by Paul Cleave
373 pages, Random House
Review by S. F. Winser
You read the 'Dexter' books, didn't you? You watched the TV show. You lived vicariously through the eyes of the serial killer. The good guy who only kills other killers.
And you felt kinda creeped out, didn't you?
The Cleaner is a serial killer, too. He's hunting another murderer who dared kill on his watch. Who tried to plant a body and shift the blame. But the cleaner, better known as 'The Christchurch Carver' is not one of the good guys. He kills because he wants to. He kills on a whim. He kills violently and sometimes with violatory intent. He describes it to you. You do it, through his eyes.
And somehow that felt a thousand times more honest than the Dexter books. The Cleaner's brutality and easy depravity were much less disturbing reading than the moral ambiguity of books (and TV shows) that seemed not only to be trying to justify murder, but, occasionally, to revel in it.
We see two points of view in 'The Cleaner'. Joe, our protagonist, cleaner at the police station, son of a loving but crazy mother, a bit 'slow'. Not as slow as he seems. Definitely smart enough to track down a killer and get away with nearly a dozen murders.
And Sally. A maintenance worker at the same police station, who tries to look after Slow Joe, in order to in some way make up for the loss of her brother. All she wants is to make sure Joe is safe and looked after.
The genius of this book is the way both these characters misunderstand each other. They do so thoroughly and with grave consequences for each of them. By the end of the book you are reading every interaction between them with two sets of eyes. And Cleave handles this aspect well and often with flair.
Or, I should say, this is one of the aspects of the genius of this book. Cleave's language is tight and inventive. He's often funny and sometimes veers into profound. The character of Joe is real.
Joe is also strangely likable. He loves his pet fish and enjoys a beer. He's nice to his bus driver. And, at times, you root for him.
And you feel bad about it.
Which is one of the many reasons 'The Cleaner' is a better book than the 'Dexter' volumes. If you root for a serial killer, you are supposed to feel bad about it. This is not a nice book. There is blood and easy violence. Cleave shows you that these things are bad. There is no moral ambiguity here. There may be reasons for Joe's past-time, but there are no excuses. 'The Cleaner' is more than just a Killer-seeks-Killer: Must like long walks in the park, in the dark. Please provide photo.
There are some nice twists and surprises throughout. The first chapter has a lovely sting that made me sit up and pay attention. The ending isn't really a twist and comes the only right way that it could come after everything that has preceded it. But that's not a problem, just an observation. Until the last page; where Cleave shows you you were wrong again. There's an even better way for the book to end, and this is it.
When I read genre, and find a good one, I'm often left wishing I had a pile of books in the same genre, just as good. I want the same hit. I want the same high. And I want it now! The moment I finished 'The Cleaner' I was at the library, with a stack of crime books a foot high. This book was one of the best crime novels that I'd read all year. And I want that hit again. I want that high. And I want it now.