THE LAST HUNT by Deon Meyer

Translated from Afrikaans by K. L. Seeger

New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2019, first Grove Atlantic hardcover 2020, $27.00.

I have had the pleasure of hearing Deon Meyer speak on a panel at the Bouchercon, the big, (usually) annual mystery readers and writers convention. Whereas Malice Domestic celebrated the traditional mystery, Bouchercon celebrates all types of crime novels. One point from Meyer stuck with me—thrillers should have a significant amount of mystery to them. I would say the reverse is equally true; mystery should have a good dose of thriller to it. In Meyer’s case, his thrillers have significant amounts of mystery that rise in fever-pitch suspense to a thrilling conclusion. While THE LAST HUNT is not my favorite of his novels, it is a worthy entry in an impressive body of work.

Make no mistake—THE LAST HUNT, the sixth Benny Griessel novel, is a taut thriller. Meyer likes to use recurring characters from other novels in his stories, and he usually employs two or three separate plot lines that he pulls together to explosive effect. Here, we have two parallel stories that showcase the disillusionment and disappointment many in South Africa have for the current state of corruption in the country. 

Benny Griessel and his partner Vaughan Cupido are part of the Serious and Violent Crimes Unit, an elite branch of the police. They are nicknamed the Hawks. This pair of Hawks get a hot potato of a case dumped in their laps—the murder of Johnson Johnson (Is this a tip of the hat to Ed McBain?) a private protection consultant who had spent several years in another unit of the police, VIP Protection. It was a sleazy job, something that made him go private. When he did not arrive in Pretoria on the luxury Rovos train with his elderly Dutch client, suspicions are raised. When the body is found, brutally broken, it is clear that somebody on that train threw him off. Why? With slender clues and through logical reasoning, Griessel and Cupido pursue their case until they are forced to drop it and declare a murder a suicide. It is a blatant lie, but it is what the higher ups want. Again, why?

Daniel Darret is a South African, a man without a past, in Bordeaux, France. (Sharp readers will quickly recognize him.) He works in an antique furniture restorer’s shop, learning the art from a genuine master, un génie in Darret’s estimation. He is happy where he is. He has no interest in the past, in politics, or, least of all, violence. But the past kicks in his front door and demands one last sacrifice from him. This unwanted job comes with such cost, such personal anguish. Darret doubts he can do the job, even if he wished to, which he does not. Bitter circumstance forces his hand, but he has no idea that he has been compromised.

Still bitter over the loss of their investigation, Griessel and Cupido are presented with another case, this one off the books. In a nice touch of ironic parallelism, this case genuinely appears to be a suicide, but something is off. In fact, several things are off—a black BMW SUV, a peculiar mud, and a Wendy house (backyard storage building for us Yanks). They cannot quite put it together without a few breaks. When they get them, they realize who they are up against. Griessel and Cupido are sure they will be fired if they arrest the perpetrators, but they do it anyway because they are not “captured”.

Corruption has always played a significant part in his previous novels—corruption within the ANC, corruption in various state departments, personal and professional corruption. In THE LAST HUNT, a poignant title, Deon Meyer dials corruption up to eleven and rips off the knob. State capture is not merely a few politicians taking bribes. No, state capture involves the whole sale takeover of major state sectors, if not the whole state apparatus, for the purpose of vastly enriching a tiny minority of people, with the connivance and active participation of the leaders of government. In the case of South Africa, it was Jacob Zuma and the Gupta brothers who ‘captured’ the state to their vast enrichment. It is to South Africa’s great credit that Zuma was driven from office and the Guptas out of the country altogether. 

Meyer demonstrates the consequences of state capture. Infrastructure goes to hell. Institutions people depend on, like the police, are gutted. Cronyism, both in and out of government, runs rampant. Trust and faith in the state are destroyed. While Meyer wisely never mentions Zuma and the Guptas (referred disparagingly to as the ‘Zuptas’), he does present the chaos and attenuated institutions left in their wake. Many South Africans are angry and disappointed; several characters speak to this personal anguish. They ask, Is this what the Struggle was for? Is this what we fought and died for? 

In Griessel, Cupido, and Darret, no, it is not. They are not captured. In that, they—and all who are like them—are inspiration. 

Copyright KG Whitehurst