Better The Blood

Written by Michael Bennett

Review written by Michael Jecks

Better The Blood
Simon & Schuster
RRP: £14.99
Released: August 18 2022

This is a fresh new voice in crime writing.

Michael Bennett is an award-winning screenwriter and director. He has written non-fiction before with his book In Dark Places, which told of the New Zealand’s worst miscarriage of justice. Apart from that, he has screened short films which have won international awards.

Now, if there is one thing I love about a new writer, it is the sudden immersion in a different culture. It was one of the things I loved about finding Michael Connelly many years ago, and Raymond Chandler too. It’s being thrust into a world that is familiar and yet not quite comfortable.

That is what appealed to me about Better the Blood. Many years ago, my oldest brother emigrated to New Zealand and started a new life there - an act of enormous courage to my eyes. I would never have dared move to the other side of the planet. Sadly, two years ago he succumbed to an appallingly aggressive cancer. At the height of Covid it was not easy to get to see him. Fortunately, thanks to some fabulously helpful New Zealand officials, my other brothers and I managed to get a flight, spend fourteen days in quarantine, and still get to have a week with him. It gave me a huge amount of respect and affection for the country and the people who populate it.

However, Better the Blood is not a nice, cosy story. It doesn’t give the gentle atmosphere of a Heartbeat or a story based in Shetland. This is a well-crafted story with a strong plot and characters which invoke sympathy.

Okay, so what’s the main thrust?

Hana Westerman is a tenacious Maori detective juggling single parenthood and the pressures of her career in Auckland’s Central Intelligence 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 more deaths show that this is New Zealand’s first serial killer. 

When she seeks a motive, she comes to discover a link to an historic crime from the early days of colonisation of New Zealand. That, and her own Maori background, her heritage and knowledge become crucial keys to finding the killer.

I love the tag line: Welcome to the Dark Side of Paradise.

What did I like about this book?

First the characters. They were very rich and well-depicted. I could happily spend more time in Hana’s company. Second, the descriptions of New Zealand and Maori culture. The plot was satisfying enough - although this was not really a “whodunit” story, since that’s given away about half way through the book.

Were there issues?

Well, yes. A strong sub plot to do with Hana assaulting a particularly nasty rapist was sort of dropped. It started really strongly and I was looking forward to seeing it develop, but it more or less evaporated, disappointingly.

All in all, a very worthwhile read, especially for those who believe in New Zealand as a bucolic, low crime Eden with hobbits, elves, wizards and no societal problems. It’s a society with the same drug, prostitution and other issues as other countries, and this book starts to set the record straight.

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