Better the Blood by Michael Bennett – 2022

Detective Senior Sergeant Hana Westerman is an artist, a mother, a gardener, and “the finest police officer”. She is dedicated and focussed and used to pressure. But when she is singled out by the perpetrator of what turns into a series of murders, the pressure is like nothing she, or her Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland police colleagues, have faced before.

Hana knows she is receiving information from the murderer for a reason, but what reason? The information guides her and her young partner, Stan, to two crime scenes. Hana and her team discover the murders are connected to an atrocity that occurred in the 1860s, and that there are more potential victims. She also realises the link between her and the crimes date from a terrible incident she was part of 18 years ago, an incident that led to her cutting ties with her marae and extended whānau.

Hana is deeply affected by the murder investigation; it makes her consider her life and the choices she has made. And developments start to put distance between her and Addison, her 17-year-old activist daughter. Addison has moved back in with her mother; she had been living with Jaye, Hana’s husband and also her boss. Hana is thrilled to have Addison back with her, but the timing couldn’t have been worse, with the investigation taking all of Hana’s time and attention.

What complicates matters is that both Hana and Addison feel sympathy for the murderer, not with his actions but with his cause. He believes he is restoring balance in a country that “had so much to pride itself on, but it also had so much that was and remained just plain wrong, historically and ongoing”. The novel succinctly lays out many of the injustices against Māori: the blatant appropriation of their land. The use of young Māori men as ‘cannon fodder’ in World War II. The similar use of young Māori police recruits more recently, putting them on the front line of breaking up Māori land protests. The Waitangi Tribunal settlements where tribes get 2% of what they deserve. The disproportionate number of Māori men in prison as opposed to the privileged treatment of Pākehā males in court.

Better the Blood asks: “On which side lies evil?” and has all the elements of great mystery thriller writing: It has a strong social justice theme. It has a great sense of place, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland with “its own unique flavour”, and the bush, “he scooped a handful of rainwater from a bowl formed by the thick roots of the rimu and sprinkled it into the opening of the sack, a blessing”. And it has great characters, especially Hana. She is conflicted and stressed. When she feels danger getting closer and closer to those she loves, she finds it harder and harder to maintain clarity. And then she discovers an inner strength that has nothing to do with weapons or stamina.

Better the Blood avoids the simple; multiple voices are presented, there is not one Māori or one Pākehā point of view. Hana’s knowledge of Māori tikanga helps her progress the investigation, and her being in a position to recognise a translation error from Te Reo to English helps her find the suspect. But she is also a cop, and the police in the current investigation are for the most part presented sympathetically, after all “Nobody welcomes a day when you go to work knowing your job might be to end a life”.

Better the Blood is a great piece of #YeahNoir. It is a debut novel, and the promotional material suggests we will be reading more of Hana Westerman, excellent!

This entry was posted in #yeahnoir, Book Review. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Better the Blood by Michael Bennett – 2022

  1. Sounds excellent, thanks for sharing your thoughts

    Liked by 1 person

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