Murder most foul

2010-06-16 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Fruit of a Poisoned Tree

Antony Altbeker

Jonathan Ball

A GOOD whodunnit mystery-thriller will be gripping, perplexing, frightening, and of some broad human significance. Altbeker’s book is all of those, and more. But it is not fiction. It is an in-depth examination of events that occurred, or allegedly occurred, around and during the sensational trial in 2005 of Fred van der Vyver, accused of brutally murdering his girlfriend, Stellenbosch student Inge Lotz.

Of trials in general, the author notes: “The main reason trials are so exciting is that so much is at stake. Will the truth come out? Will justice be done? Will the dead be avenged? Will the guilty be punished? Will the innocent go free? These are amongst the weightiest questions any human process must ever answer.”

The other big feature of court cases, he observes, is that they are always “in some way ‘inconclusive’.” These two facts about trials dominate this compulsive page-turner of an example of the best in investigative journalism.

And compulsive it is. The author himself admits to having become “a monomaniacal dinner-party bore” through his obsession with the case and his desperate attempts to find out what really happened.

Inge’s murder (she was repeatedly bludgeoned and stabbed) was so ghastly, the accused increasingly seemed so palpably innocent, the effects on both families were so shattering, and the evidence produced at the lengthy trial so complex, bewildering and with so many internal contadictions that it is impossible not to be spellbound by the entire case and by Altbeker’s masterly and suspenseful treatment of it.

As for the observation that “so much is at stake” in court cases: this book not only provides fascinating information about both police and judicial procedures, but also probes deeply into the possible nightmare scenario that surrounded Inge’s murder, and studies in detail big issues such as the central concerns involved in being an Afrikaner, the tensions in Afrikanerdom between the Dutch Reformed Church and new and “charismatic” churches, such as the His People Church, to which Fred belonged, the state of the police and the judicial ­system (all supposedly reformed and humanised) in post-apartheid South Africa, and perhaps most disturbingly the serious gap between the high ideals of our wonderful rainbow- ­nation constitution and the realities of policing, detective work and the functioning of justice since 1994.

Unnerving evidence abounds in the book of either serious incompetence or else a deliberate cover-up and even falsification of evidence on the part of often senior policemen, and of the way in which the supposedly objective search for the truth by all concerned in this, as in other cases, can be radically skewed by almost unconscious prejudices and popularly held “myths”.

I found the book almost impossible to put down, from its haunting blood-spattered prologue to the final-page agonising poignancy of the transcript of Fred and Inge’s final SMSs to each other a few hours before the discovery of her terrible death.

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