Better the Blood, Michael Bennett
BETTER THE BLOOD is one of those novels that I'd been hearing whispers about for quite a while, and should have made it to the top of the reading pile more quickly than my poor priority setting allowed. On the one hand I'm now regretting the delay, but on the upside, maybe I've cunningly given myself a slightly shorter wait until the next in the series is released. (No idea if a series is planned, but if there was ever a cast of characters, and a style and approach that deserved it, it's here.)
If, like me, you've always envied what seems like New Zealand's more integrated society, their embracing of Ma¯ori language, and acceptance of their First Nation's culture and beliefs, and felt a longing for something similar here, the storyline in BETTER THE BLOOD might come as a bit of an eye-opener. There are land rights issues, the Te Tiriti o Waitangi (treaty of Waitangi) isn't universally regarded as fair or the right thing, and there's plenty of tension between First Nations and colonising societies. Tension that was personally heightened years ago, when a Ma¯ori policewoman acted on the side of the authorities in a bitter, and contentious land rights protest over a sacred place.
The story in BETTER THE BLOOD harks back to two points in the past, both of which culminate with New Zealand's first serial killer in Auckland. A photograph taken in 1863 of a Ma¯ori chief hanging dead from a sacred tree, his arms and legs bound, a series of white English soldiers in the foreground, looks like what it is - a sick trophy photograph. In more recent history, the same place - Mount Suffolk - is the location for a peaceful protest land rights protest where Hana Westerman, then a very new recruit, was ordered to help break up the protest, arresting and manhandling an older Ma¯ori woman in the process. Move forward to the current day and Westerman is still a cop, has a teenage daughter, Addison; an ex-husband in the force, DI Jaye Hamilton; and a lot of regrets over that protest, and the fractured relationship with her community that came from it.
There's a number of storylines in BETTER THE BLOOD, including the serial killer, an investigation complicated for Westerman by the threat to her career that she endures when a young, privileged, nasty piece of work rapist ties her up in an alleged assault. Her ex is incredibly supportive though, and they have a good relationship despite their split many years ago. Their daughter has gone backwards and forwards between both homes, living with Hamilton and his now partner with some success, eventually going back to her mother's when she gets herself into some trouble of her own. The family connections are interwoven with the police connections, as the investigation of what becomes a bizarre series of killings instantly pulls Westerman in. The first victim, a man with a questionable past, is found in a secret walled room, hanging, with his legs and arms bound. There's a shape marked out in blood near his body, and the only reason he's discovered quickly is the killer has sent a video of the crime site to Westerman. A subsequent suicide is then pulled into the investigation after another video, and two spiral's carved into what's quickly turned into a crime scene, and Westerman is struggling to find the connection until the photo from 1863 is discovered. She soon realises that there's a connection between the people in this photo and the Ma¯ori concept of 'utu', or reciprocation.
"A system has been forced on us that is not interested in balance. A legal system transplanted here from 20,000 miles away. A set of laws that exist not to provide equality and recompense and honour and balance, but to ensure one side flourishes and the other is kept in the gutter. This we have accepted, like lambs."
"The time of the lamb is over."
The problem for the investigation team is that the discovery of the motive has lead them straight to the perpetrator, although not how to find him, and he's closer than they realise. It's also clearly shown there are going to be more victims and the way they have been selected. The problem for Westerman and her team is they are racing to catch up, identify and protect the people the perpetrator already has in his sights.
It sounds complicated and at points the storyline is. It's also moves at a very fast pace, and there are reasons for the connections which become more complex, and more believable as the story progresses. There's also some very helpful, and informative footnotes to explain some of the Ma¯ori terminology and the impact of the beliefs. At the heart of it all though is a ruthless killer, with a motivation that is simultaneously repulsive and totally understandable. The entire novel casts some bright light into a dark past and comes up with shadows of all sorts of depth and complexity.
Needless to say - cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's exactly the sort of perspective, and subject matter that good crime fiction can do very well. BETTER THE BLOOD is really good crime fiction.
A DETECTIVE IN SEARCH OF THE TRUTH
Hana Westerman is a tenacious Ma¯ori detective juggling single motherhood and the pressures of her career in Auckland’s Central Investigation Branch. When she’s led to a crime scene by a mysterious video, she discovers a man hanging in a secret room. As Hana and her team work to track down the killer, other deaths lead her to think that they are searching for New Zealand’s first serial killer.
A KILLER IN SEARCH OF RETRIBUTION
With little to go on, Hana must use all her experience as a police officer to try and find a motive to these apparently unrelated murders. What she eventually discovers is a link to an historic crime that leads back to the brutal bloody colonisation of New Zealand.
A CLASH BETWEEN CULTURE AND DUTY
When the pursuit becomes frighteningly personal, Hana realises that her heritage and knowledge are their only keys to finding the killer.
THE PAST NEVER TRULY STAYS BURIED
But as the murders continue, it seems that the killer's agenda of revenge may include Hana – and her family . . .
WELCOME TO THE DARK SIDE OF PARADISE.