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A Killer Harvest by Paul Cleave

By the time Joshua is 16 he’s lost two fathers. His biological one was killed before he was born, and his adoptive father, Detective Inspector Mitchell Logan, succumbed to spectacular violence while in the line of duty.

On receiving the latter news, Joshua is horrified but hardly surprised; to his thinking, he’s inherited an intergenerational curse whose manifestations include recurrent bereavement and his own lifelong profound blindness. By chapter three of Paul Cleave’s bold, intoxicating thriller A Killer Harvest – characteristic of his work, it’s as thick with menace as a Kubrickian maze – the reader is on a path whose uncertain trajectory could lead anywhere.

One conceit of A Killer Harvest (whose clever title would be a spoiler if explained) is that medical science has advanced to a point where vision can be endowed through a full eye transplant. It hasn’t, yet, but some assured fudging by Cleave gives Joshua sight through what were supposed to be Mitchell’s two newly harvested eyes, but for a meth-addicted hospital intern whose calamitous intervention leaves the teenager with two donors: one Mitchell, one the sadistic killer he tracked down.

Organ donations, as one sage figure remarks, “require something nasty to have happened to someone healthy. That’s the price of admittance.” What happens when donation triggers more nastiness? Here Cleave introduces the notion of cellular memory, and raises the fascinating and discomforting question of whether, in inheriting the cells of another person – a piece of their body – the recipient can also take on their traits or disorders.

A crime novel with more than one villain requires narrative dexterity, and Cleave meets a high bar for both imagination and degree of difficulty. A Killer Harvest has a refreshing air of intrepidity and well-earned confidence, even brashness. Traces remain of its conception as a YA novel, such as in the poignant post-op visit of Joshua’s schoolfriends, who patiently explain what hadn’t occurred to him; that his new sight will exclude them from his world. The savage killing of one of Joshua’s classmates is a test of how convincing Cleave’s parallel universe really is – the murder of a child should always be horrifying, but when that child is a vicious bully . . .

All Cleave’s novels are set in his hometown of Christchurch, but A Killer Harvest is concentrated on people and action; it could take place nearly anywhere. Whether this is deliberate perhaps only the author can say, but such vagueness surely wouldn’t displease a North American publisher, whose readers in Chicago or Toronto can imagine a picturesque cabin on the shores of a Great Lake, or whose booksellers in Brooklyn or Manhattan market their product to those who roam between the city and the idyllic Hamptons, where even violent crime is high-end.

Cleave is a singular New Zealand crime novelist in several respects. A three-time Ngaio Marsh Award winner (for perspective, no one else has yet won twice) who has also been recognised by the Edgar and Barry Awards, his work has seized attention and regard in the cut-throat international market like none of his compatriots since the Dame herself. And like 2016’s Trust No One, A Killer Harvest shows a readiness to play with the boundaries of genre and an inarguable screen-friendliness: the moralistic conspiracy at its heart is something any audacious producer should be eager to showcase.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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