Review of Stolen Lives by Jassy Mackenzie

Stolen Lives by Jassy MackenzieTitle: Stolen Lives
Series: Jade de Jong #2
Jassy Mackenzie
crime thriller
own copy
Rating: 6/10

I hadn’t planned to review this novel, and had’t heard of it until I stumbled across a second-hand copy during my recent holiday in Cape Town. I’d been taking the opportunity to build my collection of SA genre fiction, so I was quick to grab this crime thriller. Jassy Mackenzie is one of the better-known names in SA fiction and is currently in the spotlight with her latest release, Folly, about a woman who falls on hard times and sets up a domination dungeon in her garden, offering her services as a dominatrix to make some much-needed cash. Stolen Lives, published in 2010, also has a sexual theme, but it tackles sex crime and is (presumably) much darker and more violent. It’s the second in a series featuring PI Jade de Jong. I haven’t read the first book, Random Violence, but I thought this one stood perfectly well on its own.

If you spot it online or in store, I suggest you avoid reading the blurb unless you don’t mind learning about two thirds of the major plot developments. I’ve written a plot summary that’s less exciting, but less revealing. The story opens in the London, where Detective Constable Edmonds, newly promoted to the Human Trafficking Division of Scotland Yard, goes on her first raid at a brothel that’s been using trafficked women. They fail to capture the owner or the mysterious woman who injures two cops and escapes with an accomplice, but they at least manage to rescue the girls, most of whom have been trafficked from South Africa.

In Jo’burg, the very wealthy and impeccably groomed Pamela Jordaan hires Jade de Jong to be her personal bodyguard. Pamela’s husband Terence recently went missing, and because he owns a stripclub – the kind of business that attracts dangerous people – Pamela fears for her own safety. Jade thinks she’ll just be babysitting some paranoid housewife, until she and Pamela are nearly shot in broad daylight, and Pamela’s daughter Tamsin goes missing as well. Further investigation draws Jade into the sordid world of sex work and human trafficking, and instead of simply watching Pamela shop, she finds herself dealing with cases of torture, murder and rape that are all linked to the trafficking case in London.

At least Jade has the help of police Superintendent David Patel, her ex-lover who recently ended their brief relationship on a cold and awkward note after a moral disagreement. David is dedicated and ambitious, but horribly overworked. He still cares about Jade though, so he does his best to help her, especially when her case begins to involve serious criminal activity and intersects with his own investigations. Although neither of them harbour any illusions about the dangers of the situation they’re involved in, they still find themselves unprepared for the extent of the violence and brutality that follows.

Not surprisingly, Stolen Lives offers bleak picture of crime in South Africa, and Jo’burg in particular. I learned quite a bit about the human trafficking in my home country, assuming Mackenzie’s novel is as accurate as it seems. Apparently it’s the third most lucrative crime in the world, after drug trafficking and arms dealing. South Africa is, depressingly, both the source and destination of trafficked women, and the laws related to these crimes are so inadequate that they tend to work against the victims rather helping them. Any such case is a “right bloody pain in the arse” for the cops, and the USA has actually put SA on a watch list for “an inability to exhibit efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” (36)

I don’t know SA was a human trafficking hub, but the inefficiency of governmental and legal systems wouldn’t be a surprise to any citizen, and the novel makes this an integral part of the plot. Home Affairs is portrayed as an inefficient institution, rotten and reeking with corruption. Officials take a year or more to process passports and ID books, or expect bribes before they will do anything. On the other hand, passports can easily be bought as long as you have the money and the right contacts. One of the villains goes to violent lengths to procure a set of forged passports, and other countries are said to complain about the number of fake passports from South Africa (leading, for example, to South Africans requiring a visa to enter the UK). One character describes the country as “beautiful but lawless”, which is a tad melodramatic, but I understand where that feeling comes from.

Still, Stolen Lives is hardly the bleakest novel I’ve read about SA. It’s subject matter is disturbing, but it’s not written from the perspective of those who suffer the most – the trafficked women or the women who move to Jo’burg from small towns, desperate for jobs promised by the allure of the big city but finding themselves resorting to sex work. We see things either from the POV of law enforcement agents (Jade, David and Edmonds), or the criminals they’re trying to stop. This is still a crime novel intended to entertain, so the victims are seen only through the eyes of cops or criminals, their voices heard in interviews or pleas. Pamela could be considered a victim of sorts, but she is so snotty and spoilt that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her, especially since her family’s troubles are a consequence of their sordid business dealings.

That said, this isn’t what I’d call an easy read. It may take a more privileged perspective on sex trafficking, but this is not a book for sensitive readers. It includes torture, rape, and a great deal of other violence. Not all of it happens on the page, but a young woman describing how she was kidnapped, locked up and repeatedly raped is horrifying enough.

On a gentler note, are the personal lives of Jade and David. They broke up because of Jade’s attitude to killing – she shot the man who murdered her father, and feels no remorse. In fact, she believes certain people deserve to be killed – a moral issue the novel raises a few times. David, however, disagrees so strongly with this that he left. They still care about each other, but David has another complication – his wife Naisha and young son Kevin. The couple separated after Naisha had an affair, but again, David still loves her and is doing his utmost to maintain a strong relationship with Kevin despite his demanding job. Over in the UK, Edmonds’s story is more focused on the case itself, but we still get an understanding of her as an awkward woman, trying hard to overcome her insecurities in order to do good work. The novel also gives a glimpse into the culture of Jo’burg, which is much more… intense than the laid-back attitude of Capetonians. There was a bit of comic relief in Jade’s description of the way Pamela “screamed Sandton, from her big, gold-framed sunglasses and the silver Patek Philippe watch on her left wrist to the oversized diamond rings that sparkled on her red-manicured fingers”. Sandton is an affluent suburb in Jo’burg, and although I’ve never spent much time there, I know exactly the kind of person Jade is talking about.

There is, you may have noticed, quite a lot going on here. Too much perhaps. There are four main crimes – Terence’s disappearance, Tamsin’s disappearance, the human trafficking in the UK, and a kidnapping that I omitted from my plot summary – as well as several minor ones. As a reader, you can assume from the start that they’re linked, and certain sections show exactly how they’re linked, although they don’t reveal all. Jade and David, however, aren’t able to figure this out until the last quarter of the novel, when it comes as absolutely no surprise to you. By then, you’re just waiting for them to fill in the blanks. There are also many different viewpoints – the narrative switches frequently between the main characters (Jade, David, Edmonds) as well as minor characters whose brief appearances show us parts of the plot that the protagonists aren’t privy to. Towards the end, there are even sections from the villains’ POVs.  And with the multiple viewpoints come multiple story arcs. It’s not hard to keep track of everyone, but it does make the novel feel very untidy, with stories and characters scattered all over the place. Mackenzie brings everything together, of course, but it’s not all that satisfying. Perhaps one of the reasons is that it’s not the kind of crime thriller that engages you in the mystery by giving you the means to figure things out on your own. Either you know more than the protagonists, or you have to wait for someone to you exactly what happened.

It’s still a good read – it has the action, violence and shock value that you expect from a crime thriller – it’s just not as tightly plotted as I would have liked, and there were some details that didn’t make sense or were left dangling. I also thought it very stupid that Jade goes alone to face the villain in the final confrontation, with David not even considering the possibility that this might be extremely fucking dangerous and suggesting she wait for help. Instead, he just gives a lift home so she can get her car and drive off to her possible death.

One other concern I want to mention is the way that non-white characters are usually described according to their race. If, for example, a woman is described only as being tall with brown hair, you can assume she’s white. Because if she’s black, coloured or Indian, that will be part of her description. Mackenzie is hardly the only author to do this and she doesn’t always do it, but it’s so noticeable because this is a crime thriller about detectives, and providing physical descriptions of characters is a standard means of evoking an investigative tone. One character who is frequently described as the “black accomplice” when other, more important descriptions could be easily be used. It wouldn’t be a problem if the white characters were similarly described. It’s also not necessary, and not all authors do it, opting for more subtle means of describing their characters unless the issue of race is pertinent. Is the word “black” meant to evoke a sense of menace in accordance with stereotypes? Or does this trend, here and elsewhere simply acknowledge the way many readers see white as the norm and wouldn’t imagine a character to have a different skin colour unless it was specified? But that’s another debate.

All in all, Stolen Lives is a decent crime thriller, given weight by the very serious issue at its core. Crime has become a major theme in South African fiction, a dire but welcome change from the (post) Apartheid politics that dominated our novels for so long. Stolen Lives highlights a major issue in the SA crime scene and asks difficult questions. Although I had some issues with the book, I liked the moral ambiguities – the way villains can become victims and vice versa, the way characters sometimes do unpleasant or cruel things to achieve more admirable ends. I’d grit my teeth before venturing into another of Mackenzie’s novels, but don’t take that as a reason to shy away from her. Her works are available locally and abroad, so check them out 🙂

Review of A Killer in the Wind by Andrew Klavan

A Killer in the Wind by Andrew KlavanTitle: A Killer in the Wind
Author: Andrew Klavan
8 January 2013
Pubisher: Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic
crime and mystery
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Please note: This review contains mild spoilers. I have avoided revealing details about the plot, but I have written relatively detailed discussions of the major characters.

Dan Champion is a small-town cop who, when we first see him, is living up to his name in true hardboiled detective style. But Champion’s bold facade hides a troubled past – three years ago he worked undercover in New York, investigating a child sex slavery ring run by monstrous criminal known as the Fat Woman. Obsessed with finding her and tormented by the horrors of his work Champion started taking drugs to cope, resulting in some haunting hallucinations – a dead child who stares sadly at him, and a beautiful woman named Samantha, with whom Champion falls in love even though she doesn’t exist. Drug-crazed, Champion eventually botches the case, loses his chance of finding the Fat Woman, and gets sent off to the small town of Gilead for his sins.

But of course, his past comes back to destroy him. A woman washes up on the shores of the Hudson river, and when Champion arrives on the scene he’s shocked to see that it’s Samantha, the woman he hallucinated and fell in love with. “They’re coming after us”, she whispers to him, before passing out. Shortly after, Champion is attacked by the Starks, a terrifying pair of twin killers. He kills one, only to have his brother swear torturous revenge. The Starks had ransacked Champion’s house, but he has no idea what they could have been looking for or how Samantha is involved. The Fat Woman is hunting him down, and although this gives him another opportunity to catch her, he’s also forced to face the devastating secrets of his past and the ghosts that have been haunting him.

A Killer in the Wind hooked me with the first chapter. I really liked the writing – brash and hardboiled, sardonically relating tragedy and violence. It’s sort of serious without being entirely serious, and I thought it promised an entertaining read. We immediately get a heroic portrait of Champion, but then this is soon undermined by flashback chapters that tell his New York story. Suddenly, we see Champion miserable, stressed and discouraged. He might be doing good work, but he succumbs to drug addiction, and his one heroic moment is also one of his greatest failures. I liked this too; the contrast between current Champion and past Champion intrigued me, and I love a dark and dirty past.

I particularly liked the suggestion that Champion’s heroism is a facade: his name is so prosaic, that opening chapter was a little too cool, and the New York story shows us that he’s not quite the man he seems to be at first. I’m not trying to suggest that Champion doesn’t do brave and heroic things; he does. He’s a good person. But throughout the novel there’s a sense that he is who is because he’s trying to live up to his name, to fit himself into his idea of a hero. It’s a pretty traditional one – Champion seems to specialise in saving women and children, and he has a bit of trouble dealing with his emotions. His lover Bethany notes that he gets very angry when “someone hurts a child – or a woman, for that matter… or anyone who can’t defend themselves”. As we eventually find out, this entire story began with Champion trying to be a hero, the one who rescues a damsel in distress from the monsters who would hurt her. It’s not always easy: most of the time, Champion is able to be the hero he wants to be, but there are also many times when he fails – we see him terrified, vulnerable, and deranged, unable to defeat Stark or the Fat Woman.

So yeah, I like what Klavan did with Champion’s character, playing around with the concept of the hero, the champion. It’s not revolutionary – Champion is still the traditional hero at the end of the day – but it does add a little something extra to his character. However, despite the positive things I’ve said so far, you may recall that I only gave this book 5/10. Which means there are some major flaws I need to discuss. The biggest one is that in playing around with idea of the traditional, masculine hero, Klavan has produced some dreadfully traditional women to prop Champion up. They’re disempowered, clichéd, and boring.

The first is Bethany, Champion’s lover. She’s very beautiful and loves Champion, but he can’t love her back because he’s in love with the woman he once hallucinated. This doesn’t bother Bethany much. She’s available to tend to his wounds, give him the emotional insights he can’t figure out for himself, and be threatened by Stark so that Champion can swoop in to protect her.

Then there’s Samantha. It’s a long time before we really learn anything about her. In the first half of the novel, she’s imaginary, unconscious or missing. We know only that she’s very beautiful. Her most notable features are her auburn hair, and her very white skin. Champion knows her as an angel who comforted him in his time of need, but that might just be his fantasy. When we have proper encounters with Samantha later in the novel, she’s almost always a victim – a damsel in distress begging Champion to save her and put an end to these terrible things that are happening to them, or a neurotic mess for whom “being damaged is a full-time job”. Samantha shows some strength as an investigator and a survivor, but this is mostly in the backstory; the Samantha we see on the page is a quivering victim offering Champion a golden opportunity to be her hero. It’s so ridiculous that I wondered if Champion was hallucinating all his scenes with her, but if that were the case then most of the book could be a hallucination as well.

Finally, there’s the Fat Woman, who is both morally and physically monstrous. She’s hideously obese, and supposedly has no face. She kidnaps and sells children as sex slaves, so there’s really no room for ambiguity here – she’s evil. It’s pretty common for powerful women to be made monstrous in fiction, but Klavan deals her a double blow – he robs the Fat Woman of her power as a villain. However perverse her business operations, she must undoubtedly be a smart and purposeful person to run a crime ring. When we encounter her however, she’s nothing like the evil criminal mastermind I’d expected. She’s just a lumbering dope. Her role as Champion’s arch-nemesis had long ago been snapped up by Stark who is just one of her thugs. It’s so pathetic – the Fat Woman can’t even be a good villain; she needs a man to do it for her!

Stark at least makes a decent villain. He certainly has a terrifying appearance (you can identify the bad guys at a glance throughout this novel) – he’s so thin he looks like a skeleton, he keeps unnerving Champion with threats of endless torture, and he’s got a scary laugh. As a result, he does seem pretty creepy as he stalks Champion. The whole thing is a tad silly though. Champion killed Stark’s twin in a lucky act of self-defence; he didn’t hunt him down or something. Stark’s anger isn’t entirely justified; it’s more like the product of an insane mind. In fact, Stark doesn’t appear to be all that upset about his brother anyway. It’s more like he relishes the opportunity to go into psycho vengeance mode. Of course, this means that Stark passes up all opportunities to kill Champion with a simple bullet to the head. No, he has to let Champion live so he can make him suffer, giving our hero ample opportunity to save the day.

All the action that stems from this actually isn’t too bad, so I can’t fault the novel on that. I also love it when characters uncover dark secrets, and Champion has a few hiding away. But these things couldn’t save the novel for me. It started off well, but after Samantha was pulled out of the Hudson it went into a slow decline.

The blurb/marketing copy compares A Killer in the Wind to Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. The comparison is fair in that the protagonists are all intimately entwined with the mysteries they’re trying to solve and their jobs become deeply personal in disturbing ways. But I don’t think A Killer in the Wind holds a candle to Lehane and Flynn’s brilliant crime thrillers. I found both of those memorable novels deeply intriguing, shocking, and tense and Shutter Island is one of the best novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. A Killer in the Wind was never remotely as thrilling. Admittedly, the plot does deviate from crime thriller norms in some ways, but not enough. I think many readers could easily enjoy this, but it just didn’t work for me.