Shortlisted for the 2019 CWA International Dagger
Translated from Afrikaans by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon
Freddie Swarts lives alone on a farm in the Kalahari Desert with her soon-to-be-adopted four year old daughter. Strike that. She lives no longer, neither does her daughter, both brutally murdered in what appears to be “just another” killing of white farmers in rural South Africa. (Just another? The figures are frightening.)
Investigating her death is Inspector Albertus Markus Beeslaar. White, recently transferred from the capital, Johannesburg, struggling with his own personal trauma, two rookie coloured cops who have an awful lot to learn (including what is and what isn’t racism), and big, red spiders! He is a tough officer, but not a hard man. In fact, he must have the kindest heart in crime fiction. He won’t take any freebies, is always willing to pay his own way and help the disadvantaged when he can. Nor will he be pushed. His subordinates may be less than professional, but he, too, is like a fish out of water at the start. Policing in Huilwater (Weeping Waters) is not the same as in urban Johannesburg. He has to get to grips with cultural differences, tribal nuances (Griquas, San), simmering resentments within the white farming community, which feels as if it has been hung out to dry and is on the verge of taking the law into its own hands, and the chaos stirred up by a gang of cattle rustlers! Mix in love rivalry between Boet Pretorius (a white farmer) and Dam de Kok (the San – bushman – manager of Freddie’s farm), and you’ll understand why Beeslaar has his work cut out.
Running in parallel to Beeslaar’s investigation is the story of Freddie’s sister, Sara, who comes to clear up the farm after her sister’s death. Her emotions, already complicated by guilt caused by a two year estrangement, go into overdrive when she discovers a highly symbolic Daliesque and nightmarish painting that seems to predict the manner of her sister’s death. She also finds her sister’s will. If ever a document was designed to put the cat among the pigeons ….
This is slow burn crime fiction in a world where tensions are about to spiral out of control. From the above you can understand that not only are there many threads to untangle, but also a lot of cultural background to explain. Not just to the reader, but to the investigating officer. That the culture is all important in a predominantly Afrikaans novel is also emphasised by the English text retaining Afrikaans words (the translation of which I googled as there was no glossary). I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, it served as a reminder that I was now inhabiting a foreign world. On the other it jolted me from the narrative flow.
Still I was looking for something to take me far from our current troubles, and Weeping Waters did just that. I’m heartened by the indicator on front cover that this is Book 1 of the Inspector Beeslaar Series. Europa Editions must be intending to publish more in their World Noir series. I’ll be on the look out for them (and others from the list as well).
I bought this on your recommendation. Do hope I feel the same! Good review thanks.
👍 Let me know how it goes.
Sounds very powerful, Lizzy, and it’s good to be taken out of our cultural comfort zone I feel. Like you, though, I think I would have liked a glossary…
Interesting sense of beautiful/frightening physical place and the political situation but sadly I found the characterisation quite shallow so it didn’t transport me. Eg even the original argument between the sisters only seemed a useful way of getting them out of the way of each other, and it was very annoying having Sara and other characters focus on Sara’s fingernails every time the author wanted to convey unsettlement. It also made it easy to spot the murderer, when one of the characters developed subtle background traits. It was a real eye opener on the race/farm situation in South Africa though, and the witchcraft stuff was proper creepy and disturbing.
I came from you 6 in 6–I’ll look for this one.