Thursday, September 24, 2009

Review: CEMETERY LAKE by Paul Cleave

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Blue fingernails. Cleave begins his third novel with two simple, evocative words. Two words that bring Theo Tate to an exhumation; two words that send the world-weary private investigator on an unpredictable journey intersecting a present-day serial killer with well-kept suburbanite secrets, and Tate’s own troubled past.

Tate is only present at the exhumation because his former police colleagues are too busy trying to catch the Christchurch Carver, the grisly serial killer from Cleave’s debut novel, The Cleaner (Random House, 2006). Tate’s simple assignment becomes anything but when three bodies bubble up from the cemetery lake. When the coffin reveals the wrong body, two unpalatable possibilities emerge; the Carver has struck again, or there’s a second psychopath on the loose.

Though sidelined by the police, Tate finds himself sucked into the vortex, attempting to atone for sins of his past. As the case advances, and stolen evidence, the police, the media, priests, his own personal demons, murder and suicide all roadblock Tate, he finds himself compounding bad choices and devolving into a man he’d always despised.

Cemetery Lake is an impressive novel from a talented writer. Cleave creates compelling characters that ring true. Even when events become outlandish, Cleave doesn’t lose the reader, because he’s spun wholly-formed characters and lets us gaze a little into their worldview. He avoids the poor writers’ mistake of substituting quirks for characterisation; instead his characters do things for their own reasons, not just to serve the plot. We can understand the worst acts, because we see we might consider the same choice, in the same circumstance.

A feature of Cemetery Lake is the character-like shadow of Christchurch itself. Cleave weaves a strong sense of place, although his is a darker version: “Christchurch is broken”. Mirroring the real-life dichotomy of international renown for friendliness alongside ‘murder capital’ status, Cleave’s Christchurch is full of gardens and glue-sniffers; long-held secrets and closeted debauchery hidden behind suburban doors and old English architecture.

Cleave makes you want to turn the page, and when you get to the end, you want to go out and immediately find another of his books.

This review originally appeared in the 14 November 2008 print edition of NZLawyer magazine

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