Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In the red and black corner - COLLECTING COOPER

Well, in four days time we will know which of the four finalists have won the 2012 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Four cracking novels from four terrific authors are currently in the running:

  • COLLECTING COOPER by Paul Cleave
  • LUTHER: THE CALLING by Neil Cross
  • BY ANY MEANS by Ben Sanders
  • BOUND by Vanda Symon

On Saturday night, after The Great New Zealand Crime Debate event at the Christchurch Writers Festival, we will find out who takes home the terrific hand-crafted art trophy designed and created by local sculptor Gina Ferguson (along with the winner's cheque - thanks to the Christchurch Writers Festival Trust - and collection of Ngaio Marsh novels - thanks to HarperCollins, Dame Ngaio's publisher). Before then, I thought it might be fun to take a closer look at each of the contenders - four days left, four books and authors.

Kicking things off, alphabetically, in the red and black corner (Canterbury colours) we have COLLECTING COOPER by Christchurch crime writer Paul Cleave, who won the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for BLOOD MEN, and is one of the most successful contemporary New Zealand writers of any kind on the global stage.

COLLECTING COOPER, Cleave's fifth dark thriller, sees the return of former cop turned private eye Theo Tate (from CEMETERY LAKE), who is released from prison after serving a sentence for drunk driving. It is the first time Cleave has brought back any of his protagonists in a leading role (each of his first four thrillers had different main characters, even if supporting characters overlapped).

Here's the official blurb:

People are disappearing in Christchurch. Cooper Riley, a psychology professor, doesn’t make it to work one day. Emma Green, one of his students, doesn’t make it home. When ex-cop Theodore Tate is released from a four-month prison stint, he’s asked by Green’s father to help find Emma. After all, Tate was in jail for nearly killing her in a DUI accident the year before, so he owes him. Big time. What neither of them knows is that a former mental patient is holding people prisoner as part of his growing collection of serial killer souvenirs. Now he has acquired the ultimate collector’s item—an actual killer.

Meanwhile, clues keep pulling Tate back to Grover Hills, the mental institution that closed down three years ago. Very bad things happened there. Those who managed to survive would prefer keeping their memories buried. Tate has no choice but to unearth Grover Hills’ dark past if there is any chance of finding Emma Green and Cooper Riley alive.

For fans of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, and Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series, Collecting Cooper is another “relentlessly gripping, deliciously twisted, and shot through with a vein of humor that’s as dark as hell” (Mark Billingham) novel by this glimmering new talent in the crime thriller genre.

You can read an extract from COLLECTING COOPER (the first few pages) here.

Since it's release in the United States last year (the book was only published in New Zealand recently, and hasn't been published in many other territories yet, although it will be in several in the the coming months and more), COLLECTING COOPER has garnered a pretty glowing critical reception. Here's a small sample of the many positive reviews the dark thriller has received from readers and critics alike:

Cleave juggles multiple points of view and some deft misdirection to keep readers off-balance. His hellish depiction of Christchurch in the middle of a heat wave is without pity, ... The cynical, ambiguous conclusion to this wild, violent romp really makes you wonder about Cleave. And his fans...and me. I couldn’t put it down.  Kevin Burton Smith, Mystery Scene magazine

The city of Christchurch becomes a modern equivalent of James Ellroy's Los Angeles of the 1950s, a discordant symphony of violence and human weakness. Cleave tosses in a number of twists that few readers will anticipate, but the book's real power lies in the complexity of its characters, particularly the emotionally tortured Tate.  Publisher's Weekly 

Despite the darkness, Cleave is no schlock-meister; the blood and brutality amongst his pages is merely one part of a compelling tale (although it may be too much for some). He even raises important issues such as violence against women, the lack of support for those with mental difficulties, and the public's fascination with serial killers - but rather than screaming such issues from the rooftops, they're just woven through a tale that fizzes with ferocity. They're texture, not message, in an exciting book where characterisation, such as Tate's stumble vaguely towards some sort of redemption, shines brightest of all. NZLawyer magazine

Though Cleave’s Christchurch is an acid-soaked alternate version of the mainland’s largest city, he uses uncomfortably familiar details to keep his story grounded... He uses black humour both to offset and highlight moments of stark horror... Collecting Cooper is not for the easily perturbed, but if you have the stomach for it, Cleave offers some of the best crime reading to be found.  Coast FM (radio station)

Are you allowed to do one word reviews? In which case it's ... wow. If we're not allowed could I just add terrific, twisty, tricky, tantalising, taut and maybe tremendous.  Aust Crime Fiction

The Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel, consisting of seven crime fiction experts from the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, and New Zealand, was likewise impressed by COLLECTING COOPER's mixture of brutality and brilliance, putting it through to the finals from a tough and closely-contested long-list for the 2012 Ngaio Marsh Award. Amongst other comments, the international judging panel praised COLLECTING COOPER as "dark and poetic" and filled with "great characters and a great sense of place".

But will this be enough for Cleave to secure back-to-back Ngaio Marsh Awards? Will the hometown boy once again take the trophy depicting his fellow Cantabrian? He's facing some pretty stiff competition again this year, from Cross, Sanders, and Symon - all of whom have written very good crime thrillers too.

Tomorrow I'll take a look at another of the contenders for the 2012 Ngaio Marsh Award. But in the meantime, have you read COLLECTING COOPER? If not, does it sound like the kind of crime thriller you might like to try? Or would it be too dark for you? Thoughts and comments most welcome.

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