast they can get away with murder, might they not try to do just that? Commit the perfect crime and get away with it?
Zach’s disappearance grabs the city’s, country’s and world’s attention as the couple face intense pressure through protests outside their home, death threats and media attention.
Cleave makes frequent and clever use of Cameron Murdoch’s sub-conscious alter ego Mr What if, who constantly speculates what would have happened if Cameron had done or said something different and who puts ideas in his head as to what to do next.
As the pressure mounts, Cameron speculates that this ordinary couple from an ordinary suburb with a missing child will be propelled from their ordinariness to be described as The Quiet People, based on what their neighbours will likely say to reporters: “We can’t believe this happened in our street, they were always so quiet”.
As events escalate, Cameron’s mental state swiftly deteriorates, and it sets him off on a vigilante spree. The Quiet People is an expose of how suggestion and rumour, feeding a community’s fears and discontent, egged on and amplified by social media and bloodthirsty mainstream media, can spur the fickle crowd into rampant mayhem.
If I had a niggle it would be that as a fellow South Islander from just down the road in Dunedin, it was hard to get a sense of actual place in the mean streets of Cleave’s Christchurch. The dark mood was brooding and prevalent but the Christchurch that Cleave writes of, which he describes as “broken”, is not a place I could get a fix on. There are no recognisable landmarks, road names or suburbs.
Yet although the reason for Christchurch being broken is never really explored there is a dystopian vibe to the text and the utter uselessness of the police system reinforces a sense of society having passed its peak performance, with what’s left descending into mob rule and vigilantism.
There are few moments of levity. The characters are generally unlikeable and while mostly good-looking and “fit”, definitely humourless. Strangely, a rip-roaring pace (with its burnouts, u-turns and screeching halts mirroring bad Christchurch’s infamous boy racer behaviour) more than makes up for this.
Some passages made me smile. On his first trip to the police station, Cameron describes “going from tree-lined streets with stop signs and nice homes to parking meter-lined streets with traffic lights and office buildings. There are Christmas decorations everywhere. Santas up in windows, tinsel hanging from lamp posts, snow painted around the edge of windows. New Zealand is a white Christmas country in spirit only – in reality we’re on the wrong side of the planet for snow in December. We’re on the side that fires up the barbecue for breakfast and spends the day in the sun.”
Mindful of Val McDermid’s observation that the truth of a crime is often stranger than fiction, Cleave exercises his formidable skills as a writer, in turns lulling and horrifying the reader, then continuing to twist his characters and plot into unimaginable shapes. My first Cleave read was his third novel Cemetery Lake. It left me feeling green but wanting more. The Quiet People will keep the reader in thrall.
The Quiet People by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press, $37.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.