Present Tense by Natalie Conyer: a book review by Geoffrey Zygier

January 15, 2020 by Geoffrey Zygier
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In Bereishit, the first reading of the Torah, Eve picks a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, despite the Almighty’s specific prohibition.

Not long thereafter her firstborn son Cain murders his brother in a fit of jealousy. First theft, then murder: wrongdoing had been introduced to an initially perfect world and as we all know even worse was to come.

Criminality has fascinated – even tempted – humanity since the beginning of time. However, it’s not only the crime itself. Of more interest are its solution and the subsequent punishment of the criminal. Herein I think lies the reason behind the immense popularity of the crime/detective novel. As the old saw has it, everybody loves a mystery – and its solution is even more satisfying.

There are rules governing this widely popular genre. According to local critic David Free, “Questions must be raised, and answers must be delayed. The internal lives of the dramatis personae mustn’t overwhelm the plot; character must be revealed only through action. Language must humbly subordinate itself to the job at hand; outbreaks of verbal individualism will be counted as a distraction.”

Such directions are restrictive, so what techniques can the aspiring crime novelist employ to make their work stand out? One particularly effective strategy is to set the action in a distinctive, often unfamiliar, locale. Crime fiction is almost universally popular (interestingly much less so in totalitarian countries where those who investigate crime are often worse criminals than the supposed perpetrators).

This ‘exoticism’ is a  major reason for the success of fictional sleuths such as Kogoro Akechi (Japan), Chen Cao (China), Pepe Carvalho (Spain), Phryne Fisher (Australia), Jules Maigret (France), Jane Marple (UK), Pradosh C. Mitter (India), Michael Ohayon (Israel), Dave Robicheaux (Louisiana, USA), Kurt Wallander (Sweden) and many others. And now there is an interesting new addition to the international throng, South African cop Schalk Lourens.

Natalie Conyer is a South African expatriate who has lived in Sydney since 1972. An award-winning short-story writer, she has set Present Tense, her debut crime novel, in contemporary Cape Town.

It begins, conventionally enough, with a murder. The victim is Inspector Lourens’ former superior during South Africa’s apartheid era. What distinguishes this crime is the method, a petrol-soaked tyre set alight around the victim’s neck. ‘Necklacing’ is a horrific technique from the bad old days, one largely confined to native collaborators with the white regime. Who could be the murderer and what is the motive?

While Lourens’ search for the answers is also conventional in a general police procedural sense, the reader’s interest is held by the personal and professional issues he faces as a South African living in a particular era in his country’s tragic and unique history. Conyer doesn’t dwell on South Africa’s internal and external contrasts, but nonetheless brings them to life, often in quite subtle ways. This provides a jangling tension to the back story which provides the motive for the murder and eventually leads to the culprit.

Present Tense is subtitled A Schalk Lourens Mystery, indicating it is the first volume of a projected series. As such it provides an introduction to the characters and issues that will inform later volumes.

Natalie Conyer

Schalk Lourens comes from English and Afrikaner parentage and he is named after a famous South African fictional character. He is old enough to have experienced and been affected by apartheid’s injustices, yet flexible enough to adapt, at least partially, to change. Like other fictional contemporaries, Lourens has doubts about the value of his profession (and in his own case, about the future of his homeland). Lourens’ colleagues come from varied backgrounds. His superiors are black, as is his main partner, while others derive from white, Jewish, Muslim and Indian stock.

The dynamics and constraints that they – indeed all South Africans – face are incredibly complex. Rapid political and social changes have left many in freefall, while others are psychologically stuck in the old power structures. While many members of the native black population remain mired in poverty, other black immigrants from even poorer African countries are straining to find a place for themselves in the pecking order.

Some South Africans are seeking idealistically to create a fairer new society, others see opportunities to gain wealth and power for themselves. In this ‘Wild West’ environment, corruption (including ANC patronage and inefficiency) and brutality are endemic. Murder, sexual and violent crime rates are amongst the highest in the world (58 murders and almost 140 rapes daily). Yet despite these awful problems there is still a strong sense of possibility and excitement in the air, in surroundings of great natural beauty. It is a strangely heady mix.

Present Tense does not read like an author’s first work. It is confident, has a steady pace and progression and Conyers ties all the ends up neatly as a good crime novelist should. With a convincing sense of time and place and in Schalk Lourens a promising addition to the pantheon of fictional detectives, it augurs well for a series worth reading.

Present Tense (Clan Destine Press, Bittern, Australia) by Natalie Conyer

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