Cameron Murdoch is living a reasonably successful life as a crime writer, writing in collaboration with Lisa, his wife. They live in Christchurch and “In the books we used to pretend that Christchurch was Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell, but it turns out we weren’t pretending at all.” Cameron’s life starts spiralling into hell after an unfortunate sequence of events at a bouncy castle.
I can’t give much of the plot away, it is so twisted and tangled that the tension of reading the book is in large part from not knowing what is going on. It does concern the horror of losing sight of a child, for a moment, for a week, forever. We think we know from the Prologue what has happened to Zach Murdoch, Cameron and Lisa’s seven-year-old son – but nothing is straightforward in The quiet people. Cleave is a confident enough author to play with the reader, and the plotting is superb. When you do discover what has happened, the clues were there, you just didn’t know where to look – and neither did the police.
The narrative alternates between Cameron in the first person, and a third person view of Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent. But Cameron also has a second person ‘Mr What If’ inner narrative going on, and at one point a spooky 1st & 3rd person point of view when he is in shock. All this aids the liveliness of the narrative. Kent is a great character. She is confused, swayed, kind, pissed off – and represents a police force who are totally human and who often make dumb mistakes. “This case … everywhere she turns, just misery piled on top of misery.” Cameron is brilliantly written – he is traumatised, angry, numb, drunk, calculating, and every now and again Kent glimpses the nice guy he might actually be.
Cameron agrees to pray with his mother, enters into a blokey agreement with his father-in-law, is falling apart yet coldly holding it all together. He personifies the oxymoronic Kiwi nature that Cleave talks of in the book: kind and good natured yet “we’re also a nation where more babies and children are beaten to death per capita than any other country”. This contradiction is echoed by the Greek Chorus of public and media outside the Murdoch’s house, one minute brandishing hateful placards, the next laying teddy bears and candles.
The quiet people toys with meta-fiction; there are characters and locations from Cleave’s previous Christchurch noir books, and the narrative often refers to Cameron and Lisa’s publicity quips about ‘killing people for a living’, and ‘getting away with murder’. Once Cameron’s reality is akin to one of his and Lisa’s plots, he finds himself reacting like one of his characters. And it is probably not a co-incidence that one of the sleazebag characters, blogger Dallas Lockwood, is a failed novelist. There are lots of comments about what goes on in the mind of a thriller writer – “Maybe that’s the thing about crime writers – you just can’t trust them”!
The name of the book refers to what neighbours always say when they hear people in their street have committed a violent crime: that they are shocked, they are such ‘quiet people’. There are awful people in the book, but there are also those who find out how quickly things can spin out of control. How mistakes and misinterpretation can lead to tragedy, and how trying to balance one tragedy can cause a worse one – an unconscionable one. It is a roller coaster of a read. With moments of great sadness, the time warping of disaster, incredible tension, and adrenaline pumping action.
Although The quiet people makes reference to earlier works, it is completely stand alone. Grab a copy and have a read pronto! Available in New Zealand from 8th April 2021.