After flip-flopping politicians, tax-complaining millionaires and Charlie Sheen, second novels might be the easiest targets for critical skewering. Well-received literary introductions have a way of sucking the excitement right out of whatever books trail them. Second entries in crime-fiction series face the same challenges. The familiar grumble is that the author poured everything he or she had into the original book, and the sophomore endeavor lacks the same energy and commitment. Thus, for instance, Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star (1989) foundered in the wake of Gorky Park (1981), Caleb Carr’s The Angel of Darkness (1997) was met with yawns by many admirers of The Alienist (1994) and Rennie Airth’s The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2004) never attained the high-water mark of acclaim set by its hypnotic predecessor, River of Darkness (1999).

Read the last Rap Sheet on Philip Kerr.

Jassy Mackenzie’s Stolen Lives, though, manages to dodge that curse. In fact, for my money, this second Jade de Jong detective novel outshines her debut.

When we first met De Jong in last year’s Random Violence—one in a noticeable wave of new South African crime novels breaching the U.S. market—she was a slim, brunette and 34-year-old private investigator just returned to Johannesburg, or “Jo’burg,” after a decade away in Britain, training for bodyguard and surveillance assignments. She was the only child of a “highly respected police commissioner,” who had once thought to become a “wealthy attorney” in her native land. But after her father was murdered in order to halt his pursuit of a high-profile case, and a vengeful Jade shot the man she thought responsible for the commissioner’s tragic “accident,” she figured that putting some distance between herself and South Africa might be wise. She returned only in order to complete her retribution for her father’s demise. And also with hopes of reigniting a relationship with David Patel, a 6-foot-5, half-Indian and half-white, married cop, who in her absence had succeeded to the position of superintendent.

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By the time Stolen Lives commences, De Jong and Patel have enjoyed their fling, but disagreements over the use of extra-legal violence (she’d stated her willingness to do in a hit-and-run driver whose wealth minimized his punishment for two deaths) put a damper on their future. The superintendent has finally decided to return to his previously unfaithful wife, Naisha, an official with the country’s Department of Home Affairs, who was recently offered a better job with the South African Consulate General in India. He’s hoping a reconciliation will prevent Naisha from decamping with their son, Kevin.

This development has, naturally, upset De Jong and left her needing distractions from her anger and pain. So spoiled, rash Pamela Jordaan could hardly have shown up at a better time with her request for bodyguarding services. It seems that Pamela’s husband, Terence, has disappeared suddenly from their home in Jo’burg’s wealthy Sandton district. Now she wants to buy De Jong’s protection for herself as well as her daughter, Tamsin, an administrator at one of Terence Jordaan’s chain of strip clubs. “You might have heard of them,” Pamela says to the P.I. “They’re called Heads & Tails. They’re upmarket, totally legitimate and above board. He offers his patrons good, clean fun.” If De Jong suspects that Pamela Jordaan might be overreacting to this situation—that her hubby, so accustomed to dubious activities, could simply have gone off with another woman, maybe one of his own employees—she’s quickly disabused of that notion, when a gun-toting motorcyclist tries to kill them both on a public highway.

Meanwhile, a Scotland Yard raid on a brothel in one of London’s middle-class suburbs turns up much-abused women recruited from South Africa, victims of a human-trafficking operation—one that’s already come to the attention of Superintendent Patel and his Organized Crime Division. Fighting the exploitation of human life, according to author Mackenzie, has become a growing responsibility for the South African government. “While countries like Britain and the USA were destinations for trafficked women,” she writes, “and countries like Mexico and Bulgaria the sources, South Africa was both. In addition, it was a transit country for trafficked workers being transported into or out of the African continent. Corrupt immigration officials and the country’s large and porous borders made trafficking a depressingly easy crime to get away with.”

The stakes in this tale escalate quickly. As De Jong struggles to keep Pamela Jordaan from falling apart or falling into worse straits, young Tamsin also vanishes. Questions soon arise about the role Terence Jordaan’s strip clubs might play in the people-selling biz. And in the background of all this, a character of particularly nasty disposition seeks to benefit from South Africa’s shady trade in counterfeit passports. After torture victims are discovered in her client’s home, and Patel’s son is kidnapped, it falls to Jade de Jong to sort out whether all these troubles are elements of a threatening message being sent to the Jordaans, or whether something less obvious and more nefarious is going on.

Random Violence did an excellent job of establishing P.I. De Jong’s headstrong character and her complicated relationships with both her late father and David Patel. But it was far less successful in communicating the foreignness of its setting. Giant Jo’burg came off as Los Angeles with higher property walls and more ambitious electrified fencing. Although her narrative voice remains more practical than poetic, Mackenzie does much better in Stolen Lives at acquainting readers with the idiosyncrasies—and dangers—found in post-apartheid South Africa. There are the angles having to do with modern-day slavery and bogus documents, of course, but also warnings about people trying to peddle drivers cheap goods at controlled intersections. (“Smash and grabs were common at traffic lights, and hawkers provided a useful distraction, allowing the lurking robbers to strike.”) Most disconcerting are her observations on the frequency of kidnappings. “Children disappeared all the time,” she says. “Some were taken for muti [traditional African medicine]; most commonly young children in the townships. They were killed, cut open and carefully dissected. Each organ had a special significance. Even their flesh had value.”

Together with two other novels published over the last year, Deon Meyer’s Thirteen Hours and Caryl Férey’s Zulu, Stolen Lives shows the great promise of South Africa as a crime-fiction setting. Second to none.

J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.

Pub info:

Stolen Lives

Jassy Mackenzie

Soho Crime / April 19, 2011 / 9781569479094 / $25.00