No, no , this is not about Alexander McCall -Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency Series. That series was set in Botswana and besides , much as I love Mma Ramotswe, the last couple of novels in this series have been lackluster . McCall-Smith seems to be coasting on the heels of his earlier successes.
The novel that I’m excited about is Random Violence by first time novelist, Jassy Mckenzie. Normally I don’t like to read mystery novels by women writers (I feel women are too nice , too sensitive to write about grisly crimes like murder) , particularly if they feature a woman detective (don’t feel they’re credible in what is often a violent profession) . However I’m glad I made an exception in the case of this book. Jassy Mckenzie, a South African journalist who lives near Johannesburg , is a skilled writer who handles the fight scenes and the violence most convincingly and her heroine, Jade de Jong is a tough as nails private sleuth whom you ‘d be glad to have on your side in a fight.
Random Violence begins with Jade de Jong returning to Johannesburg after ten years spent in England. She is met by Superintendent David Patel who used to work with her late father , the Commissioner of Police. David puts her up in the bungalow next to his and she agrees to help him with the baffling murder of Annette Botha who was shot as she was about to enter her house. One of Jade’s first actions is to visit an old acquaintance ,Robbie , a hard man who metes out vigilante justice. From him she acquires a gun and slowly we begin to understand her reasons for coming back to South Africa. Ten years ago, her father Commissioner de Jong, had been killed in a staged accident while he was investigating a murder case involving the Viljoen brothers. Jade herself had narrowly escaped an assassination attempt and had fled to England. One of the Viljoens died in prison but the other brother is about to be released from prison and Jade has come back to exact vengeance.
As she waits for Viljoen to be released , Jade begins to look into the Botha murder case. Annette had been separated from her artist husband , Piet, but they had planned on getting back together again. In such cases the victim’s spouse is always a suspect but Jade quickly decides that he’s incapable of having planned the murder. It appears, however, that Annette had hired a private detective, Dean Grobelaar, for reasons that are a mystery. Jade is able to identify the detective but before she can meet him he is abducted and brutally murdered. Jade visits his office to search for clues but is lucky to get away unscathed as two armed black men invade the office and set it ablaze. Obviously, what Annette Botha had wanted Grobelaar to investigate led to their deaths. But what was it ? Working with David Patel and also with Robbie , Jade begins to unravel the mystery. The suspense builds as one clue leads to another. What Jade does not know is that the villain, a vicious psychopath, has been keeping tabs on her. He is stalking her even as she inches closer and closer to the answer tothe mystery. The situation explodes into a violent climax but not before the story takes a couple of surprising turns.
Watching the recent World Cup held in South Africa, I’d wondered what life really was like in that country. Random Violence supplied some of the answers. The author , Jassy Mckenzie, has lived in South Africa for most of her life and her knowledge of the country is apparent in her descriptions of Jade’s youth in Turffontein, of the tenuous law-and-order situation in South Africa, of police corruption and of the life of the black majority.In this respect, Random Violence was poles apart from Inspector Singh Investigates , a mystery about a Singaporean detective in Malaysia that I’d also read recently. That book was written by Shamini Flint , an English lawyer who has traveled extensively in South East Asia but does not live there. Unsurprisingly, her descriptions of life in Malaysia seem weak don’t ring quite true . There is no such problem with Jassy McKenzie’s writing.
What I also appreciated about the book was the slow unfolding of the plot which kept me engrossed as step by step Jade got closer and closer to her quarry. The characters in the book are all well drawn though I didn’t particularly care for the way in which David Patel was depicted. Except that he is a good cop , brave and incorruptible, he isn’t particularly interesting.The one other criticism I have was the author’s handling of Jade’s romantic interest (which wasn’t convincing ) and the incompleteness of its resolution.
Still these are minor matters. Random Harvest is a gripping mystery and one hopes that is only the first of a series.
Random Harvest by Jassy Mckenzie.Soho Press , New York ( 2010) $ 25.
P.S As readers of this blog know, I like to read mysteries of all kinds but particularly those set in foreign climes. Of late , I’ve come across quite a few with African settings . You may want to try some of these.
A Carrion Death and The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu by Michael Stanley.They are set in Botswana , a grittier, more authentic Botswana than that depicted by Alexander McCall Smith in his Mma. Ramotswe novels though Stanley’s Inspector Kubu is just as engaging a proagonist.
Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey. Set in Ghana and featuring Inspector Darko Dawson.
Dead before Dying (1999), Dead at Daybreak ( 2000) , Heart of the Hunter ( 2003) , Devil’s Peak ( 2007) and Blood Safari ( 2009) . by Deon Meyer. Transalated from the Afrikaans , these violent , thrilling adventures offer a fascinating glimpse of life in post-apartheid South Africa.