Monday, 6 June 2011


Deon Meyer's Thirteen Hours has been nominated for the Johannesburg Sunday Times Fiction Prize, which is fascinating, because it's so rare to see the crime genre elevated into these general awards, and guessing the reasons why Meyer's book is on the shortlist provide a good entry into why Thirteen Hours is such a compelling book.

First off, it's a totally involving thriller, but that in itself would never be reason for the mainstream reviewers to take notice. A young American tourist is found murdered in Cape Town, and her friend is missing, and, it turns out, being pursued by the killers. Benny Griessel, the recovering alcoholic detective who first appeared in Devil's Peak is put in charge of the investigation, and he basically has 13 hours in which to find the girl and bring her to safety. The story proceeds as if in real time (I say as if because, unlike a TV show like 24 Hours, a writer cannot control real time—the book won't take 13 hours to read, obviously, though some reviews write as if it would!). Meyer has shown himself adept at thrillers before, and his touch is sure, his pacing relentless, and he never plays tricks with the reader.

But what makes the book so good is that Meyer's true forte is the police procedural. The format actually lends itself to thrillers better than mysteries—it deals with the process of policing, and in a thriller where all that is hidden is the result, the procedure itself becomes part of the tension. What the procedural offers is the chance to glimpse into both the personalities of a police team, the ensemble casts that make everything from Ed McBain's 87th Precinct to Harry Bosch's LAPD or Wallander's Ystad police so interesting, and the politics of policing itself.

Griessel gets the assignment partly because he is expendable; he is a loose cannon who can be sacrificed. His superiors see the task as hopeless, and it's better that Griessel take the hit if it fails. He is an older white officer in a force which is increasingly conscious of achieving some sort of racial balance. Which leads to the other factor in Meyer's mainstream appeal, his frank and revealing approach to race as revealed in the interactions of the various police, Afrikaaners, Zulus, Xhosa, and Colored. I've mentioned James McClure before when I've written about Meyer; his novels set in apartheid South Africa featured an Afrikaaner police lieutenant and his Zulu sergeant, and to many readers provided a telling look at the realities of South African life that they couldn't find in mainstream fiction.

Meyer's world is more complex than that, and he does an excellent job of playing with the rivalries, jealousies, and internal politicking of the new South Africa, while keeping the context personal. In that sense, Griessel is somewhere between Bosch and Wallander, maybe closer to Martin Beck, in providing an abrasive but somewhat neutral sounding board for the other characters. He also has to navigate through the monied politics of the South African music business, solving a second, seemingly locked-room murder, at the same time. Of course the two cases turn out to be connected, but it's in such an inventive way (and a way that reflects the reality of dangers in South Africa—whether people choose to get involved with violence or not) that it really works.

There also turns out to be a bigger story behind the two American girls, and although it's not contrived, it's so big that the revelation seems something of an anti-climax, as if there could have been a whole separate story built from that. Still, it is a bigger theme, and those are the kinds of elements that also impress the mainstream critics. And what most impresses me is the smaller themes which Griessel himself personifies—like so many of our favourite detectives, a flawed but well-intentioned man, with the cynicism of the idealist who's seen his ideals shattered. He's more interesting than Mat Joubert, who also appears in this book, and although Meyer has studiously avoided writing either into an actual series, more Griessel, and continued involvement of Joubert, who's bound for the private sector, would be welcomed.

Meyer's mainstream attention in South Africa is deserved, and more attention in this country is definitely overdue. Thirteen Hours is a compelling thriller, a multi-layered police procedural, and a book whose good writing survives into English translation. Meyer's surely one of the very best in the game.

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer
Hodder& Stoughton £6.99
ISBN 9780340953617

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