The First Rule of Survival by Paul Mendelson, book review: Twist in tale spoils gripping read


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I'm in a quandary over this book. It is astonishingly well written for a first novel, has a fast-moving narrative and fascinating characters. Add to this the complex social questions arising from the South African setting, and it must be a sure-fire gripping read. Which it is – until the very last pages, which I found morally repulsive and in denial of recently established facts. I shan't give the game away: readers must make up their own minds.

In modern Cape Town the police force, reformed after apartheid, is still in need of experienced officers – and that means policemen like Vaughn de Vries, now investigating the killing of two Caucasian teenagers with the aid of his black side-kick, Dan February. The boys have been shot with a hunting rifle and their bodies dumped in a skip. Post-mortems show signs of long-term abuse and malnutrition, and it is discovered that these children have indeed been missing for years. One is still to be found and may be alive, a possibility which lends compelling urgency to the investigation.

In this fractured service, older white officers have been moved to head special units and murder is still a divisive issue, even as far as victims are concerned: "I understand white crime," says de Vries. But does he understand the mind of any human being, black or white, capable of kidnapping and murdering children? An expert is to hand, the psychologist and forensic adviser, Dr Steinhauer, with whom de Vries has clashed on previous cases. Steinhauer has a theory which will relieve all South Africans, black and white, of suspicion and pin the blame on wealthy Arabs abducting boys to the Gulf for their own perverted pleasures. As the story focuses on other individuals, further psychological problems bother the straight-thinking de Vries. How, for example, can a paedophile be capable of illustrating children's books with great imagination and sensitivity?

The task of solving the crimes is given its own heroic status as both detectives battle racial stereotypes and the deeply disturbing issues in South African society at large. For de Vries, being able to penetrate the gated communities of the rich is an advantage, yet politicians want to get rid of his generation of white officers, and Dan February is constantly aware of the murder rate within the black community, resenting the time devoted to a bunch of overprivileged whites. It is noticeable that the spectrum of characters is not confined to the upper classes – there are poor whites too, trying to find a foothold in the new South Africa. Mendelson suggests other fractures in this complex world – disenfranchisement of the "coloured" population and the favouring of Zulus under Jacob Zuma.

Within such chaos, the enduring mutual respect of de Vries and February is not only a feature of the narrative but gives moving additional depth to the characterisation.

I only wish Mendelson hadn't added an outcome that disfigures this otherwise distinguished piece of crime fiction.