What I like about the two Paul Cleave thrillers I’ve read is how he ties social behavior into the story of a crime and investigation. In his work, Internet frenzies make bad situations worse, leaving me thinking, “Oh, yeah. I can see that happening.”
In the first book of his I read, The Quiet People, a couple suspected of harming their child is besieged by angry would-be vigilantes camping out in front of their home. Suspicions inflamed by social media are enough to produce a crowd edging toward violence. The Pain Tourist touches on people’s fascination with true-crime stories and their willingness to believe they are competent and informed enough to become investigators themselves. You’ve seen this in action if you watched the discovery+ channel’s 2021 series Citizen P.I. In the official confusion and near-vacuum of information after the recent killings at the University of Idaho, the amateurs stepped in.
Amateurs have provided helpful information in a number of instances. They’re good at code-cracking, occasionally find missing persons, and willing to delve into cold cases. But more ambitious self-assigned tasks, such as identifying pedophiles and targeting presumed perpetrators can get dangerous for both the citizen and the accused, who may, in fact, be innocent. This is particularly so when accusers decide to take action.
Authorities worry they can jam up an investigation, overwhelming police with “tips” that need to be checked out (more than 6,000 in the Idaho case in the first three weeks after the crimes). In Cleave’s writing, these true crime devotees are pain tourists.
Taut. Twisty. Propulsive. You can trot out all the cliches regularly used to describe thriller fiction and use them with abandon for The Pain Tourist.
A home invasion leaves Frank and Avah Garrett dead. Nine years later, their 19-year-old son, James, remains in a coma with a bullet wound to the brain, and their 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, is trying to piece a life together. The three men seen running from the Garrett home have never been identified.
While Christchurch Detective Rebecca Kent investigates a serial murderer case, alternating chapters provide insight into what’s going on inside James’s head. A lot, and it’s fascinating. His mind is constructing an alternative reality – one in which his parents don’t die and he and Hazel carry on their lives as they would have been. Eight years and 10 months after the attack, in the now of the novel, James wakes up.
As he describes his memories during those years, Hazel and his doctor see correlations with real-life events. James calls what’s in his head Coma World. In Coma World, he had adventures that drew from the books Hazel read to him. The dates he believes certain events occurred match reality. Naturally, the police want to talk to him to find out whether this amazing memory contains clues from that fatal night. He agrees to try. It’s an intriguing possibility, with loads of implications.
Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent is assigned to James’s case, and because her old friend, retired Detective Inspector Theodore Tate, worked the original case, she gets in touch. He’s now working as a technical advisor for true crime television shows, and Cleave nicely portrays the rise in true crime ‘entertainments’, the dark side of the audience obsession and the shamelessness of the media.
Cleave has a special talent for misdirection, which you don’t fully appreciate until near the book’s end, when several investigations start to come together most satisfactorily. Kent and Tate share one serious concern, that the men who killed James’s parents will come back to finish the job.
Rebecca Kent and Theodore Tate are solidly written characters. Hazel and James’s relationship is especially close, a cup of kindness in a vat of cruelty. James and his prodigious abilities form a completely believable, highly sympathetic character. And, along the way, numerous minor characters are given enough detail for plausibility. Maybe the bad guys are a bit too irredeemable, though that merely raises the stakes. This is a fast-moving, engaging story that has something to say and is hard to put down.
The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, by Deborah Halber – “Part whodunit, part sociological study . . . The result is eminently entertaining.”