THE CLEANER is amazing. No other word will do. Paul Cleave, winner of the prestigious Ned Kelly Award, was seemingly born full of talent and has been displaying it since he learned how to properly hold a pencil (though after reading his work, one might be reluctant to stand too close to him while he is holding any sharp object).
Cleave’s first novel, originally published in 2006, grabs you on page one, shakes you on page three, and on page five knocks you down and applies the boot. Then it really gets good. Set in Cleave’s hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, THE CLEANER is told primarily in the voice of Joe, a serial killer who hides in plain sight. Joe works in the Christchurch Police Department headquarters by day, laboring as a janitor, well-liked by all who believe that the gent who toils uncomplainingly was intellectually short-changed at birth. What the police do not know is that the man who walks among them in their own headquarters and observing their investigations is the man the press has dubbed the “Christchurch Carver” and at whose feet seven victims have been laid. This troubles Joe; in fact, he has killed seven women, but only six have been discovered. The seventh victim, who has been credited to him, belongs to another killer, a copycat as it were.
"Cleave’s first novel, originally published in 2006, grabs you on page one, shakes you on page three, and on page five knocks you down and applies the boot. Then it really gets good."
This is something that Joe cannot tolerate, so he begins an investigation of his own, utilizing the police department’s own file. Joe quickly comes to the conclusion that the other murderer may well be a member of law enforcement. However, finding out who may not be as easy as Joe thinks. He has attracted the unwanted interest of a woman named Sally, a maintenance worker who sees in the deceptively simple Joe echoes of her deceased, impaired brother, taken all too early from this world. Sally keeps turning up at the worst times for Joe, and while there is not much he can do about it, he does not suffer fools gladly, being anything but a fool himself.
Then there is Joe’s mother, who seems to know just where to insert and twist the psychic version of the knife that her son so skillfully uses on his victims. And, of course, there is a mystery woman, who intrigues Joe so much that he simply cannot say no to her. Or can he? Something has to give, and soon. Far from being simple, Joe is much too clever to be caught. At least he believes that to be true.
If any of the above sounds familiar, it is not. Joe does not pursue the innocent, and he does not struggle against his dark side. Rather, he gives it full vent, glorifying the fact that he brings the tools of his bloody trade to work with him each day, right under the noses of his employers, even as they devote time and resources to attempting to ascertain his identity and bring him to justice. The result is one of the most clever cat-and-mouse novels you are likely to ever read. Is it grim? Yes, though not unrelentingly so. Is there any humor, however dark? Yes, but don’t tell anyone. Do, though, read THE CLEANER and tell your friends about the book and its mad, talented author.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 4, 2013