Now in Paperback: Thirteen Hours
by Deon Meyer
Grove Press, 2010
Deon Meyer’s Thirteen Hours (translated from the Afrikaans by K. L. Seegers) comes festooned with blurbs, including one from the hugely talented mystery-thriller author Don Winslow, who writes, “Try picking up Thirteen Hours and then setting it down. Try. You can’t do it. I’m a pro, and I couldn’t do it.”
Winslow is right about one thing: he is indeed a pro, the crafter of some of the best crime thrillers currently on the market. I bet he was in fact able to put Thirteen Hours down from time to time – I could, and I have fewer distractions than Winslow on any given reading afternoon (I mainly have one big, fat distraction). Breathless hyperbole is part of the blurbing business, and it shouldn’t blind us to what Winslow’s really writing. In his case, the loud unspoken question is: Why aren’t you reading Deon Meyer’s books?
It’s a fair question, and it reflects a reality Meyer’s publishers at Grove Atlantic would clearly like to change. Meyer is a best-selling author in Africa and most of Europe, writing taut suspense thrillers and murder mysteries set in a contemporary Africa far grittier and less forgiving than the one readers might know from the novels of Alexander McCall Smith. Instead, this is the imaginative territory of the dark, violent novels of “Michael Stanley.”
Meyer’s novels are all meticulously well-made and exciting, and they have the exotic seting genre readers increasingly prefer. They also tend to adhere to the current Mikael Blomkvist/Kurt Wallander pattern in which any main character tasked with investigating or solving crimes will be trudging middle-aged idiot (with a super-hot teen daughter) with a middling proficiency at paperwork and old take-out in his fridge. Think of it as Polonius, P.I.
In this kind of novel, the main character – in Thirteen Hours it’s Cape Town homicide detective Benny Griessel – will bumble along, muttering and under-staffed, until some scene in which he literally bumps into the killer and still doesn’t suspect anything until said killer gasps, “Oh no! It’s a cop!” The killer is usually backed by some kind of shadowy comic-book villain, and both usually have far broader designs than the one little crime that (eventually, very eventually) brings them to the attention of our main character, who’s trying not to let all this police-stuff get in the way of reconciling with his super-hot teen daughter.
It’s odd that this formula – in which the main character’s dull stupidity is the whole point – has become so popular, or perhaps it isn’t odd at all: perhaps it’s yet another anti-intellectual legacy of the George W. Bush ‘gut’ years, when intelligence itself was demonized to an extent not seen in the world since the age of Savonarola. In any case, the good news here is that Meyer’s writing rises above the formula every chance it gets. His plotting is crisp, his characters well-realized, his settings vividly described, and best of all, he unblinkingly shares with his readers all the tensions of life in modern Africa – obviously mainly racial tensions, which bubble just under the surface of every interaction and can even set old colleagues on edge, as in a quick scene in Thirteen Hours in which an imperious white witness to a crime infuriates Benny’s friend Inspector Dekker into angrily remembering his own past:
“It’s my fokken life. I was just so big, I said to my ma I’m gonna be a policeman. She skivvied her gat af so I could get Matric and go to the polieste. Not drive a fokken cash van …’
He wiped spit from his lips. Griessel said: ‘I do understand, Fransman, but …’
‘You think so? Have you been marginalised all your life? Now that you whiteys have affirmative action at your backs, now you think you understand? You understand fokkol, I’m telling you. You were either Baas or Klass, we were fokkol, always, we weren’t white enough then, we’re not black enough now; it never ends, stuck in the fucking middle of the colour palette. Now this white Christian lady says no, she’s not talking to a man, but she doesn’t know I can read her like I can read all the whiteys.’
‘Can you read me, Fransman?’ Griessel as growing too.
Dekker didn’t reply, but turned away breathing heavily.
Racial undertones are at play in the novel’s crime, too: a teenage white American girl has been found brutally murdered one morning on the street in Cape Town, and investigation (mainly conducted by other people while Benny mopes around maundering about how the dead girl reminds him of his hot teenage daughter) reveals that the dead girl was travelling with a companion, and the race is on to find a second distraught teen American girl somewhere in the veldt, pursued by killers. Will Benny finally find the courage to return his hot teenage daughter’s phone calls, and maybe invite her to dinner, someplace nice but not too expensive, since he’s just got his detective’s pay? Readers will have to find ways to handle the suspense – perhaps distractions about the poor American girl running for her life will help.
Commercially speaking, Deon Meyer could hope for nothing better than to be tagged with the line “If you liked the Kurt Wallander books, try Meyer,” but that tag-line would be a bit unfair, as would judging all of Meyer’s books by Thirteen Hours, which is his most focussed and entertaining book to date but also his most pandering. He’s actually a far more thoughtful storyteller than Henning Mankell (we might not even mention poor Stieg Larsson) and his ilk. His latest, Trackers, for example, is a delightfully ambitious and sprawling novel of international (though still Africa-centered) intrigue that will entertain readers on a far more complex level than anything an old bush-guide like Wilbur Smith could produce. And an earlier work, Blood Safari, is just about as lean and note-perfect as an action-thriller can get.
The one good thing about that “If you liked” tag – and it would be a very good thing – would be reader satisfaction: this is an author worth finding, worth trying, worth following. Grizzled old Don Winslow was right to praise Thirteen Hours, and the rest of Meyer’s work has equally deserved the wide-ranging praise it’s received. Give these books a try, and hand them on to friends. And somebody should tell old Benny about them – but there’s no rush.