Deon Meyer’s new book Icarus gets me thinking about cops in crime fiction.
A couple of weeks ago I stopped off in Johannesburg on my way back from Zimbabwe to Singapore. I was staying with an old friend and former colleague from my Heinemann days, when I was publisher of the African Writers Series so, even though I was only there for one night, I was thrilled when she told me she had got us tickets to go and hear South Africa’s best-selling crime writer, Deon Meyer, talk about his new book, Icarus. In fact I vaguely remembered reading and enjoying one of his thrillers, 13 Days, not so long ago. I am a great fan of the genre and have read thrillers from all over the world, my latest favourite being Qiu Xialong’s Inspector Chen series.
The best cops or private detectives are nearly always hugely flawed characters: the women tend to be impetuous, dangerously brave and have attitude, like Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski, Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander and Camilla Lackberg’s Erica Falck (maybe Miss Marple doesn’t share all of these attributes but she certainly has tenacity in place of attitude).
The men, on the other hand, nearly always seem to be pretty hopeless and have problems of addiction, usually to alcohol. The great Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender immediately springs to mind, a hugely troubled soul, unable to maintain relationships with women or his daughter, although addiction to work might give the booze a run for its money, something he shares with Hercule Poirot, who has OCD, which is, I suppose, a form of addiction too; Dave Robicheaux, antihero of of the quite superb series of books set in Louisiana by James Lee Burke, is recovering alcoholic whose sense of justice quite often leads him into foolhardy situations. Joe Nesbo’s Harry Hole is a complete wreck – booze, drugs, women – and yet we love him, as we do all our flawed cops.
And Deon Meyer gives us Bennie Griessel, another alcoholic who has, by the time we read Icarus, one marriage and two estranged children under his belt, and is skating on thin ice in his current relationship with another recovering alcoholic, surely a recipe for disaster.
Deon is at great pains not to give away too much in his talk at Love Books in Joburg and, likewise, I must follow his example. However, we learn in the first few pages that Bennie has been on the waggon for 602 days, only to fall off it quite spectacularly, and the struggle for his sobriety becomes a key plot driver.
Meyer is not content to have one alcohol-related storyline in the book, so he adds a well-researched history of the development of the South African wine industry. Fascinatingly, he reveals that he was not in fact a great drinker, preferring a whisky to a glass of wine. Had I read the book before the talk, I would have asked him how he manages to get inside the head of an alcoholic so convincingly. As a writer myself, I am in awe of those who can imagine what it is like to be something that they are not – a man, a woman, an animal (think Animal Farm) and in this case an alcoholic.
The cause of Bennie’s lapse and lack of self-esteem is wrung out of him by his partner, Vaughn Cupido: the sense of helplessness and spiralling depression in the face of the wave of of crime the Hawks deal with on a daily basis. ‘How are we going to save them? How are we going to turn this around?…we can’t stop the tide, it’s not ever going to draw back…the disease, the serial killers, more, every day there are more of them, and they are getting sicker. It’s like a moerse train that’s just picking up speed. The brakes are fucked Vaughn – we are the brakes, and we are fucked’.
Cupido encourages him to go back into therapy, something which he resists. But the therapist gives great comfort: ‘The purpose of therapy is to analyse traumatic events until you understand that you are not responsible for the damage that has been done. The dilemma is that your job is one long string of traumatic experiences. You told me yourself how you experience the last moments of your victims’ lives, every time you arrive on a murder scene. But it isn’t all as terrible as it sounds. With hard work you can master the the techniques to handle this on your own in due course.’ So therapy offers hope and support for a future without the alcohol, which Benny turns to as an antidote to having to carry so much guilt. One feels that Meyer is sending a universal message of hope for all sufferers of this disease. Surely there must be some personal – direct or indirect – experience that feeds his fiction?
In case this sounds like a heavy read, rest assured that there are some lighter touches too. Budding romance for Cupido and an amazingly coincidental main story-line involving a company called Alibi, that provides electronically-forged alibis for adulterers using sites such as Ashley Maddison. The irony is not lost on Deon Meyer, although he wrote the book long before the data scandal hit the headlines. How he chuckles when questioned about it.
Meyer takes some witty little side-swipes at the Pistorious case, politics and political correctness. I particularly like the references to the cult foodie author ‘Dr Tim’ Noakes, whose faddy cauliflower diet Bennie’s female boss, Major Mbali Kuleni, is rigidly following. My hostess was exhorting me to buy the book at the airport, but I am wise to so-called gurus who chop and change their message according to fashion (check my website www.healthylivingwithcancer.co for a much more sensible take on a balanced lifestyle!)
So our Bennie fits nicely into the stereotypical cop character, whose ups and downs propel a successful series of crime thrillers. And make no mistake, Deon Meyer is in the top 20 writers on the world stage during the past 10 years. Like all major figures in crime fiction, he’s simultaneously loveable and irritating, but I am sure Benny will live on, drunk or sober. We’ll have to wait and see where Deon Meyer takes him next.