Ebersohn’s eccentric detective returns

2010-10-13 00:00

WESSEL Ebersohn let 14 years elapse between the last of his early Yudel Gordon detections and The October Killings, published in 2009. On reading this new one a year later, I began to wish he’d allowed a similar break.

As my own enthusiastic words quoted on the cover of this book attest, The October Killings was a terrific read; stylish, innovative, professional — much better than most contemporary crime novels pouring out of South Africa.

Alas. The new novel featuring eccentric psychologist Gordon and the bright and attractive lawyer Abigail Bukula is a wash-out by contrast, even though there’s some potentially good stuff. Much of the action takes place in Zimbabwe (whose “leader”, oddly enough, is never mentioned by name), and Ebersohn writes lovingly of that benighted country. Abigail is called in to help free activists — one of them her cousin, a gifted poet — believed to be held at the notorious Chikurubi prison. Gordon follows her there: she needs his aid in understanding her cousin, orphaned during one of the 1980s Gukurahundi massacres, a terrible event that coloured his life and motivated his activism. The fear, the tension, the brutality, all come vividly to life.

Abigail is much affected, not least because she likes her cousin’s partner Krisj (irritating: why not “Krish” or even “Krishna”?) Patel — homosexuality is taboo in Zim, of course. But there’s a comic-cuts element,too, in the form of Director Jonas Chunga of the Zimbabwean CIO. Dark, powerful, brooding, sexy, dangerous. Chunga seems to have walked straight out of a Barbara Cartland bodice-ripper, and it’s impossible to take him seriously or to understand why Abigail almost, but not quite (gasp!) succumbs to him. Ebersohn resorts to an unforgivably cheap device to be rid of him at the end.

There are glimpses of the old ingenuity and intelligence, but these are eclipsed by patches of careless, shoddy, almost childish, writing; by strange holes and changes of direction in the plotting; by poorly developed, sometimes apparently schizoid characterisation. And clearly the publisher simply hasn’t bothered to do any editing at all. For shame!

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