Better The Blood by Michael Bennett

New Zealand. Hana is a detective who likes to draw, has a rebellious teenage daughter and her boss is also her almost ex-husband. One day, Hana receives an anonymous video that hints at the location of a crime, and soon she finds herself in a race against time to stop a serial killer intent on revenge for a racially motivated crime that happened over 100 years ago. And the killer may be reaching out to her because, like him, she is also Maori and has a link to the place where the killer has planned it all to end.

Michael Bennett is a filmmaker who himself is Maori and understands the horrible weight of New Zealand’s colonial past on it’s original inhabitants. This is his debut thriller and it focuses on some of the injustices against indigenous people, both in the past and the present. The book is peppered with Maori words and concepts, with explanations as footnotes, which I quite liked.

I really wanted to like this book. Thrillers from filmmakers seem very popular lately, and often they make for fast paced, cinematic reads. ( see also Geiger, HERE). The writing style of this book and the way the characters are written made me wonder if this was originally written as a script and then turned into a novel when it wasn’t financed as a film. It reads like an episode of a detective TV show, with the story based around a very unlikely serial killing. The characters are rather flat, and we don’t get to see their inner lives and feelings, with the book more focused on action sequences and outward character traits. There isn’t really any mystery or suspense in the story, because we know almost immediately the why and how and who of the case (earlier than that, if you read the blurb). Also, the serial killer himself feels like a TV trope or like someone from Agatha Christie. (The ABC Murders, perhaps) They have this elaborate plan, and they’re enacting it in organised steps, but they’re not psychologically real as a character. In an era of true crime books and documentaries, this feels like an awkward misstep.

The story is also sprinkled liberally with speeches about racism and colonialism, which don’t feel like something that would naturally flow out of someone’s mouth under the circumstances. I think if you’re reading this book, you already agree with the author, and if you don’t, you’re probably not going to pick it up in the first place, so not only did it feel unnatural and slow down the narrative, it was also preaching to the choir. This book could have been a lot more effective at making the points that it makes, and they are valid points, if it showed us and made us feel, rather than just telling.

On the whole, this all felt a bit shallow to me. It’s polemic and revenge porn masquerading as a thriller, and I just wanted more from it. I really wanted to learn something via a good detective story, and this just wasn’t satisfying or convincing, even as I agreed with the general attitude that the author takes (other than him believing that serial murder is justified, that was a step too far for me). I love New Zealand stories, writers and film makers, and I will look out for more books, especially by Maori authors in future. Hopefully this book means that we will see more antipodean authors on shelves up here in Canada.

Read It If: I’m not sure who to recommend this one to. Perhaps if you’re going to read it not as a thriller, but as a topical book about revenge on colonialism or as a book by a Maori author.

Thank you to the publisher for the copy of this book for review.


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