There's a significant change in Paul Cleave's latest dark thriller. For those who've read and enjoyed Cleave's internationally bestselling crime novels, don't worry - Collecting Cooper is still packed with his usual crackling prose, taut pacing, compelling characters, moments of brutal violence, dashes of black humour, and undercurrents of unease. It's just that this, his fifth novel, sees the return of troubled ex-cop turned private investigator Theo Tate (from Cemetery Lake); the first time Cleave has had a recurring `hero', as such.
While supporting characters and storylines have overlapped and intertwined, each of Cleave's previous books have been told through the eyes of a different troubled character, with troubled being a huge euphemism in many cases: serial killer Joe masquerades as a developmentally-challenged police janitor in The Cleaner; Charlie tries to uncover whether he witnessed or perpetrated a brutal double-murder in The Killing Hour; Tate spirals into alcoholism and worse in Cemetery Lake; and accountant Edward fears he's inherited his imprisoned father's violent streak as he chases his wife's killers in Blood Men.
Cleave has become an absolute master at getting readers inside the head of someone with a view well and truly askew, of getting us to care enough about such people (or at least be fascinated by them), despite their failings and faults, to keep us engaged and the pages whirring as we follow their viewpoint throughout his helter-skelter storylines.
Collecting Cooper opens with Tate walking free from Christchurch Prison, where he found himself thanks to bad choices made in Cemetery Lake, into a sweltering heatwave on the outside. Broke and directionless, his plans of avoiding his past life come to nought when first an ex-colleague, Detective Schroder, then the father of the girl a drunken Tate hurt in a car crash, come to him for help finding people who've disappeared. Schroder wants Tate to help track a murderer known as Melissa X, an associate of the Christchurch Carver (Joe in The Cleaner). Lawyer Donovan Green wants Tate to find Emma, the girl Tate went to prison for almost killing. Emma's disappeared, as has her university psychology professor, Cooper Riley. As Tate takes up the trail, he discovers a link to an abandoned mental institution on the outskirts of the city; a place where very bad things happened, years ago.
Cleave's work definitely sits at the darker end of the crime fiction spectrum, far away from the cosy country house killings of Agatha Christie or fellow New Zealander Dame Ngaio Marsh, whose name and likeness adorns the New Zealand crime writing award that Cleave won for his fourth novel, BLOOD MEN, last year.
Despite the darkness, Cleave is no schlock-meister; the blood and brutality amongst his pages is merely one part of a compelling tale (although it may be too much for some). He even raises important issues such as violence against women, the lack of support for those with mental difficulties, and the public's fascination with serial killers - but rather than screaming such issues from the rooftops, they're just woven through a tale that fizzes with ferocity. They're texture, not message, in an exciting book where characterisation, such as Tate's stumble vaguely towards some sort of redemption, shines brightest of all.