Dead at Daybreak – Deon Meyer

This is a cracking piece of crime fiction, set in contemporary South Africa, by a veritable master of the format. However, when I finished the book and started to thing about why I had enjoyed it, the genre was less important than the characterization. And that, in essence, is what forms the spine of this book. Although there is a crime, a mystery, a puzzle, and a hunt – complete with edge of your seat violence, thrills, and spills – it’s the portrait of the main character that delivers the greatest punch.

Zatopek (Zet) van Heerden is the former policeman, drunk and raging at the world, who is dropped into the center stage of the action when he takes on a private detective role for a lawyer. The (beautiful) lawyer’s client is the girlfriend of a now deceased antiques dealer with a mystery past. Tortured and killed by unknown intruders, the contents of the man’s safe have been emptied, including the will that leaves everything to the girlfriend. Without the will, everything will pass to the state. There’s only a week to go, and van Heerden is the last, desperate throw of the dice.

From here on, there are parallel story threads: one, the gradual tale of van Heerden’s rise and fall, and the other the up to date hunt for the will. Van Heerden’s character comes across as flawed, but real, with each biographical chapter building up a more complete picture of this complex, challenging individual. And each chapter of the hunt, after a modest amount of preparation, ratchets up the tension oh so skilfully.

The South African backdrop also builds an interesting picture. This is not a tourist advert for the country, but appears to be an honest, loving, and caring appraisal, playing its part in the cinematic images the author so comprehensively seems to spark in my reader’s eye.

There are plot twists, and surprises, and everything a reasonable person could ask of a modern day crime novel. However, again the genre may get in the way for elitist readers. The fact is it’s a great book. It’s a great read. It’s a guilty pleasure, without the guilt.

In short, very highly recommended.