Meyer, Deon - 'Dead at Daybreak' (translated by Madeleine van Biljon)
He slumped in the chair, lack of respect evident in his posture. She had asked him to sit down. "Kemp sent me," was all he had said. She nodded, glanced at the injured eye and lip and ignored them. "I believe that you and I can help one another, Mr van Heerden."
Zatopek "Zet" van Heerden wakes up in a police cell: hung over, ribs hurting, lip split and swollen. A policeman opens up the cell and takes him to the charge office where, he is told, his attorney is waiting. "I don't have an attorney," says van Heerden. But Kemp the lawyer is there, waits while van Heerden collects his things, then takes him out to his four-by-four. "Why did you come?" van Heerden asks. Because a crazy, drunk van Heerden told everyone in the sports bar and the police station and that he, attorney Kemp, would sue them; van Heerden owes him and there is someone Kemp wants him to meet. He takes van Heerden home to clean up. "I owe you nothing." says van Heerden. But back home he shaves, changes his clothes and lets the attorney take him to meet Hope Beneke, a young lawyer who has just started her own practice and needs his help. Hope Beneke's client needs a will to be found. It was stolen during a burglary almost a year ago. During that same burglary a man, the client's partner, was tied to a chair and killed - shot in the back of the head. The entire contents of the walk-in safe was taken and although Hope Beneke's client was the dead man's partner both in the business and at home, had lived with the man for ten years, they had not married. The missing will is the only proof of her client's right to the business and property. Van Heerden asks what else was kept in the safe, what exactly was stolen? Her client doesn't know, Beneke tells him. Van Heerden scoffs at someone who lives and works with a man but doesn't know what is in the safe. He was a very private person answers the client when Hope Beneke and van Heerden interview her later. Van Heerden visits an old police colleague who confirms that the safe was indeed stripped out; nothing but a scrap of paper left behind, the kind of paper used to wrap US dollars but old style - from the 80s. And the dead man, Jan Smit, had been tortured before he was shot, burned with a blowtorch; the gun he was killed with was an American rifle. The policeman then lets van Heerden read the case file. The next day van Heerden, armed with Jan Smit's identity number, puts in a request from government records for his details. But when the clerk rings back he tells van Heerden that there must be some kind of mistake. The identity number belongs to a woman not to this "Jan Smit".
So begins Deon Meyer's densely woven crime thriller DEAD AT DAYBREAK first published in 2000, four years after DEAD BEFORE DYING. The story covers private eye "Zet" van Heerden's seven day investigation into the torture and death of an antiques dealer and the theft of the contents of his safe. More importantly the investigation turns into one of identity. Who exactly was "Jan Smit" whose records sprang into life a mere twenty years ago? Ex-policeman, ex-academic criminologist, currently a damaged, hard-drinking, hot-tempered loner, van Heerden cooks and listens to Mozart in order to keep his remaining demons away. But what are those demons? This is a story about van Heerden as much as it is about the crime that he is investigating. Its engine is the weaving of van Heerden's dangerous investigation into Jan Smit's true identity with van Heerden's first person recollection of his own life leading up to the bitter experience that changed everything for him. The two threads alternate, chapter by chapter, building suspense on two fronts and tugging you forward to the next page; if one thread slackens then the other picks up. With DEAD AT DAYBREAK Deon Meyer has built an impressive and gripping book, a double helping of suspense whose strong echoes of American hard-boiled private eye fiction carry open references to Sam Spade and to The Postman Always Rings Twice. But Meyer's thriller is set in the landscape and culture of his own South Africa. Meyer is an established, prize-winning South African writer who remains clear in his interviews that he continues to be more optimistic about the state of South African society than some of his fellow countrymen crime writers currently working. Perhaps this is why DEAD AT DAYBREAK has the solid, rounded feel of a private eye thriller rather than an elaboration of a society's ills; names and geography have been changed not exactly to protect the innocent but with the end result of as authentic a feeling for time and place as Chandler's California. Although I don't think that Philip Marlowe ever became as dysfunctional as Zatopek van Heerden.
This edition of DEAD AT DAYBREAK (original Afrikaans title ORION) is published in the 2000 translation by the late Madeleine van Biljon, which seems excellent and fits the characters and themes. It's the first Deon Meyer thriller that I have read, so I don't know the tone of his more recent books. But this one I found gripping, exciting and solidly written. I would like to read more of Meyer's work. But I would also like to read more of Zatopek van Heerden.
Lynn Harvey, England
More crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.