Wednesday, 7 September 2016


The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

        The fall of Saigon:  Ho Chi Minh’s victorious Northern troops are battering the city and the defeated Southern army and their hangers-on are using everything at their disposal to bribe their way to safety with their American allies.  Instrumental in the successful escape of a powerful Southern Vietnamese General and his family is his Aide, a Captain trained by the CIA as an interrogation officer, formidably intelligent and utterly trustworthy, American educated and indispensable in the execution of everything, including those who have earned the General’s displeasure.

            The Captain is young, personable and idealistic:  he is also a spy for the Other Side, feeding the General’s secrets back to his childhood friend Man.  He believes in the Revolution and wants it to succeed;  it’s time Vietnam people lived in freedom and independence, freed from the yolk of French Colonialism and the spurious and self-serving ‘friendship’ of the United States, the biggest Colonialist and Capitalist State of them all.  Man has ordered the Captain to escape with the General, so that the new government of a united Vietnam will have its own intelligence on what the despised refugees in America are up to, and the Captain’s indispensable servility is the perfect cover.
            Mr Nguyen has the Captain narrate his tale and it soon becomes clear that he is writing a confession for shadowy captors;  nevertheless his confession is as suspenseful as a thriller, containing equal parts of tragedy and comedy throughout its length. Characters leap off the page to threaten and beguile the reader, especially the Captain’s other childhood friend Bon:  Man, Bon and the Captain made a pact when they were young boys, swearing eternal friendship and loyalty to each other and sealing the oath with a bloody, scarring handshake. The lengths to which Bon will go to protect and defend his friends are indeed death-defying, not least because he considers his life over anyway.  His wife and little son were shot to death in the escape from Saigon.  He is now just going through the motions.  If he died tomorrow, who cares?  Certainly not him, so with suicidal bonhomie, he volunteers to return to Vietnam to mount a counter-revolution organised by the Captain’s boss. 
            The Captain is horrified.  He cannot let his true friend go back to certain death on the General’s half-crazed orders (and against the express instructions of Man).  He tells the General that he will go too, so that he may rescue his friend from his own death wish, fully expecting the General to excuse them both because of the Captain’s indispensability;  unfortunately, the General has decided otherwise.  The Captain has committed the unpardonable sin of courting Lana, the General’s daughter – ‘if it had been anyone else that would have been fine’, but the Captain’s ancestry is flung in his face:  you are Eurasian, a bastard.  I cannot have my daughter associate with ‘someone of your kind’. The Captain is crushed, once again, by the terrible fact that his beloved mother was seduced as a young girl by a French Catholic priest.  It has mattered little how many academic or military honours he has achieved throughout his life:  his origins will always be shameful.  Returning to Vietnam and almost certain death now seems the only option, made harder by the bitter realisation that the side for whom he spied so zealously regards him as a traitor, and treats him as such.
            Mr Nguyen has been awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this masterly work, plus a host of other glittering prizes.  It is hard to believe that this is his first novel, for he displays a complete mastery of sentence and imagery that much more established writers would die for.  He makes the reader think again about that terrible, failed Asian war, and its effects still being felt more than forty years later.  SIX STARS!

The History of Blood, by Paul Mendelson

            Colonel Vaughn de Vries joins us again, more rumpled and disillusioned than ever in this third story (see review below) of his battles against crime – within and without – the South African Police Service.  The criminals on the street are straightforward, relatively easy adversaries compared to the daily skirmishes he has with the ‘higher-ups’ in his department;  he is constantly admonished by his friend and immediate superior Hendrik du Toit to preserve the status quo;  to keep below the parapet – don’t make waves!  For they are both white and Afrikaner, and the Rainbow Nation is too recent an entity for their new black bureaucracy not to scream ‘racism!’ and ‘apartheid!’ at any questioning of efficiency or  department inaction.  De Vries is one of those rare birds who is on the side of the victim of whatever colour, of whichever crime he is investigating;  he will be their champion, mourn their deaths and bring them justice, pure and simple.
            Which is why he feels particularly sour and increasingly frustrated by the blatant obfuscation and lack of co-operation of various departments when he investigates the apparent suicide of a young woman in a seedy motel near the airport.  The post-mortem reveals dozens of tiny packages of cocaine in her gut, and a package she wrapped and swallowed herself, containing a note: ‘ I can’t go back.’  She came from a rich family;  her late father was a politician who was assassinated when she was three years old and she was raised by his brother, her uncle;  now she lies dead in a seedy room, hours before being compelled to fly to Thailand as a drug mule. 
            The more de Vries digs into the mystery of her suicide and the person who induced her to swallow the cocaine, messier (predictably) and more evil crimes are exposed;  people-trafficking and prostitution are mild compared to blackmail and the indiscriminate, ruthless murder of anyone even remotely threatening to the anonymous, powerful criminals who have built themselves an empire with links to the very top echelons of the South African legal system.  De Vries now understands why he is told so consistently to leave things be, especially when his own precious daughters are dragged into the picture and threatened with a long, slow death.  Never has he felt so vengeful – or so powerless.
            Once again Mr Mendelson takes the reader on a breakneck ride through the wonderful African countryside with de Vries as, with heart in mouth (‘I’m too old – I’m not fit enough for this!’) he pursues a clever, relentless and ruthless enemy, one for whom the torture and death de Vries’s daughters would be an amusing and momentary diversion from the business of making big money.  De Vries has to stop him permanently, but how?
            There is no rest for the Wicked (or the Righteous) – or the reader! - until this tale is told:  Mr Mendelson has produced another page-turner, with subplots and (with the exception of one or two) minor characters as satisfying as ever, and once again his novel’s setting is a major delight.  FIVE STARS.
The First Rule of Survival, by Paul Mendelson

Colonel of the South African Police Service Vaughn de Vries is a typical protagonist of classic crime fiction.  Suffering Burn-out?  Of course.  Marriage down the tubes?  Naturally.  Finding solace in Alcohol?  Goes without saying.  Appearance less than inviting?  Women ‘avert their eyes when they see him sitting at the bar’. 
            In short, Colonel de Vries’s life is rather less than satisfactory – except when he is working:  his job is ‘what gets him up in the morning’, and his passion for justice is legendary;  it is what elevates him above the norm, especially in respect of his colleagues, new examples of the integrated police force of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, all vying for power and prestige in a department formerly run by white men like de Vries, whose time must surely soon be up.  They hope.  Yes, give him a bit more time and he will be the author of his own misfortune …… until the naked bodies of two malnourished teenaged boys are found in a skip at the back of a farm cafĂ© miles from Capetown, de Vries’s base.  They have been murdered, and Vaughn, the token white officer is sent to investigate – and finds to his horror that they are the victims of a terrible abduction seven years before, when three young white boys, one the son of a serving police officer, were kidnapped on three consecutive days, never to be seen again.
            It is a case that has haunted Vaughn’s dreams, turned them into nightmares and destroyed his peace of mind forever, especially when the case becomes cold after months of searching fruitlessly for clues – any clue – as to their fate.  Now, two of the three kidnap victims have been found, obviously transported to the skip after death – from where?  And where is the third boy?  de Vries and his immediate superior Hendrik du Toit faced unprecedented contempt from the media and eminent child psychologists alike for their inability to provide answers seven years ago:  now, their new bosses are demanding bold actions and quick solutions to the murders;  any delay will reflect badly on the new Rainbow police hierarchy.  Those dinosaur Boers Messrs du Toit and de Vries better shape up or ship out.
            British writer Paul Mendelson has constructed an impressive debut thriller for his first foray into crime writing.  He has created credible, excellent characters – especially Vaughn’s black second-in-command Warrant Officer Don February, so called because his real name would be impossible for most people to pronounce – and his descriptions of the wild and splendid coastline and croplands around Capetown make one feel that they are riding shotgun with Vaughn de Vries and Don February, hanging over their shoulders, exhorting them to find the killers before more children are abused and killed.

            This is a page-turner par excellence, made the more readable by its magnificent setting.  FIVE STARS!!