How best to weigh the virtues of Christchurch? In one man's opinion, it's a dump, riddled with "meth manufacturers and sociopaths and rapists and shoplifters and arsonists". Christchurch writer Paul Cleave's latest thriller, Five Minutes Alone, sees his regular character, ex-cop Carl Schroder, in a foul mood, forced out of the job because he has an inoperable bullet in his brain.
Schroder is stewing, obsessed by those bad people who are a blight on an already blighted city. Before the bullet dislodges and finishes him off, he is inclined to destroy some of them. He has undoubtedly gone quite mad.
Cleave, born, bred and based in the Garden City, paints Christchurch as a grim, dysfunctional place in his eight books which have sold in the hundreds of thousands around the world. European readers, in particular, love them - although Cleave has put them off ever visiting.
"I have had plenty of people email me from France and Germany saying, 'You know what? I want to come to New Zealand but I'm not coming to Christchurch'," he says, laughing down the phone. "People around the world see New Zealand as this amazing, green, beautiful, friendly country but the thing is, if you can turn it on its head a little bit and defy expectations, it's more interesting for them. They see New Zealand and Christchurch as exotic, especially the Europeans. So I like to come along and ruin that ideal for them.
"People say to me, 'Why are you ripping into Christchurch?' But it is just a fictional version of a real city. When you are writing crime novels you need that kind of atmosphere. You're not going to have a guy whose wife has just been murdered thinking, 'Wow! What a great city!'"
If you haven't had the rather queasy pleasure of reading Cleave's novels, his first is a very good place to start. The Cleaner centres around a seemingly dimwitted young man called Joe who works nights at Christchurch Central Police. Joe, a serial killer when he's not pushing his mop, launched Cleave's career when the book was first published in 2006. Random House believed in its worth beyond New Zealand and printed it in Australia, Germany and France, then further afield. To date, The Cleaner has sold more than half a million copies in Europe and about 30,000 in the United States, making the 40-year-old our biggest international author.
He is highly acclaimed too. His fourth book, Blood Men, won the Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel in New Zealand in 2011, while Joe Victim, the sequel to The Cleaner, was shortlisted in last year's Edgar Allan Poe Awards (the Edgars) in the United States, against no less than Stephen King (neither won). His fans include top crime writers John Connolly, Mark Billingham and S.J. Watson.
That's impressive for someone who never read crime novels when he was growing up. He preferred horror.
"It was really funny, I was tidying up my closet in my office the other day," he says. "I kept all my stories I wrote from school. I had really nice penman skills back then, whereas now I write like a doctor. The stuff I wrote back then was like 'Santa shooting up heroin', things like that, so bizarre. I remember not doing so well in English [at Papanui High School] and my teacher saying, 'There's a time and place for your kind of writing and it's not here.'
"But I could see so many similarities to how I write now. I was reading it out to a friend and we were laughing and laughing. I never read crime back then. At school it was adventure and sci-fi then when I left school I read nothing but Stephen King for a couple of years and then it was horror, horror and more horror. That's what I tried to write, I wrote a horror that was awful stuff. Then Lee Child's first book [Killing Floor] came out. No one knew who he was at that point. Now I know the guy. It's really cool. I used to really admire him. Now we have done festivals together, we have had lunch together. I have thanked him."
At the same time he discovered Child, Cleave also started reading books by FBI profilers, generally about serial killers.
"I realised that crime was horror, real-life horror. You are never going to go and see a vampire movie and come home and think there's going to be a vampire waiting for you. But you'll watch a serial killer movie and it can make you uneasy, especially if the serial killer is the guy next door."
Cleave's novels stand out because the narrative unfolds from multiple perspectives. He likes to spring surprises. Good guys may be revealed as bad (really bad), while his police heroes - Theo Tate and Schroder - are loose with the rules. His plotting is zig-zaggingly complex so one assumes his office walls are covered in charts and stickers to help him keep track. But no.
"It's the complete opposite," he says. "I have no idea where it's going. I have an idea for an opening, then go from there. In the case of Collecting Cooper [his fifth book] I did have the idea of a serial killer who was kidnapped as part of a collection. The best part there was trying to make Cooper look innocent."
When he is on a roll, Cleave writes fast, up to 7000 words a day. Then suddenly, he can run out of steam. "You hit this brick wall but thankfully I have been through that enough times now not to panic so much. I just do my own thing and do other stuff. It's always going to be in the back of your mind, then something will come. You might have a month or two when you can't progress it at all. Normally what I'll do then is go back to the beginning and rewrite what I have and try to build up some momentum. You can sometimes get through that brick wall but often there is that period when there is just nothing."
Music helps. The earlier novels were written to the blast of The Killers, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones; The Laughterhouse, a child kidnap chiller, was accompanied by the Doors. Bruce Springsteen propelled Five Minutes Alone.
"I'd curl up and die without my stereo," he confesses. "I have the stereo cranked when I write because I like to sing. But I'm an awful singer and can't risk hearing myself so I just turn the stereo up louder. I've got double glazing and a nicely insulated house so the noise is fairly well-contained."
That's just as well. Otherwise his neighbours might do a Joe on him.
The Laughterhouse, The Cleaner and Joe Victim by Paul Cleave.
When Cleave left school, he worked in a secondhand camera shop for seven years, writing at night. He dabbled in a couple of modest property deals - buying, renovating, selling - and chucked the job when he was 24, moving back in with his parents. By that young age, he had already written The Cleaner and his second book, The Killing Hour. But he couldn't get them published.
"I was living off what I'd saved," he recalls. "It was really tough. At one point my computer died and my best friend Paul showed up one day and he had bought me a brand new computer which was amazing. My parents and friends had faith. I stuck with it."
His patience was pushed to the limit. In 2001, Cleave had signed up with a New Zealand publishing company which ended up not printing the books yet holding on to the rights, demanding that he had to find another publisher which would then have to buy them.
"I had to get a lawyer," he says. "I was getting really disgruntled. Then there was an article in the Listener about a publishing consultant I had used who turned out to be a fraud. Suddenly, I realised that all these people I thought had seen my novel hadn't because she was charging out but never doing the work. She fled the country.
"I'd had enough so I thought I'll give it one more go and sent The Cleaner to Random House and I got picked up. Suddenly I was dealing with people who were professional and my editor there looked after me. The Cleaner came out a year later. Within a month it had sold over 100,000 copies, then another 100,000, then another ... it was going from a life where I had no money to suddenly having a little bit of money ... and everything changed."
The startling thing about Joe Middleton is that, for a sadist, he's actually quite likeable. Apparently he appeals most to women readers, which is a worry. "When I wrote The Cleaner, I didn't realise I was writing for a predominantly female market. I was writing for me, 25 to 30-year-old guys with not much going on," he says. "Random House started pointing out that women are the biggest demographic of crime readers and you see it when you start going to festivals - 60-80 per cent of the readers are women. They were saying women love Joe, they love him as though they can fix him. Ninety per cent of the feedback I get is, 'We hate what he does but we like him'."
The Cleaner was supposed to be a one-off. "I left it a little open but my publisher wanted me to kill him," says Cleave. "We had to debate that. He's in a lot of the books as well, just as a mention or in a prison scene in Blood Men. Everyone was asking, 'When are you writing a sequel? So I did - but no one bought it."
No one bought it? Joe Victim is a nasty, compelling read. But Cleave, like so many writers, has fallen victim himself - to online piracy. "We are all struggling at the moment," he laments. "A lot of my friends are in the same boat - these are big, big authors. We are losing contracts and book sales. Piracy is rampant now. It's tough times so Joe Victim - after all the people who asked for it - sold a fraction of what The Cleaner sold."
Cleave explains that one of his friends, Australian writer Michael Robotham, told him about sitting on a plane next to a guy reading a book on Kindle. They got chatting and Robotham's new mate boasted he had downloaded it for free. "Michael gave him his card and said, 'By the way, I'm a writer' and tried to explain the other side to him ... they don't see it from the author's point of view ... it's really killing a lot of us.
"Some days, I wake up and think, 'F*** it, I don't want to do this any more.' People think writers can afford it but we can't. A lot of the fan mail I get is from people who say they can't wait for the new book, 'I'm reserving it at the library.' That is kind of sweet but if everyone gets it from the library or downloads it, I can't afford to write it because I'm going to have to get a real job. I don't know what I am going to do. I am really stuck. There's a good chance that next year will be my first year without a book."
Cleave always takes his frisbee with him and believes it is the solution to the world's problems. Photo / Martin Hunter
There's an assumption when you read Cleave's novels that the Christchurch he's writing about so vividly is a post-quake city, with its abandoned buildings, potholed roads, ubiquitous traffic cones and swirling dust. It's not. Many of his books were published or in the bag before the 2010-11 quakes and, as he explains in the foreword to Joe Victim, writing about the trauma and tragedy of the quakes "for entertainment" is not going to happen. But he was at home when the February 22, 2011, quake happened. He was upstairs in his Northwood house with his three cats.
"All the other earthquakes, you could hear them coming, a bit of a warning to get under a desk. This one was BANG. It was like, 'If I don't get out of my house I am going to die.' I went for the stairs which was very difficult, holding on to the rails. The cats went whizzing by - when they hit the tile floor, it was like a Roadrunner cartoon, their legs were sliding from under them, they did this big skidding arc. They made it to the cat door but I didn't see them for a day. I went out the front door and waited for the house to come down. It didn't."
Cleave counts himself lucky. His house was badly cracked, the roof had to be repaired and one exterior wall had to be replaced. It took three years to be assessed and repaired. In a street just around the corner, 11 houses were destroyed.
Since that time, he has observed the slowness of the rebuild, the shocking rise of rent-gouging and people still living in miserable conditions. "My side of town is pretty good but if I have to drive over to Brighton or anywhere over on the east, it's like, 'Holy shit.' The streets are still torn up, it's awful and people are living in this every day. Hang on: this is four years now - what is taking so long? People who are making the decisions are not living in houses with Portaloos out the front or with big holes in the wall, freezing their butts off in the winter."
So there is a feeling, what with the earthquakes and the piracy, that Cleave is at a turning point. To compound his woes, the film rights to The Cleaner, bought by the team that made Taken, have recently expired after three years. "The cool thing when you get an international contract like that is that it is quite a good amount of money. It didn't work out but it was quite nice financially. But it was disappointing that it didn't happen.
"This came around when it felt like everything else was falling apart. That was just one more thing. I'd had enough but I don't know what else I can do. I paid my mortgage off a couple of years ago but I have been getting very bored. But what I can do is try to learn about script-writing, and wondering if that is a thing I can start doing."
On the upside, Cleave does have another book coming out later this year, a standalone about a crime writer who has Alzheimer's and starts confessing to murders which weren't in his books. And he is off to Taipei next month for a books festival, then another one in Denmark. As always, he'll be packing two Frisbees so he can extend his international Frisbee-throwing list which adds up to about 30 countries so far. It's a great way to meet people, he says.
"I remember being in Egypt a few years ago and two guys broke out a Frisbee on the beach. One was from Hungary, the other one was from Slovakia. I had a Frisbee in my bag so I joined them. Three guys who didn't know each other were all best mates for 20 minutes. I have a theory that if you broke a Frisbee out at the G8 or the UN for all the world leaders to throw around, it would make all those world peace discussions go far more smoothly. Kind of like, 'Hey, nice throw, Barack.' 'Hey, nice catch, Vladimir'."
Perhaps they could sort out the piracy issue while they're at it as well.
Five Minutes Alone (Penguin, $38) is out now.