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by Deon Meyer
Hodder & Stoughton, May 2011
416 pages
6.99 GBP
ISBN: 0340953616

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Plucky young backpacker Rachel Anderson is on the run from the gang of men who cut her best friend's throat. In another part of Cape Town, Alexa Barnard wakes from a drunken stupor to find her cheating husband Adam's been shot dead and she's the chief suspect. Until Inspector Benny Griessel arrives on the scene; Benny is a recovering alcoholic whose spontaneous sympathy for Alexa nearly results in her death by suicide. As she recovers in hospital, the police begin investigating her husband's murder and that of Rachel's best friend. Seemingly unrelated, the paths of the two crimes do cross. It's up to Benny Griessel to find out how, and why.

Readers of Meyer's earlier books will know that Benny is a man with a great weight on his shoulders, struggling to prove himself worthy of his wife and children while staying one step ahead of his addiction and the political posturing of his superiors. Now he must get a step ahead of the men hunting Rachel Anderson, before her American father calls in diplomatic favours and unsettles the power balance even further.

Meyer is terrific at writing men with weaknesses, whether it's for women, alcohol or power. Here he unravels a complex, sometimes dense story of ambition, greed and desperation. If there's a criticism it's that Meyer packs his story so full of characters it's hard to get a satisfying sense of everyone's conflicting flaws. A smaller cast would have allowed for greater characterisation, and depth. It would've been terrific to see more of the tough Zulu policewoman, Mbali Kaleni, for instance. Addicted to Kentucky Fried Chicken and liable to swat the male ego at twenty paces, Mbali is one of Meyer's best achievements in this book.

With so many characters in play, inevitably some feel less well-drawn than others, which can affect the reader's empathy if not credulity. It's never fully explained, for example, just where Rachel Anderson finds her remarkable courage. Her father behaves impeccably throughout (almost as if Meyer was afraid to offend his American readership) when he might've been expected to conduct himself less courteously, given her dilemma and his. Rachel's mother appears so infrequently it's hard to believe she exists, let alone in the unassuming role she's given, patting her husband's hand at times of stress but otherwise remaining in the background as her daughter's fate hangs in the balance.

When Meyer gets it right, however, he does so spectacularly. As our hero Benny falters, we see the cracks running up and down his character and his career and the swerving he does at the very end is magnificently played on Meyer's part.

In a perfect world, Meyer's next book would feature half the cast of characters, with every one drawn to the detailed perfection of Benny and Mbali. That would be Meyer's best book yet.

Sarah Hilary is an award-winning short story author, currently working on a debut crime novel.

Reviewed by Sarah Hilary, June 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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