Deon Meyer’s police procedurals bring to life the grittier side of South Africa.
South Africa is a country of often stunning beauty. It is also, of course, the site of a tortured racial history marked by a legacy of apartheid. Crime novelist Deon Meyer, who writes in Afrikaans (which is mostly Dutch), spares his readers none of this darkness in his mysteries set in Cape Town and Stellenbosch.
Meyer is best known for his series featuring Benny Griessel, an Afrikaner detective in the South African Police Service. Griessel is a recovering alcoholic who spends much of his energy wrestling with his demons, even as his checkered career lands him — in his most recent foray, The Dark Flood — a demotion and near-ejection from the force.
The series is populated with Afrikaners (whites who were historically great promoters of apartheid), along with Black people from various tribes, including Xhosa and Zulu, and the peculiarly South African designation of “coloured,” or people of mixed race.
Meyer interjects numerous expressions unique to the Cape (usually with a helpful glossary at the end of the book) in his stories, giving readers a flavor of the region. Ultimately, though, his books are straightforward police procedurals.
I once spent several weeks in South Africa on a reporting trip back when apartheid was still the order of the day. In addition to numerous Anglo and Afrikaner businessmen, I sought out Black officials, mostly trade-union officials. I tried to see Cyril Ramaphosa, then a trade-union leader and now the president of South Africa, but met a deputy of his instead. I went to the township of Soweto when it was still illegal for a white person to do so, hiding on the floor of a vehicle to sneak in. Many of my experiences in the country are recounted in my 1989 novel, Gold.
Other highlights of that trip included a hike up Table Mountain with a picnic lunch from the historic Mount Nelson Hotel and a visit to Stellenbosch in the heart of the Cape’s wine country, where beautiful Cape Dutch architecture dominated. Unfortunately, it’s also where I encountered hardcore white racism.
The Dark Flood is set in modern-day Stellenbosch and has a complex plot involving a missing college student, a disgraced magnate, and a not-so-innocent real estate agent. Meyer provides an unflinching look at the corruption in the state and the police force, along with an assortment of characters that bring the area to life.
It’s the seventh novel featuring Benny Griessel, and it prompted me to go back to earlier books in the series, starting with Thirteen Hours, which is set in Cape Town and involves a hunt for an American student and the mysterious death of an Afrikaans record producer.
Police procedurals are common; what distinguishes them is their ability to transport the reader to a different place. Deon Meyer is successful in doing this; his Cape in South Africa is a fascinating place to visit, even if you’re only doing so vicariously.
Darrell Delamaide is the author of Gold, a thriller, and three other books.