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by Paul Cleave
Arrow, September 2009
352 pages
6.99 GBP
ISBN: 0099536250

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Life isn't particularly good for Theo Tate, a world-weary private investigator who at the beginning of New Zealand author Paul Cleave's third book CEMETERY LAKE (the first of Cleave's novels to be released in the UK) finds himself shivering graveside in the rain, waiting for a dead body, waiting for blue fingernails.

Tate is only present at the exhumation because his former police colleagues are too busy trying to catch the Christchurch Carver, the grisly serial killer from Cleave's debut novel, THE CLEANER (a smash-hit in Germany in 2007), to concern themselves with a potential arsenic poisoning case. So Tate beaten down, battered, and barely coping with life since a drunk driver turned his world upside down two years before - has taken the job of playing dead body babysitter.

Tate's simple assignment becomes anything but when three bodies bubble up from the cemetery lake. Then when the raised coffin reveals the wrong corpse, two equally unpalatable possibilities emerge; the Carver has struck again, or there's a second psychopath on the loose in Christchurch. Tate reluctantly finds himself being sucked into the vortex, and pursuing the investigation - inspired not by an invitation from his former peers, who in fact try to sideline him - but by a need to address his own personal demons, and atone for the grief-fuelled mistakes of his past.

As the case advances, and stolen evidence, the police, the media, priests, his own personal demons, murder and suicide all roadblock Tate, he finds himself compounding bad choices and even turning into a man he'd always despised.

CEMETERY LAKE is an impressive novel that takes the reader on an unpredictable journey intersecting a present-day serial killer with well-kept suburbanite secrets and Tate's own troubled past. Cleave demonstrates a talent for creating compelling characters that ring true. Told in the first person through Tate's eyes, CEMETERY LAKE takes us into the mind of a troubled man - a man trying to do the right thing, but beginning to care less and less about the consequences of the choices he makes. Cleave also gives the supporting characters some nice depth and complexity.

As such, even when events become outlandish, Cleave doesn't lose the reader, because he's spun wholly-formed characters and lets us gaze a little into their world view. He avoids the poor writer's mistake of substituting quirks for characterisation; instead his characters do things for their own reasons, not just to serve the plot. We can understand the worst acts, because we see we might consider the same choice, in the same circumstance.

Another feature of CEMETERY LAKE is the character-like shadow of Christchurch itself. Cleave weaves a strong sense of place - mirroring the real-life dichotomy of international renown for friendliness alongside occasional New Zealand 'murder capital' status, Cleave's Christchurch is full of gardens and glue-sniffers; long-held secrets and closeted debauchery hidden behind suburban doors and old English architecture.

Along with a largely well-paced storyline with enough action, tension, and interesting twists and turns to keep the pages whirring, CEMETERY LAKE is a fascinating character study of a good man devolving into something more primal. Filled with dark crime and darker humour, it's not for the faint-hearted, or those who prefer their murder mysteries cosy. But anyone who enjoys the humour-tinged grittiness of authors like Mark Billingham, who is himself a big fan of Cleave's writing after he discovered him on a visit to New Zealand last year, will find CEMETERY LAKE hard to put down. Cleave makes you want to turn the page, and when you get to the end, you want to go out and immediately find another of his books.

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson, September 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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