It’s always amazed me that Paul Cleave is not better known here. By all measures he’s one of our most successful crime writers, with books translated into more than 20 languages. His fans include crime fiction superstars like Lee Child, Meg Gardiner, Tom Wood and Mark Billingham.
Hopefully that’s about to change as a television adaptation of his debut, The Cleaner, hits the screen soon - the entire series filmed in Cleave’s beloved hometown of Ōtautahi Christchurch. Indeed Cleave was writing His Favourite Graves while Dark City - The Cleaner (for which he also wrote the screenplay) was being filmed earlier this year. It’s a time he describes in the acknowledgements as the busiest of his life.
His Favourite Graves deserves to win him many more fans; it’s another twisty, gory and disturbing outing (one of the characters suffers from a psychological condition which makes him think he is infested with parasites) and a reminder that Cleave was initially drawn to the horror genre but changed his mind after reading FBI profiler John Douglas’s Mindhunter. The FBI elite serial crime unit would certainly be kept busy with some of the characters in His Favourite Graves.
It's set in the fictional American smalltown of Acacia Pines, the setting of Cleave’s 2019 Whatever it Takes, one of the few times he has set a book outside of the Garden City, but the focus here is on the dark inner world of the protagonists.
It centres around two characters: a teenage boy, Lucas Shaw, a victim of relentless bullying, and the town’s Sheriff Cohen, a good man with more than his fair share of problems. He faces tens of thousands in legal bills after his father, who suffers from dementia, burns down a retirement home. To add to his troubles, his wife has left him and his teenage son is surly and uncommunicative.
When Shaw is abducted, many readers may think they know where this is headed but this is a Cleave novel – and he’s a writer who revels in writing characters who are morally ambiguous, existing in that grey area between good and evil. Sheriff Cohen, under intense financial pressure, sees opportunity in the situation and hatches a plan to pocket the reward money as he takes Shaw’s abductor captive.
For many writers that would be plot enough but Cleave has plenty more revelations in the second half of the book. Soon the Sheriff is leading a double life, fuelled by whiskey and Adderall - ostensibly working on a case while he has the offender his force is looking for locked in his basement freezer - a state of affairs which causes him to remark, ‘I’ve moved on from drinking the whiskey directly out of the bottle, and am now using a glass. It makes me feel more civilised even though I’m being the most uncivilised I’ve ever been in my life.’
Shaw and his alcoholic, crime writer father are also vividly depicted - a father/son relationship is also explored with the Sheriff’s son - although the issue, which seems like it would be a rich one to explore, too often takes a back seat to the action.
Cleave is by now a master of pacing and where some previous books have suffered from clever plot machinations that became increasingly convoluted as the denouement approached, this one keeps things compelling to the end.
If you like your crime fiction dark, action-packed and disturbing - you have been warned! - put this on your to - read list.
This review by Greg Fleming was originally published on Kete Books and is reproduced here with kind permission.