Deon Meyer’s South Africa and the Bliss of Gritty Procedurals

Julie Andews as Maria in The Sound of Music
This Happy to Read Good Stories About Bad People!
Oh, the bliss of finding a new author you like! Who has multiple books!

I feel like Maria at the beginning of Sound of Music—running and spinning around. I got a copy of Deon Meyer’s Thirteen Hours a year ago. I never even cracked the cover. I don’t know why. The cover copy makes it sound great. Set in South Africa, recovering-alcoholic homicide detective, plus Michael Connelly’s blessing and blurb—what’s not for me to like? The setting has a great appeal for me, and this author has had accolades both in his home country and internationally. Well, I finally picked it up and wow, it was glued to my hand until I finished it. It’s a wonderful book and I was just delighted to find out he had written five more novels. I was bound and determined to space them out. I was not going to read them all at once, in a row. Well, maybe just one more…

And then one more—just to test reading ebooks on my new phone.

So, I’m reading them one after the next.  Out of order, but I don’t mind.  After Thirteen Hours, I read the first of his to be translated from his native Afrikaans to English, Heart of the Hunter.  Then Dead Before Dying.  And I’m still twirling like Maria.  The setting is fascinating, and described with just enough political and social commentary.  You get a good feel for ongoing racial and political conflicts, but that message isn’t Meyer’s point.  He wants to tell a good story with lots of red herrings.  He is South African, so the setting isn’t “exotic” for him.  He’s like a New Yorker writing about the NYPD.  You get the flavor of the country, but not a travelogue.

The characters are the sort of beaten down and damaged cops that are trying to get their lives back that I enjoy, and are very rich and full—they are there to do more than solve the mystery.  There’s a good balance of their personal lives and their work lives.  All three of the main characters in the books I’ve read have made tragic mistakes, and redemption has been a huge part of their stories.  They may not be likable, but they are interesting and multi-dimensioned.

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyers
Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyers
The puzzles of the crimes are tricky and twisty.  Thirteen Hours had me gasping “oh hells, no!” by the end.  The procedural elements are solid and there’s no “magic” cop who does everything right and uncannily catches bad guys.  There are lots of red herrings, and if you like to solve the case before the book does, you can try, but I’ll bet you won’t!  The writing is taut and economical but still descriptive, even with the occasional translation hiccup.  At least I think that’s what causes the occasional awkward or stilted sentence. (Thirteen Hours was a finalist for last year’s CWA International Dagger Award for translated work, and has since been nominated for the Best Thriller Barry Award, to be awarded during Bouchercon 2011 in St. Louis this September.)

The plots have great pacing and flow, no flipping back to figure out who is who, and no drag or wasted scenes.  And, for those of you like me, who have to fit reading into gaps in the day, the chapter lengths are appropriate for giving you a stopping place so that you are not up all night or late for work.

His author website is fantastic. (Click the link at his name above.)  The “Extras” section is full of photographs of his books’ locations.  I always google up pictures of settings that I’ve never seen, and I just love that he has posted his exact inspirations.

 So, if you are a fan of gritty police procedurals that have action and thrills and spy-novel-type shenanigans—Heart of the Hunter reminded me of a spy novel, different than a procedural, but I don’t want to spoil anything—then check these out.  But, there are “only” six, so don’t binge like I did.  Space them out.  Save some for when a series burns out and disappoints you, or you try a new author’s book and it’s not what you’d hoped.  Discovering a great new-to-you author is like finding a twenty on the ground.  

Save it for a real treat instead of a trip to the grocery.

Amy Dalton is a buyer for a large, Midwestern library system. She has written news and reviews for several book and film sites over the years.


  1. kevin greenstreet

    I’ve read several of Mr. Meyer’s excellent crime novels, Trackers, Seven Days and Dead at Daybreak, and can’t praise him enough. His books breathe South Africa and her still stubborn social problems. I recommend him to every crime fiction fan I meet.

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