With a worldwide wave of support, optimism and hopes for a bright future, the African National Congress swept to power in 1994, and post-apartheid South Africa was born, blinking in the light, but healthy and vigorous. Paul Mendelson’s gripping novel of crime and corruption shows that the rainbow dream has not yet turned into a fully grown nightmare, but it reveals a country where racial and social tensions are never far from the surface.
Mendelson introduced readers to Colonel Vaughn de Vries of The Special Crimes Unit in The First Rule Of Survival (2014) and now de Vries returns to investigate the grim world of the international drug trade. The novel is set mostly in Cape Town, where Mendelson lives for part of the year, and it begins with the sad discovery of the body of a young woman in a run-down hotel. Chantal Adam is the adopted daughter of Charles Adam, a rich and influential businessman, but her blood father was Willem Fourie Adam, Charles’s brother, who was assassinated in 1994, after the elections.
Chantal lived the dream as a successful model and advertising poster girl, but a move to America brought only grief, heartbreak, and a bitter separation from her adoptive family. Now she lies dead, wrists slashed with glass, in a shabby hotel room usually used for by-the-hour sexual sexual activities. She is haggard and emaciated, but her degradation is complete when the post mortem reveals that she has ingested a large number of condoms packed with heroin.
We follow de Vries as he picks up the trail from the wretched death of Chantal Adam, to a stable of girls used by ruthless men to ferry drugs to the Far East, and then on to a man whose organised crime CV includes running a game park offering forbidden targets to American trophy hunters, and being at the very centre of political and financial corruption in South Africa and neighbouring states. Reluctantly, de Vries enlists the help of John Marantz, a former British intelligence agent, whose life has been rendered meaningless by the abduction and murder of his wife and daughter.
Like all interesting fictional coppers, de Vries is conflicted. He suffers fools with a bad grace, if at all, and his contempt for incompetence in fellow police officers is entirely colour blind. There aren’t too many of his comrades-in-print who have happy and flourishing marriages, and he is not one of them, although his fierce love for his daughters remains undiminished. He is not a man to back away from a fight, either political or physical, but neither is he a stone cold killer, as a key incident in this book reveals. He is also human enough to make dumb personal decisions which threaten to derail his career.
There are two distinct backdrops to this excellent novel; the first shows a country where the natural landscape can be harsh or almost impossibly beautiful; the second is the socio-political climate, and here Mendelson shows compassion, subtlety, but – above all – honesty. This is not a hatchet job where the white minority watch with sneers on their faces as the country’s new rulers make mistake after mistake, but a thoughtful and perceptive account of the pitfalls and temptations facing those for whom high office is, in some cases, a genuine challenge.
The complexities of the politics make for an intriguing read, but above all this a thoroughly good crime thriller, and I look forward to Vaughn de Vries returning for a new battle with the forces of evil. The History Of Blood is available online and if you want another fine novel set in contemporary South Africa, then try The Monster’s Daughter by Michelle Pretorius