Quais du Polar 1 #QDP2020: Deon Meyer’s Cobra, transl. K. L. Seegers

I’ve seen Deon Meyer at Quais du Polar a couple of times and he is a larger than life teddy bear of a man, so it’s quite surprising to see how hard-hitting and suspenseful his thrillers are. He once said that he regretted making his detective Benny Griessel an alcoholic loner, as he sometimes felt trapped by this portrayal. However, in this book, first published in English in 2014, Benny works very closely with his whole team, ‘a splendid representation of the Rainbow Nation’, as one of the characters remarks at one point. And he is almost completely happy with the new love of his life, singer/songwriter Alexa. That’s probably as good as it gets.

But not for long. Benny and his team soon get into hot water and have to use subterfuge to conduct their investigations. A British citizen goes missing from a top secret, luxury guesthouse on a wine farm not far from Cape Town. His bodyguards are shot dead. But was Paul Morris an innocent victim: his passport is brand new, as are his suitcase and clothes. The shell casings at the murder scene have a spitting cobra engraved on them – could that be the sign of an elite international assassin? And why are so many foreign intelligence agencies interested in this possible kidnapping?

At the lower end of the crime spectrum, Tyrone is a young pickpocket who is trying to fund his younger sister’s medical studies. It’s a typical case of the wrong place (or picking the wrong pocket) at the wrong time and soon Tyrone finds himself on the run, fearing for his sister’s life. The story culminates in a nerve-wracking chase on the metrorail between Cape Town and Bellville.

What I really like about Deon Meyer’s books is that they are always exciting, not at all preachy, but all the while providing an ample picture of life in post-apartheid South Africa, warts and all. Among all the breathless action, Benny is given to meditating about the place of law and order in society, and his own career in the police force during a time of tumultuous changes

…when you worked at Murder & Robbery, your role was spelled with a capital letter. What you did mattered. Part of his smugness was because he had started to run with the big dogs then. The living legends, the guys whose investigations, breakthroughs, interrogation techniques, and witticisms were passed on in seminars, tearooms and bars, with an awed shake of the head… But the longer he worked with them… the more he realised they had feet of clay.

It was a depressing process. He had tried to fight against it, rationalise it and suppress it. Later he realised that it was partly out of fear of the greater, inevitable disillusionment: if they were fallible, so was he. And so was the system.

Deon Meyer writes in Afrikaans (although he speaks English fluently) and the translation has a lot of Afrikaans expressions, including Cape Flats vernacular. So much so that there is a glossary at the back. (Fortunately, if you speak English and German – or Dutch, many of the expressions will sound familiar and you can deduce them from the context)

Most Obscure on my Shelves – the Viragos

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while others are truly obscure choices bought half a lifetime ago at book sales. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I will spare you my professional books (anthropology, social sciences, business etc.), although I might mention the odd ‘professional’ one which has had a significant impact on me.

I’ll start from the right hand side of my bookshelves to the left, in true Japanese writing fashion. It so happens that all of them are Viragos today.

Gillian Slovo: Every Secret Thing

This is a memoir of Gillian’s remarkable and famous parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, South Africa’s pioneering anti-apartheid white activists. It is a wonderful historical picture of a country in turmoil, but also an intimate family portrait, warts and all. What does it feel like to come second to political commitments? What does it feel like to live with two wonderful, difficult, complicated people? As the author says in the introduction: ‘It was written in the heat of my passion to try and work out what my parents meant to me, and what they meant to the country to which they devoted their lives.’

I have a special additional fondness for Gillian, since she was (together with Sarah Dunant) my tutor for a brief but life-changing Faber writing course. So it’s a signed copy and very precious.

Nell Dunn: Up the Junction

When people bemoan the lack of working class voices in fiction, I usually point them in the direction of the Angry Young Men, but it’s true that there have been fewer of those in recent decades. And where were the Angry Young Women? Well, Nell Dunn qualifies as one of them. Although she originally came from a privileged background, she lived in Battersea and South London and came to know at first hand the young girls whose voices she so accurately captures in this collection of short stories, published in 1963. The grimy, less reported side of the Swinging Sixties, the stories feel like eavesdropping on conversations – they’re in equal parts comic and shocking, gritty and resilient. The film based on the book sanitised some of the darker aspects.

I read this book ages ago, borrowing it from the British Council library in Bucharest in my teens. I’ve never found it since, but then came across this battered copy at a charity shop in Manchester a couple of years ago.

Angela Carter (ed.): Wayward Girls and Wicked Women

The third Virago book is this anthology of stories of what one might call today ‘Nasty Women’, extolling those unfeminine virtues of discontent, impatience, sexual disruption and bad manners. These subversive stories by Leonora Carrington, Katherine Mansfield, Colette, Bessie Head, Luo Shuo, Jamaica Kincaid and others are all about being ‘not nice’. We find witches and prostitutes and fraudsters. Some of the stories are dark, some are funny, some are both and might make you squirm. It was one of the first books I bought when I came to London to study for my Ph. D. (about charismatic women in new religions, incidentally). But I’ll leave you with a quote from Angela Carter herself:

And all these disparate women have something else in common – a certain sense of self-esteem, however tattered. They know they are worth more than that which fate has allotted them. They are prepared to plot and scheme; to snatch; to battle; to burrow away from within, in order to get their hands on that little bit extra, be it of love, or money, or vengeance, or pleasure, or respect.

I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes

ninevehThe historical Nineveh was one of the greatest cities of the Assyrian Empire, although it was built on a fault line and therefore periodically ravaged by earthquakes. It then fell into ruins following a period of civil war in the region. The Bible portrays Nineveh as a wicked city, worthy of destruction, although it is ultimately spared by God because its inhabitants repent and fast.

In this book by South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes, Nineveh is the name of a modern gated development on the outskirts of Cape Town, but it’s impossible not to read something more metaphorical into the name of the settlement and the storyline. The hopelessness of fighting against nature, or overcoming a colonial heritage, or simply the fear of the ‘other’ and the illusion of staying in control: there are hints of all of this and more in this quietly atmospheric story which avoids any of the obvious loud party tricks and twists. The property developer also points out that there is no connection between the Assyrian Nineveh and this contemporary ‘paradise’: one of the early investors was from the Middle East, that’s all. Ha! Believe that at your peril!

Nineveh is pristine, luxurious, but empty: homeowners cannot move in because there is an infestation of mysterious insects. Katya Grubbs has followed in her father’s footsteps and is a pest controller (or relocator, rather, for she specialises in humane entrapment and movement of pests, rather than exterminating them). She is called in to free Nineveh of this nuisance. She moves in and succumbs to a sort of strange spell. The place is ominously quiet and antiseptic in its cleanliness. She explores the surroundings, the swampland and shanty-town bordering the development. Everything about Nineveh seems wrong, yet oddly attractive. Katya is already planning how to trick the property developer into giving her permanent free on-site accommodation. And yet… and yet… there is a pinprick of menace, which grows and grows. The insects seem beautiful individually, shimmering in their iridescent colours, yet it’s only a matter of time before they start swarming.

henriettari
Henrietta Rose-Innes

Along the way, Katya has to mend fences with her father and handle an irate employer. There is an earthiness to her humour, a pragmatism to her style, which makes her flawed but endearing. This is a book which whispers (rustles and crackles and pitter-patters, hisses and sweeshes and hums) rather than shouts, but it is entertaining and thought-provoking, an increasingly rare double feat.

It’s a delight to see that Henrietta’s book has now been published in the UK and US (the South African edition came out in 2011). A French translation has just been published by Editions Zoe.

Quick Crime Reviews: One Out of Four

Would it be fair to say that about one in four books being published today constitutes a memorable read? Judging by my current crop of crime reads, I’d say that proportion is roughly right. It may seem ungracious to say that, especially when I have yet to finish my own novel! (So they are all clearly better than me for a start.) So let me qualify this somewhat.

None of them were bad enough to make me want to stop reading them. In fact, they were entertaining and quite accomplished for debut novels. However, after just a few days, I can barely remember the storyline or the characters. I am sure they will all do well in terms of sales, however, probably better so than the last one, which I liked and remembered most. Is that because publishers or the reading public think of crime fiction as a ‘disposable genre’ – easily read, all about a puzzle and a twist and a quick entertainment, and then forgotten? Or am I being too harsh? Many of my fellow bloggers enjoyed them a lot, so why do I always need a ‘bigger theme’, an exotic location or a social context to keep me happy?

disclaimerRenée Knight: Disclaimer

Quick and easy to read, but failed to rise above the run-of-the-mill for me. Another middle-aged woman with a secret alternating with chapters from the POV of an older man who has suffered loss and is seeking revenge. A set-up which is intriguing – what would you do if you found the worst moments of your life story displayed in a novel? –  but the execution doesn’t quite live up to it.

 

whatsheleftT. R. Richmond: What She Left

An interesting concept of reconstituting a person and their last few days through all the documents and detritus of life that they have left behind. You’ll find a good variety of voices, from lecherous middle-aged professor to wide-eyed naivety. However, overall, the story strained belief – so many gathered by the river’s edge on a winter’s night! – and did not quite live up to the premise.

 

followmeAngela Clarke: Follow Me

Once you manage to suspend your disbelief that the police would be so unfamiliar with Twitter and would depend on a 23-year-old freelance journalist to be their social media consultant, this is quite an entertaining and fast-paced read, although the end is a trifle predictable. It raises some interesting issues about online privacy, but I felt that the issue of what Nas and Freddie had done in their teens was deliberately obfuscated and hidden just to create some artificial suspense.

watermusicMargie Orford: Water Music

This is the fifth novel in the series featuring social worker Clare Hart, working with abused and missing minors in Cape Town. So yes, I jumped midway into the story arc about Clare and her boyfriend, the cop Riedwaan Faizal, but I was still captivated by the interactions between the characters and the storyline. South Africa is a place where life is not easy for poor young women and children, and the author reflects that in this emotional story about an abandoned child and a missing young cellist. This is not the touristy Cape Town we like to imagine, although the natural setting is very beautiful, but a gritty story about violence against women and the consequences of poverty. Corruption at the highest levels and the conflict between police and unions in a post-apartheid South Africa are also tangentially addressed. My first Margie Orford, but most certainly not my last.

Kitchen Cupboard Cleanout

Apologies, but this post is a bit of a ‘kitchen cabinet cleanout’.  That’s what we call it in my family when we have a bit of a pause to rethink and recalculate things. Necessary but evil admin, which probably will be of little interest to anyone but which is a useful reminder for myself.

We are more than halfway through the year: how are my reading challenges coming along?  Well, I’ve read 75 of my targeted 100 books, according to Goodreads, so I should be doing well.  But….  they are not necessarily the books I was planning to read for my Global Reading Challenge (Crime Fiction) and my Translation Challenge.

The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the latter, I have read a few (non-crime) books in translation, such as Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’ and Kristina Carlson’s ‘Mr. Darwin’s Gardener’, but I haven’t had time to review them properly yet.  Still, it’s far less than I expected.  I have been reading an average of 1-2 books per month in French though, does that count?

For the Global Reading Challenge, I’ve had trouble with certain continents: Europe has been as forward as a middle-aged gossipy aunt, while South America has been rather coy.  I’ve revised my plans as follows:

1) In North America, I’ve exchanged the Arctic Circle of McGrath’s ‘White Heat’ for the swamps of Florida and Travis McGee (by John D. Macdonald).

Cover of "Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet...
Cover of Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet

2) I have found a book by Leonardo Padura at last, called Havana Gold, which will be my second Latin American contribution.

3) For Asia, I will move to Thailand and read ‘Bangkok 8’ by John Burdett.

4) For Australasia, I’ve had to give up on New Zealand and choose another Australian setting.  I’ve taken my own advice over at the Crime Fiction Lover website, and chosen a chirpy instalment in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series.

Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Paiting in the Nat...
Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Paiting in the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5) Finally, for my 7th continent challenge, i.e. a new venture outside my usual area of exploration, I will read a classic: Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’, often celebrated as the world’s first detective story.

You will have noticed that I did not mention Africa.  That is because it is possibly my favourite continent and I am hoping to discover a real treasure there.  Unfortunately, few of the writers I had in mind are available on Kindle (and I cannot find them easily in other formats over here).  Any suggestions will be most gratefully received.  I have read crime fiction by South African writers or set in South Africa, so I would quite like something set somewhere else in Africa.  Anything in Kenya or Ghana or the Maghreb?

Deon Meyer: Thirteen Hours

ThirteenHoursCoverThis is the first South African crime fiction novel that I’ve read, but on the strength of it, it certainly won’t be the last.  I have to admit it’s all thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise and her Global Reading Challenge.  That is the greatest value of book bloggers and reading challenges – they push you just beyond your normal everyday boundaries.  And you discover that in many cases these boundaries were entirely in your own imagination.   Why had I never explored South Africa before (although I have a deep affection for the country, having been there several times on business trips)?  Because it is so much easier to fall into the familiar authors and patterns of reading, obviously, but perhaps also because I feared that the very real, everyday brutality of South Africa would make its crime fiction unbearable to read.

That is, however, far from the truth.  Deon Meyer does not make for comfortable reading, but there are no graphic scenes of torture or gratuitous violence here (unlike some other books I have read recently).  Instead, the Afrikaans writer gives us a very perceptive picture of the tensions and contradictions in the South African society, beneath the initial optimism and affirmative action of the Rainbow Nation.  His main detective, Benny Griessel, a middle-aged, doting Dad, is an Afrikaaner, but his colleagues are Xhosa, Zulu, English, coloured.  They have two cases to solve.  The first seems an open and shut case: the murder of a music producer in his own Cape Town home, his drunk wife found passed out next to him with no memory of the previous evening.  Griessel, a fellow (recovering) alcoholic, cannot believe that the wife, a formerly successful singer in her own right, could have shot him. But before he can get too deeply involved, he is called to another crime scene.  A young American backpacker has been found murdered outside a church, and there soon are indications that a second girl is on the run for her life.  Traumatised by what she has witnessed, she dares not trust anyone, least of all the police. While dodging the ruthless pack of men pursuing her, she manages to place a call to her father back in the States.  And so the American Consulate and local politicians put pressure on the police to find the missing girl, although no one knows why she is being hunted down with such ferocity.

Although this book (and Deon Meyer more generally) is being touted as an edge-of-the-seat suspense writer in the Harlan Coben, Lee Child and Simon Kernick, I actually found Meyer’s style more relaxed.  It’s not that there isn’t enough exciting action throughout the book, but there is also plenty of breathing space.  The pacing is such that we have time to meditate on corruption and justice, to find out more about Griessel’s family situation and to discover Afrikaans music. The social commentary is ever-present, yet never overdone, never slowing down the action.  And I admit I am biased: Cape Town is one of my favourite cities in the world, but I loved the atmospheric recreation of its different neighbourhoods and felt I was running alongside the girl up the steep slope of Lion’s Head.

What a great introduction to South Africa – if you are going there for a visit, this book will probably tell you more than most guidebooks, as well as being far more exciting and enjoyable.

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