Heart of the Hunter – Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer writes great character-driven fiction, and this is as good an example as you could hope for. It’s a thriller that starts slowly, and quickly heats up.

In the beginning, Thobela Mpayipheli (Tiny to his friends) is approached by the daughter of an old friend. Somebody has kidnapped her father, and demanded she deliver something from his safe in exchange for his release. She is scared and disabled. Will Tiny do the delivery?

In a sense, Tiny is also a play on the role of the man, because he is a tiny cog in a much bigger situation than he can possibly realize. (Not that such a realization would have affected his decision to help.) Spooks are involved. Special Forces are involved. There may be a high level mole in the South African Intelligence Community, who may also be involved. And the kidnappers are not to be toyed with.

That’s the dangerous mix that Tiny faces. In fairness, Tiny is better equipped to face the challenges than 99% of the population. His former life as a skilled assassin is revealed in little snippets, and you wonder at the character of the man who gave up a world of violence to set up home with his girlfriend and her son, and work as a gopher in a motor cycle dealership. He promised not to go back to his old life, but he feels a greater duty to his friend.

Another part of the mix is the Cape Times reporter, Ms Healy, thriving on police tip-offs, and constantly trying to stay ahead of the machinations of the State as they seek to hunt down Tiny before he can complete his mission. Does she see Tiny as a thug, or something more complex? Can she understand and appreciate the forces involved in the story?

And then there’s the motor cycling. I knew that the author was a keen biker, and his love of that pursuit comes across so strongly in the passages in the book telling of Tiny’s motor bike journey as he tries to evade the authorities. Although they are probably a touch indulgent, you get the sense of the author writing from his own experience, drawing deeply on his inner feelings and trying to breathe yet another layer of humanity into the character of Tiny. After all, Tiny is no one dimensional construct. In that respect, he is like the modern South Africa that Meyer does such a good job of portraying. The backdrop of the country is deftly delivered.

There is, indeed, the heart of the hunter beating at the center of this novel. And it will keep you company as you are drawn, inevitably, into the maelstrom.

This is a terrific adventure that, in the classic tell-tale fashion, leaves you distraught on discovering you have read the last page.

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.

7 Days – Deon Meyer

I have read several of Meyer’s books about Benny Griessel, the South African defective detective, dealing with crime in a post apartheid world, so I sort of know what to expect. And, indeed, the author delivers here on all fronts.

There is the central character of Griessel, an alcoholic with a heart of gold, burdened by the frustrations of everyday life and love. He’s a very humane character, well and sympathetically drawn, who almost doubles as a metaphor for the country: was in a bad way, now undergoing recovery, and doing not bad.

The supporting characters are a reasonable range of types, some more interesting than others. But even those making a short appearance are rarely cardboard cutouts. You can spot some who may have more prominent roles to play in future novels.

There is the plot – a complex, believable, and well constructed framework for some fine storytelling and observational asides. The solidity of the plot is connected to another important ingredient: the backdrop. To put it briefly, South Africa lives in this book. And while you do not need to be interested in the country or the troubles of its politics or race issues, such interest may sharpen your enjoyment of the book.

This particular novel is about the hunt for someone threatening to shoot a policeman every day, until the police catch the killer of a murdered lawyer. Police resources are forced to reopen the case of the murdered lawyer, while struggling to decipher the shooter’s emails to the police and the press, all in a bid to catch him. The investigation inevitably stirs up trouble, in more ways than one.

It’s a fine piece of crime writing, well worthy of your time.

Trackers – Deon Meyer

Set in modern South Africa, this book is a collection of different stories which the author crafts into one very different novel. Each story gives a new perspective on the country and its many challenges, wound around a strong thriller like core. However, it does not seem that way until you get to the end, so the structure may put some readers off. Because of the quality of the writing, and the enthralling stories on offer, it was a real page turner for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Characters? Plenty! There’s the downtrodden suburban housewife who suddenly rebels;   the hard nosed bodyguard who accepts the job of helping to smuggle a rhinoceros, to save it from slaughter; the local criminal gang, flexing its muscles, every way it can; an Al Qaeda group planning something big; a government spy agency fighting the country’s enemies and its own war for survival inside the bureaucracy; and the former policeman freshly minted as a private detective. The book is full of good characters. Some are from the author’s earlier books, but you do not need to have read them first. (But you should read them!)

Meyer’s portrait of South Africa comes across as authentic. As I have commented previously, he paints it – warts and all – with a clear eye for detail, atmosphere, and love of the place. He knows it is not perfect, but it is his. The beauty, the tragedy, the violence, and the modern history of the country are sympathetically, but realistically, packaged. In short, the setting is a fine pillar of the novel.

The only caveat on offer, is that if you have not read a Deon Meyer book before, do not start here. The structure is so unique, that it would be a shame to put you off, just because of that. He is an excellent writer, and this book is a good reflection of his ability. However, I fear the structure limits the impact, and that’s why I would not recommend it above all his other material I have read. It is good. It is also different – too different for some tastes.

Score: 8/10