Is Zirk van den Berg the best thriller writer in New Zealand?

by Christine Cole Catley / 24 April, 2004

NOBODY DIES, by Zirk van den Berg (Black Swan, $26.95); TRAIN, by Pete Dexter (Heinemann, $34.95).

Two crime novels, rather than thrillers, make you realise, again, that whydunit is so much more satisfying than whodunit: it's motivation that sticks in the mind. Zirk van den Berg, who has written Nobody Dies (a cleverly misleading title), was born in Namibia, and grew up in South Africa, where his story takes place. He's lived in New Zealand since 1998, and is currently writing a second crime novel, set here.

Nobody Dies raises questions about police witness protection programmes, South Africa's anyway. But mainly it's a novel about identity: who am I, can I escape my identity, who could I become?

An ordinary man, Daniel Enslin, thinks of himself as a person of no consequence whatsoever, except when he is in the company or at least within the orbit of amoral Frank Redelinghuys, who dazzles him. Then Daniel sees Frank commit a murder, and feels compelled to tell the police.

When the case against gangster Frank collapses, Daniel is set to become his next victim. Enter the police and the other two characters. Nic Acker is a detective who seems to be going nowhere in his career. The enigmatic Erica van der Linde is only too competent as head of the programme that whisks state witnesses away from their previous lives. After all, they're witnesses because they have been caught up in crime themselves, accessories even.

The writing is crisp, the detail and background fresh and believable. Thus, the unhappy detective has to cope with an uncomfortable home life, with its "treacly entanglements". Erica, on the other hand, perhaps needs a little more home background to be altogether convincing. But here is a writer with his own distinctive voice. To the pernickety - don't be put off by that publisher's nightmare, a slip in proofreading in the very first paragraph. Here is quality writing in a quality production. Watch out for van den Berg's next novel.

Pete Dexter's Train has nothing to do with trains or spotting. I began to wish it had. It may be the most violent book that I have ever read right through, but the violence is redeemed by the outrage that propels the author on behalf of blacks or possible justice or both.

Train is the name people give a young black caddy at a high society golf course in Los Angeles. He expects so little of life that he tries to make himself scarcely visible as he does his job, but his natural talent as a golfer and his unassuming temperament attract the attention of an unusual detective sergeant who becomes his mentor.

This detective is involved in a case of a boat hijacking that unravels so horribly and so compellingly that reading is as much pain as pleasure. I read on, hoping things are going to get better, that maybe they'll be not so bad, after all, while knowing really that they will get worse. Every now and then there's hope, then there's another downwards spiral. There are stupid rich white men, and stupid poor black men, and a very few of each race who would like the world to be better than it is.

There are also sequences so richly comic that the whole scene is transformed. As the detective and the woman who alone survived the hijacking come to know and then enjoy each other (this is a euphemism), the outrage of the watching white middle-class neighbours crowding every window is wonderful indeed.

Another bonus, for those who wonder what to give to Uncle Alex who so enjoys his golf, is that there are marvellous scenes on contrasting golf courses, and truly good insights into what makes a golfer. (This will, of course, depend on what else Uncle likes in his books.)

Train is a beautifully designed book, distinctive and a pleasure to look at if not always to read; I haven't, truly, decided if I'm game to read another Pete Dexter crime novel. I shan't forget this one.

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