This review appeared on the International Noir Fiction blog earlier this month.
There’s a blurb provided by the publisher of David Dison’s Johannesburg crime novel, Death in the New Republic, comparing the book to Jeffrey Archer’s thrillers. I’m afraid I don’t get the comparison, which would be at the least very misleading concerning Dison’s subtle, complex story of betrayal, murder, disgrace, and solidarity in the politics of the new South Africa.
Dison’s narrative progresses in alternating short sentence fragments, long complex sentences, and interior monologues, with frequent Johannesburg slang and bursts of Afrikaans and Sesotho, the African language most familiar to Dison’s hero, Jerome Michael Nossel, known to everyone as Nossel. The complexity of the text echoes the complexity of the story and its political background. I recently reviewed an older book by Gillian Slovo, The Betrayal, written just as the apartheid regime was ending. Slovo drew some of the faultlines in the anti-apartheid struggle (and the apartheid regime itself) that extend and branch in various directions in Dison’s story. There are the people Dison calls “struggelistas,” former activists who seem not to have moved on from the struggle; the black ascendancy (a new middle class, a few wealthy plutocrats, and the powers-that-be of the government; the new immigrants, living at the fringes of the society; unrepentant white supremacist cops operating independently within the new police force; and others who have accommodated one way or another to the new reality of the country.
Nossel himself, whose Jewish family has been in South Africa for many generations, moved from the struggle and exile into the national intelligence service, only to be disgraced and suspended because of a trap laid for him by forces within the government. He is called upon to help a government minister’s family when their son is about to be arrested for drug possession and dealing, and then he stumbles upon a murder. Neither the white narco-cops who want to arrest the minister’s son nor the black cops who show up to investigate the murder seem to be completely above board, and Nossel becomes involved in intertwined plots that ultimately reveal not only the perpetrator of the murder but also the hopes and despairs of current South Africa, from AIDS and corruption to democracy and equality.
There’s a negative review of Death in the New Republic in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper by Kwanele Sosibo (see here) and a positive one by Maureen Isaacson in Crime Beat @ Book Southern Africa (see here), demonstrating a healthy range of opinion in Dison’s home country concerning a book that is ambitious in its reach both in political and crime-novel terms.
For myself, I found it to be a subtle and moving story that in which the main character investigates his own character as doggedly as he pursues the truth concerning the murder and the other criminal acts in the book. Death in the New Republic is very different from other recent South African crime novels, closer to Slovo’s The Betrayal than to the novels of Deon Meyer or Margie Orford. Surely that’s an encouraging sign of healthy diversity in the crime fiction of a country with both great hopes and great troubles.