Monday, October 4, 2010

Christchurch's Dark Prince of the Pen: My feature article on Paul Cleave in Latitude magazine

christchurch’s dark prince of the pen

words: craig sisterson
images: supplied

Internationally, his dark thrillers have made him the most popular Kiwi crime writer since Ngaio Marsh, but here at home he’s still somewhat unknown. Paul Cleave talks about life on and off the page

You have to be a touch careful around Christchurch crime writer Paul Cleave. Not because he shares any of the violent or (self)destructive tendencies of the memorable characters packing the pages of his international bestsellers. But because he has a tendency to, well, ‘take the piss’. Mainly of himself.

Like his compelling tales, which on the surface seem pretty serious - dark thrillers sprinkled with a fair bit of carnage - with Cleave there’s often a fair bit of sly humour and self-deprecation going on underneath; easy to miss if you’re not paying full attention. Relaxing in his suburban home, the soft-spoken author admits he was “pretty hard on Christchurch” in Blood Men, his recently-released fourth novel that has seen him snapped up by a giant international publisher for a US launch in July - a rare achievement for a Kiwi author. July will be a big month for Cleave, as he’s also appearing at a prestigious crime writing festival in England, rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in the business. Overseas, his gritty and well-written thrillers have seen him touted as “the New Zealand Ian Rankin”.

The story in Blood Men centres on accountant Edward Hunter, a happily-married family man with a great life but a dark past; he’s the son of a notorious serial killer who’s been in Christchurch 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 as things spiral out of control Edward starts wondering whether deep down he might be a man of blood, too.

Cleave doesn’t write boring stories, that’s for sure; Blood Men crackles with freshness and energy. Like his previous international bestsellers (he’s particularly popular in Germany, where his debut The Cleaner was the #1 bestselling crime novel on in 2007), sporadic moments of violence may be too much for those who exclusively read mysteries of the old-fashioned Agatha Christie style. But Cleave masterfully mixes compelling characters, sly humour, and taut plotlines with enough tension and twists to keep pages whirring. His earlier books have even made the annual The Listener 100 Best Books List; a rarity for a crime writer, let alone a Kiwi one. It takes a talented writer to have readers stifling chuckles moments after wanting to huddle under their covers, but the laidback local has the rare touch; weaving laughs amongst the darkness. “I always try for some humour,” he says. “Sometimes it will be really subtle, but I definitely aim for humour. It’s taken me a long time to develop that style, because I started writing novels when I was nineteen… it took me ten years to write and develop and get [published].”

Another trademark of Cleave’s writing is his well-evoked, if sometimes malevolent and sinister, version of his hometown. Readers and reviewers could be mistaken into thinking Cleave doesn’t think much of the Garden City, given he portrays Christchurch as an unpredictable place, full of murder, mystery and mayhem. But the 35-year old laughs that off, saying away from his writing desk, he enjoys living here. “I really like Christchurch... kind of,” he says, playfully dead-panning the last words. “I don’t see it in the dark way I write about it. I take everything bad I've learned about Christchurch and I exaggerate it for the books to create an atmosphere more suitable for a crime novel. It’s not what I think of it, but my characters see it that way. Plus it’s a more entertaining angle to write.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given his fictionalised Christchurch is such a strength, originally Cleave wasn’t going to set his stories locally. “When I first started writing, I just made up… some kind of generic US city,” he recalls. He was learning his trade, churning out unpublished horror manuscripts in his early 20s (that he says will remain firmly ensconced in the bottom drawer, never to see the light of day), having always been fascinated with what scares us. Then two things changed; he made the switch from horror to dark crime, realising that “horror [fiction] isn’t really horror... the scariest stuff in the world is true stuff, stuff that’s real, like serial killers.” And he read advice from one of his favourite authors, Dean Koontz, about writing what you know. “I started setting things 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.”

His earlier books have even made the annual The Listener 100 Best Books List; a rarity for a crime writer, let alone a New Zealand one.

Away from the page, Cleave likes spending time with friends and family, and enjoys getting active with his mates at the parks, beaches, and golf courses of Canterbury. He used to enjoy “aggressively” hitting some of the great local mountain bike trails, until a couple of serious crashes put paid to that (he still has a few scars). Now he goes for the odd low-key ride with mates, as well trying to enjoy golf. “I just love doing stuff, being athletic,” he says, before confessing with a laugh that he hasn’t always been that way, having grown up “small and geeky and underweight and just a bit of a nerd” through his years at Papanui High. “I like to frustrate myself on a golf course and see if I can go around without throwing my clubs into the trees or breaking them all in half,” he says. “I figure if I can use up all my swear words on the golf course, then there won't be any left for my writing.” Cleave is also a big fan of Frisbee. “Frisbee is the coolest thing in the world and we'd all be better off if we made time for it,” he says, giving his serious face. “It bonds people. I've seen it happen. I once played Frisbee in Egypt by a beach with a guy from Slovakia and a guy from Austria and I'd never met them before and for those ten minutes we were all best friends. Imagine how well peace talks would go if Presidents were tossing Frisbee's back and forth - 'Hey good catch, Barack' - 'Hey, cheers, great throw.'”

Once again, I’m not sure if he’s serious or joking. Probably both; after all, he has a pretty valid point - something important to say, even if I imagine I can see a mischievous glint in his eye.

Just like his writing.


This feature article was first published in the Winter 2010 issue of Latitude, Canterbury's own lifestyle magazine, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Latitude Editor Joanne Taylor.


  1. His books sound interesting, as does he. I enjoy your articles. Thanks for posting them.
    Pat Browning
    Oklahoma USA

  2. No worries Pat. I'm just glad several of the editors I write for are generous enough to let me republish the articles online here on Crime Watch, so more people can read them.

  3. Thanks for the article Craig. I enjoy Paul Cleave's books, haven't read Blood Men yet - It's on my 'to buy' list. I live in Christchurch and it is great to have novels that are set in NZ cities.