Sunday, October 4, 2015


NOBODY DIES by Zirk van den Berg (Black Swan, 2004)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A South African policewoman has found an easy way to make criminals in her witness protection programme impossible to find; she kills them. When Daniel, a relatively innocent man, is placed in her ‘care’, he must find a way to survive the cop and the criminals who both want him dead. 

I always find it an interesting experience plunging into a book I've heard lots of good things about. There's that strange mix of hopeful anticipation, and fear that it won't match the acclaim - meaning I'll be left disappointed, even if it would otherwise have been a good read. Expectations can be funny things.

Zirk van den Berg's debut thriller left no doubt. I closed the covers thinking, 'man, they were right' - it's a terrific tale that easily matched my high expectations, a searing literary thriller that's both beautifully written and an enthralling page-turner, the kind of book that lingers in your mind even years later.

It's also a book with an unusual history. Zirk van den Berg is a Namibian-born South African who moved to New Zealand, like a number of his countrymen, in the 1990s. After it's release in 2004, NOBODY DIES garnered superb reviews, was listed as a 'Top 5 Thriller of the Year', then later fell out of print. I discovered the book after Stephen Stratford, a former head judge of New Zealand's premier literary award who also loves good thriller writing, mentioned how great a book it was when interviewed for a Sunday Star-Times feature article about New Zealand crime writing in 2010. So I grabbed a copy from a secondhand store, but it sat on my shelf for a while. Recently it's been re-released in ebook form, then translated into Afrikaans for the South African market, going on to win a major award over there last November.

So NOBODY DIES has earned some big props, so to speak, in countries half a world apart, a decade apart. Very unusual. It's well-regarded by several esteemed crime critics who've read it, but due to the vagaries of the publishing world, continues to fly under the radar for even quite keen thriller fans.

The very definition of a hidden gem; a big old diamond in this case.

The beauty of this book begins with its characters. Erica van der Linde is a well-liked young cop on the career fast-track, but she has plenty of demons she keeps hidden, spurred by a tragic past. Her policeman father was gunned down, and Erica has very black/white views about criminals, including those under her care in the witness protection programme. Daniel Enslin starts out as a bit of a 'failure', a man with a broken marriage and crumbling life who gets his only kicks by hanging out with notorious Cape Town gangster Frank Redelinghuys. As van den Berg writes, Daniel's "personal life had little more allure than a game of solitaire played with an incomplete deck of cards".

Meanwhile, Frank likes to portray himself as a successful businessman, if embracing a 'slighty dodgy' image, but in reality he's a cold-hearted drug dealer willing to kill to retain his position. Nic Acker is a middle-aged cop relegated to the lower leagues after failing to nail Frank in the past.

When Daniel witnesses Frank kill someone, he realises he's way over his head, and goes to Acker for help. Buoyed by a chance at redemption, Acker ends up arranging witness protection for Daniel as the case is delayed. Frank wants Daniel dead - but he has Erica to protect him at least... right?

NOBODY DIES is a terrific page-turner, with plenty of action to keep the story moving at pace. But it never feels breezy or 'thin', there's a lot of depth to this thriller. It has an excellent plot, but is firmly character driven. Daniel, Erica, and Acker are all fully-formed characters who've lost their way, regardless of how their outward costumes of success or failure seem to fit. NOBODY DIES operates superbly as an exciting crime tale with depth, but it's also more than that; it's a story of the character arcs of three people who are all searching for something in their own lives, and themselves.

Powered by impeccable prose that veer poetic at times, van den Berg's debut brings South Africa vividly to life, from the social clutter of the big cities to the wide expanses of the countryside. An absorbing, tense tale that delves into the grey areas in human hearts and minds. Terrific.

If you speak Afrikaans, you can find NOBODY DIES in print form under the name N' ANDER MENS. 

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