Smuggling, missing persons and an edgy post-apartheid South Africa interlace in a riveting crime novel, the author’s best work yet
Sunday Times, 28 August 2011
Deon Meyer is one of the sharpest chroniclers of post-apartheid South Africa. His crime novels take a hard look at the middle-class affluence that supports an ostentatious lifestyle but relies on private security firms to protect it from the less fortunate. Politicians worry about South Africa’s international reputation, but the impact of savage repression in next-door Zimbabwe is never far from people’s minds.
Meyer’s new novel, Trackers, brings all these elements together, along with a plot involving an audacious attempt to smuggle endangered animals across the border. His characters have jobs that put them on the front line, such as the bodyguard Lemmer who makes a welcome return appearance, having featured in an earlier Meyer novel, Blood Safari, in which a wealthy young woman from Cape Town employed him to find out what happened to her brother during the darkest days of the war in Mozambique.
Now Lemmer is trying to settle down in a dusty small town, called Loxton, but an encounter with a bunch of bikers is a reminder that his capacity for violence hasn’t diminished; soon he’s taking on one of the more dangerous jobs of his career, helping a female vet look after a pair of black rhinos as they’re smuggled from Zimbabwe to a wealthy South African farmer who wants to start a breeding programme.
Trackers has an unusual structure: Lemmer’s assignment is one of three apparently separate narratives whose connections are revealed in one of Meyer’s bravura endings. The other two stories feature fascinating new characters, a woman on the run from a violent marriage in Cape Town and a retired police detective who has just taken a job as a private investigator. Milla Strachan’s husband is a newly affluent fund manager who can’t resist showing off his wealth while treating her like dirt; Mat Joubert’s first case as a private eye has him looking into the disappearance of Danie Flint, a perfectly ordinary man who has a run-of-the-mill job as a route planner for a bus company.
In different ways, Milla and Mat are both decent people who find themselves uncomfortable with the values of the nouveaux-riches who thrive in the new South Africa. Living in a bare apartment offered to her by a women’s refuge, Milla applies for a job as a journalist and is astonished to get it; she realises belatedly that it’s not what it seems, but by now she is caught up in a significant anti-terror operation. Mat’s discovery that the missing man was flush with unexplained cash uncovers a connection with Cape Flats gangsters, but his boss is more interested in racking up charges to the client than providing the resources for a proper investigation. Meanwhile, Lemmer’s clandestine expedition has run into trouble on an isolated road, putting the rhinos and his own life in jeopardy.
The South Africa that Meyer writes about is a place of shocking inequality, which is one of the reasons for its notoriously high crime rate. Flint is an apparently hard-working man, putting his spare time into a part-time degree at the University of Johannesburg, but he has a secret and ultimately fatal passion for flashy cars. Meyer is interested in masculinity, its parodic excesses and hidden insecurities, which is one of the reasons Milla is such a touching creation.
At one point or another, all the main characters realise that they have been conned. Against expectation it is Lemmer, easily the most street-wise at first glance, who falls for a breathtakingly ingenious scam. Meyer quotes throughout the novel from a tracking manual designed for game hunters, but he’s hinting that his characters will have to become trackers of human beings if they are to stay alive.
This is the author’s most accomplished novel to date. Following the thrilling plot of his bestselling Thirteen Hours was always going to be a challenge but he’s visibly gained confidence, showing his technical skill and handling the different sections of the new book with effortless ease. It’s a mesmerising read, and a startling revelation at the very end suggests that we haven’t heard the last of these engaging characters.
Translated by K L Seegers
Hodder £19.99/ebook £23.27