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A thrill in every language

eon Meyer is South Africa’s king of the crime thriller. But, like the proverbial prophet, Meyer is arguably less honoured in his home country than abroad. While local thriller lovers line up to buy his books in Afrikaans, Meyer’s major success has been in breaking through to the international market. His novels have been translated into several languages, including English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian, Czech, Romanian, and even Slovakian and Bulgarian.

In France he has a huge following. Dead at Daybreak won the prestigious Le Prix Mystère de la critique in 2004, while his Dead Before Dying won the Le Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 2003. For the latter, Meyer also became the first South African to win the Deutsche Krimi Preis, considered to be the oldest and most prestigious German literary award for crime fiction.

In the United States, readers are aching to see more of motorcycle fugitive Thobela Mpayyipheli, from Heart of the Hunter (Proteus in Afrikaans), which The Chicago Tribune chose as one of the 10 best thrillers and mysteries of 2004.

It is true, however, that at home, Afrikaans critics have fallen in love with his work. Infanta, which has just been released as Devil’s Peak , won the ATKV Prose Prize in 2004, while Proteus won the award in 2003 and Orion in 2000.

“The novels are meant to be read in Afrikaans,” Meyer says. “The Afrikaans versions will always have the best context and colloquialisms.”

Meyer first and foremost writes in Afrikaans, and believes that, if the mystery is good enough, it will be translated into English.

He grew up in Klerksdorp, in the gold-mining region of North West province, very much like his memorable character Zatopek van Heerden from Orion and Proteus. He started his career as a reporter at Die Volksblad in Bloemfontein. Meyer began to write fiction in his early 30s, and started publishing short stories in magazines. After selling about a dozen short stories, he began on his first Afrikaans mystery in the early Nineties.

That novel, Wie Met Vuur Speel, has not been translated because Meyer believes it is not good enough to compete on the international market. He is a firm believer that — like the good red wine he adores — his writing has only improved over the years.

Meyer registered his first big hit with Feniks, which was sold to British publisher Hodder & Stoughton in 1995 by Meyer’s London agent, Isobel Dixon.

The author, who now lives in Melkbosstrand near Cape Town, has some theories about why the Afrikaans detective novel seems to have faded away over the years, leaving him as one of only a few Afrikaans thriller writers.

“One reason is you could not really have crime thrillers, or specifically police crime thrillers, in the apartheid era. It is very difficult to have a cop as a hero if he works for an evil regime. You don’t tend to find crime thrillers in any community where a ‘non-democratic’ situation prevails.”

The second reason, he believes, is that during apartheid publishers, readers and reviewers were striving to produce a certain high standard of literature in Afrikaans, “to show how much quality Afrikaans could deliver”.

“But, unlike French and English, there has never been a culture in Afrikaans of thriller writing, whereas it is considered as a valuable genre in the United Kingdom, France and even Germany. But for some reason thrillers have always been seen in Afrikaans as somewhat of a lesser genre and frowned upon.”

Meyer says, especially in the late apartheid years, anything that made Afrikaans “common” was frowned upon. He says he has spoken to Afrikaans publishers about the phenomenon and they simply say: “No one sent us any good manuscripts in this genre for so many years.”

But all is not lost. Aside from the thrillers Meyer churns out to great acclaim, two other Afrikaans authors will be making their thriller debuts next year at the Suidoosterfees.

Meyer’s next novel, Die Onsigbare, will come out in September and is also being translated into English as The Invisibles. Its plot revolves around the bodyguard industry in South Africa and a company called Body Armour.

Body Armour, a personal security outfit, offers two types of protection: the big and intimidating muscle men called gorillas, or the lean and hungry former government body guards, referred to as “invisibles”, hence the title of the book.

Meyer’s main character is in his typical style of anti-hero: Lemmer is a freelance invisible, way down on the price list where the bargains are to be found, “because he is white trash, a violent man with a criminal record who spent four years in jail after killing a guy in a road-rage incident”.

He is hired by Emma le Roux, a brand consultant from Cape Town, who has an intriguing story to tell about her brother, whom she believes is dead. After making some enquiries, her life is threatened but she wants to travel to the Lowveld to get some answers and she needs a bodyguard. But Lemmer does not trust his client, despite growing more and more fond of her.

Meyer is already working on a new book and fans of Bennie Griessel, the protagonist of Devil’s Peak, will be wetting their lips in anticipation.

“It is another Bennie Griessel mystery,” he says. “My working title is 13 Hours. What I am trying to do is tell the story of what happens to Bennie Griessel in 13 hours.”

Griessel’s story, Meyer says, begins just after six in the morning. Since Devil’s Peak, Griessel has changed somewhat. The serious and violent crimes unit has been disbanded (as it has in real life). Instead there is something called the provincial task force and Griessel is involved in the unit in his new case.

Griessel, Van Heerden, Mpayyipheli, Mat Joubert and now Lemmer are part of Meyer’s charm. All of his heroes have some demon they are struggling with, whether it is alcoholism (more times than not), love gone wrong or a post-apartheid hangover. And, more often than not, as in Devil’s Peak, his plotlines are severely unsettling.

Because police are so central to his plots, Meyer has to do meticulous research for his stories. He says it was difficult at first to win the trust of the police, but now that he is more widely known, they are more willing to open up.

For Devil’s Peak, he also interviewed about 10 sex workers to get a feeling for his character Christine and what motivates her.

“The answer I got is greed,” Meyer says. “I also interviewed other women of the same age, you know, women in their early 20s, to see if they would be motivated by price. And the answers were quite interesting.”

He works on a book for about 18 months, which includes research, weighing story options, “and worrying that it will work”. He writes almost every day and only takes off a few months between books.

Meyer is also an enthusiastic thriller reader. Growing up, he says, he cut his thriller and crime teeth on the great masters: John D MacDonald, Ed McBain, John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Ted Allbeury and Robert B Parker.

American author Michael Connelly is also one of his favourites. Incidentally, the two authors, apart from being connected through their international publishing houses, also look alike.

Meyer laughs as he relates how many times he has experienced mistaken identity when doing a book signing with Connelly.

“In Phoenix once, this fan simply did not want to believe I was not Michael Connelly and was surprised that Connelly had developed a South African accent all of a sudden.”

In his writing, Meyer has developed an accent that appeals internationally, on both sides of the Atlantic, and in numerous languages. It’s time for English-speaking South African fans of the thriller genre to catch up with the rest of the world.

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Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.

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