- Publish Date
- Friday, 27 November 2015, 8:49AM
- By Stephanie Jones
In Shutter Island Dennis Lehane concocted a witches’ brew of insanity and paranoia that, in the deft hands of Martin Scorsese, made for a similarly unsettling and penetrating film. With Trust No One, his ninth novel, Paul Cleave runs with the baton, using a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease as the springboard for a story that winds around and back and in upon itself: reading it feels like unpacking Russian nesting dolls within a literary hall of mirrors.
The writer-as-protagonist has long proved fertile ground for thriller writers. Stephen King, a fine practitioner of this trick of the trade, has described writing in terms of spell-casting: if he imagines the worst – a hand closing over yours while you grapple for the light switch in the dark; a plague of rats – it won’t happen. Misery became the exemplar of the bad-things-happen-to-good-writers theme when the story of a bestselling writer held captive by his Number One Fan and ordered to revive a beloved character on pain of, well, everything, first hit the shelves.
Cleave’s scribe is Jerry Grey, a happily married 49-year-old who has written 13 crime novels under the pseudonym Henry Cutter. The madness begins when Jerry is determined to have dementia and, in accordance with his craftsman’s instincts and medical assurances that a nursing home beckons, vows to record a ‘Madness Journal’ for the benefit of Future Jerry, who will need all the points of reference he can get.
The fly in the ointment is Jerry’s new propensity to confess to crimes that occurred in his books. There seems no reason to give credence to someone departing lucidity at a rapid rate – except that there may be real-life bodies that need explaining. Then there’s Jerry’s unexplained estrangement from his wife and adult daughter. Hans, a long-time acquaintance with serious form, serves as confidante, accomplice and consigliere as Jerry battles to determine what his life has become and what Real Jerry has done.
This is the crux of Cleave’s power to baffle and destabilize. Trust No One is not just a hall of mirrors but an echo chamber, darting helter-skelter from voice to voice, the second-person perspective of the Madness Journal and the more conventional third-person viewpoint of Jerry in the present. Cleave weaves a tangled web, but who is being deceived? Jerry, by others? The reader, by an unreliable (because of neurological decline or psychopathy or something else) narrator?
A dominant impression is that Cleave is having great fun with the concept of a crime writer up the creek. A detective to Jerry: “I’ve always figured a guy who writes the kind of books you write, well, there must be something wrong with him, something sick and twisted inside.” (For the record, Trust No One is light on bloodshed compared with its predecessors.)
Less humourously, Cleave draws a sharp line between intellectual force and human creativity and the suddenness with which all is lost. A doctor warns what awaits: “It’s what Alzheimer’s does . . . It erases things, it creates, it rewrites.” By the same token, the reader is reminded at many turns that this is a story containing many stories, a product of the fecund imagination of a writer leading his flock joyously down the rabbit hole and giving a cheeky nod to tropes of the crime genre on the way.
Cleave’s numerous laurels include Ned Kelly and Edgar Award nominations along with two Ngaio Marsh Awards (the second for 2014’s superb Five Minutes Alone, the fourth instalment in the Theodore Tate series). Expect him to be garlanded further in the wake of Trust No One, a temptingly adaptable novel that demands full attention; to be read not in fragments but as a stunning piece of structural and narrative audacity that deserves to stand as a high-water mark of crime fiction.
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