Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. South African crime fiction is as varied as the country itself is, and is getting some very well-deserved attention. For example, there are blogs such as Mack Lundy’s Africa Screams devoted to South African crime fiction and crime novels that take place in other parts of Africa. So today, let’s put the spotlight on South Africa and take a closer look at Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence.
The novel begins with the murder of Annette Botha, an account representative for a manufacturer of plastic kitchen goods. At first, it looks as though the murder is a carjacking gone horribly wrong. Soon, though, bits and pieces of evidence suggest that this murder was deliberate. Superintendent David Patel of the Johannesburg Police is getting a great deal of pressure to get the case solved immediately, and it’s not helping that his supervisor Commissioner Williams doesn’t think he should have gotten the Superintendent’s job in the first place. Patel’s swamped with other cases, too, and could use some help. So he’s delighted when he finds that Jade de Jong, the daughter of his former boss and mentor, is returning to South Africa after ten years away. De Jong’s become a private investigator and Patel is eager for her help with the Botha case. De Jong has her own secret reasons for returning home, but she agrees to work on the case and the two begin a more in-depth investigation. At first, Annette Botha’s husband Piet is the most logical suspect. But he claims that he’s innocent, and he seems to have no truly compelling motive.
Then, there’s another death. Private investigator Dean Grobbelar is brutally murdered and Patel now has a new case. And then there’s a third murder. All three murders seem to be random incidents of violence, each for a different reason. But Patel and de Jong begin to believe that the murders are related and that something sinister is going on. And so it is. The two sleuths find a trail of corruption and violence that lead to some powerful and important people.
At the same time as the police investigations are going on, Jade de Jong is pursuing her own agenda. Ten years earlier, her father and Patel’s mentor was killed in what seemed at first to be a tragic hit-and-run accident. But de Jong knows her father was murdered. His killer wasn’t convicted for the crime, but de Jong knows who was responsible. That person’s been in prison for ten years on another charge and is about to be released. She’s planning to deal with the killer in her own way. She hasn’t told Patel about her real reason for returning to Johannesburg because she knows that Patel would do everything he could to prevent her from indulging in “vigilante justice.” In the end, de Jong confronts her father’s killer and the truth about what really happened when her father was murdered. She also discovers the connection between that murder and the murders she’s investigating with Patel.
Several elements are woven throughout this story. One of them is the element of suspense. As the novel goes on, we discover that a number of things are not as they seem, and that very few people can be trusted. The closer that de Jong and Patel get to the truth, the fewer people there are who are willing to help them and the more danger they find. That sense of alone-ness gives the story an eerie touch. So does the overwhelming sense of fear that many people seem to have. Everyone who has any money at all lives in as closely guarded and secure a home as possible, and in fact, housing developments make much of the fences, alarm systems and other security options they offer. Here, for instance is a snippet of de Jong’s first night back in Johannesburg:
“Jade turned on all the lights and checked the cottage thoroughly. The front door was secure. The alarm was armed. The battery box that fed the electric fence was beeping quietly, its green light flashing.”
Those security measures are simply considered basic in this novel, and those who can afford it travel with armed guards and have even more enhanced home security. All of that feeds the sense of suspense in the novel and a great deal of it is because of the violence that runs rampant in the city.
This violence also plays out in other ways. The murders that occur are brutal (one in particular). It is worth noting, though, that although there is an “ick” factor, it’s really not gratuitous. It fits, if you like to put it that way, given the plot, the characters and the setting. The characters, too, respond to the violence around them. For instance, at one point, de Jong gets into a “road rage” incident that ends with her driving off at top speed after ramming another car. Most people are armed, and there’s a real sense that it’s “every man for himself.” This is most definitely not a quiet, cosy “village” mystery. In fact, it’s a thriller, so the pace and timing are as you’d expect for that kind of novel.
The two main characters in the novel are interesting and we learn their backstories as the novel goes on. They actually have a history together, as de Jong’s father was Patel’s mentor. Patel has always acted as a sort of “big brother” to de Jong, but now that she’s adult and has been on her own for ten years, he has to change the way he thinks about her. For her part, de Jong also changes her perception of Patel. The two have an attraction, but although it’s real, it’s not the central focus of the story. It creates an interesting level of tension, though, as de Jong struggles with whether she should trust Patel with the real reason for her return to South Africa, and as Patel struggles with his sense of loyalty to de Jong’s father. Jade de Jong is an intriguing protagonist. She’s more violent and impulsive than a lot of strong female protagonists are. And yet it’s easy to see why, given her background, her anger at her father’s murder and the danger she faces. She’s smart, sometimes funny, and quick-witted, and she’s intuitive, too. And yet, she’s far from perfect. It’s just my opinion, so feel free to disagree with me if you do, but Jade de Jong’s a solid example of a character who’s an excellent fit for her surroundings.
There are some deeper issues explored in the novel. The searing disparity between “haves” and “have-nots” plays a role in the story. There are also the lingering racial issues that South Africa continues to face. For instance, Patel has an Indian background and that affects the way he’s treated. Mackenzie addresses these realities head-on and bluntly, but without preaching.
Finally, there’s the South African setting. From the extremely elegant, expensive and heavily secured wealthy enclaves to the poorer sections of Johannesburg, and from the rural countryside to the downtown areas, we get the feeling that this story couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Mackenzie gives the reader a look at all of the sides of life in today’s South Africa. But what’s your view? Have you read Random Violence? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 27 June/Tuesday 28 June – Caves of Steel – Isaac Asimov
Tuesday 5 July/Wednesday 6 July – Mrs. Jeffries Forges Ahead – Emily Brightwell
Monday 11 July/Tuesday 8 July – McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square – Bartholomew Gill