It wasn't that big a leap to go from writing horror to writing crime, as PAUL CLEAVE tells CRAIG SISTERSON
Looking back now, Paul Cleave realises that “a couple of things happened” in the lead-up to the turn of the millennium; key things on his road from being an unpublished horror writer with several manuscripts ‘in the bottom drawer’, to becoming an internationally-bestselling crime writer. At the time Cleave was a big horror fiction fan (he still is), having for many years devoured books by writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz while working away on his own fantastical dark tales. “I didn’t even like crime,” he says, laughing at the memory. But then Cleave read Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel, and was blown away by the writing. “I thought, this is awesome, I want to write like this.” And he also read a non-fiction work by famed FBI profiler John Douglas. In his books, Douglas (who interviewed dozens of incarcerated serial killers during his FBI career) shares with readers some of the skewed mindsets of such people. “I read that and it just gave me the insight that horror [fiction] isn’t really horror,” says Cleave. “The scariest stuff in the world is true stuff, stuff that’s real, like serial killers.”
The idea of turning his writing attentions from fantastical horror to such ‘real’ horrors gained momentum when one of Cleave’s best friends asked him if he’d ever read a book written from the perspective of a serial killer (this was years before the Dexter series became popular). “I thought, man that’s a great idea, and then that day I wrote Chapter One,” recalls Cleave. Those first few pages would grow into The Cleaner, Cleave’s bestselling debut, which features Joe, a serial killer who works at the Christchurch Police Department as a seemingly mentally-challenged janitor in order to keep an eye on the investigations into his own crimes. When a killing Joe didn’t perform is linked to him, he tries to find and punish the copycat.
After its eventual release in 2006, The Cleaner became an international bestseller, receiving rave reviews and getting translated into several languages. It was particular popular in Germany, where the dark and raw tale that takes readers inside an askew mind hit #2 on the Amazon adult fiction book charts (just behind the then-latest Harry Potter book), and ended up as the #1 crime thriller title on Amazon in Germany for 2007, selling several hundred thousand copies. The Cleaner is one of the biggest and fastest-selling fiction books to ever come out of New Zealand, despite the fact it hasn’t yet been released in either the US or UK markets.
Like all Cleave’s books since, including his latest Blood Men (released in Australia last month), The Cleaner is told in first-person, through the eyes of a troubled protagonist. Taking his readers inside such minds has become something of a calling card for Cleave - each of his Christchurch-set novels is a standalone focused on the trials and tribulations of a different main character who is facing emotional turmoil: serial killer Joe with his warped view of the world in The Cleaner; blood-covered Charlie, who wakes up to the news that two women he was with the night before have been brutally murdered in The Killing Hour; and former policeman Theo Tate, who finds himself devolving into a man he’d always despised while on the hunt for a killer in Cemetery Lake.
In Blood Men, which has recently been bought by US publisher Simon & Schuster and later this year will become Cleave’s first book to be released in the United States, Edward Hunter is a happily-married family man with a great life but a dark past; he’s the son of a notorious serial killer who has been in prison for 20 years and will never be coming out. The son of a man of blood. When tragedy strikes, Edward suddenly needs the help of a man he’s spent all his life trying to distance himself from, and prove he’s not like – but as things spiral out of control Edward begins to wonder whether he’s destined to become a man of blood too. Blood Men may very well be Cleave’s best book yet; filled with his recognisable mix of dark crime peppered with sly humour, compelling characters, and exciting storylines with enough tension and interesting twists and turns to keep the pages whirring. All taking place in a well-evoked, if somewhat malevolent, version of Christchurch – a city that casts such a shadow that it has an almost character-like presence in Cleave’s books.
Cleave admits he really enjoys writing from the perspective of such troubled characters, which allows him to mix some of his own ideas and views on the world along with views that are the opposite of what he thinks. “It’s just so fun to write.” He also has fun writing about his hometown, the most English of New Zealand cities, taking the seedy underbelly he was exposed to during his years walking as a pawn broker and (somewhat) exaggerating it for effect in his stories. “I was pretty hard on Christchurch in Blood Men,” he admits. “But you don’t just want to have some sterile garden city as the setting – you really want to make it something of a shithole. It’s not what I think of it, I don’t see it like that, but my characters see it that way. And it’s a more entertaining angle to write.” It’s all part of the authenticity of getting into the minds of his main characters; in Blood Men Edward likes living in Christchurch at the start, but when tragedy strikes he begins to see another side to the city.
Originally Cleave wasn’t going to set his novels in the place where he was born, raised, and continues to live. “When I first started writing, I just made up a city… just some kind of generic US city.” But then he read some advice from Dean Koontz, one of his favourite authors, about writing what you know. “I started setting [my writing] in Christchurch, and it just changed everything. You know how things look; you know the feel of the city and how long it takes a character to get somewhere. It was just the best thing I ever did.”
Despite his growing success, Cleave remains a very laidback, down-to-earth person – a working class kid from Christchurch that’s getting to do what he loves for a living; tell stories. He takes the piss out of himself in the same way his characters mock and take the piss out of each other in his books, and he admits his sense of humour is something he tries to get through in his writing, even when the stories are dark. “It’s just how I’ve always been with my friends, being sarcastic and mocking each other, within reason… I think the humour in The Cleaner with Joe and the other characters is the only thing I have in common with him. I just think it’s more entertaining [to have humour in even dark tales], and that’s what I want to do more than anything, is entertain people.”
Ten years after he made a shift from fantastical horror to dark thrillers, Paul Cleave’s writing career is really hitting its stride. Overseas he is already the biggest name in New Zealand crime writing since the legendary Dame Ngaio Marsh, although like Marsh herself, he remains somewhat overlooked (thusfar) in his home country. But with Blood Men, and his launch in the US later this year, he could be about to get even bigger. After all, Germany is something of the canary in the coal mine for top crime fiction; in recent years both Linwood Barclay and Stieg Larsson became massively popular there, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their books, before they were later noticed then enthusiastically embraced by UK and US readerships.
Perhaps it’s time more Australasian crime fiction fans read Cleave, finding out what Germany already knows, and the rest of the world is soon to discover…
Blood Men by Paul Cleave is published by Random House, rrp $29.95
This article was originally published in print in the March 2010 issue of Good Reading magazine, and is published online here to celebrate Paul Cleave winning the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, for BLOOD MEN.