Wednesday, 28 October 2015


The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson

Colonel of the South African Police Service Vaughn de Vries is a typical protagonist of classic crime fiction.  Suffering Burn-out?  Of course.  Marriage down the tubes?  Naturally.  Finding solace in Alcohol?  Goes without saying.  Appearance less than inviting?  Women ‘avert their eyes when they see him sitting at the bar’. 
            In short, Colonel de Vries’s life is rather less than satisfactory – except when he is working:  his job is ‘what gets him up in the morning’, and his passion for justice is legendary;  it is what elevates him above the norm, especially in respect of his colleagues, new examples of the integrated police force of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, all vying for power and prestige in a department formerly run by white men like de Vries, whose time must surely soon be up.  They hope.  Yes, give him a bit more time and he will be the author of his own misfortune …… until the naked bodies of two malnourished teenaged boys are found in a skip at the back of a farm café miles from Capetown, de Vries’s base.  They have been murdered, and Vaughn, the token white officer is sent to investigate – and finds to his horror that they are the victims of a terrible abduction seven years before, when three young white boys, one the son of a serving police officer, were kidnapped on three consecutive days, never to be seen again.
            It is a case that has haunted Vaughn’s dreams, turned them into nightmares and destroyed his peace of mind forever, especially when the case becomes cold after months of searching fruitlessly for clues – any clue – as to their fate.  Now, two of the three kidnap victims have been found, obviously transported to the skip after death – from where?  And where is the third boy?  de Vries and his immediate superior Hendrik du Toit faced unprecedented contempt from the media and eminent child psychologists alike for their inability to provide answers seven years ago:  now, their new bosses are demanding bold actions and quick solutions to the murders;  any delay will reflect badly on the new Rainbow police hierarchy.  Those dinosaur Boers Messrs du Toit and de Vries better shape up or ship out.
            British writer Paul Mendelson has constructed an impressive debut thriller for his first foray into crime writing.  He has created credible, excellent characters – especially Vaughn’s black second-in-command Warrant Officer Don February, so called because his real name would be impossible for most people to pronounce – and his descriptions of the wild and splendid coastline and croplands around Capetown make one feel that they are riding shotgun with Vaughn de Vries and Don February, hanging over their shoulders, exhorting them to find the killers before more children are abused and killed.
            This is a page-turner par excellence, made the more readable by its magnificent setting.  FIVE STARS!!

The Antipodeans, by Greg McGee.
            Bruce Spence, an elderly, terminally ill New Zealand lawyer makes a final sentimental visit to Italy accompanied by his only child Clare:  he wishes to see Venice one last time;  to meet with old friends of his youth from the surrounding towns, particularly a little inland village called San Pietro, where he used to (of all things) coach and play rugby back in the 70’s.  Clare is happy to go with him;  apart from her worry about his frailty, she also needs the distraction:  life back in Auckland has dealt her some harsh blows of late, starting with the classic husband-sleeping-with-best-friend-right punch, then the left uppercut of hubby and besty defrauding her business, something her father discovered by accident.
            To say that Clare feels bitter and betrayed is a massive understatement.  Her wanderings through Venice, that magical place of gorgeous light and stunning architecture, fail to move her:  she is impatient with her father’s clumsy and shuffling attempts to find his way to obscure little piazzi;  cafes that used to be in a certain place but aren’t any longer;  his searching scans of any elderly female that crosses his path, and his insistence in lugging around his old briefcase containing several musty folders, all of which he tells her she must read when he dies.
            His reunion with the friends of his youth produces much laughter but many tears, for it is clear to his old companions that he will die soon, but to Clare, there seems to be an undercurrent, a trove of secrets from the past that everyone knows something  of – everyone except herself.  And their common knowledge seems to centre on events of the Second World War, when Italy became the meat in the sandwich, occupied by the Germans until they were driven back and defeated (not without huge casualties) by the Allied troops.
            The more light Clare tries to shed on the mystery, the more impenetrable it seems, until the inevitable occurs:  Bruce finally succumbs to his illness;  his strength has run out, and to occupy herself as she grieves by her beloved Dad’s hospital bed, Clare finally begins to read the contents of those yellowing folders.
            Greg McGee has given us a story of astonishing depth and power.  He covers three generations, starting with the friendship between two young men from Oamaru in the South Island of New Zealand, recounting their experiences as enlisted men during World War Two, and their eventual capture and internment in an Italian Prison camp.  Harry Spence is the leader of the two, a lightning-quick thinker and planner, and absolutely ruthless in achieving any objectives he sets himself, be it getting extra food, or escaping from the camp.  Joe Lamont is a follower;  he has been badly wounded and is troubled by nightmares;  he has also been brought up Catholic by a fearsome bully of a father, has a huge work ethic and a conscience to match.  He is an intelligent young man, appalled at Harry’s amorality, but smart enough to know that if they stick together they will survive.  The phrase ‘turn a blind eye’ has never been more apt.    
            Survive they do, but at a cost that Joe is horrified to pay:  good Italian families who helped them are punished fatally for their generosity and Harry, who has earned  a well-deserved reputation as a fearless partisan, killing Germans and blowing up bridges and railway lines (with Joe’s expert assistance) reveals shameful feet of clay. 
            The acts of both men have consequences that echo through the generations, and Mr McGee never lets the pace falter for a second;  he switches timelines with such skill that the reader always regrets leaving one set of protagonists whilst welcoming another.  I was sorry to leave these wonderful characters.  This is great New Zealand fiction.  SIX STARS!!

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibin.

1969:  Man has travelled to the moon and the world is rejoicing – but the everyday tragedies of life still occur.  In Ireland, the Webster family have just  lost their beloved father Maurice too soon to a long illness which has had a lasting and terrible effect on the younger children Donal and Conor. Their mother Nora is at a loss as to how to manage her own grief, let alone find sufficient comfort for her two boys.  Her teenage girls are more self-sufficient, less dependent on her which she feels is a good thing;  her childhood and youth have made Nora very self-contained, teaching her to keep her many disappointments to herself, like having to leave school early because her mother needed the money that she would bring home as an office worker at Gibney’s, the major employer in the area.  When she and Maurice married, she saw their union as her release from bondage to a job she hated.  Marriage stood for freedom for Nora:  now she finds she will have to return to work (back to Gibney’s!!) just to make ends meet.  Her freedom is over.
            In spare and beautiful prose, Mr Tóibin tells Nora’s story;  her attempts to make sense of her new circumstances, and how she must find the means to change them, for no-one else can live her life, and no-one else (she thinks) should be ‘poking their nose’ into how the family is managing – but they do:  from the unsolicited advice provided by her sisters, to the officious help given to the boys, particularly by Maurice’s brother and sister (‘we can afford it – we’ve a bit put by!), down to her bossy Aunt Josie, who induces her to have a fortnight in Spain because it will do her good.  Unfortunately, Josie snores like a bull elephant and Nora is forced to occupy a cubby-hole in the hotel basement in an attempt to get any sleep at all. 
            No – her family will just have to realise that she and her children will manage, and should just scale down their interference.  Until Nora realises that her boys – and indeed, the girls when they are home, get along with her family a whole lot better than she does.  Donal, her eldest son, he of the recent terrible stutter, goes to sister-in-law Margaret’s house daily, for she has converted a space into a little darkroom for him to develop his photos;  they share easy conversation and a camaraderie that Nora has never experienced with him.  Major decisions concerning her family are being taken by other people, including sending Donal to boarding school, something he swears he wants, not that he had ever told her. 
            Nora’s unwanted new life seems to be lurching out of her control – until she finds unexpected comfort in music, particularly singing, for she had ‘a voice’ when she was young:  can she find that voice again?  She meets new friends without even trying when she joins the Gramophone Society (without possessing such a thing) and listens to members talking about their favourite composers.  Very gradually, Nora returns to life again, a different life without her beloved Maurice, but one with new passions, and a new confidence born of having the courage to make decisions she would never have thought of if he were still there.
            And her pesky family – that family who won’t leave her and the children alone for more than five minutes:  far from being a hindrance to her bold new existence, they prove time and again that they are the mesh, the safety-net that keeps her upright, stops her from falling – every time.  This is a lovely story, beautifully written.  FIVE STARS.        


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