Joe Middleton sits in prison, strategizing about how he’s going to get off scot-free at his impending trial and evade the hangman. He claims no memory of the multiple murders he’s accused of; however, he also takes no particular pains to keep his stories straight, or to maintain the masquerade for various individuals.
In fact, Joe’s as likely to let his mind wander as to work through a nefarious escape plan. Even in dreams, he’ll lose sight of the endgame. In one nightmare, he’s wearing a ski mask and “dripping with sweat,” in advance of some brutal mischief. But the mask’s itchiness makes him ponder this “strange invention”:
I’ve never seen people on TV, at the Olympics, or in movies wearing ski masks covering their faces when they ski. They have woolen hats and thick jackets and gogglelike sunglasses, but they don’t look like bank robbers. Really they should be renamed robbery masks. Or rapists masks.
A short while later, he gets back to business in the dream, running into his mother in the kitchen, whereafter he lets his “knife do the talking.” In another moment of daydreaming, he envisions what he’d be like as a dad, “teach[ing a son] to fish, to throw a ball, to use a hooker and not pay.”
Joe is a bad, bad man. He is also a whining, narcissistic, scheming schmuck somewhat convinced that people really love him. They don’t.
The vast majority of other characters in Paul Cleave’s vicious, twisty carnival ride titled JOE VICTIM actually want to see Joe at the end of that rope, on the pointy end of a shank or writhing in pain after being gutshot. Such characters include the cop who caught him (now disgraced and working for a shifty television psychic), a former lover and fellow homicidal sociopath named Melissa, a grieving widower whose daughter was one of Joe’s (many) victims, and so on. It is to Cleave’s credit that readers will spend much of their reading time (racing through the pages, anxiously biting their nails) wondering if — hoping that — Joe will evade the many homicidal forces bearing down on him.
On the other hand, it’s not likely we’ll end up loving him. Joe’s wickedly funny, but maybe not always on purpose, and he is, well …. plain wicked. We’ve grown accustomed to snappy one-liners from serial killers, but there are no DEXTER-y ethics to balance the protagonist’s predilections. Joe has killed a number of women, and looks forward to killing just about everyone he meets. There’s no sidestepping the horrors on display. More often, as in a nausea-inducing bit of revenge foisted upon Joe, there’s an unabashedly intense focus on such horrors.
But Cleave seems to take a particular twisted delight in the nastiness of all involved, and JOE VICTIM always wears a prankish smirk. I’m tempted to call it comic — it even ends at a wedding. Yet if farce, it’s a bloody one, and Cleave plots with a masterful deviousness, juggling all sorts of sneaky shifts in our expectations and maintaining a constant suspense.
The plot doesn’t bear up against much scrutiny; this is neither a careful procedural nor a nuanced psychological exploration. (It took me a few pages to stop grumpily wondering why Joe’s half-assed performance as “Slow Joe” fooled anyone.) But if you can sidestep the skeptical murmurs of the Plausibles or the plaintive cries of your superego, you’ll have a blast.
While officially a sequel — it begins at the moment of Joe’s capture (and failed suicide), the tail end of THE CLEANER (published in New Zealand and elsewhere in 2006) — readers can jump right in and relish the novel as a stand-alone. —Mike Reynolds/i>