South Africa in recent times has become a melting pot of crime and misdemeanour due to the high profile murder trial of Oscar Pistorius and the ongoing extradition case of Shrien Dewani, who killed his wife Anni on honeymoon in the country during November 2010.
Using first hand knowledge of the country he visits frequently, journalist Paul Mendelson releases his first novel, The First Rule of Survival. It tells the story of Vaughan De Vries, a policeman in the a Western Cape who is on the case of three young boys who were abducted and been missing for seven years. De Vries and his colleagues have all been haunted by the case. Cleverly, Mendelson employs a dual narrative technique of showing us the cops during the present date and flash backing to the original abductions in 2007 so we see the anguish of investigating a case that may not garner positive results.
Child abductions have featured frequently in literature from Alice Seebald's The Lovely Bones to Dennis Lehane's brilliant Mystic River. Whilst the hysteria of those Bostonian characters are not reached in Mendelson's novel, he nevertheless does have in De Vries that typical male police officer. A man who is persistent and determined to exorcise the demons of being so wrong years ago, if you saw the film Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal's detective Loki you may recall that sort of determination which is familiar in the depiction of De Vries.
After one particular ordeal, a colleague asks De Vries how does he live if you have he ghosts of every victim in your head? His answer encapsulates the character
'Why do you think I get up every morning? I have a bond with every victim I encounter. If I don't know my victim, if I don't understand them as if they were my friend in real life, how can I hope to unravel who killed them and why?
Whilst I may be referring to too many American references in my review, it should be noted that they are instrumental in the finished novel. Whilst Mendelson does well in establishing the world of Cape Town helped by his first hand knowledge, too often this reader felt he could have been reading any American crime novel due to the dialogue used and the office politics so frequently referred to. Too infrequently, there is not enough South African dialect or vocabulary used in the dialogue. The odd 'Ja!' is used for impact but if it were not for the well honed descriptive writing of space and landscape by the author, other readers would be confused as to which country they are in.
However, you do not want to offer too much of a disservice to the book which is quite gripping especially at times such as when De Vries goes underground and finds the body of one of the missing young boys in a freezer but the atmosphere that Mendelson invokes as De Vries wanders around in near darkness is expertly rendered.
While the dialogue does not zip along like a Lee Child novel (a writer who has given his personal validation to the novel), Mendelson should be pleased with the construction and execution of a lead character whom this reader would like to encounter again in future works.
The First Rule of Survival is out on paperback on Thursday 17th April but available on kindle now from amazon.co.uk now