A haphazard history of murder
The Serpentine Road by Paul Mendelson Constable 343 pages R304 at takealot.com
This is the second crime thriller in the Colonel Vaughn de Vries series. I didn’t read the first one, which deals with De Vries trying to track down a missing boy. This book is presented as more of a straight-up murder mystery, with a parallel story that starts when De Vries is a much younger cop in the early 1990s.
It’s the latter story that seems to hold the most promise of the plot, dealing as it does with the chaos and violence in South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela and the difficult birth pains leading up to democratic transition.
De Vries, at first glance, is just another police procedural cliché: a gruff loner, somewhat bigoted and, yes, an alcoholic Capetonian – though not overwhelmingly so – and he’s nowadays more into his craft beers and driving out to pretty drinking spots in the Cape Winelands.
Paul Mendelson has a writing style well suited to his genre, and produces snapshots of his scenes and settings that bring Cape Town and other parts of the Western Cape vividly to life at times (“Table Mountain, this evening topped by a tablecloth of thick, perfectly white cloud, which seeps off the flat surface like dry ice from a stage”), but it mostly just moves the plot along and the dialogue comes across as dry a lot of the time. Particularly, the exchanges between De Vries and his junior officer, Don February, are awkward and robotic. I was looking for more obvious humanity and even personality from De Vries.
The book’s two time periods, pre- and postdemocracy, give Mendelson the opportunity to explore sociopolitical changes in not just the police force (not only racially, but in terms of a clear cynicism around whether enough measurable “progress” is being made), but in the country at large. This also comes through during De Vries’ murder investigation in the present day of a wealthy heiress who was quietly involved in politics and what must seem like the Holy Grail to many moderates in South Africa today: the idea of a credible political alternative to the ANC.
The real villains in this book are not the numerous murderers it eventually throws up, but the systems that create these killers and give them their motives. The narrative thread from the 1990s ends up being – after promising so much – the most disappointing component.
You’ll wait with bated breath for how it will intersect with the present and perhaps even the current case (because that’s how these books work, right?). But instead of finely sculpted plotting, it comes across as a bit haphazard. As a series, though, it’s doubtless all part of a bigger picture, and the real point of reading these books is probably the development of De Vries. It may be interesting to see what eventually becomes of him, but I’m not sure I care enough.
It was all a bit too obvious at times, and then at others too vague, though I did appreciate the subtle (or not-so-subtle) allusion to the fact that the victims of apartheid’s many undisclosed crimes are not always going to just forgive and forget. Sometimes they will wait in the shadows for vengeance.