Jonathan Amid - 2011-12-07
A Sailor’s Honour
Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.
As the winner of the University of Johannesburg Prize and the K Sello Duiker Memorial Award, Chris Marnewick has made a name for himself as a thriller writer who believes his novels should contain certain non-negotiable elements: gripping, complex premises and the interweaving of various connected plot lines; characters closely involved with the law, with its judicial application, its day-to-day character, values, oddities and loopholes; a questing questioning of the wide-ranging consequences of ignorance and injustice; and revelations of the dogged intrusion of history into the present, always a part of the here and now.
Whereas Marnewick came to the attention of particularly crime fiction readers with the brutally engaging Shepherds and Butchers in 2008 and last year’s powerful The Soldier Who said No, his latest offering, A Sailor’s Honour, is arguably his most commercial yet densely plotted effort yet. Readers familiar with Marnewick’s hero Pierre de Villiers will find a welcome return of the maverick policeman, while new readers will be able to savour a yarn with escapist rudiments nonetheless rooted in sharp socio-political commentary and historical excavation.
To list all the plot elements in A Sailor’s Honour here would be churlish, because many unexpected and thoroughly credible elements of South African society and history are woven into the heady mix. Reduced to its most basic elements, the novel sees the former Bush War soldier De Villiers embroiled in a continent-spanning and historically rooted plot involving the Third Force, the killers of De Villiers’s family years ago and a mysterious general.
After his daughter is kidnapped in Auckland and his brother-in-law’s wife is abducted in Durban, De Villiers and his brother-in-law, Johan Weber, must join forces in order to stop a wide-ranging and potentially devastating number of terror attacks from being unleashed during the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
Marnewick’s novel is meticulously researched and told with characteristic vigour. While re-presenting various key moments and political incidents in the South African historical trajectory (not without dollops of historical imagination), A Sailor’s Honour engages the reader on both the level of entertainment and diversion and as an edifying, insightful look into criminal enterprise, political manoeuvring and corruption and the struggle for good men in times of turmoil.
We encounter a host of shady, well-drawn villains, each with their own back story and a measure of psychological depth, with Weber’s nemesis, “Spokie”, and the old foe of De Villiers, the major, particularly compelling and persuasive.
A Sailor’s Honour is particularly good at weaving some of South Africa’s flagship struggles – HIV/AIDS, racism and racial violence, cronyism and corruption, a lack of faith in the system – into a narrative that never loses its focus on the human element which makes a work of thriller-writing more than just a cheap exercise in thrills and suspense.
Although Marnewick spends much of the novel evoking various criminal endeavours and devotes considerable energy to shifts in time and place, the winning feature of his latest novel is the continuing relationship we are allowed to maintain with Pierre de Villiers, a genuinely likeable man of true integrity, battle-hardened but weary, doing now as an outsider to his birth country what is right for many, but above all, his family.
It is in De Villiers as lawman that our certainty of justice and righteousness is maintained for the duration of our reading experience – amid encounters of cruelty, depravity and self-promotion – and it is our identification with one good man’s struggles that Marnewick continues to draw us into.
A Sailor’s Honour, much like The Soldier Who Said No, ends on a poignant but unsettling note, one where old certainties and new truths are irrevocably blurred. While Marnewick has concluded what loosely acts as a crime fiction trilogy with A Sailor’s Honour, one hopes that his future contributions to South African literature will continue to unearth buried histories and difficult truths and remain equally enjoyable and informative.