Once again the books I’m moved to review are fitting neatly into pairs. Here are two novels set against backgrounds of recent political history. Both have rather broken policeman as the focal character. In almost all other respects they are very different, and very good.
The Fountain in the Forest, Tony White
This engaging and absorbing story starts as a classically police procedural – crime scenes are described in close detail, and the police methodology feels as authentic as the attitudes and banter of the police themselves. DS Rex King of the Metropolitan Police is an outsider of a cop, a man who doesn’t fit in. He’s the perfect person to investigate the murder of an unknown man found hanging and mutilated in his friend’s theatrical studio.
Except he’s not. He has a deeply awkward relationship with some officers, his education and background keep him at arms-length with the rest. He’s not popular. He treads on toes. He gets the job done.
While the crime may have been committed in the present the roots to the case lies in the past. White interleaves the two narratives skillfully. The investigation and King’s own life move forwards while the origins of the murder are revealed in another place and time, and in another country – the Fountain in the Forest.
The politics of the Thatcher era are integral to this book. White clearly wants to write about the prices paid there, the brutality and the loss of a kind of innocence. For Rex King and many others the ripples from those times still spread out today, wider and wider.
DS King is not an easy character but he’s hard to dislike. While I found the level of detail description in the early parts a little too much, White’s writing is vivid, his characters complex and original, the structure just the right side of ambitious. Tony White is always interesting, occasionally experimental, sometimes bold. This was a compelling book and it still lingers in my mind.
The Capinga Questions, Damian P. O’Connor
This is the second of O’Connor’s ‘Smithy & Mostert’ books of set in apartheid South Africa.
There’s plenty of dirt when you’re fighting an illegal and secret war in Namibia. When one of the enemy camps is destroyed by SA forces, international accusations of chemical weapons use means an investigation is required. Smithy is the right man for the job. Because this is a military crime he’s assigned Trudi Mostert, a savy, intelligent female officer.
The relationship between these two characters is core to this riveting book. Mostert is smart and brave, as a female Army officer she needs to be. She deftly fends off Smithy’s inept attentions; he’s outclassed in so many ways.
Needless to say, the true reasons they are sent to investigate the alleged gas-bombing, and the answers that are really wanted are different things entirely.
Sergeant Smith is more cunning than smart, a reactionary by upbringing, pitiably naïve and morally unilluminated. He’s young but he’s made terrible mistakes and done very bad things. One slow step at a time he’s dragging himself out of the mire of prejudice and violence that defines the apartheid state – and him. The deeds haunt him, the consequences will never let him go. The Bureau for State Security (BOSS) know what he’s done and it won’t let him alone either. As a result when the dirty jobs need doing Smithy is the man they send for.
The era of apartheid South Africa is one that needs writing about, it needs fiction to help tell the stories of a brutal, murderous time of intolerance and hate. In The Capinga Questions O’Connor writes about some of them in direct and accessible ways. What’s it like to be a state-sanctioned murderer, a gay man in that state’s army, the child of a monster, a human being?
It bemuses and frustrates me that a writer as good as O’Connor doesn’t get more recognition. His story-telling is compelling, the stories themselves are outstanding. The world he describes feels utterly authentic. You can feel the dust on your teeth, the action is riveting, the revelations – well, you’ll need to find out for yourself.
Both these books are bout things that happened in the past, and the cost. I can think of no better way to put it than O’Connor’s own prelude:
‘It’s easy to ask questions. The hard part is listening to the answers. And the hardest part of all is asking the right questions and then listening to the hard answers.’
The Fountain in the Forest, Tony White, Faber & Faber – Available Jan 2018