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Paul Cleave. Photo/Martin Hunter/Supplied

Why Kiwi crime writer Paul Cleave makes good people do bad things

Ahead of his appearance at the Hawke's Bay Arts Festival, Paul Cleave talks to Craig Sisterson about the moral quagmires of his latest novel.

The man sitting in the chair is smiling. His face is swollen purple, but he doesn’t crack. As the blows rain down, he still won’t give his kidnappers what they want: the girl’s location. The man grins through the pain. Until scrunched-up paper is stuffed in his mouth and a loaded gun replaces the bloodied fists.

It’s almost a heroic stand, except the man in the chair isn’t the hero. The man beating him is.

Christchurch novelist Paul Cleave has never shirked from plunging his protagonists, and readers, into moral quagmires. His new thriller, Whatever It Takes, wastes no time, opening with Deputy Noah Harper doing just what the title says in order to find and rescue a seven-year-old girl.

“It’s one of my most favourite things in crime fiction,” says Cleave. “I love complicated characters; I love good people doing bad things for good reasons. I write that way because it’s conflicting. Sometimes the goal is to have a character who is the bad guy in the beginning, and by the end you’re on their side wanting the best for them. Life isn’t black and white, and I don’t want to write that way. My good characters dwell in the greys in between. They do what needs to be done.”

Hold on, Deputy? Yes, for his 11th novel, the proud Cantabrian has added a new wrinkle. It’s his first tale not set in his hometown of Christchurch. Instead, he’s gone for a fictional spin on a rural American town, an enclave of sawmills, forests, hiking trails and elected lawmen.

“It was a tough decision to set Whatever It Takes in the US,” says Cleave. “It’s something my agent and publisher have been asking me to do for several years, but I was always resistant. I know my readers love the Christchurch setting. For international readers, New Zealand has an exotic appeal. But ultimately, the decision was made for me when I came up with the concept for a story that wasn’t going to work here. I needed a small town that is isolated from the rest of the country. I needed an independent police department run by a few folks who aren’t going to get outside help. The kind of small town where folks are on a first-name basis, look out for each other and where the police deal with things on their own. You know from the opening chapter that what’s to come wouldn’t work in Christchurch, or anywhere in New Zealand.”

Cleave considered trying to finagle his story into a local setting even a year or two after starting this manuscript, but in the end, he says, he enjoyed exploring a new location.

“Writing a book with American characters in small-town USA meant writing with a different voice, and the thing is I really loved doing that.

“I love the different speech patterns, and the way Noah will sometimes see things. I love having a town with big open skies surrounded by farmland and forest, full of good-natured folks and some pretty bad folks, too.”

Although Cleave has racked up air miles in recent years, regularly heading abroad to book festivals from Taiwan to Toronto and Denmark to New Caledonia, he hadn’t visited rural America.

“I’ve been to a couple of places in the US, but nothing like Acacia Pines,” he says. “But I had some small idea what it would be like, then it was just a matter of making those ideas take shape. Over time, Acacia Pines became a real place to me. I knew how to get my characters from A to B, what they would see, the feel of the place. In fact, I enjoyed the town and the people there so much that next year’s book is also set there.”

Not that Cleave has abandoned Christchurch. He has another thriller in the pipeline set back in his hometown. Well, his bleak, atmospheric version of the city, as seen through the skewed lenses of his troubled characters. It’s a place that casts a character-like shadow through Cleave’s first 10 novels, which have won multiple prizes, been translated into 20 languages and sold more than a million copies. “I love Christchurch too much to stay away from it for too long,” he says.

Although he’s stretched his literary legs in recent outings, from interlocking narratives (including a rare use of second-person perspective) of a crumbling mind in Trust No One, to the use of magic realism in crime-thriller A Killer Harvest, Cleave hasn’t forgotten his roots, or the characters on which his early career was built: disgraced cop Theo Tate and serial killer Joe Middleton.

“It’s always been my intention to come back to them,” he says. “Joe would be harder, I’d need something special to bring him back, but often those ideas will come when you’re not thinking about them. It did last time with him. I had no idea for a sequel for six or seven years, then one day I did. Tate is easier, I have a few more ideas for him … I definitely want to come back to both Joe and Tate – I often think about putting them into the same book to see what happens.”

For all his talent for fresh crime plot lines and fizzing prose, Cleave says character reigns supreme. “Character is everything in crime fiction. I can remember hundreds, thousands of characters from movies and books, but not often the plot. Plot can blend into one after a while, with exceptions, but character is king. Readers see the towns and torments and tragedies through the eyes of my characters. They’ll feel the highs and the lows and be there as they search for redemption. Characters drive the story.”

Paul Cleave is part of the Crime Fiction Down Under session at the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival on October 19. Whatever It Takes (Upstart Press, $37.99) is out now.

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.