Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Review: THE SERPENTINE ROAD
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
A Cape Town cop whose career dates back to the dark days of Apartheid finds himself juggling politics and policing in modern-day South Africa when a rich heiress is found murdered and displayed in a macabre homage to the explicit art she promoted.
Playwright turned crime writer Paul Mendelson's second Vaughn de Vries novel is a superb South African thriller, full of twists and intrigue.
There is so much to like about this book, but in particular, I found Colonel De Vries to be an incredibly interesting 'hero'. In a way. De Vries makes me think of a South African version of hit television show NYPD Blue's outstanding centrepiece, Andy Sipowicz - a gruff and somewhat bigoted man, very flawed, but dogged in his pursuit of justice and with a touch of nobility and many redeeming qualities that make it quite easy for readers/viewers to follow him through his search for the truth, in among all the political machinations of his situation.
In modern-day Cape Town, the daughter of a rich Apartheid-era industrialist is found slaughtered in her home. Her body has been posed in a grisly fashion that looks like a black-on-white racial hate crime, but as the police dig into her life, may also be linked to her controversial art exhibitions, or her sexual preferences.
The victim and the nature of the killing attracts media and political vultures, who quickly start swirling around De Vries' investigation. The haunted investigator finds himself butting up against his own paymasters, the progeny of a Mandela-era hero, and other powerful forces as he searches for the culprit.
It's a case that puts his career, and more, into jeopardy. De Vries' own life is in danger, because of both the current case and tendrils from his Apartheid past. Twenty five years before, as a young captain in a police force struggling with beginning of significant shifts in South Africa's power regime, he'd served under Major Kobus Nel, one of the most feared white police commanders. It was a turbulent time: Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, free elections were on the horizon, but extremist groups were looking to split the country further. Churches were bombed, gunman opened fire in public. Domestic terrorism.
Back then, Nel had urged his team to come down brutally hard on suspects, and their actions reverberated for decades afterwards. Nowadays, De Vries knows there are moral stains on his own record, and as a white cop in a black-ruled country that is still struggling to find its modern footing, and peace with its violent past, he rubs many the wrong way. He's jaded, both by his history working for Apartheid authorities and then ANC-controlled South Africa. He's witnessed failings and corruption under both systems, and endeavours to avoid the spiderweb of political maneuverings, even if he can't remain immune to them.
THE SERPENTINE ROAD is a searing read. From its sweltering setting to the sweat-inducing politics, Mendelson defly juggles the crime storyline while also providing intriguing insights into life in 1990s and modern-day South Africa: the prejudices, the power struggles, and the Rainbow Nation realities. Everything is far from black and white in a country whose history has been so much about black vs white.
Overall, this is a very fine thriller, a gripping read that provides some welcome sociological and psychological texture to go with a page-whirring narrative. I'll be reading more of Mendelson and De Vries, for sure.
I read THE SERPENTINE ROAD back in May 2015, and wrote a shorter review of Mendelson's excellent crime novel elsewhere at that time. This is a much more in-depth review based on my contemporary notes and further reflections on a very fine book. The book was later longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger; I believe a well-deserved accolade.
Craig Sisterson is a features writer from New Zealand who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 140 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson