Icarus by Deon Meyer

icarusIcarus by Deon Meyer, translated by K.L. Seegers

Atlantic Monthly Press, October 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’ve hopped around the Benny Griessel series by Deon Meyer– a couple early ones in the series, a couple of the most recent stories, and I liked this one a great deal though it’s not as thriller-y in terms of plot twists as what I usually like.  Meyer focuses on an array of police officers, and they are fairly rounded. I think someone who’s read all of the books (I think we have some overlapping characters between series/ standalones) would understand the characters a bit more than I did with the quick summations peppered throughout the story.

Icarus is about the murder of a tech entrepreneur: he founded a company that provides alibis for adulterers, and the premise has a bit of the ripped-from-the-headlines feel. The other main storyline involves a client’s interview with his lawyer just before Christmas, and for a large portion of the book it’s unclear what that interview has to do with the murder investigation. It’s the story of a family of wine-growers, and besides learning a lot about grapes and the wine industry in South Africa, I learned a great deal about a strange, strange family. The twists in that storyline were more interesting to me than the police investigation storyline.

In the police-procedural part of the book, Meyer spends a great deal of time in Griessel’s head as he starts drinking again and tries to stop drinking again. I thought that the scene with Benny’s psychologist didn’t feel shoe-horned into the story though it played the part of providing a snapshot of just how hard it will be for Griessel to stay sober if he continues in his current job.

Finally, one drawback of reading the electronic version of this book is that I couldn’t easily flip between the story and the glossary. The glossaries in this series are full of context that I would miss.

Cobra by Deon Meyer

cobraCobra by Deon Meyer, translated by K.L. Seegers

Originally published as Kobra, 2013

Atlantic Monthly Press, October 2014

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Sometimes I feel like I’m lukewarm about quite a few books I read, and it may have to do with my energy levels going towards other things in my life besides reading, but this book, which I read just as I was getting over a bad cold, was just the thriller-jolt I needed to read to get out of the doldrums. I’m a fan of fast-paced, slightly preposterously-plotted books like those by Jo Nesbø, or big conspiracy thrillers like those by Alan Glynn, and after trying one of Meyer’s earlier books, Devil’s Peak, earlier this year, I began Cobra with lowered expectations.

Part of my surprise was reading a book that didn’t involve two overlapping storylines, one in the past and one in the present (I’ve read a lot of books like that in 2014), nor did it involve a strange prologue in the killer’s head or at the scene of a gruesome murder: this book, thankfully, began with the police arriving at the scene of a horrible murder. It’s a little strange to feel glad about that, but I was.

Benny Griessel, part of SAPS (South African Police Service) and a veteran of the police force during apartheid, investigates multiple murders linked by bullets etched with a cobra, and they appear to be professional hits. The overlapping storyline is told from the perspective of Tyrone Kleinbooi, a professional pickpocket trying to earn enough money for his sister to get to and through medical school.

The joys of this book were the compressed storyline, not too unbelievable characters (though characters are not the main focus here), and a thoughtful reflection on crime and levels of crime– crime that goes unpunished and crime that is prosecuted based on your economic status. It wasn’t overly moralistic, though, which is important. And finally, the extensive glossary and background information at the back of the novel was so helpful. Meyer and Seegers include lots of different slang and leave lots of language untranslated throughout the novel, but the definitions and background materials in the back flesh out the terms even more.


Present Darkness by Malla Nunn

present darknessPresent Darkness by Malla Nunn
Atria, June 2014
DS Cooper book 4

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.


Malla Nunn is an Australia author who was born in Swaziland, and she writes the DS Cooper series set in South Africa in the 1950’s as apartheid was enacted. The present darkness of the title alludes to, in part, the historical moment South Africa was in, and the mood of the book is quite grim. Nunn does a great job of showing how crime and the background of emerging from World War II played into the development of apartheid and how individual police officers did their jobs while very affected by their pasts.

The story revolves around the investigation into the violent assault on a white schoolmaster and his wife, and the accused is a black student who spent the evening with the family for dinner. He also happens to be the son of one of Cooper’s colleagues. The story takes place both in Johannesburg and a remote part of the Northern Province, and Cooper himself is an outsider in Johannesburg (he’s on assignment there).

I don’t typically read historical crime fiction, but I’m a fan of this particular book. I’m thankful for the many bloggers and commenters who have recommended this series! Cooper is such an interesting character in such an interesting moment in the political history of South Africa and in such an outsider position in the police force as well that it was a great hook for me. I’m also counting this book as my wildcard entry in the 2014 Global Reading Challenge for the seventh continent, which I’m classifying as historical crime fiction.

Other reviews appear in Book’d Out (Shelleyrae), Fair Dinkum Crime (Kerrie), and Aunt Agatha’s.

Devil’s Peak by Deon Meyer

devils peakDevil’s Peak by Deon Meyer, translated by K. L. Seegers
LIttle Brown, 2007
Originally published as Infanta, 2004
Source: I borrowed it from the library.

Deon Meyer has been on my list of authors to read for quite a long time now, and I chose to start with Devil’s Peak because it’s the first of the Benny Griessel series. It does feature a character from an earlier novel in a central role, so my plans to be unspoiled by starting with this book were foiled. I was very impressed with the beginning: the writing was good, the characters were very complicated, but by the end I was disappointed with the plot.

Griessel is an inspector leading an investigation into the murders of people accused of hurting children. He’s an alcoholic policeman with marital troubles, which is a story I’ve read before, but his experience as a policeman both before and after apartheid and the differences in those organizations (it was the Force during apartheid and the Service after) made the novel stand out to me. Meyer divides the story among Griessel the investigator, Tiny Mpayipheli the killer, and a young woman who is a sex worker who is making some sort of confession to a minister.

It’s an interesting structure with interesting characters, but a couple things bothered me: First, it’s a vigilante story. I’m not very interested in this theme (I’m almost as tired of vigilantes as I am of serial killers) even though this book features the twist that there is a vigilante in a country that recently abolished the death penalty. Second, the final fifty pages falter plot-wise. It features a plot twist that I see all too often in thrillers (I’m trying to avoid spoilers), and the last batch of antagonists is a very cruel and violent crew who aren’t really developed as characters.

I saw a lot of promise in the first half of the book, and I hope that other Meyer books don’t use such overused plots.


Pale Horses by Jassy Mackenzie

pale horsesPale Horses by Jassy Mackenzie

Soho Press, April 2013

PI Jade de Jong book 4

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I chose Pale Horses because I’m trying to read books from as many countries as possible for the 2013 Global Reading Challenge. This is the first South African crime novel I’ve read. Also, I’ve liked female PI novels starting with Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton so I’m interested in this sub-genre. Pale Horses is the fourth book in the Jade de Jong series, and the opening chapters provide plenty of backstory about Jade, her personal life, her parents, and her recent past as a private investigator. It’s a lot to cover though this is just book four in the series, and, honestly, it felt a bit clunky to me. Nevertheless, it was necessary information.

Pale Horses centers on Jade’s investigation into the death of Sonet Meintjies, who died during a base jump from a ritzy skyscraper in Johannesburg. She’s hired by Victor Theron, a commodities trader who was Sonja’s jumping partner. Jade works with a police officer and former love interest David Patel during the course of the investigation, and they travel throughout the city and to the remote farmland where Sonet worked as a relief worker. Mackenzie provides plenty of background about tribal land claims and farming practices.

Character-wise, Mackenzie focuses on Jade and David. Jade is a prickly character: she’s made some questionable decisions in her work and personal lives, or maybe her choices are more mystifying to me because I haven’t read any other books in the series. Mackenzie also spends certain chapters with other characters whose connections to the deceased Sonet aren’t clear until the end of the novel. It kept me at a bit of distance from the characters because I kept wondering what part of the puzzle they were.

Overall, I found the book to be a brisk read, but I felt like it somehow didn’t gel or grab me. The individual parts were interesting: a protagonist with complicated personal and professional lives, a conspiracy involving tribal land claims and modern farming science, a mysterious death during base jump from a skyscraper. I think part of my issue is that some of the exposition slowed down the story for me, and, of course, I don’t have the background with the series to get a complete picture of Jade. I’m interested to see what others have thought about earlier books in the series.