“The Laughterhouse” by Paul Cleave (Atria, 432 pgs., $16)
“The Laughterhouse,” the sixth novel by New Zealand crime writer Paul Cleave, offers a disgraced cop at economic loose ends, a multiple murderer who dispatches his victims in extravagant ways, and chapters narrated from inside the killer’s head.
That’s not the freshest recipe in the crime fiction cookbook, but “The Laughterhouse” nonetheless held my attention. Its story is, a back-cover blurb tells me, one of revenge, survival, and impossible choices, and that’s accurate. But it doesn’t go far enough. The book’s real story lies in the rhythm of Cleave’s sentences: short and choppy, with occasional longer outbursts for chapters told in first person by the exhausted detective; short, choppy, with the added distance of third-person narration for the killer’s chapters.
Crime novels where the rhythm of the prose tells its own story always remind me of English novelist David Peace (“The Red Riding Quartet,” “Tokyo Trilogy”), and so this one does early on. The related but distinct rhythms of the detective’s and the killer’s chapters do as much as any plot element to suggest parallels between the two, and my only complaints with the writing are that Cleave uses reference as a verb on page 54 and commits a minor grammatical error on page 218.
I do have one ethical quibble. Early on, Cleave flirts with a line that a number of crime writers I know have said they would never cross. I’ll say no more for fear of creating a plot spoiler, but I urge readers of the novel not so much to think about which side of the line they come down on, but rather to decide how they feel about the way Cleave negotiates that line. Trust me: You will know right away what that line is.
When not tiptoeing through a minefield of authorial ethics, Cleave has written a tightly controlled and skillfully executed crime thriller. Theo Tate, driven off the police force in Christchurch, New Zealand, and working as a low-end private investigator, is drawn by a series of killings into informal cooperation with and then full reinstatement into the police.
The killings mount, police link the victims, and they soon figure out the killer must be Caleb Cole, newly released from prison after serving 15 years for a killing he had, indeed, committed, but had nonetheless suffered unjustly and horribly for.
Cleave alternates between Tate’s point of view and Cole’s, giving the cop about two chapters to each one the killer gets. As the climax nears, he has the chapters overlap slightly in time, usually to show us the cops urgently chasing a lead that the reader knows is futile, thanks to Cole’s previous narration. Cole’s first few chapters begin with his own name: “Caleb Cole is excited.” “Caleb Cole isn’t thinking straight.” “Caleb follows the taxi into town.”
Each of these, immediately following a chapter narrated in the first person by Tate, creates the momentary, unsettling sensation that we are hearing a character talking about himself in the third person, another effective touch.
Discussion on my crime fiction blog turned recently to the question of whether noir and hard-boiled crime writing are compatible with the traditional series form. How many times can an author plunge the same hero toward despair and doom before the readers moan, “Kill him, already!”?
I wonder where Cleave stands on this question. Tate has in previous books lost his daughter (as has Cole in this book) and been imprisoned for four months, and a running note in “The Laughterhouse” is his wife’s near-vegetative state. That’s a lot of wringers for an author to put even a damaged-cop protagonist through, and it’s yet one more testimony to Cleave’s skill that the ending of “The Laughterhouse” leaves Cleave the freedom to go in any of three directions.
He could plausibly end the series with this novel, though its ending also sets Tate up nicely to be killed off in the next book — or to continue beyond, as though nothing has happened.
Among the traits Tate and Cole share is hatred of reporters for doing their jobs. (OK, the targets are, for the most part, television reporters, but still.) As the novel traffics in gradual revelations, I kept waiting for a backstory that would explain this: reporters’ conduct during Tate’s own trial, say, or their coverage of his daughter’s death. But it never comes.
Resentment of “the media” apparently runs so deep in New Zealand that Cleave felt confident he could make it one more characteristic shared by cop and killer and not provoke raised eyebrows. As in much else with this novel, though, Cleave shows great patience and restraint. Not until well into the book does he use the term “media circus.”