|THE LAST HUNT
Deon Meyer (www.deonmeyer.com)
Translated by K.L. Seegers
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
Ex-cop Johnson Johnson’s body is found in the wilderness, beside a railway line days after he disappears from the world’s most luxurious train. Captains Benny Griessel and Vaughn Cupido, stars of South African police’s elite Hawks unit are assigned what is essentially a cold case. Their investigation leads them to two old men, men who – according to the records – do not exist. As they dig, they rattle cages better left undisturbed, and are ultimately told to bury the case: write it off as a suicide and walk away. Johnson Johnson has crossed the wrong people, people with the power to direct the investigations of the South African police. Griessel and Cupido can smell the corruption, but there’s little they can do about it. And so they move onto the next case: an old man who looks to have shot himself while sitting at his kitchen table. But there’s something not quite right about this case either.
I’m a late comer to the phenomenon that is Deon Meyer. I discovered him when I read his post-apocalyptic novel, Fever, a kind of South African The Stand that is an excellent addition to the genre. But, with the exception of 2018’s novella, The Woman in the Blue Dress, I had yet to become acquainted with Meyer’s series character, Captain Benny Griessel, or his partner, the irrepressible Vaughn Cupido. Somewhat daunted by the missed history, I took a chance on Meyer’s latest, The Last Hunt, the sixth full-length adventure featuring the Hawks captains, and immediately fell in love; with the characters, the settings, and with the sheer joy of Meyer’s approach to storytelling.
The Last Hunt opens on two very distinct strands which, at first, seem completely unrelated: first, the investigation into the death of Johnson Johnson, an ex-policeman travelling on the world’s most luxurious train, Rovos Rail running between Cape Town and Pretoria, and providing bodyguard services for an elderly Dutchwoman on holiday. The second strand introduces us to Daniel Darret, a man living in Bordeaux and obviously hiding from a colourful and storied past.
As the two strands progress, it becomes clear that they’re very closely related, and tied to corruption at the highest levels of South Africa’s post-apartheid government. Daniel is an assassin, a man who hails from South Africa, and who finds himself drawn in to one final mission when an old friend suddenly appears in Bordeaux. Griessel and Cupido, meanwhile, find themselves stymied at every turn, their investigations blocked by someone much higher up the chain of command, the cases they have been assigned obviously much more dangerous than anyone could possibly imagine.
Meyer presents a clear-eyed examination of some of the issues facing modern day South Africa, yet does so with a light touch that draws the reader in through the friendship that has obviously developed over the course of the series between the two central detectives. These are serious and often heavy themes, yet Meyer avoids the traditional noirish or hardboiled detectives and introduces us to two characters not through their ability to solve crimes – which is almost incidental – but through their very human traits. Griessel, an alcoholic, spends much of the book worrying about how he is going to propose to his long-time girlfriend and about how she might react, while Cupido – something of a ladies’ man – finds himself trying to impress the son of his latest girlfriend, while playing cheerleader to his partner and – it would seem – best friend. It’s a light-hearted approach that jars considerably with the crimes that the two men find themselves investigating, and with the wider themes that the book explores, serving to remind us of the very human cost of these events.
The Last Hunt is an engaging and entertaining read that is like no other crime novel you’ve ever encountered. There’s a warm heart at the centre of the book that, no doubt, runs throughout the series, and characters with whom the reader will immediately bond, regardless of how much of their history we have encountered. It’s a cleverly plotted series of interlinked stories that gradually moves toward a satisfying an thought-provoking solution, a solution that the reader reaches in step with the starring detectives. And all the while, we find ourselves cheering on these broken men who are doing their best for their country, and for the people around them.
Deon Meyer is a master of his craft, and The Last Hunt is the perfect read for anyone looking for smart, thought-provoking and – probably most important – upbeat crime fiction. It’s not a bad jumping on spot, a book that requires very little knowledge of what has come before. For me, it’s the nudge I needed to go back to the start of Meyer’s back catalogue and work my way forward. Whether a long-time fan or a new reader, The Last Hunt is one of the best crime novels you’ll read this year.