I have long said the New Zealand-based crime writer Paul Cleave is one of the most under-appreciated authors in the crime fiction community. From his first book to the latest, every entry in his oeuvre is worthy of bestseller status and critical acclaim. And yet while he is very popular – and an award-winning author – in his native country, many American crime fans have not discovered his books. Hopefully that will change with the release of The Quiet People, which just may be his best book yet.
With a very simple premise, Paul Cleave weaves a gripping suspense novel that keeps readers guessing right up until the end. Cameron and Lisa Murdoch are a married couple who also happen to be a successful crime-writing duo. As they are working to finish their latest novel, Cameron opts to take their seven-year-old son to the fair – as Zach can sometimes have behavioral challenges which are distracting at best and over-whelming at worst. After a rough day at the fair, Zach gets the sense that he is a burden to his parents and threatens to run away. Not really thinking much of it – all kids say that at one time or another – Cameron and Lisa go to bed with visions of a better tomorrow. In the morning, Zach is gone.
As any true crime fan knows, the first suspects in every case are those closest to the victim, and here that means the parents. It doesn’t help their case that the Murdoch’s have said for years during various conventions and live television interviews that because they have written so many clever crime novels, they could easily get away with a real crime. Did Zach’s unpredictable outbursts and behavioral problems drive these parents to do the unthinkable? Or is there something else going on?
The case gets major media coverage – both the legitimate kind as well as the more scandal-laden aspects of the press always looking for the juiciest piece of gossip. The police investigation is headed by Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent and her team. Paul Cleave allows the narrative to unfold from both the perspectives of Cameron Murdoch and Rebecca Kent, so readers get both civilian and official viewpoints on how a missing persons case is investigated. There is a third voice that factors into the novel. Mr. What If? is the imaginary voice that works on a subconscious level to help the Murdoch’s plot out compelling novels for their fans. But now, Mr. What If? seems hell-bent on making Cameron think of the worst possible scenarios and outcomes for his missing son.
The strength of this novel – and in fact, all of Paul Cleave’s work – is the fully-fleshed out characters that populate the tale. Even the most minor players are etched out with surprising depth which means the reader becomes invested in the ultimate outcome for all those involved. Fans who hang out with real crime writers will recognize the tendencies for those in the industry to casually say that they could get away with a crime or how their search engine histories would put them on a watch list. This is a hazard of the profession and Paul Cleave nails the difficult reality a potential suspect would be put through if faced with such an investigation.
Paul Cleave also uses another technique to increase the suspense – and believe me, this book is incredibly tense throughout. Cleave will often end a chapter with a character discovering some new piece of evidence but doesn’t reveal what it is to the reader. Instead, he allows the exposure of that critical clue to unspool in the next chapter as the character further investigates that lead. This prevents repetition and keeps the action moving forward like a jet plane.
Right at the middle of the novel there is an extended sequence of chapters that starts with an unruly mob outside the Murdoch home and ends with an explosive car crash. Any reader whose heartbeat and blood pressure are not elevated by the end of that section should immediately head to the hospital. This is a high-tension, high-risk, sequence of events that forever alters the trajectory of the novel in a way readers will not see coming. From that point forward, setting The Quiet People aside for any amount of time becomes an impossible task.
Crime fiction fans who remember the importance of the stuffed teddy bear in Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun should prepare themselves to once again be emotionally invested in a child’s plush toy to an extent that is hard to explain or rationalize. That is the beauty of fiction.
The twists continue to pile up as Paul Cleave leads readers to the conclusion of The Quiet People. By the end, readers will find themselves holding their breath hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst. And they will certainly be back for Paul Cleave’s next suspense novel.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No promotion was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.