Sunday, 14 December 2014


Ray Campbell runs a risk assessment business in New York City, where he lives a life of quiet loneliness. But twenty years before, Ray had been an aid worker in the African country of Lubanda, where he fell in love with Martine Aubert, the child of Belgian colonists, but a woman who considered herself a native Lubandan, with all the contradictions and risks that entailed.

Ray lost Martine, his only love. Two decades later, his old boss in Lubanda, Bill Hammond, who now runs a major aid fund that distributes millions of dollars of largesse, gets in touch with Ray. There has been a murder in New York, and the victim is Seso, the man Bill had assigned to Ray as his assistant when he'd first arrived in Africa. Lubanda has had its second change of government since Ray arrived; in the first Martine was lost, and an Amin-like dictator too over the country. There's a new government back in Lubanda now, but in New York Seso has been tortured before he was killed, and was supposedly bringing a message to Bill, and Bill wants Ray to look into it, because the police are not very interested. For Ray it means opening up a locked box of memories, and, more importantly, feelings.

If you're familiar with Thomas Cook's writing, you will know that emotions are the dangerous fulcrum on which lives rest. Small decisions reverberate, and the echoes of those decisions, their influences, stay with his characters forever. It is immensely fitting that Ray works in risk assessment, the perfect metaphor for Cook's characters' view of life, as risk to be assessed. Typically they are thoughtful, and self-examining if not always self-aware, and Ray is like that. He is a classicist, and his reflections are full of aphorisms, as when Ray reflects on “that elusive, perhaps unknowable but always painful line that in every life divides what we should have done from what we did.”

In order to examine that line, Cook tells this story with multiple flashbacks: to Lubanda twenty years earlier, and ten years earlier, when Ray made a solitary trip back to visit the spot where Martine had lived, and the one where she had died. Within those three time frames multiple flashbacks occur, as Ray's thoughts drift into memory, his and Cook's way of reminding us that the past is still very much part of the present. It's a brilliant piece of structure held together by Cook's perfectly crystalline prose, a prose that's able to convey both the beauty and brutality of the land, the people, and of life.  Along its way it also dissects the crucial and difficult issue of aid to the 'third world', cutting through our assumptions about its efficacy and intentions, without ever being didactic. 

As Ray reminds us, "some things, once lost--innocence, for example, and sometimes hope--are irrecoverable." This is what plays out before our eyes, and the denouement carries the modest disappointment of slight anti-climax; little changes except perhaps Ray himself. But its ending is a scene of such touching beauty A Dancer In The Dust might be one of the very best of Cook's remarkable career. Compelling, engrossing, and beautiful.

A Dancer In The Dust by Thomas H Cook
Head Of Zeus £18.99 ISBN 9781784081652

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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