Africa is a prime setting for mysteries these days. The books run the gamut from the pleasant and meandering Precious Ramotswe books by Alexander McCall Smith to The October Killings, a jangling look at what has become of South Africa in the days after the rejection of the apartheid government.
South African author Malla Nunn has a series (A Beautiful Place to Die and Let the Dead Lie) set at the dawn of apartheid. She deals with what happens to a white man of conscience in a country that demands loyalty to an immoral cause. In contrast but also in complement to Nunn's series, Wessel Ebersohn deals with present day South Africa, where institutionalized racism has been abolished but where there are still many problems stemming from that apartheid past.
Abigail Bukula is a 35-year-old black woman, a minor official in the Justice Department, and she, too, is a person of conscience. When an Afrikaaner ex-soldier of the apartheid regime comes to her for help, she gives it. Leon Lourens saved her life twenty years ago when the house in Lesotho in which she was staying was raided by the South African military. Abigail was captured, but on October 22, she and her fellow prisoners were freed in a rebel countermove. The circumstances of this event and the genesis of Abigail and Leon's unlikely relationship are slowly unveiled throughout the book.
Leon is frightened because other soldiers from the regiment that attacked the house in Lesotho are dying on October 22, one each year, and someone associated with that night is responsible. She has not seen Leon since the raid, but she has not forgotten her debt to him. When she and her angst-filled secretary, Johanna, do further research, they realize that the problem is larger than they thought.
Abigail stumbles across prison psychologist Yudel Gordon, who formerly worked under the apartheid government, was released because he was white, then reinstated when his progressive rehabilitation theories prove useful. There are many people like Yudel who were tools of the apartheid government but who tried their best to co-exist with everyone in a stratified world. Eventually acceding to Abigail's request for help, Yudel's primary aid comes in the form of Sherlock Holmes-like observations and intuitive insights into the psyche of the man who is ritually killing the ex-soldiers in October.
Ebersohn has created a thriller with a serial killer. But unlike other authors of the oh-so-many thriller/serial killer books out today, he has also created characters with heart and a hard-won thoughtfulness of who they are. Abigail and Yudel have fragile places in the new world, but their consciences overcome their fear of losing that precarious and precious safety. Ebersohn has done a great job fleshing out other intriguing characters: Robert Mokoapi, Abigail's husband and man-on-the-way-up in the television news business; Freek Jordaan, a police commissioner and Yudel's friend; Rosa, Yudel's wife; and Van Jaarsveld, the head of Leon's regiment the night of the raid.
Ebersohn's work provides a poignant look at a South Africa still fractured but healing. Read together with Malla Nunn's books, they provide a fascinating fictional one-two punch to apartheid. More importantly, while The October Killings is definitely a political statement of life post-apartheid, it is more a story of the connections people make with each other, one human to another.