Better the Bloodby Michael Bennett
An absorbing, clever debut thriller that speaks to the longstanding injustices faced by New Zealand’s indigenous peoples, by an acclaimed Māori screenwriter and director
A tenacious Māori detective, Hana Westerman juggles single motherhood, endemic prejudice, and the pressures of her career in Auckland CIB. Led to a crime scene by a mysterious video, she discovers a man ritualistically hanging in a secret room and a puzzling inward-curving inscription. Delving into the investigation after a second, apparently unrelated, death, she uncovers a chilling connection to an historic crime: 160 years before, during the brutal and bloody British colonization of New Zealand, a troop of colonial soldiers unjustly executed a Māori Chief.
Hana realizes that the murders are utu—the Māori tradition of rebalancing for the crime committed eight generations ago. There were six soldiers in the British troop, and since descendants of two of the soldiers have been killed, four more potential murders remain. Hana is thus hunting New Zealand’s first serial killer.
The pursuit soon becomes frighteningly personal, recalling the painful event, two decades before, when Hana, then a new cop, was part of a police team sent to end by force a land rights occupation by indigenous peoples on the same ancestral mountain where the Chief was killed, calling once more into question her loyalty to her roots. Worse still, a genealogical link to the British soldiers brings the case terrifyingly close to Hana’s own family. Twisty and thought-provoking, Better the Blood is the debut of a remarkable new talent in crime fiction.
Shortlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, Ockham New Zealand Book Awards
Finalist for the Ngaio Marsh Novel and First Novel Awards
Longlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association ILP John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger
Named a Best Debut Mystery/Crime Novel of 2023 by Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine
Named a Best Book of the Month by Amazon (Mystery, Thriller & Suspense)
“Michael Bennett’s crime fiction debut explores themes of colonization and Indigenous culture by way of New Zealand. A serial killer looking to avenge the 160 year-old murder of a Maori chief is pursued by police detective Hana Westerman, whose Maori ancestry makes the case personal.”—Christian Science Monitor
“Stunning . . . With an incisive close third-person narration that digs into the thoughts and feelings of all of the players, the story commands attention from start to spectacular finish.”—Oprah Daily
“A stunning and completely unique debut thriller . . . I cannot speak more highly of Michael Bennett’s ability as a writer to share his own heritage within the guise of a page-turning thriller that will keep you guessing, along with teaching you some little-known New Zealand history. I can only hope that this is the start of a wonderful and long-running series.”—Book Reporter
“Better the Blood is an astonishing debut novel, full of twists and vivid characters, but also with much more on its mind. It is a deep exploration into cultural identity and justice, into the unbreakable bonds between the present and the past. It captures a voice like none you have read before, and it’ll keep you thinking even as you rapidly turn the pages to its devastating conclusion.”—BookTrib
“Extraordinary . . . Outstanding . . . The characters are exceptional, their motives and doubts all so magnificently drawn, so many of them strangers in a strange land in their own land.”—Nick Martin, Winnipeg Free Press
“A captivating crime story, an informative exploration of Maori culture through their history and language, and a pressurized (and very contemporary) family drama between mother and daughter.”—ArtsFuse
“When it comes to thrillers, I am hard to please. But Michael Bennett’s new novel Better the Blood amazed me. I cannot wait to read more . . . Captivating . . . Stunningly good.”—Ashley Riggleson, Free Lance-Star
“A stellar series launch set in contemporary New Zealand . . . The narrative moves at a quick pace. Immersed in modern-day technologies and with a keen sensitivity to cultural issues, this is a finely crafted page-turner. Bennett is a writer to watch.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Bennett establishes himself as an excellent storyteller . . . The book’s immersion in tribal culture and history makes the greatest impact, lending complexity and sweep to the narrative . . . One can only hope this is the beginning of a series. A striking debut and a significant addition to Indigenous literature.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Riveting . . . Bennett deftly illuminates the plight of the Māori people and its continuing effects in New Zealand. His action-packed narrative, blended with various cultural references, recalls the novels of Tony and Anne Hillerman, Craig Johnson, and William Kent Krueger.”—Library Journal
“Bennett unflinchingly weaves together layers of fallout from New Zealand’s bloody colonization, enduring Māori culture, and gripping procedural details. Hopefully this compelling debut heralds the start of a long-running series.”—Booklist
“Thoroughly absorbing . . . Bennett writes about Māori culture and history with generosity and care, reflected in the final acknowledgments paid to those in his community who lent him additional insights and guidance. He also crafts a compelling detective in Hana Westerman . . . Under Bennett’s strong command of tension in all directions, Better the Blood is a magnificently arranged confrontation with histories personal and public.”—Shelf Awareness
“With plenty of suspense, sympathetically drawn characters and crisp dialogue, Better the Blood promises to be the start of a long and rewarding literary career for Bennett.”—BookPage
“A compelling, atmospheric page turner with an authentic insight into Māori culture.”—Val McDermid
“Stunning. Better the Blood is a tremendous debut, and Hana Westerman, the Māori detective at the center of the story, instantly becomes one of the great characters in crime fiction on any continent. This novel has it all: a gripping mystery, complex and memorable characters, and timely social and cultural commentary. Don’t miss it.”—David Heska Wanbli Weiden, author of Winter Counts
“Carefully crafted and beautifully written, intelligent and insightful, Bennett opens a unique window onto a fascinating Antipodean society as only world-class crime fiction can. I devoured it. (And, as a South African, I found great pleasure in the rugby references too.)”—Deon Meyer, author of The Dark Flood
“Better the Blood touches on themes that have become increasingly urgent in recent years including the far-reaching impacts of colonialism and the often uneasy integration of identity and heritage into modern multicultural society. A tensely plotted, gritty crime novel that has the courage to force us all to rethink our relationship with the past.”—Vaseem Khan
“As page-turning as it is eye-opening. An excitingly fresh perspective upon a world you thought you knew.”—Ambrose Parry
Excerpted from Better the Blood © 2023 by Michael Bennett. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
‘Know this place?’ Hana asks, holding up the video on her phone so Stan can see.
The email had been niggling at the back of her mind ever since she’d received it that morning in the courthouse, but after dealing with the incident in the car park, working through the possible fallout with Jaye and then discovering her daughter had been arrested, she hadn’t had the time to look properly at the enigmatic video. As Stan drives through the night-time streets, heading away from Central Police Station, she plays it again.
‘The Palace,’ Stan says. He recognizes the condemned building; he went there more than once when he was in uniform, to serve arrest warrants, one time to deal with the messy week-old aftermath of a fatal overdose.
‘Is Addison okay, D Senior?’ Stan asks. Hana grunts a non-committal reply. She really doesn’t want to revisit the excruciating last hour. She’d rather have something else to focus on. The video of the Palace.
‘Take a left,’ she says.
‘Your house is straight on.’
‘The Palace is left.’
‘Boss. It’s the middle of the night . . .’
Outside, the rain that has been threatening starts to fall. Stan hits the indicator. At the next corner, he takes a left.
The Palace looms in the darkness, a crumbling three-story ediﬁce. The electricity has been cut off for years, the owners waiting to see which happens ﬁrst: a property developer with an impressively bulging wallet turning up to make the right offer, or one of the itinerants who drift in and out of the place falling asleep with a half-ﬁnished joint and burning the decaying structure down.
Across the road in a park, a swing moves gently in the rain. In Stan’s car, Hana plays the video again, the image zooming in on one particular rusting iron balcony. The last ﬂat on the second ﬂoor.
Stan retrieves ﬂashlights from the trunk and they head for the entrance.
Hana hauls aside the CONDEMNED notice tacked across the front door, shines her torch into the darkness beyond, picking out the shapes of a couple of homeless covered in cardboard. Slurs of protest greet the dazzling police ﬂashlights. ‘Just passing through, fellas, don’t mind us,’ Hana soothes as the two cops pick their way past.
She leads the way up a grafﬁtied stairwell, most of the handrails broken. ‘Jesus. Smell this place,’ says Stan, as they head towards the farthest door on the second level, mufﬂed noises coming from around the building.
Hana knocks on the last door in the hallway. ‘Hello. Hello. Police.’ No response.
Stan pushes the door. It swings open. Unlocked.
The beams of the two torches pick their way around the ﬂat. It’s one room, consisting of a bedroom slash kitchen area. The place has long since been gutted of anything that could be sold or slept on or burned for warmth.
There’s a door to the outside balcony with its rusty railings, Hana forces it open. There’s nothing to be seen on the rain-soaked platform. Looking through what remains of the cupboards and wardrobe, Stan says, ‘Nothing here. Take you home, D Senior.’
It’s raining harder now. Back in the car, Stan hits the wipers, starts the engine, and as he pulls away, Hana looks back at the Palace for a ﬁnal time. Each of the poky apartments is laid out identically, she can see from this angle: the balcony, the windows.
‘Stop,’ she says, urgent. Stan pulls over, perplexed. ‘They all have a window to the side of the balcony. Every ﬂat.’
Stan looks out through the rain. He can see that Hana’s right: in each apartment there is an external window located away from the door to the balcony. But he has no idea why she’s suddenly interested in boarding house design.
‘If there’s a window,’ she tells him, ‘there must be a room.’
‘There was a room,’ he points out. ‘There was nothing in it.’ His mind is on the last two episodes of the Netﬂix series he wants to watch tonight, if he ever actually gets home. He’s suddenly aware of the look on Hana’s face. A look he’s familiar with. Hana in mentor mode, forever prodding the more junior detective towards pushing himself harder, thinking through every angle, looking at a problem from every side, always giving himself the best chance of reaching the right answer.
‘That’s a second window,’ she says. ‘Means there’s a second room.’
It takes a moment for Stan to twig. Shit.
‘There was no second room . . .’
Stan, a few inches taller than Hana, climbs up onto the railing of the balcony outside the ﬂat. Hana grasps him by the belt in case he slips. The rain is really coming down, and as he stretches, a cold stream of water plummeting from a rusted gutter somehow manages to aim its way straight down his collar. He gets his hand on the sill of the window, but it’s just too far for him to see inside.
Hana helps him clamber down.
Inside the apartment, tap tap tap. Hana uses the rubber end of her ﬂashlight, tapping her way along the wall behind which the missing room should logically be. At a certain point, the sound changes, tap tap thud. Where the wall is thinner, where it’s hollow behind. She taps around the space, ﬁnding the perimeter of the hollow area.
‘About the size of a door,’ Stan suggests. A door that’s been sealed over.
Hana sounds out the hollow space, ﬁnding the middle point. She draws the ﬂashlight back half a metre and . . . She slams the end of the ﬂashlight into the wall. It goes straight through. She scrapes away plaster, points the beam through the ﬁst-sized hole, searching the dark room beyond.
The beam falls on something inside. But the hole in the wall is too small to see clearly what it is.
Hana steps back. She kicks at the wall, hard. The newly plastered-over section caves in, leaving an opening the size of a ﬁreplace. Stan grimaces. ‘Oh God.’ His hand goes to his nose at a rush of rank air.
Lit by the beams of the two torches is a body. A rope is noosed around its neck. The body is suspended from a rafter.
It sways gently. It’s a man. Late twenties. Naked. He’s dead. The beam of Hana’s ﬂashlight picks out his arms. His hands are bound in front of his torso, the feet tied at the ankle.
She studies the strange scene in the hidden room. Outside, the rain keeps falling.