Bloodshot detective

2009-08-26 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Beasts of Prey

Rob Marsh

Human & Rousseau

THE year is 1988, high summer, pitiless sun, parched landscape. A body, badly mutilated by wild animals, is discovered in the Kruger National Park and police captain Russell Kemp, recently transferred from ­Johannesburg to Phalaborwa, is dispatched to the scene of what is surely a simple suicide.

But Kemp soon becomes convinced that army Lieutenant Johan Coetzee did not shoot himself. Unfortunately, as he attempts to investigate in depth, he begins to run into brick walls: the South African military does not, for some reason, want the truth uncovered.

Central to the story is the character of Kemp himself. Like so many South African policemen he’d been deployed in black townships during the apartheid years, and had found himself part of operations that sickened and distressed him. Intelligent, ­anguished, frustrated when his ­protests seemed to go unheeded, he’d fallen prey to sleepless nights and ­savage headaches, and, after a while, had become addicted to the pethidine that seemed the only successful way of dealing with the pain. Which was the opportunity his superiors had been waiting for: they sent him off to the sticks.

Alone in his scruffy little house, without his bitchy wife and their ill-tempered, troubled daughter, he looks set to expire in a drug-induced haze, trembling and unkempt, a ­broken man.

But despite his wretched condition, Kemp is, as he always was, a fine ­policeman and a gifted detective. He continues to probe into something which, very soon, becomes extremely sinister. Persisting even though he meets some massive and terrifying opposition, he finds some extraordinary allies too, in a woman doctor and in Erin Coetzee, the dead man’s sister.

As he begins to ferret out the horrible reason for the cover-up of ­Coetzee’s killing (a historical fact ­detailed in notes supplied by Marsh at the end, that should forever ­redound to the old SADF’s discredit), he begins, also, to look honestly at his own life and to take such opportunities as there are to regain control of it.

We’ve met Kemp’s like before in the bloodshot alcoholic detectives of some American and European writers; sensitive, honourable men whose only refuge from the horrors of their work and their bitter, crumbling ­domestic lives is the bottle.

We empathise with such characters; we want them to win through, to pursue the truth no matter what, to redeem themselves, to have a chance at happiness. In this case Rob Marsh does not disappoint us: this is a well-written, authentic and very readable book.

Stephanie Alexander

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