This complicated thriller, set in South Africa, follows the infiltration of an international cocaine-smuggling operation in order to take down some of Cape Town’s most wanted, and it hits many of the notes of the classic noir—impersonation, menacing gangsters, unexpected obstacles and a femme fatale.
Jake Logan, a former military officer, wants nothing more than to open a bar and restaurant on a beautiful bit of beach, but he lacks the funds. When Frank Palmer—an old colleague and friend from the Special Forces and now part of the National Intelligence Agency—comes calling with a risky but lucrative job opportunity, Jake feels compelled to take it. Jake must act as Hans, the German enforcer for a Colombian drug cartel, which will then make a deal with Omar Plaaitjies and Amos Gold, two major players in Cape Town’s criminal underground. Even the best-laid plans go awry, however, and the situation quickly becomes more dangerous than Jake expected. Of course, race has long played a critical part in South Africa’s history, but the white characters in Claassen’s novel have a disturbing tendency to fixate on the skin color of black characters, who are variously described as a “shiny purple kind of black,” “midnight black” or “caramel color.” Not all of the racial descriptions are this ham-fisted; for example, Palmer delivers a nuanced, fascinating lecture on the failures of the government in its treatment of black citizens. The narration, which switches among characters, is heavily expository: “[Jane] sat back and thought about things. She was 32 years old, never married and bored to death with her job,” and so on. To be sure, it’s necessary to explain certain facets of the government and the political situation in South Africa for unfamiliar readers, but the integration of, for example, the definition of the NIA could surely have been smoother than: “The NIA was responsible for the domestic safety and security of the country.” Further, the abrupt, short sentences create a rather staccato effect, making it difficult for the reader to be swept up in the flow of the story. A closer edit also would have helped alleviate distraction.
An intricately plotted crime thriller that would have benefited from tighter prose.