BEASTS OF PREY by Rob Marsh (Human & Rousseau)
Aubrey Paton, Sunday Times, 27th September 2009.
Read of the Week: Rob Marsh has done his adopted country an enormous favour, not only by exposing certain past crimes, but by presenting us with a new and perplexing antihero in the form of Captain Russell Kemp, a man whose conscience has sabotaged a once-promising career and his personal life as well.
Beasts of Prey is set in 1988, only a few years before the dismantling of apartheid, but while tensions were at their height: South Africa was in a state of emergency, the Nats saw Reds under every bed, and society was racially, politically and ideologically polarised.
Namibia was still South West Africa, and our troops were fighting wars on far-away borders, playing God in various southern African states by supplying arms and aid to factions hostile to any government the apartheid regime saw as anti-capitalist.
A Special Branch member, Russell married the beautiful Samantha and, when his adored daughter Nicky was born, it seemed as though his life was perfect. But soon the stresses of his job made themselves apparent: even when he moved to the criminal investigation department he found the ethical ambiguity of South African political practicalities stifling.
At the start of the book, Captain Kemp is exiled to Phalaborwa, his wife has divorced him and he's battling a pethidine addiction. His long-estranged daughter, after struggling with drug problems and poor marks at university, has disappeared.
An apparent suicide at Kruger Park ceases to be routine when Kemp's assumptions are challenged by a journalist, who claims it is murder.
Once an excellent investigator, Russell now takes the line of least resistance and, despite the reporter's conviction, might have accepted the shooting as self-inflicted - were it not for a visit by the sinister Colonel de Lange of military intelligence, who is insistent that the late Lieutenant Coetzee killed himself.
It's not exactly a spoiler to reveal that Kemp becomes "romantically involved" with the reporter, and they discover an MI cover-up involving many murders, the wholesale smuggling of rhino horn, ivory and forbidden game from Angola, plus corruption reaching to the top.
What would be an exciting thriller with memorable, sympathetic, although deeply fallible characters, takes on a deeper meaning when one considers that this book, although fiction, is based on fact - vide Justice Kumleben's report of 1996, and the 1988 Van Note statement to the US Congress, not to mention all the tales told by brothers, sons and boyfriends about gunning down herds of game while in the military.
The author's note at the end provides references, facts and figures that make disturbing reading for anyone interested in conservation or who believed South Africa could ever be trusted when it came to animal rights or environmental issues.
This is Rob Marsh's second crime novel and he is working on a third: "eager anticipation" is the cliché that springs to mind.