The title of award-winning author Paul Cleave’s new crime thriller, The Quiet People, is both straightforward and ironic. On one hand, it refers to news coverage of heinous crimes, in which neighbours so often say, ‘Unbelievable! He was always so quiet.’ On the other, the baseless accusations, the threatening social media posts, the vitriol hurled at complete strangers makes you wish more of them would indeed stay quiet.
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.
One summer day, Cameron takes him to a fair and in a moment of inattention Zach disappears. Panicked, Cameron inadvertently frightens several nearby children, whose parents misconstrue and are furious about his so-called attacks. Soon he finds Zach in a line, placidly waiting for a turn on a ride. False alarm. But, he thinks, ‘The Bad that populates my books just whispered my name and stroked a finger down my neck.’
You know he wants to be a conscientious father, but it’s hard. At bedtime that night, Zach threatens to run away and Cameron describes how difficult life would be for him. Job, house, everything he’d have to do for himself. It’s the kind of cautionary tale parents do spin, trying to make their kids think. The next morning, Zach is gone.
Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent and her new partner DI Ben Thompson are in charge of the case and follow the usual playbook. Thompson from the first is suspicious of the parents, especially when there’s a shortage of physical clues at the house. What clues there are and everything Cameron says seems to work against him. But Cameron feels every moment he spends answering their repetitive questions is a moment he isn’t out looking for his son. Time and again, they urge him to stay put and let them do their jobs. Even Lisa seems to be questioning his reliability.
Cameron 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 have been kidnapped by a known paedophile named Lucas Pittman. For us readers, this justifies Cameron’s frenzy and makes the police’s slow progress excruciating. Pittman has been questioned and his house searched, but the detectives did not find the well-camouflaged basement room where the boys are hidden.
At a too-hastily assembled news conference, Cameron can’t stick to the script. Baited by a disreputable journalist, he loses his temper on live television. The journo – Dallas Lockwood – once tried to sell Cameron and Lisa a story idea similar to a book they’d just finished. Even though the book’s editorial calendar showed how long they’d been working on it, Lockwood has persisted in claiming they stole his idea.
Now the circus really starts. The police suspect the distressed parents; growing crowds incited by social media picket the house, yell at them from the street, and call Cameron a child killer. As each new piece of evidence comes to light, the crowds and wild accusations grow. Kent keeps upping the police presence, but it’s never enough. Worse, she suspects a police source is feeding Dallas Lockwood with evidence.
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 without the ensuing laughter. Planning a perfect murder would be something a crime writer could quite naturally do, right? An arrest seems inevitable and imminent.
At this point, you might think Cameron has hit bottom. Oh, no. Things get much worse, partly of his own making. 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 Kent.
There’s much more to come, and while many books are promoted as page turners, this truly is one! The narrative just ploughs ahead through this absolute nightmare, much like Cameron himself. While you might wish Cameron were more judicious in his words and actions and able to keep his temper on a tighter rein, probably a great many people would react as he does. The sympathy you have for his plight makes for a highly character-driven read. There isn’t a strong sense of New Zealand here, but that doesn’t matter. Human behaviour, in all its social media-fueled excess, seems to be the same everywhere.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars