I have a confession to make: I actually really like Joe Middleton, the main character of New Zealander Paul Cleave’s novel The Cleaner. Sure, Joe is a serial killer, a sociopath, and one of the scariest guys you will never want to meet…but damn it, he is funny!
You may think it’s an unlikely combination, a funny guy and 373 pages of grizzly, stomach churning violence, but in this novel it works. It works because the entire story is told by Joe himself in first person, and Joe is no stranger to introspection. While he presents himself to the outside world as “simple Joe”, a lowly cleaner at the Christchurch police station, in reality Joe is anything but slow on the uptake. Joe prides himself not just on his intelligence, but on what he sees as his benevolence towards people and animals. Sauntering through a night-time Christchurch, just after brutally killing one of the local prostitutes, Joe muses: “I pass other women on the way, most of them streetwalkers, but I don’t give them a second look. I’m not an animal. I’m not going to kill somebody just because they are there. I hate guys like that. That’s what makes me different from anybody else. That’s my humanity.”
Joe’s self-assurance – and his reputation as Christchurch’s number-one killer, the “Christchurch Carver” – soon becomes threatened by the murder of yet another woman, as this time Joe is not responsible. Offended that this copycat killer is getting in on his act, Joe takes it upon himself to become what is possibly crime literature’s first “serial killer turned sleuth.” In between hanging out with his two best friends – his goldfish Pickle and Jehovah -, meatloaf dinners at his domineering and extremely annoying mother, his daytime job at the Police station, and his night time killing excursions, Joe is a very busy man as he starts on his hunt for the other killer. Joe becomes even busier when he meets yet another potential victim, a young architect named Melissa, who manages to turn the table on his usual slash and burn routine.
While you need a strong stomach for some of the scenes in The Cleaner, and some pretty tough nails for all the nail-biting that will be necessary as you make your way through the plot, The Cleaner is one of those novels that actually lives up to the one-liner hype/praise that is usually found on the cover of the book. The Cleaner was international bestseller Paul Cleave’s first novel; since then he has gone on to write another six novels, the latest of which, Joe Victim, brings back the character of Joe Middleton, and which I – just on the quiet – might just need to read for comparison’s sake.