Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer
Translated from the Afrikaans by Madeleine van Biljon
(Hodder and Stoughton, 2000).
Dead at Daybreak is an exciting yet emotional thriller about a broken man, Van Heerden (we learn his first name later on in the book). At the outset, he wakes up in a jail cell after drunkenly attacking five dentists in a bar. (His justification? “Two were GPs.”) Van Heerden is bailed out by a lawyer friend, who has recommended him to a fellow-lawyer, Hope Beneke, for a job. Hope is representing Wilna van As, whose partner Jan Smit was violently killed nearly 10 years ago in a robbery at their house. In the ransacked safe, according to Wilna, was Smit’s will, leaving everything to her. Because they were not married, if the will cannot be found within 10 years of Smit’s death, his business and properties, in which Wilna was a partner, will go entirely to the state. There is a week to go before the 10-year deadline. All previous attempts by the police to track down the killer(s) have failed, so as a last-ditch effort, Wilna’s lawyer Hope decides to hire a PI. This is where Van Heerden comes in.
It doesn’t take Van Heerden long to find evidence that the police missed previously. We learn, though, that he is a former member of the police himself, having worked before his retirement at the same station as Matt Joubert, the attractive main character in the author’s previous (debut) novel, Dead Before Dying. Joubert is an occasional, comforting character in this present novel, but after he uncovers the new evidence, the main police liaison for Van Heerden is the original investigating officer, Tony O’Grady. O’Grady is torn between annoyance that his earlier competence is being questioned, and his desire to re-open the case to find out who killed Smit. An uneasy partnership develops between the men.
Van Heerden also gets off on the wrong foot with Hope by deliberately confronting and belittling her from the first moment he meets her. She’s just about to sack him, in fact, when his mother steps in to plea for her son’s continuing involvement. Part of the book tells Van Heerden’s life story in flashback, starting with the story of how his parents met. I found the parents' romance schmaltzy compared with the rest of the book, and the character of the mother not convincing through being too idealised. Hope, however, is a more rounded character whose views of her prickly employee see-saw throughout the novel.
As the rest of Van Heerden’s story is told, in parallel with the exciting events in the present, we learn the full extent of why he left the police force, and why he’s such a mess now. In the interim, there is a fascinating subplot about his journey through academia and his views on policing, which I very much enjoyed, along with some other bleakly humorous digressions.
Dead at Daybreak is a great mix of thriller and story of personal redemption. It’s very exciting and intelligently plotted. There are some really good and original set-pieces (particularly one involving four women in Van Heerden's mother's house) and shocks. The novel certainly has some flaws, for example the final confrontation scenes and the question of how certain events became resolved under these circumstances. Also, one has to admit, the central premise of the one-week deadline is a bit contrived, though it adds such pace and excitement to the book’s structure. Even taking these downsides into account, I overwhelmingly enjoyed this novel which combines a really solid investigative and thriller plot, with an involving story of how a man has reached rock bottom and gradually realises that there might possibly still be a chance for him.
It won't be long before I've caught up with the author's backlist, specifically Heart of the Hunter and Devil's Peak. I have also heard the welcome news that Deon Meyer will be attending Crime Fest next year (2011) as a featured guest author.