Catch up on shows with The Coast On Demand
Tuesday, June 12, 2012 10:20 AM
“Not all killers are monsters. Some have their reasons.” So reflects Adrian Loaner, one of many serial murderers plaguing the Hades-like Christchurch of Paul Cleave’s latest thriller, Collecting Cooper. Strictly speaking, Adrian is the villain of the piece, but there are few people to root for in this bloody literary landscape, the premise of which is about as unsettling – and, for a crime-fic fan, titillating – as it gets. Set in an unspecified point in the future, the Christchurch of the novel is literally aflame, alive with house fires and lawlessness, and in the grip of a deadly, madness-inducing heatwave.
University professor Cooper Riley’s hobby is impossibly creepy: he’s fascinated by serial killers, is working on a book about the city’s homegrown slayers, and buys killers’ mementos at auction. His most recent acquisition is a human thumb. Campus rumours of his habits abound, but his students regard him as a harmless oddbod. More fool them.
Cleave has great fun with the set-up – as the story opens, the city’s residents are recovering from a recent siege by the so-called Christchurch Carver, who was arrested the same day that protagonist and fallen cop Theodore Tate took down the Burial Killer (MO: digging up coffins, removing the original occupants and replacing them with his victims).
If it sounds like a Cantabrian version of The Hunger Games, that’s somewhat apropos, but I wonder whether Cleave was inspired by John Fowles’ incomparable 1963 novel The Collector, in which a young man graduates from gathering butterflies to collecting a woman. There are more than a few echoes of that story in Collecting Cooper, though Cleave’s tone of macabre humour is distinctive.
When Cooper is himself abducted, he’s the second person in a few hours to go missing under suspicious circumstances. The first was his student, Emma Green, and it’s Emma’s father who demands that Tate get on the case. The officer is in no position to demur, having only just been released from prison after injuring Emma in a drink-driving incident.
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. As the action is accelerating towards the climax, Tate pauses his hunt momentarily to observe four intoxicated teenagers frolicking in the Avon River, evidence that the 1990s decision to lower the drinking age “opened the floodgates” to one of the worst underage drinking problems in the world.
He uses black humour both to offset and highlight moments of stark horror: the matter-of-fact way a young woman is dispatched to the hereafter, so painstakingly described as to seem in slow-motion; the collector Adrian’s mordant description of the revenge taken on those who bullied him; a rape victim’s instantaneous, instinctive revenge.
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.
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