This 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.
- South Africa’s Crime Problem: A Look Behind the ‘Rainbow Nation’ (alittleviewoftheworld.wordpress.com)
- Miracle Rising: Political Renaissance in South Africa (forbes.com)