Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A thought-provoking review of recent Kiwi crime in ODT

Over the weekend there was a thought-provoking review in the Otago Daily Times, of two recent bestselling Kiwi crime novels – #1 bestseller HUNTING BLIND by Dunedin-based Paddy Richardson, and BLOOD MEN by Christchurch-based Paul Cleave (internationally the most successful Kiwi crime writer in recent decades).

The reviewer, experienced journalist Gillian Vine, took quite an interesting angle – noting that although HUNTING BLIND and BLOOD MEN were dramatically different in plotline and style, that they were in fact thematically similar. According to Vine, both books “take the same theme, revenge when a loved one is killed.”

“Paul Cleave, in BLOOD MEN, goes for the masculine approach of slash and burn, while in HUNTING BLIND, Dunedin writer Paddy Richardson opts for more subtle, even feminine, revenge,” says Vine. You can read the full review here.

It’s certainly an interesting take on the books, and not one that I’d considered while reading them. I enjoyed both books, but for different reasons (they are dramatically different, after all). Although I don’t agree with some of Vine’s analysis (I think she overlooks or brushes over several things to make her point – but that could have been due to word count limitations), it’s certainly an insightful and thought-provoking review. I would say both books are more to do with the search for the truth, or the reasons behind why something happened – rather than out-and-out revenge. I also think both books have more layers than came across in the ODT review.

For example, with BLOOD MEN the review makes it sound likes its all blood and guts, when I think there is a fair bit more to it than that. As far as I was concerned, Edward, the main character, did show fear at times, and was conflicted throughout, and many of the deaths in the book were unplanned - whereas the reviewer made it seem like it he was solely an (enraged) revenge-seeker working his way through a hit-list, ala the film Munich. To me Cleave’s portrayal of Edward had some nuance – although to be fair I can see how many reviewers might be distracted by the moments of extreme violence (especially if they don’t read many such books), and therefore find it easy to overlook the quality of the writing and other aspects of the book. As Cleave has said himself in the past, people tend to either love, or hate, his writing.

On that note, it is a little bit of a shame that Vine doesn’t really address Richardson and Cleave’s actual writing in her review – focusing more on the plot/events in the books, and what type of tale she prefers personally as a reader (there’s still a tiny hint of ‘crime cringe’ in a couple of comments – ie the idea that certain books are inherently inferior because of the type of tale, regardless of how well-written they are). But it is fantastic to see recent New Zealand crime fiction getting what seems like far more publicity in many major media outlets.

Personally, I enjoy well-written crime fiction no matter what part of the spectrum it falls upon, from the bloodless cosy mysteries of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh to the blood-soaked tales of the likes of Mo Hayder and Stuart MacBride. But then again, maybe I’m a little strange. For me, good storytelling is good storytelling – and as long as the writer isn’t using gratuitous violence etc merely for attention (and to mask poor writing or other flaws), and it fits organically within the world they’ve created, then that’s fine by me. You can see how I distinguish ‘blood and guts’ crime writing that I think does this well from writing that doesn’t by comparing my EuroCrime reviews of Stuart MacBride’s BLIND EYE and Chris Carter’s THE CRUCIFIX KILLER.
When it comes to HUNTING BLIND and BLOOD MEN, I think both books, although quite different in style and plot, are well-written. And I enjoyed reading them. Oh, and for those that are worried that perhaps I’m veering towards becoming a bit of a cheerleader for Kiwi crime fiction, so would say that regardless – I should point out that I didn’t actually give Richardson’s previous thriller, A YEAR TO LEARN A WOMAN, a very good review (2 ½ stars out of 5 for Good Reading). In fact, I might have been a little harsh on it, in hindsight.

I’m just a cheerleader for good and great crime writing, including the stuff that originates from our little islands at the bottom of the world.

1 comment:

  1. Craig - I think you raise a very well-taken point when you talk about the importance of quality of the writing. It is interesting how some reviewers (and I except, of course, yourself) focus only on what happens in the story, and analyze those events. As you say, that's part of a crime novel, but only part.

    I'd also like to comment on your point about separating violence from gratuitous violence. This is an issue for me, because I don't often enjoy books with a lot of violence in them. So for me, if there is violence, it has to be skillfully integrated (I think Simon Beckett does that well). Like you, I don't think that all violence is gratuitous; it's sometimes integral to the plot (these are murders we're talking about, after all). But like you, I do take issue with writers who splash the pages with blood in an effort to shock or add to the word count. It takes far more skill to convince me that the violence "belongs there" than it does to just write the gory details of a sadistic killing.