A hap­haz­ard his­tory of mur­der

CityPress - - Voices - CHARLES CIL­LIERS charles.cil­liers@city­press.co.za

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.

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