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the drug trade

RESTLESS COFFINS . . . Between the covers

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This is the final part of MP Wright’s trilogy which began with Heartman in 2014. That, and the middle novel All Through The Night (2016), tell the story of Joseph Tremaine “JT” Ellington, an ex-cop with a tragic past. JT has been forced to leave his native Barbados as a result of his upsetting certain powerful people on the island; his personal fate, however, is nothing compared to that of his wife and daughter who have perished in a fire that was anything but accidental.

TRCEllington, broke and broken-hearted has ended up in 1960s Bristol, where he uses his police training to eke out a living as a private investigator. When he receives the news that his only sister, Bernice, has died in Barbados, he is compelled to return home to wind up her affairs. Hovering in the background, however, is Ellington’s violent criminal cousin Victor, who has reappeared after rumours of his tumbling to his death on the rocky slopes of Bristol’s Clifton Gorge prove to be greatly exaggerated. When Ellington arrives in New York after the first leg of his journey home, he rapidly realises that ‘born-again’ Vic is involved in something much more dangerous – and potentially lethal – than his previous mildly illegal entrepreneurship within the West Indian community in Bristol.

Hooked into a deadly game of guns, drugs, deceit, deaths – and then more deaths – Ellington eventually arrives in Barbados, but only after a sojourn in New Orleans, where the city’s reputation for exotic violence is further enhanced. By now, three coffins have joined the travelling party. Much too honest and trusting for this venture, it eventually dawns on Ellington that these coffins are part of not only a drug deal, but also the means by which the violently despotic Barbados criminal named Monroe – almost certainly the killer of Ellington’s wife and daughter – will be despatched to join his ancestors.

Restless Coffins is strong stuff. There is no shortage of corpses, and endless variety in the ways they are killed. The villains are evil personified and the good guys – with the exception of Ellington himself – are few and far between. Mark Wright certainly takes a position regarding the way black people in the 1960s were treated by the indigenous British population. Although very little of the action in Restless Coffins takes place in England, readers of the previous two books will know that the attitude of white people towards those we now call The Windrush Generation is almost entirely negative. And, reading today’s newspaper, it seems that those problems are far from over.

M.P._Wright_2016_2Wright has made the decision to phonetically transcribe all the dialogue between the main characters in his books. I have to admit that in Heartman it was a source of irritation to me, but such is the pace and vigour of the action in Restless Coffins that it didn’t seem to matter as much this time around. The new ‘crime’ of Cultural Appropriation seems to me to be one of the most pointless, misguided and irrelevant of fashionable 21st century dogmas, so you will hear no complaint from me about a white Englishman writing a novel with an almost entirely black cast, complete with speech patterns, vocabulary and inflections.

The bottom line is that this is a crackerjack novel, full of action, humour, social observation, historical accuracy, brilliant topographical descriptions and the absolute sine qua non of a good book – a central character who is credible and described with subtlety and nuance. If you read this, and don’t care about JT Ellington and what happens to him, then you have a heart of stone and the emotional sensibility of a fruit fly.

Restless Coffins is published by Black and White Publishing and is out now.

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THE HISTORY OF BLOOD …Between The Covers

AHOBWith 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

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