The old political sitcom Yes Minister had a running joke about the double standards by which we judge ourselves and others. For example, Bernard Woolley: ‘That’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I give confidential security briefings. You leak. He has been charged under section 2a of the Official Secrets Act.’ I am not sure that Paul Cleave really approves of those of us who read his work. He’s written before, in The Quiet People, of the tendency of the mob to consume news about murders, kidnaps and other serious crimes – to consume and condemn. In The Pain Tourist, he goes further. With the true crime boom, we get podcasts, books, even merch for crying out loud. But what are we doing in The Pain Tourist but reading, consuming, commenting? I write a book review. You study a well known and interesting crime. She lives vicariously through a serial killer.
The Pain Tourist is a sprawling thing. James, who I’ll come to in a moment, describes ambulances as working on the same principle as the TARDIS, but Tourist is the same. You start off thinking it’s a police procedural but it takes everything in different directions. There are three, count them, three main mystery plots. As well as the excellent detective and rubbish boss (yes we’ve seen it before, no it doesn’t really matter), we have an ex-cop who now works in television and an actual brain surgeon. These characters all have slightly different motivations which works well. In particular, they work in different ways to give the victim community far more agency than is usually the case. There’s Hazel, the sister who gets involved in the fight scenes, there’s Tabitha Monroe who enables us to ask ourselves on whose behalf justice is applied, and then there’s James, one of the more unusual characters we’ve met in a long time.
James has been in a coma for nine years and when he wakes he can do unusual things with his brain. He has been living through dreams, dreams he now remembers. But the thing about James’s dreams is that (and I won’t give you the sciency bit) a long-forgotten cold case can be reopened on the back of his testimony. It’s a bit far fetched but Cleave makes it as plausible as it could conceivably be, anchoring it in some pithy observations (the one about the posters in the children’s therapy rooms inviting 20 year-old James to be purrsitive and pawsome made me laugh) and – we assume – accurate descriptions of how stakeout operations are organised.
You’ll need to pay attention reading this novel. Cleave makes it easy with short chapters that keep you on top of things, but the complexity is something to be leaned into, not avoided. Apply the dynamics from one mystery to your anger at another. Consider what would have happened if the victims in one case had the resilience of others. Work out whether you’re a fan, or a consumer, or a parasite. Ride the ambiguity.
In my review of The Quiet People, I wrote that Paul Cleave [has] ‘ripped up the genre’s rhythms and given us something entirely new.’ This time he’s gone further, in every direction. The Pain Tourist is a masterpiece.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.
You may also like our coverage of The Quiet People and Vanda Symon’s novels, also from New Zealand:
The Ringmaster – possibly the best of the Sam Shephard series (for now – there’s a new one in the works)
Faceless – a brilliant stand-alone novel