Better the Blood is a thoughtful and thought-provoking crime novel that delves into the injustices of colonization and the deep-seated and driving need for reparations. A series of seemingly unrelated murders in Auckland, New Zealand turn out to be the work of a Māori person seeking utu for the killing of a Māori Chief by British soldiers eight generations ago. The concept of utu takes this beyond a simple revenge story: the term refers to reciprocity and balance, and while the killings are undeniably wrong, the killer’s motives are complex and multi-faceted.
The themes are explored with even greater depth and nuance through the main character, Detective Senior Sergeant Hana Westerman, who is Māori. A talented detective, the tension between her Māori roots and her chosen profession was made stark eighteen years ago when, as a junior cop, she was part of a police team sent to end by force a peaceful land rights occupation protest by Māori peoples trying to reclaim their land. In the present day, Hana is raising a biracial teenage daughter who can’t understand how her mother can be part of an institution like the police that continues to perpetuate injustices against indigenous peoples.
As a thriller, Better the Blood is slow-moving, and its pace more deliberate and contemplative than page-turning. While the killer remains definitively the antagonist rather than an anti-hero, the character is shown to take no delight in their actions. Rather, they seem weighed down by the murders themselves, and when we learn a bit more about their personal history before they began to kill, you can almost feel the weight of hundreds of years of injustices weighing them down.
Likewise, the climax of the story begins with violence, but finishes with a call to heal. A character says, ‘The people rose up….for peace, for love, the things that are much bigger than anger, stronger than violence.’ (page 336) That character then makes a choice that sends a powerful statement about what courage can be, and what a path to balance can look like. It’s a beautiful moment that ends the novel on an uplifting note while never letting us forget all we’ve learned and reflected on throughout the story.
Better the Blood is not meant to be a comfortable read, but it is a hopeful one. The mystery at its core doesn’t quite feel like the point; rather, the novel feels more like an invitation to read up on the realities of how colonization impacted indigenous peoples in New Zealand, and how those impacts continue to manifest in imbalances in the present-day.
Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.