What could be scarier than the prospect of losing your mind; of being told that you will forget your own history, your own immediate past and everyone in it, including yourself. You will forget what you had for lunch yesterday, the name of your friends, and you will forget whether the reason you are sitting on your sofa with blood on your shirt and a knife in your hand means that you have just killed someone.
This is the dilemma faced by Jerry Grey, protagonist of New Zealand author Paul Cleave’s latest novel Trust No One. Jerry is a successful crime writer, whose alter ego “Henry Cutter” has produced highly successful stories of murder and mayhem, and who lives a comfortable life in a comfortable suburb with his wife Sandra. Apart from occasionally misplacing his keys, wallet and cell phone (which happens to everyone on a regular basis, right?) Jerry starts to have small blanks in his memory, like the time he introduces his wife and completely forgets her name. When Jerry is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers, the blanks start to increase, and he begins to keep a journal of his descent into “Batshit County”, a dark and scary place, where truth and fiction begin to collide, and Jerry struggles to distinguish his real memories from the memories he has created in his novels.
Jerry’s poignant journal entries are about Jerry trying to make sense of his illness and the increasingly perplexing events, trying to give “future Jerry” – the guy who is bound to forget everything – a place to find reminders of who he is. The journal is also the past, and the narrative alternates with chapters written in the present tense, third person, dealing with “future Jerry”, who is now in a nursing home, and who frequently wakes up not even remembering his own name. What Jerry does remember is that somebody has been killed, and that he is the killer…or is he?
Paul Cleave’s characterisation of a man losing his memory, and living a life where memories are indistinguishably truth and fiction, is seamless and compelling. Cleave is obviously enjoying himself with his depiction of Jerry (a writer, writing about a writer and his writing), and there are many sly insights – sometimes humorous, sometimes serious – into the life of a crime writer, leaving the reader wondering how much of Jerry/Henry is also Cleave.
Cleave plays around with the idea of Henry as Jerry’s “second self”, the kind of guy you mostly keep away from society, and bring out when you need to write a grizzly crime novel, or solve an unsolved murder mystery where you are the main suspect. Henry is representative of the dark and sinister parts that we may well all have within us – maybe somewhat scary, but boy, can they get things done.
The best thing about Trust No One is not the ending, not the finding out who was or wasn’t responsible for the novel’s high body count, but the fact that Cleave brilliantly portrays the one thing that many people fear more than anything else: the almost complete loss of control over ourselves, and what we term reality and memory.
Trust No One is another great example of Cleave’s immense abilities to combine humour and horror with relatable characters and real insight. This book is also another testament to the vast talents of New Zealand crime and thriller writers; a fact that is often inexplicably overlooked here in favour of promoting overseas crime writers.