Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. In many crime fiction novels, the plot revolves around a police detective or other sleuth who investigates a murder or a set of murders. In those kinds of novels there’s a sense of basic order to life, even if those affected by the murder(s) are devastated by what’s happened. But not all places are orderly and in those cases, the “regular rules” don’t apply. Such a place is the South Africa we see in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. To see what I mean, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Dust Devils.
The novel begins with the murder of wealthy Cape Town entrepreneur Ben Baker. His murder makes the news quickly not only because of his affluence but also because he was rumoured to be involved in a corrupt “arrangement” with South Africa’s minister of justice. The rumours are also that Baker was about to try to save himself by “turning” and revealing all that he knew. The only witness to Baker’s murder is his mistress Rosie Dell but it’s not long before she becomes a victim too. One day, she, her husband Robert and their two children are ambushed while they’re on the road. Their car goes over an embankment and is destroyed, taking the lives of everyone but Robert Dell.
As though Dell’s physical wounds and the devastating loss of his family weren’t enough, he soon realises that the police suspect him of killing his family. Nothing he says convinces the police that he’s innocent and it soon becomes clear that Dell is being framed for murder. He’s charged and imprisoned with little chance of being cleared. Help comes from a very unlikely source – Dell’s father Bobby Goodbread. Dell and Goodbread haven’t had any contact for twenty-five years, mostly because of Dell’s repudiation of Goodbread’s pro-Apartheid stance. But Goodbread is still Dell’s father and he engineers Dell’s rescue.
That’s when Dell finds out that the man behind both Baker’s murder and those of Dell’s wife and children is Inja Mazibuko , a powerful Zulu leader and a man firmly in the pocket of the minister of justice. Goodbread knows something else about Mazibuko, too. He knows that Mazibuko is on his way back to his home in Zululand because he’s about to get married. Goodbread’s plan is to follow Mazibuko there and force him to confess to the murders. Dell is sure the plan won’t work, but as the deaths of his family members sink in, he does want revenge. More, he wants to expose the man who paid Mazibuko to commit the murders. So he falls in with his father’s plan.
Meanwhile, another man is also heading to Zululand. Disaster Zondi has just lost his job as a government bureaucrat. He’s not sure what he’ll do next when he receives an odd fax: a wedding invitation with a ‘photo of the bride. With a shock, Zondi realises that the bride looks familiar. What’s more, he knows the groom-to-be, too – Inja Mazibuko. So Zondi decides to return to his homeland.
Each for different reasons, Goodbread, Dell and Zondi move closer to their target and as they do, things get more and more dangerous, especially when it becomes clear that Mazibuko had originally intended to kill Dell too and now has to deal with the fact that he left a witness behind. At the same time, Mazibuko’s intended Sonto, who usually goes by the English name of Sunday, makes plans of her own. She has very personal reasons for not wanting to marry Mazibuko and despite her culture’s customs, decides that she’ll do whatever it takes not to marry him.
As the wedding day approaches, everyone moves closer to the final showdown (I know – that sounds cliché. In this case though it’s appropriate). In the end, we see how these characters’ choices play out as they hunt each other.
One of the elements that run through this novel is a sense of virtual lawlessness and chaos. Even in Cape Town, and in certainly in Zululand, the police can’t be trusted to maintain order and come to the aid of citizens. It really is a case of “every man for himself,” and that lends a strong feeling of paranoia and distrust to the novel. No-one can really trust anyone else, and once the setting moves from Cape Town to Zululand, we also see how many people live in fear of reprisals. Goodbread knows what it’s like “out there” but at first Dell doesn’t and through his eyes we see how that lack of order and basic trust can lead people to violence.
And this novel is a violent novel. Readers who prefer light novels with little bloodshed will be disappointed. That said though – and I’d like to stress this – the violence is not gratuitous. It’s not described in minute, gory un-necessary detail either.
Another element that runs throughout this novel is the set of characters. In the course of the novel for instance we learn of the complicated relationship between Goodbread and his son. Goodbread is much more than a “cardboard cutout” of the old-guard pro-Apartheid activist. And Dell is much more than a rebellious son who fought against his father’s ideals. There’s also the character of Disaster Zondi. He has depths and layers and a past history that go far beyond the “surface picture” we get of a bureaucrat trying to survive when his boss’ career is ended. And then there’s Sunday, who shows her own strength of character when it becomes clear, at least to her, that the only way she has to escape her fate is to save herself. Although each of these characters has every reason to be self-destructive, none of them really is. Each of them is forced by situation to make difficult, sometimes horrible choices, and that too adds tension to the story.
It’s also worth noting that the story is told from the several points of view of the main characters. So readers who prefer just one perspective will be disappointed. But Smith’s choice to use multiple points of view gives the reader solid insights into the characters and their backstories. Some of those backstories are told via flashbacks, but it’s clear in the story when that’s happening, so it doesn’t pull the reader out of the story.
This is not a light, easy read; in fact it’s rough and gritty. Nor is it the kind of novel where the sleuth catches the “bad guy” and we return to a sense of “everything will be OK now.” Not in the larger sense of that nor in the lives of the characters. But it is an exploration of how a set of individuals cope when terrible things, often out of their control, happen to them.
The novel has a strong element of the setting, too. This is a story that really couldn’t take place just anywhere. The plot is uniquely South Africa and so are the characters. Smith also gives readers a strong sense of the physical setting, especially of the part of Zululand where a lot of the action occurs.
The pace of the novel is fast and there’s a lot of action. That said though, the action all makes sense given the plot and the setting, and the pace is not so fast as to be confusing.
An unsettling and dark story, Dust Devils has a uniquely South African plot and cast of characters and shows what happens when people have to survive in a world in which they can’t really depend on anything. But what’s your view? Have you read Dust Devils? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 25 June/Tuesday 26 June – Grey Mask – Patricia Wentworth
Monday 2 July/Tuesday 3 July – Death on a Galician Shore – Domingo Villar
Monday 9 July/Tuesday 10 July – Body on the Stage – Bev Robitai