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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

COBRA. Deon Meyer (Writer), K.L. Seegers (Translation). Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (2015)

A gripping and very entertaining South African crime story. Four people are killed and another is missing after an attack on a guesthouse at a South African wine farm. The Hawks, an elite South African Police Service squad are given the case, the Hawks team is lead by Benny Griessel, a recovering alcoholic and very capable detective. The missing man quickly becomes a mystery and the bullet cases found at the scene, engraved with the image of a spitting cobra hint at flamboyance at odds with the precision of the attack. In Cape Town Tyrone Kleinbooi, a pickpocket is struggling to find the money to pay his sisters university fees. A deft piece of work goes spectacularly wrong and Tyrone finds himself running for his life. Benny Griessel finds that the missing man is of great interest to the intelligence services and the bullet cases have international links. As the investigation becomes more and more entangled with powerful agencies with agendas of their own and Tyrone's situation becomes more desperate, the plot threads wind together very cunningly to reach unexpected and very satisfying conclusions.
The plot mechanics are superb, the reveals are staged with great skilll to reveal and hide as they should, the pressure is maintained and increased very credibly as the story winds steadily to the conclusion.
Deon Meyer has achieved a wonderful balance between the plot and the cast, they collide with each other with sufficient force to create tension and with enough room for the unexpected to work really well and the cast to actively influence the sequence of events.
Benny Griessl is a great lead character, he was a policeman who took to alcohol to blunt the compromises that working under apartheid rules imposed on him and is still paying the price as a police officer in the new South Africa.  The impact of his drinking is nicely used , the problem he is dealing with is credible and harsh without distorting his competence as an investigator. Benny is widely experienced and thoughtful, he leads to investigation with care, as it becomes increasingly difficult to conduct the investigation he includes his team openly and they respond vividly.
Tyrone is a great counterpoint to Benny, a pickpocket who is trying to support his sister's studies while hiding how he gets the money. Tyrone is a competent, skilled operator who is under severe pressure and when the pressure becomes deadly does not give in. Tyrone is resourceful, he has to be to survive on the streets as he does, he is capable of making and executing smart plans against cunning enemies. He is never supernaturally or extravagantly clever, he is highly motivated and focused as well as having the advantage of being on his home ground.
The story moves between Benny and Tyrone with care and craft, the reveals that pull the threads closer together are very carefully set up, they reveal more to the reader than the cast and this is used to increase the tension in a very smart way. There is a very welcome thread of hard won compassion for his cast in the story, Deon Meyer pushes them very hard, he never needlessly punishes them for being who they are.
K.L. Seegers translation is transparent and clever, the story is littered with Afrikaans works which need no translation, the meaning is clear from the context, they add greatly to the flavour of the story bringing the context vividly home for the reader. Smart crime writing, an engaging cast this is a pleasure to read.

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