The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave – 2022

A small mistake leads to two people lying dead and their eleven-year-old son in a coma. The investigation eventually dwindles with the only suspect having a strong alibi, one provided by the cops who were arresting him the other end of town at the time. Years pass, the boy’s sister visits the boy regularly, desperately hopeful, his doctor considers “Most people who get shot in the head don’t live to tell the tale, and those that do don’t get to tell it well”. Then in the ninth year, the boy wakes up, and for those nine years he has been far from unconscious …

Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent is at a crime scene identical to those of a notorious Christchurch serial killer, who is still on the loose – is this his work, or that of a copycat? Kent is leaning towards the latter when she is told to follow up on a coma patient who has woken up after nine years; he might have crucial information about the violent crime that left him comatose. Kent knows the case and one of the detectives who worked it, Theodore Tate. She decides to visit Tate to see what information was left out of the official reports.

Theodore Tate is no longer on the force; he is working as liaison between the police and a TV company who do crime re-enactments. The hope is that viewers might have information that will help investigations. He remembers the young boy James and his sister Hazel, and the suspect he and his partner Carl Schroder were not able to pursue. He is keen to help, but neither Kent nor her boss want him actively involved, which in no way stops Tate getting actively involved. James’ doctor Wolfgang McCoy then tells them how unique James is.

James Garrett was an imaginative young boy with an eidetic memory and a desire to be a writer. He wakes from his coma in a twenty-year-old body, but his memories of the world are as an eleven-year-old boy. However, he also has memories of growing up alongside his parents and his sister in Coma World, a world he created for himself, and to which he returns when things get too hard. McCoy quickly realises that in James’ Coma World memories are details and dates that coincide with the real world, including information about a possible murder. And when Kent and Tate investigate, they discover there may be another serial killer at large.

The Pain Tourist is a roller coaster ride through the crime-ridden Christchurch readers have come to look forward to in Cleave’s Christchurch novels. Any walk in the woods may be over shallow graves, any walk through a house might be over horrors under the floorboards. The roads are potholed, many areas being redeveloped, some buildings “have new licks of paint, some have more exhaust fumes soaked into the brick, most have lichen and bird crap caked onto the windowsills”. It’s often raining, it’s always bleak. It is populated with characters from Cleave’s previous books, with still others mentioned in passing, making readers familiar with his works feel uneasily right at home.

All the main characters have persisting trauma, yet they battle on to do the right thing, which when on the knife edge of events could fall either side of the law.  Tate: “it bothers him that she thinks this is what the right thing is. And yet here they are”. The reader gets to see the inner world that James retreats to, the shock of the real world being always ‘nine years later’, the out-of-phase experience of his first going back to the family house. His sister Hazel is a great creation; she feels guilt about being the survivor of that horrific night, she is bright, kind, and staunch. And she has a keen moral sense, discussing McCoy’s plans to write a book about James and his Coma World in terms of the possible effects on James, and those in grief who might seek him out, not just of the loads of money they will probably make.

And then there are the villains: there are those wanting to make sure James doesn’t get to tell the cops what he might remember, there are the megalomaniacs, the cruel, the psychopaths. And the ones who just turn up to crime scenes with binoculars and coffee to see the show, or who tune into TV re-enactments or podcasts to relive the thrill of danger from a safe place – the pain tourists. And then there are those tourists who take trophies, those who graffiti their support for monsters who have gotten away with their crimes. Those who are jealous of the notorious, and who may decide to act, to claim their own time in the spotlight.

The plotting of The Pain Tourist is remarkable, the reader’s heart thumps every time there is a knock at a door, every time a phone isn’t answered because it is on mute, or the owner decides not to answer. The three parallel stories are brilliantly woven together, with everyone falling under suspicion and sleight-of- hand writing leading the reader down blind allies. And there is terrible sadness too: the weight of having lost a loved one, the guilt of having survived, the inability to help someone you love who can’t handle events and who retreats into themselves. Even the bad guys have their burdens: “it’s been a long night, and one he hasn’t been able to speed up due to having to wait for people to wake up after being drugged.”

Although the novel is full of characters from and references to previous works, it can be read as a standalone. If you want to read an exceptional piece of #YeahNoir, read The Pain Tourist!

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