By the time I reached the fourth page of New Zealander Paul Cleave's Blood Men, I wondered if I should continue. Don't get me wrong, I like super-gritty stories now and then, and this Ngaio Marsh Award-winning novel about an accountant who may have inherited his serial killer father's murderous impulses certainly looked like it would fit the proverbial bill. The prologue itself signaled that it would be a read that respects few boundaries, a read where beloved characters would cruelly die and the blackest parts of humanity would be dragged out into the daylight. I had a choice: I could press on or pick up the next selection on my reading list.
I pressed on. And you know what? I'm glad I did.
When he was nine years old, Christchurch resident Edward Hunter's life fell apart. The police came to his house and dragged his father, Jack, away. Turns out the one-time family man had killed eleven prostitutes over the space of twenty-five years. The revelation caused Edward's mom to cut her wrists and his sister to take up a heroin habit that eventually killed her. But Edward chose a different path. He grew up, married, had a daughter and became an accountant. He chose a normal life, one far removed from his father's perversions -- at least until the day he and his wife went to the bank to get a loan for their new house. Six masked men burst in to the building, brandishing shotguns, and when Edward intervened to save the life of a teller, they took his wife. Shot her. Left her to bleed out on the street. And her murder worries Detective Inspector Schroder. According to a criminal psychologist, Jack Hunter suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a trait that might emerge in Edward now that the elements anchoring his life have vanished. More worrisome still are the calls Jack has begun making to Edward from prison ...
Anyone who has read Donald Westlake's The Ax will find Blood Men eerily familiar. The Ax featured an unjustly laid-off manager doing in competing job seekers, while Blood Men's protagonist is a bereaved manipulator being egged on by his psychopathic father to hunt down a bevy of hardened criminals. In both books, the stakes grow ever more dire as the main characters whittle down their respective lists. Yet while they share structural similarities, the titles diverge when it comes to thematic content. I'm not going to delve into spoiler territory, but let's say that Edward doesn't exactly jump feet first into his grisly task. He's a reluctant, ill-fated avenger, and that plays into the big issues Cleave wants to examine, such as the origin of evil and how society should deal with criminals. Such philosophical heft bolsters the narrative far better than Westlake's economic rationalizations. But a few flaws do hurt the proceedings. Edward's shift from mild-mannered accountant to unhinged vigilante transpires far too quickly, and some of his actions lack adequate rationalization. Also, all that blood. Cleave handles many of the violent interludes with a deft touch, leaving the grisly stuff to the imagination. But he pens a handful of them contain cringe-worthy detail. All the same, there's a twist near the end that truly caught me off guard, and the climax had me white-knuckling the cover quite literally until the final page. Blood proves compelling.
(Picture: CC 2008 by mnd.ctrl; Hat Tip: Detectives Beyond Borders)