In award-winning author Paul Cleave’s new crime thriller, Cameron and Lisa are crime writers based in Christchurch, New Zealand, with a string of successful books behind them. They’re also parents of seven-year-old Zach who is, euphemistically “a little different.” More bluntly, he’s a terror—unpredictable, badly behaved, uncooperative. You know Cameron wants to be a conscientious father, but it’s hard, and one morning, Zach is gone.
Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent and her new partner DI Ben Thompson are in charge of the investigation and follow the usual playbook. There’s a shortage of physical clues, and everything Cameron says works against him. He narrates much of the story, which enables a deep look into his psyche, in the manner of a psychological thriller. Chapters about the police work, by contrast, are in third-person, and read more like a police procedural.
A short prologue reveals that Zach and another boy are in the hands of a known pedophile named Lucas Pittman, which, for readers, justifies Cameron’s frenzy and makes the police’s painstakingly slow progress all the more frustrating.
At a too-hastily assembled news conference, Cameron loses his temper on live television. Now the circus really starts. The police suspect the distressed parents; growing crowds incited by social media picket the house, yell at the couple from the street, and call Cameron a child killer. As each new piece of evidence comes to light, the crowds and wild accusations grow.
The news coverage is disastrous. Old footage of Cameron and Lisa giving talks at writers’ conferences making jokes like “we kill people for a living” are shown out of context. An arrest seems inevitable and imminent.
At this point, you might think Cameron has hit bottom. Oh, no. Things get much worse and in surprising ways. It’s a testament to author Cleave’s skill that, as Cameron becomes increasingly unhinged, he has become such a compelling and believable character that you’re ready to follow him along a quite dark path. Meanwhile the bad calls the police have made are precipitating a crisis of conscience for Detective Kent.
There’s much more to come, and while many books are promoted as “page turners,” for me this really was one! The most chilling aspect was the vitriolic and insensitive behavior of the crowds that felt as if it could spill over into violence any second. It’s a scenario all too believable as another dark side of social media. (In a true story reported by Katherine Laidlaw in the October issue of Wired, “Last year in a small bayside town in Nova Scotia, 3-year-old Dylan Ehler vanished, leaving nothing but two rain boots. In the following days, thousands of online sleuths descended on Facebook groups to help with the search. Then they turned.” On the parents.)
That’s what happens when all “facts” are equal, and there’s no incentive to distinguish true from false, but rather, to coast through life on a tide of emotion and outrage. Cleave well describes how Cameron and Lisa were at risk of drowning in it.