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7 Days, By Deon Meyer. Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99

 

It's inevitable. When a writer of ambitious, weighty books delivers a more compact, less complex piece of work, there is always a slight sense of the author marking time before getting back to more serious concerns. The appearance of South African writer Deon Meyer's 7 Days may have his admirers feeling just that. This is basically a taut police procedural rather than the kind of sprawling state-of-the-nation novel he is most famous for, presenting a panoramic picture of modern South Africa.

But just a few pages of the new book will show that even though Meyer has set his sights lower here, he is simply too good a writer to produce anything by numbers. In fact, if he had written only books as concise as this – rather than, for instance, the massive, socially committed Trackers – he would still maintain his gleaming reputation.

An email reading, "I'll shoot one policeman every day until you arrest the murderer of Hanneke Sloet," launches the ticking-clock scenario, as a sniper quickly suits the action to the words. Sloet was a high-profile business lawyer, engaged in an ambitious South African black empowerment scheme. Assigned to the case is Benny Griessel, whom Meyer admirers have met before. It's a cold case: no evidence (apart from a set of naked photographs), no suspects (the dead woman's lover has an unshakable alibi), no apparent motive. Most tellingly for Benny – struggling, as ever, with his alcoholism – there is media pressure to bring the murderous sniper to justice. The seven days will be a nightmare for Benny.

Briefer and more accelerando than usual, this is a Meyer novel with far less hefty dramatis personae than usual. But there is no gainsaying the sheer momentum of the storytelling. And there is a key thing to praise in 7 Days (translated from the Afrikaans by KL Seegers): how does Meyer manage to make the hoariest cliché of crime fiction – the alcoholic copper – read as if we've never encountered this device?

Even if Meyer chose not to write anything more on his customary scale, most of his fans would be perfectly happy with shorter books as focused and persuasive as 7 Days.

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