THE CLEANER (Random House, 2006)
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
As the announcement of the winner of the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award looms this Sunday, I thought I'd look back to the beginning for one of those in the running, Paul Cleave. His eighth novel, FIVE MINUTES ALONE is a finalist this year, he's won previously (BLOOD MEN in 2011), and his latest release, TRUST NO ONE (Atria/Upstart Press, 2015) is hoovering up great reviews and plenty of reader acclaim in the USA and Downunder.
But just what was his first novel like?
Well, the Germans certainly loved THE CLEANER - it was the #1 bestselling crime/thriller novel on Amazon Germany in 2007, selling a quarter of a million copies - placing it ahead of the likes of Lee Child and Linwood Barclay's massive hit NO TIME FOR GOODBYE, and completely outstripping the bestselling crime novels in the UK and Australia/New Zealand etc. But the English language world has been slower to pick up on Cleave (and in some ways, still is).
So were the Germans a canary in the coalmine, as they often are in terms of spotting and embracing great crime fiction before English-language nations (see Linwood Barclay, Stieg Larsson, Craig Russell, etc)?
'Slow Joe' is the good-natured and helpful, if seemingly dimwitted, man who cleans up after the police in their Christchurch headquarters. Unlike the rest of the city, he's not living in terror of the Christchurch Carver, a serial killer who's sliced up seven people. Not because he's unaware of the news, but because he's the one creating it. The thing is, Joe knows he's only had six victims so far.
There's a copycat out there trying to get away with the seventh murder. So Joe becomes a sleuth, looking to track down a killer. So he can have his revenge, and pin all the murders on that culprit. He's managed to outwit the police all this time, even circling in their vicinity every day, but three woman in his life begin to cause him troubles: his overbearing mother, his maintenance colleague Sally who develops some sort of weird crush on him, and Melissa, a fellow sociopath he can't stay away from, despite the danger.
Cleave's debut is raw, visceral, and compelling - delving into the twisted psyche of a serial killer who manages to be both charming and chilling, but in quite a different way to the classic Lecter archetype. Joe is the kind of guy you might like to hang out with, his night-time proclivities aside.
There are a lot of serial killer books nowadays, post Thomas Harris, but Cleave manages to bring something fresh to an at-time tired subgenre. We see the world through Joe's eyes, his twisted view of Christchurch and the things around him, but even at it's most violent, THE CLEANER doesn't delve into torture porn or its ilk. We're not wallowing in the twisted mind of a psychopath, or a dreary, violent, depressing view of the world.
The violence can be brutal and graphic (one scene is truly unforgettable - not just in a reviewer hyperbole way - once you read it you'll never forget it, especially if you're a male reader), but always fits with the world Cleave has created. Brutality mixed with brilliance, it always seems natural rather than forced by the author, and there's a rich vein of back humour running through the tale to keep things balanced. You may find yourself chuckling at times, while being chilled to the quick at others.
There's a tremendous energy to Cleave's prose, even back in this debut there was a snap, crackle, pop to his language and phrasing. In a sea of 'good but kinda the same' crime writing, Cleave immediately stands out as something a little different to the norm. He doesn't write boring stories, that's for sure. Tremendous thrills, and a wonderfully evoked (if malevolent) version of Christchurch.
Cleave's later works took him to even greater heights in some ways, with a maturity to balance the visceral storytelling, but THE CLEANER remains a damned good read. The Germans know their stuff.