We never read books in a vacuum, do we? I pick up The Quiet People a day or so after we all learned about the alleged murder of Sir David Amess MP. I had some contact with Sir David on various issues over the years. Perhaps I shouldn’t have picked up The Quiet People, then. Half-way through, and I think this is the saddest book I have read for decades. Paul Cleave is telling us a story in which Cameron Murdoch’s son is missing, probably dead (we’ve seen a prologue to that extent, and after watching No Time to Die I can take a hint), Murdoch’s relationship is on the rocks, and now he’s getting abuse from a public high on its own sanctimony and hypocrisy which culminates in his wife in a coma with possible permanent brain damage. The public has set itself up as judge and jury and the child’s teacher reckons Murdoch did it (whatever it is) and finds eggs to throw at him. It’s relentless and it’s tough. How easy it is for life to fall apart. Cleave is talking to the comfortable middle class who, he points out, are one tragedy away from life unravelling. Great crime fiction champions the powerless and gives a voice to the marginalised. This one points a finger at us, the ordinary, the quiet people. It punches across: at Cameron and at us all. Your life could fall apart, it says. You could make someone’s worst day worse, it says. How is this entertainment? Yet I keep reading. There’s a quality to the storytelling that can’t be denied.
But, like Cameron Murdoch, we have been set up. There is something going on. We know the central premise, which is that Mr and Mrs Murdoch are successful crime writers. They would know what to do to create the perfect crime. So we suspect them, together then each of them, just as the police do. And we suspect the police. And we suspect the grandparents. And we suspect everyone else. Cleave has half the (extremely short) chapters alternate from third person to first so we hear Cameron Murdoch’s inner voice. As his demons possess him and, alternatively as he extemporises slick statements to the news media, we get a sense of a complex, passionate, impulsive character. And, slowly, that character takes control.
I’m not sure when the shift happens – perhaps it’s when Murdoch makes his statement, or when he slips out the back of the house to find his son or provide his own vigilante justice – but there is a time when we stop feeling sad because we’re just trying to keep up with events. People turn up, houses burn down, minds get changed and mistakes get made, all at a hundred miles an hour. It isn’t only Cameron Murdoch’s life that is changed in an instant. Cleave gives us many individuals who, because of actions they took, or actions others took, or because the cells in their body destroy healthy tissue, find that things can be altered irreversibly and permanently on fate’s whim. The mother whose son dresses up to go to a vigilante protest and never comes home, the predator who misunderstands an ambulance’s siren and flees into the path of a truck, the policeman whose career is ruined because he plays an arrest for the cameras. Quiet people are all around us. The lives of people around us are changed all the time. Half the time we may not even notice.
The premise of the Murdochs as crime writers gives Cleave carte blanche to do what he wants with us. The plot zips along with high-speed turns. It makes no sense, it makes perfect sense. It’s unjust, it’s just and eventually it doesn’t matter because our sense of right and wrong has been suspended because all we can do is keep running, slightly behind Murdoch as he operates through the night. But it’s all earned, utterly earned. Cleave winks at us when Murdoch leaves a camera at the scene of personally-administered justice. We as readers note that the camera’s been left behind…so Murdoch remembers the camera and goes back for it, but he’s forgotten something else. The saddest of tales is transformed. It thrills. And I am not sure that I’ve ever experienced two halves of the book that contrast and yet complement each other so perfectly. The Quiet People starts with a premise: that crime writers have a particular relationship with crime writing. Well OK. But by its conclusion it has ripped up the genre’s rhythms and given us something entirely new. A relentless and powerful story which captivates and captures the reader. Things can change in an instant.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.