Theo Tate is an ex-cop turned private investigator, who as this novel opens is supervising the exhumation of Henry Martins, a man who died some years ago. His daughter firmly believed that he had been murdered by his second wife, for whom he had abandoned his first family. The police were not convinced, but the widow’s new husband has also now died in suspicious circumstances, hence the exhumation. As Tate watches the digger at work, he notices what he at first thinks are giant, black bubbles in the lake adjoining this part of the huge cemetery. Soon he realises that the disturbance is, in fact, bodies rising to the surface – a sight that makes Bruce, the man digging up the grave, run away – in terror or in guilt?
After this set-piece opening, Tate embarks on a fast-moving spiral familiar to readers of the genre. We soon learn that the reason he resigned from the Christchurch, NZ, police force two years ago was because his wife and young daughter were victims of a drunk driver. Emily, the girl, was killed and Bridget, the wife, is in a catatonic state and cannot recognise anyone. The man responsible for the accident was caught but given a suspended sentence. He subsequently vanished, and most of his then-colleagues assumed Tate was responsible for the disappearance (we find out whether this supposition is correct later in this book).
When the coffin that has been exhumed from Martins’s grave is opened, an unexpected and gruesome discovery is made. At this point I began to lose sympathy with Tate, as he takes a crucial piece of evidence and begins his own investigation into the case, without keeping his old colleagues in the loop. During the first two-thirds of the book he questions bereaved families a in an unforgivably cruel way in my opinion, as well as impeding the official investigation. Using his inside information to discover more leads and more victims, he creates a “murder room” in the process to record his investigation and leads – presumably setting himself up in competition with the police so he can solve the crime before they do? At the same time, he’s involved in violent altercations with the father of Bruce the absentee gravedigger and with Bruce himself, as well as being drawn into some coded, threatening interactions with the priest of the cemetery’s church.
As well as being a crime thriller, Cemetery Lake provides plenty of shlock-horror set piece descriptions of rotting bodies and various nasty things that happen to them during the course of the novel. I don’t mind these per se, particularly as the rather flat narrative protects the reader from the full extent of the "yuk" factor, but I did mind that I could not believe much of the main story. One example of this is that the police are investigating the bodies in the lake by searching graves in the cemetery – they are also looking for Tate and the gravediggers. Yet if they had conducted even the most basic search, or simply looked at the graves of Tate’s daughter or Bruce’s mother, they would immediately have found crucial evidence in the shape of recently (re)dug grave plots. Unfortunately, I think the author is keener to attempt to shock his readers by his horror-novel descriptions of things happening to decomposing bodies, etc, than in providing a credible plot.
Despite his old mates trying to keep him out of the investigation, Tate ploughs on regardless of the sensitivities of the families of the bereaved. Eventually after a shocking event in his office, he becomes so distraught that he turns to drink. After being on a bender for a month, he follows someone he regards as a suspect and jumps a red light, crashing into a car being driven by a woman whose young daughter is a passenger. Tate has become the man he has spent the last two years hating, but this realization does not stop him from immediately borrowing another car and continuing his single-minded quest.
Cemetery Lake is written at a fast pace and despite its various plot holes it does engage the attention, even though the “solution” to the main case is too extreme to convince. The main problem with the novel for me was the character of Tate, who is potentially interesting but just too unsympathetic even taking into account his tragic past, given all his unethical, cruel and thoughtless actions. His heart is in the right place, but unfortunately his ego is the most important thing to him, which combined with his action-man toughness makes him hard to like or to care much about. I think the novel is fine for those who like lots of events (including revolting ones) and action, but is less successful on an emotional, credible level. I was also disappointed not to come away with more of a sense of Christ Church, New Zealand.