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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Random Violence, by Jassy Mackenzie ($14)

It's funny how books can still seem so foreign even when they are set in an English-speaking culture. Cultures have different rhythms to their speech, different shared understandings, different birth-of-the-nation stories. In this case it's modern day South Africa that's the setting, but the same could be said about the charming series by Louise Penny set in Quebec, Canada, or Denise Mina's black-as-noir Scotland. (And don't get me started on British mealtimes. What the heck is a "tiffen," anyway?)

British writing is more similar than different to our U.S. style, so those books are not so alien. Penny's Three Pines books move at a slower pace and refuse to be cowed by a "and then what happened" mentality, but it's still easy to relate to Penny's world. But South Africa is … different.

Beginning in the early 1970s, James McClure brought apartheid to our fictional doorstep while that extreme segregationist policy was still operating in South Africa. While his books were not banned there, they apparently were not beloved either. McClure's characters, Kramer and Zondi, were a black and white police partnership, with Kramer the putative leader of the pair. They were friends, or as friendly as they could be in an apartheid world.

Now a new generation of crime writers is trying to put apartheid and modern South Africa in focus. Malla Nunn wrote A Beautiful Place to Die, a wonderful and terrifying look at South Africa at the beginning of apartheid. Wessel Ebersohn's October Killings is from a young, modern black woman's point of view. And now we have Jassy Mackenzie's Random Violence.

Mackenzie's main character is Jade de Jong, a young white woman who exiled herself to England after the death of her police commissioner father. Now a decade later she has returned to Johannesburg. Unsuspected by her former friends and acquaintances, she has come to extract revenge on the man she holds responsible for her father's death. His prison sentence is up, and Jade wants to be there to welcome him.

While Jade is waiting, an old friend, David Patel, asks for her help on a case. He was an apprentice and admirer of her father, and is now a police detective. Jade is a private investigator in Great Britain, but I had to blink twice when she was so casually accepted by the police and public as an independent investigator. Are the Johannesburg police so understaffed? I also had difficulty with Jade's childhood/adult crush on David. It seemed vaguely juvenile. If you feel the same way, get over it, because there's so much to admire about this book.

The title, Random Violence, may be more ironic than actual. A woman is killed in what appears to be a random highjacking, a frequent occurrence in Johannesburg, which, from Mackenzie's point of view, has a wild west, frontier feel. Jade is assigned to figure out if the woman's husband had anything to do with it. Was her death at random or designed especially for her?

The tale moves to possible government corruption, a potential serial killer, and the changing mores of the new South Africa. Mackenzie handles the two plots well. She satisfactorily concludes the hijacking case and presents an astonishing resolution to Jade's father's case. I overcame my befuddlement with Jade's police involvement and her relationship with David, and the odd, un-American rhythm to Mackenzie’s writing, and found a thought-provoking book as a consequence.

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