"Dead at Daybreak"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 5, 2005)
"What had driven him to take the wrong turnings to nowhere, to seek the dead ends? The road signs had been so clear, so attractive."
Zapotek "Zet" van Heerden is beaten, bruised, and sleeping off a drinking binge in a South African jail when he is approached by a lawyer friend who wants him to take a job as a private detective for Hope Beneke, his former assistant. Hope's client, Wilhelmina Johanna van As, has been the live-in lover of Johannes Jacobus Smit, an antiques dealer who was tortured with a blowtorch before being shot in the back of the head. His safe, reportedly containing two million dollars, has been emptied and his will stolen from it. No one knows much about Smit, but if his will, reportedly leaving everything to Wilhelmina, cannot be found within a week, everything will go to the state.
Zet van Heerden, living on the edge and decidedly antisocial, is a man who is fighting numerous personal wars, and it is not clear if he will ever be able to conquer his demons. Once honored as an intelligent and resourceful crime fighter, he has worked for a PhD in Police Science, taught at the university, studied with the FBI at Quantico, Virginia, and served as a former police captain with the Murder and Robbery division. When his mentor, Nagel, was shot in front of him, however, van Heerden's world fell apart, and . he suffers terribly from the aftereffects of this shooting and from a series of other personal problems. Filled with rage and cursed with a hair trigger temper which he does not even try to control, he lashes out at the world and gratefully succumbs to the effects of prodigious amounts of alcohol.
Having hit bottom, van Heerden accepts the job, at least temporarily, setting himself the task of finding the will and discovering everything possible about Smit. At the same time, he must also investigate events from 1976, when Smit was in the army, and from 1983, when Smit accumulated an enormous amount of cash. While he is conducting these searches for information, Zet also relives a case from 1991, involving the murder and mutilation of "Aunt" Baby Marnewick, a woman who liked to sunbathe in the nude and whom Zet often observed through a fence behind his house when he was a teenager. It was Baby's death which led him to join the police force, just as it was his mentor Nagel's death, which he blames on himself, which drove him from it.
Meyer divides the novel into the seven days that van Heerden and Hope Beneke have to determine who Smit really was, who might have killed him, and what happened to his will. During these days, the reader comes to know van Heerden well, to appreciate how disturbed he really is, and to feel sympathy for him, coming to know his artist mother, his family background, his past love life, and the events which have brought him to his present state. Meyer wisely keeps the focus on van Heerden and his problems, resisting the temptation to turn this compelling mystery and character study into a quasi-love story, and though he does give a great deal of information about Hope Beneke, he also shows van Heerden's negative reactions to her and explains the reasons why. A wide variety of peripheral characters in various police organizations add to the depth of this novel and expand its scope as the mystery of Smit and his money broadens. Eventually, van Heerden must deal with the Murder and Robbery division, a "friendly" gangster who has his own security force, the Urban Anti-Terrorist Force, the military Defense Force, military Intelligence, and the American consular office--because the crime involves dollars, not rands--in addition, of course, to the mysterious group that has executed Smit.
Meyer keeps the reader completely engrossed through his alternating stories, time periods, and points of view, as they unfold simultaneously. His use of detail, about South African life and about the individual characters, gives immediacy and emotional intensity to the action, and his deliberate withholding of key information keeps the various mysteries fresh because the reader questions what is happening and how the older stories fit into the present story. The story of Nagel's death, which unfolds with agonizing slowness throughout the novel, makes van Heerden an increasingly sympathetic character, despite his hair-trigger temper and extreme violence, and the conclusion is satisfying on all levels. With a compelling and complex character acting within the complex society of South Africa and solving a series of complex mysteries, Meyer's novel is far more fascinating than the typical police procedural.
- Amazon readers rating: from 10 reviews
"Heart of the Hunter"
(Reviewed by Sebastian Fernandez MAR 27 , 2005)
"Two years he had been true. He had not shot, beaten or even threatened anyone. He had promised Miriam those days were gone and within thirty seconds since the grey suits had reached him it was as if all the promises were in the water and he knew how these things worked, they just got worse. Once the cycle began it couldn't be stopped…"
Thobela Mpayipheli is a great hulking black man, with the heart of an African Xhosa warrior. For a large part of his life he has played the part of spy and assassin; now withdrawn from the world that was the center of his universe, he is living with his fiancé and her son in a small town in South Africa, called Guguletu. He has vowed never to go back to his old life, but his peaceful existence is broken when Monica Kleintjes, the daughter of one of his dear friends from the past, asks for his help. Johnny Kleintjes has been kidnapped and will only be released upon the delivery of a disk containing information that is crucial to national security.
Kleintjes worked assisting the integration of the different intelligence services in South Africa once the Apartheid ended. He found a lot of disturbing information that he was supposed to destroy, but going against the directives that were given to him, he decided to make copies of this information in an effort to document the real history relating to the events that took place in the dark era of the South African history.
Even though, this is a work of fiction, the author presents the facts related to the espionage and the communications among the different intelligent agencies in such a convincing manner, that one cannot help but think that the events really took place. I particularly like the technique of inserting the memorandums from the different agencies within the narration of the story. But the author does not stop there, besides mastering the creation of a rich plot which is filled with secrets and ploys galore, he presents his readers with a complex and fascinating character.
Thobela, or Tiny as his friends call him, is a mysterious man that shows great kindness at moments, and cold-blooded violence at others. In a world when everyone wants to see things white or black, he presents a solid gray. This can be clearly appreciated by the reaction of the people as he goes on his quest, mounted on a powerful motorbike. Some see him as a hero, while others regard him as a dangerous man who cannot be good because he used to work as a "collector" for a drug baron. There is one reporter for the Cape Times, Allison Healy, who tries to answer the question: Is Tiny good or bad? This will provide us with valuable insight regarding the main character, but, can the question be answered with certainty?
One would think that helping a friend that has been kidnapped would not be hard, but Thobela is not lucky; he has to deal with more obstacles than that. Janina Metz, a high ranked officer in one of the intelligence agencies, has a wire that allowed her to listen to the conversation between the kidnappers and Monica. She activates a special forces group led by a violent and vicious captain named Mazibuko. The idea is to prevent Tiny from delivering the information to the kidnappers. Thus, he is drawn into a mission filled with dangers and violence; a mission in which he will be faced with a worthy opponent in the relentless captain Mazibuko.
The exotic setting, the cleverly crafted plot, the exciting action, and the rich and complex main character, make this a novel that has it all. Deon Meyer has created a real masterpiece that is not even one notch below the work of some great authors in the genre, like John le Carré. I will be eagerly looking forward to this Meyer's new book!
- Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Dead Before Dying (1999;May 2006 in US)
- Dead at Daybreak (2000; August 2005 in US)
- Heart of the Hunter (2003; July 2004 in US)
- Blood Safari (August 2009 in US)
Inspector Benny Griessel:
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- Official website for Deon Meyer
- Crime Time interview with Deon Meyer
- MostlyFiction.com review of Blood Safari
- MostlyFiction.com review of Thirteen Hours
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About the Author:
Deon Meyer was born in 1958 in the South African town of Paarl in the wine region of the Western Cape. He grew up in Klerksdorp, the gold mining region of Northwest Provence. After military duty and studying at the Potchefstroom University, he joined Die Volksblad, a daily newspaper in Bloemfontein as a reporter. Since then, he has worked as press liaison, advertising copywriter, creative director, web manager, Internet strategist, and brand consultant.
Deon lives in Melkbosstrand on the South African West Coast with his wife, Anita, and four children: Lida, Liam, Johan and Konstanz.