In Paul Cleave’s Whatever it takes we have moved away from his ‘gateway to hell’ Christchurch to Acacia Pines, a small isolated town in the U.S. Acacia Pines is a sawmill town, surrounded by a “Green Hole” of forests, with only one way in and one way out. Deputy Noah Harper lost his job, his wife and his home in Acacia Pines when he broke all the rules in order to do ‘the right thing’, and now 12 years later he’s back intending to do ‘the right thing’ once again.
The novel starts in a bloody mess and through the novel Noah gets up to fight again more times than Arnie in T1. His is an extremely flawed character, with a tendency to violence that is quite marked. But he is a compelling anti-hero that you would like to think would be on your side in a fix. And he does think his way through most situations, weighing up the pros and cons, and always makes decisions for the ‘right’ reasons – but of course he doesn’t always work the equations out correctly.
Noah made a promise to a seven-year-old girl, Alyssa, before he left Acacia Pines, a promise that brings him back when his ex-wife contacts him to say Alyssa has gone missing. Alyssa’s uncle, a priest, is on his death bed and convinced something bad has happened to Alyssa, despite the local sheriff – Noah’s ex-partner Drew – having evidence that she has just left town unable to face her uncle’s slow demise. What is great about small town stories is that when people return, they know everyone, and they can create a rich place and history for the reader to become immersed in. And the reader can suspect the motives and actions of people a little more clearly than the main protagonist. Is Noah the only character with good intentions but suspect methods? Who can he trust?, and what the hell is going on in that little town?
The characters are great, Noah of course but also Drew, his ex-partner, Maggie, his ex-wife, Conrad his nemesis and Conrad’s dad Sheriff Haggerty, who as an ex-sheriff dragging an oxygen tank around still wants to run Noah out of town. There are many more the reader gets to know, and you are constantly wondering who is bad and who is sort of good. But it is a Paul Cleave novel, so you know the line between the two is like ink in water, and the characters keep developing as you read. But there are some things you can hang onto – Noah loves his three-legged cat Legolas, and he did make that promise to a seven-year-old girl, a promise he intends to keep regardless at what messes he finds himself in.
The writing is smooth, a little humorous to counter the violence, and very suspenseful. I read it in one go as I just had to know what was going on. There are clues throughout, and I did feel smug guessing one plot twist – but was totally unprepared for the main reveal! And as with many good thrillers, you end up knowing more about how sick humans can be in the real world than you ever really wanted to. “What kind of world is it where shitty things happen to good people? … The only one we have.” Another great thriller from Paul Cleave.