In South Africa Zatopek (Zet to his friends) van Heerden is an ex cop now working, reluctantly, as a private detective. Lawyer Hope Beneke hires him to find the will of an antiques dealer called Johannes Jacobus Smit who was killed in his home nearly a year earlier. If the will is not found within seven days Hope’s client, Wilna van As who was Smit’s live-in partner, will not receive any of Smit’s estate. One thread of this book takes off then as a fairly standard, if action-packed, procedural that counts back from Day 7 through van Heerden’s investigation into what happened to Smit and where the will might have ended up. The other thread of the book, revealed in alternating chapters, is a recounting of Zet’s life from his childhood onwards to his present circumstance of being self-proclaimed trash with evil in his heart.
The flawed protagonist is certainly not a new invention but I did find myself completely engaged by Zet van Heerden whose route to personal destruction is far from run-of-the-mill. The son of a miner and an artist, Zet’s journey to becoming a policeman and profiler is revealed in such a way that it feels perfectly natural and entirely believable even though it described many events which are completely foreign to me. One of the things that I like most about the characterisation of Zet is that although he’s depicted as quite sad, even depressed at times, he’s not always so and he does maintain some healthy relationships. For example he’s very close to his mother, the only woman he cooks for, and manages to make great friends with some unlikely people along the way even if he struggles to find the kind of love his father and mother shared.
The plot is quite complicated, with both threads getting sidetracked at times, but I found it remarkably easy to follow which is a credit to both Meyer’s writing and the excellent translation from Afrikaans by Madeleine Van Biljon which has retained all the bantering and colloquialisms that are sometimes lost in translated novels. As often happens with thrillers I did find the ending a teeny bit disappointing in terms of the alarming number of testosterone fueled shoot-outs that took place, but overall it was interestingly paced, full of suspense and quite unpredictable. Along the way there are some absolutely beautiful vignettes, such as when Zet and Hope discuss their personal feelings about the country’s referendum on apartheid in 1992 or when Tiny Mpayipheli, a man Zet engages to protect his mother when the search for the will gets dangerous, describes a rugby match he played in the Soviet Union.
Dead at Daybreak is a little more noir than what I tend to think of as ‘my’ kind of crime fiction but I found it captivating. Alongside the male-dominated narrative and the shootouts at the end there’s plenty of heart and intelligence in this book which made it a very satisfying reading experience for me. Saul Reichlin added to my enjoyment with his wonderful narration which included excellent South African accents that helped make me feel like I was half a world away and he might just have the sexiest voice I’ve heard on an audio book. Ever.
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My rating 4/5
Translator: Madeleine Van Biljon; Narrator: Saul Reichlin; Publisher: Whole Story Audiobooks [this edition 2007, originally 2000]; ISBN: N/A (downloaded from audible.com); Length 13hrs 3mins; Setting: South Africa
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