Sometimes you start reading a book and you know you’re in good hands. That’s how I felt as I dove into Michael Bennett’s novel, Better the Blood. Set in present-day Auckland, the story explores how past colonial trauma echoes on into future generations (a topic that seems timely in so many ways right now).
Detective Senior Hana Westerman is on her way into a courtroom when someone sends an anonymous video to her phone. It isn’t until later in the day (after the judge hands down a ridiculously light sentence to a wealthy white law student) that she watches the video. It’s of an old, abandoned building called The Palace, and the camera focuses on a specific window on an upper floor. Though it’s late at night, she drags her young partner, Stan, to check out the building. There they find a body, hanging with both hands and feet bound. As the scene is processed and they learn about the victim (an addict and small-time criminal), Hana wonders why the video was sent to her. When she finds a symbol in the park across from the building drawn in the victim’s blood, Hana realizes the killer may also be Māori.
As more bodies are found, Hana discovers the connection between them—in a 160-year-old photo of the murder of a Māori elder by the British. The picture shows six soldiers posing with the body of the chief, who is hung (with his arms and legs bound) from the tree behind them. This photo not only sends Hana back to New Zealand’s colonial past but also to her own more recent past—where a decision she made as a young officer has affected her life in many complicated ways.
I devoured this book and I think it’s because Bennett has created a flawed but intriguing heroine in Hana and created a strong sense of place. These are both things that draw me to a mystery and I can only hope that the “A Hana Westerman Thriller” on the front cover means this is not the only story of her we’ll get.