Thirteen Hours; Nightfall; Theodore Boone: Half the Man, Twice the Lawyer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am

Thirteen Hours
by Deon Meyer
Hodder and Stoughton HK$247

by Stephen Leather
Hodder and Stoughton HK$91

Theodore Boone: Half the Man, Twice the Lawyer
by John Grisham
Hodder and Stoughton HK$169

If watching the rough and tumble of the World Cup has sent you into a spin, then South Africa's Deon Meyer and his latest crime novel may toss you into another one. With immaculate timing, Meyer showcases Cape Town in all its gore and glory, and the after-effect is as rewarding as it is deeply memorable.

In a single masterstroke, he presents the city with candour mainly through the eyes of one resident, and the result is beguiling. Not only does Cape Town's majestic beauty jump off the page, but you feel you can also smell and hear it. From the outset, the reader is thrown into the cut and thrust of a 13-hour window in veteran cop Benny Griessel's working day.

By the end of it, you wonder how the recovering alcoholic has managed to lay off the booze, never mind not throw in his badge.

The novel opens with an American girl running up a steep slope. It emerges that this is no leisurely run, as the agitation builds. Meyer splices in an introduction to Griessel - awakened by a phone call summoning him to the brutal murder of another girl.

These two events unleash the plot, and the reader immediately tries to conceive a connection. One of Meyer's gifts is that he is like a marathon runner. He sets a pace, revs it up a little in parts, slows it down in others, and these sudden changes draw the reader in.

He is also a gentle tease. He lays out clues for the reader to piece together, only to discover that they have been led up a blind alley.

Meyer portrays post-apartheid South Africa as a country still healing from the wounds left by decades of division. Lest this sounds a little worthy, he avoids simply separating the issue into haves and have-nots or skin colour.

This is much more about the human condition, and therein lies Meyer's ability to draw memorable, although not necessarily likeable, characterisations.

Griessel, struggling to save his marriage, is initially portrayed as a gruff, borderline failure both as a cop and husband. We come to realise that he is the product of an age where his job is his identity - and that it has nearly subsumed him.

Another character is Alexandra Barnard, a once famous singer who seeks solace in alcohol to cope with her husband's infidelity. She is an enigma, and a bewitching one.

Such personal demons neatly introduce the latest offering from Stephen Leather - a former business editor of the South China Morning Post - about the devil in all its guises. Nightfall is the first in a series about Jack Nightingale, whose career as a hostage negotiator with London's Metropolitan Police ended abruptly with the words, 'You are going to hell, Jack Nightingale', following a young girl's suicide.

Years later, those words come back to haunt him repeatedly as friends and relatives gradually die around him. With his life turned upside down at every twist and turn, Nightingale learns he was adopted and that his blood father has left him a recording - before blowing his head off - that sets him on a collision course with the underworld.

This is an intriguing take on the occult, a subject that has always interested Leather, he says. Overtones of a James Herbert or Stephen King novel - the spooky house and macabre characters - creep in at times. The plot bounds along although the reader is required to suspend disbelief at times, as might be expected given the subject.

Nightingale is a sympathetic, likeable character who at the age of 32 has a certain world weariness that makes him feel 72. Hopefully, Leather can stay the course, tapping on Nightingale's potential to build on a promising introduction.

Pulitzer Prize-winning John Grisham has carved out a successful name for himself writing thrillers for adults. Theodore Boone: Half the Man, Twice the Lawyer represents a break, being aimed at youngsters.

Its strongest point is the protagonist, a 13-year-old of the same name and the son of two lawyers. The weakest, unfortunately, is the self-same youngster, a precocious and preachy know-it-all who is hardly likely to endear himself to the adult reader.

This is a teen who gratingly dispenses legal advice to his friends but manages to sound plain patronising to anyone else. Still, there is a certain charm to the small-town America that is portrayed.

Grisham, in an recent interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph, says the book is about catching the popularity of the Harry Potter books, whose author, J.K. Rowling, he joked, has displaced him as the world's best-selling writer.

As a tool for introducing the legal process, youngsters might just find it engaging. Adults are likely to find it a little irritating, with a pedestrian plot verging on the ponderous.