Review: Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer

This is the last book I needed to read to complete the 2010 CWA International Dagger Award shortlist and is the third book I have read by Deon Meyer.

The story takes place across a single day. In the early Cape Town morning almost simultaneously a young girl’s body is found in a churchyard and a record producer is discovered dead in his home with his alcoholic wife sleeping nearby. Both cases are high profile and require urgent action, the first because it soon becomes clear that there is another young girl, an American tourist called Rachel Anderson, on the run from the people responsible for the dead girl and the second because if the man’s wife didn’t kill him then the most likely suspect is a celebrated gospel singer.  Two relatively new detectives, Vusumuzi Ndabeni (Vusi) and Fransman Dekker, are put in charge of one case each. Both are being mentored by Benny Griessel who is something of a dinosaur in ‘the new South Africa’ but who has lots of knowledge and experience to share if Vusi and Dekker choose to learn from him. Benny is under enormous pressure from himself and everyone around him. Can he still cut it when it matters?

A few weeks ago I described my perfect thriller. I said

If a thriller has

  • A twisty, turn-y plot that clips along at a decent pace and offers a pay-off for my investment of time (e.g. family reunited/world saved/justice done)
  • At least a couple of characters who, if not exactly three-dimensional, provide enough humanity that I care whether they live (or die), triumph over adversity (or fail) or right a wrong (or don’t).

it will probably get a rating of 3 (= decent/solid entertaining read) on my personal scale. There is a chance of extra points for humour, above-average excitement levels, deeper than usual exploration of a theme that interests me, a male character who doesn’t viewevery woman he meets as a potential bed mate or a female character who doesn’t look like a supermodel yet, miraculously, proves to have some value to the world anyway. Keeping the car chases short and detailed descriptions of weaponry to a minimum also scores bonus points.

Thirteen Hours gets a tick for each and every one of these points and a bonus for something I didn’t include above (but should have): an ending that didn’t make me roll my eyes and/or wish I’d stopped reading 30 pages beforehand. In essence it’s a perfect example of its genre and I absolutely loved it.

In thrillers plot is king and here the story is fast, unpredictable and has just the right level of complication. We switch back and forth between the two cases with often breathtaking speed and there are no convenient spots at which to pause for respite. This is the kind of book that the ‘page-turner’ cliché should be reserved for as I literally tore pages in my haste to find out what would happen next.

What excites me even more than a great story though is characters who involve and engage me and Thirteen Hours has bunches of them. Benny Griessel is intriguing: a recovering alcoholic struggling to re-connect with his family as well as find a place for himself in the newly restructured police force. But far from being dour or melancholic he’s funny and philosophical while still driven to do his job well for all the right reasons. His two mentees are equally interesting though vastly different people from Benny. Vusi is a quiet man reflecting on his mother’s simple view of the new world while finding his feet in a city new to him and Dekker is angry about prejudices he has been subject to as a coloured man in a black and white South Africa. There are plenty of other deft portrayals too and never knowing who would be a minor character and who would play a larger role made them all the more interesting.

Perhaps it didn’t hurt that the buzzing of the dreaded vuvuzela accompanied my reading of the last few chapters of the book (during the opening moments of the football world cup final) but another of the things that the book does beautifully is create a sense of its location. It is done more subtly than in Meyer’s previous books, such as when Rachel’s parents learn about South Africa’s crime rate from the internet and an when an elderly man who briefly helps Rachel discusses the country’s past and future, but it has no less of an impact for that. All the complications of a country in a state of great change where people of all backgrounds are both eager for and fearful of the new ways are played out in a myriad of small but fascinating details.

It’s not often that I feel like describing a book as perfect but I simply cannot think of a single thing I would change about Thirteen Hours. It has everything you’d want in a thriller and loads more besides, and is the hefty object I shall be hurling at the very next person who says in my hearing that crime fiction isn’t real literature.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 5/5

Translator K L Seegers Publisher Hodder & Stoughton [this edition 2010, original edition 2008]; ISBN 9780340953600; Length 412 pages

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Thirteen Hours has also been reviewed at Crime Scraps, Euro CrimeMaterial Witness, International Noir Fiction and Reviewing the Evidence

Deon Meyer’s Devil’s Peak was one of my top ten reads for 2008 and Dead at Daybreak was another excellent book of his that I read this year.

This entry was posted in book review, Deon Meyer, South Africa. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Review: Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this terrific review. I thought this would be a good one, and now I’m convinced : ). I don’t know if it’ll win or not, but it certainly seems to live up to the “noise” about it.


  2. Maxine says:

    Great review, Bernadette! It really made me want to read the book again. I very much enjoyed it and have all his earlier ones still to read (I’ve read two, but still have three left, at least one of which will be accompanying me on holiday this year.) Thanks, especially, for the encapsulation of what makes a good thriller- as so many of them seem to be bland, predictable and written to a formula, when, of course as demonstrated by titles like this one (and also Lost Light by Alex Scarrow but that was not quite as good because of the ending), it is perfectly possible to produce a thriller that is actually “thrilling”.


  3. BooksPlease says:

    Ok that’s me hooked – now I have to find this book.


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  5. kathy durkin says:

    Oh, gosh, now I am even more annoyed that the library system in my city doesn’t have this book. One would think that internationally award-nominated books would be in the Big Apple’s library system quickly, but not so. It feels like it takes a century. So now that this review has whetted my reading appetite, I have to find this book. Perhaps Book Depository is on the horizon. Thanks for this.


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  9. kathy durkin says:

    Well, the library finally got this book and I stayed up until the morning hours tearing through it, barely able to stop myself from looking at the ending. Yes, it’s a thrilling thriller and although I was worried about social issues and prejudice–which does impact on my reading choices–I think it’s all okay.


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