Written by Michael Stanley — The South African crime writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip have taken a break from their Detective Kubu series, set in Botswana, for a standalone. The authors have never shyed away from tackling troubling subjects that beset the African continent like diamond smuggling, organ harvesting, witch doctors and so on, but the dangers are often local, limited to a certain area. This time, however, we have something a little different – a standalone thriller hopping across continents, examining the deadly trade in rhino horns and the lengths poachers and smugglers go to in order to protect their business.
Crystal Nguyen is a freelance journalist of Vietnamese origin who now lives in Minnesota and takes part in Nordic biathlon events. You’ll probably guess that target shooting will become relevant later in the book. She is concerned that one of her colleagues and friends, Michael Davidson, who was investigating a feature on rhino horn smuggling in South Africa, has gone missing. She somehow manages to convince the editor of National Geographic that she should head out there to finish the article and find out what has happened to Michael.
Surely, savvy readers will object. It is obvious what has happened to Michael – the poachers have killed him! However, the authors are too smart to revert to such an obvious solution. The rhino horn business is huge internationally and far more complex than simply a case of punishing poachers. Reading this book will make you far more aware of the complex ramifications of poaching, from the demand for rhino horn powder in Vietnam and China – not always for its so-called medical properties – to the monetary temptations for smugglers when rhino horns are being cut and stockpiled but not legally traded. The book is very well researched, but all the additional information trickles in at just the right time, without hindering the development of the story at all.
Crys soon finds herself caught up in this ruthless game. Although she meets some people who genuinely seem to care about the plight of the rhinos, many more are keen to make money out of it, or merely desperate to survive. Killing seems to be the norm – whether animals or people, it doesn’t matter. Everyone seems to be after a missing briefcase full of money, there are rumours that a big operation might be underway and she is not at all sure that she can trust anybody, not even the police.
This is firmly action thriller territory and it is refreshing to have a compassionate yet resilient woman as the lead character. With her sporting abilities and mental toughness, Crys makes for a plausible action heroine, without being perfect or superhuman in any way. In fact, she makes a few amateur mistakes in her investigation, and that makes her all the more relatable. Her Vietnamese background is not simply an empty ploy to introduce more diverse characters into a story, but plays a crucial part in the plot. The other characters are somewhat paler in comparison, although the opaque head detective Colonel Mabula is intriguing. He also seems to be a deliberate contrast to the more sympathetic Detective Kubu in the authors’ other books.
Although I missed the familiar and much-loved characters from the Detective Kubu series, I could see that the authors were attempting something very different in this standalone. Less police procedural and more action-oriented, quite international in scope, it is a necessary warning to wildlife lovers everywhere.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars