Knucklebone, the first in the crime thriller series featuring detectives Reshma Patel and Ian Jack, was praised for its uniquely South African flavour and original writing. Three Bodies again proves that Nechama ‘NR’ Brodie is an up-and-coming crime writer to be reckoned with.
Even though Three Bodies is only her second work of fiction, NR Brodie is an established non-fiction author. In June, Femicide, the result of seven years’ PhD research on violence against women in South Africa, was released. It’s no surprise then, that gender violence is at the core of Three Bodies too. More unsettling, though, is the knowledge that this fictional crime fiction story is firmly rooted in actual everyday events and ever-growing gender-based violence in South Africa.
When the body of a young woman of West-African descent is found in a river on a luxury golf estate, the estate’s security manager asks Ian Jack to investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death. She was seen entering the estate with two other women at night but never left. Ian still has the necessary police contacts to pull some strings even though he left the force somewhat disillusioned. These days he and Captain Reshma Patel, his live-in partner, who is a forensic investigator for the police, occasionally work together on cases. Meanwhile he’s attempting to complete his doctorate and heading up a research team looking into violence within communities.
While Ian tries to track down Zebulon, the security guard who was on duty the night of the woman’s death, Reshma is called out to Johannesburg’s Park Station, where a gruesome discovery has been made in the network of hidden tunnels under the city. Although Reshma is part of a team investigating the kidnapping of women, her expertise is also required to fight the growing number of cash-in-transit heists taking place.
After further investigation, a link is made to a body found a few months earlier. Reshma and Ian start to trace the victims’ trail with the help of MaJoice, a traditional witch doctor (sangoma) and The Mermaid Bureau, an organisation protecting women recruited as sex workers. Along the way they encounter a cast of colourful and dubious characters and a telling African folktale about river mermaids. When a third body is found in the Vaal River, Reshma and Ian realise that the women’s deaths and the heists are part of a much larger and more dangerous criminal operation.
Three Bodies is a riveting, nail-biting and action-packed, plot-driven crime novel, but for international readers it has the added advantage of providing an interesting glimpse at the Johannesburg city scape, as well as some South African history and traditions. This strong sense of setting and unapologetic South African backdrop is one of its strongest points. Where other writers might shy away from using deep South African references, Brodie uses them liberally. This does not mean that you’ll miss important information. On the contrary, it makes the reading experience richer and you might learn something along the way. Some scenes, such as the one with the car-guard (believe it or not, it’s a thing in South Africa) will have local readers nodding their heads in recognition and international readers shaking theirs in disbelief.
Political and social references to South Africa’s past are worked into the dialogue and plot seamlessly, but they don’t dominate and aren’t judgemental. They merely add texture and provide some kind of explanation for the country’s current status quo. Brodie subtly pokes at deep-rooted societal prejudices and the complex nature of contemporary South Africa, whether it’s the dark past of Vlakplaas and the apartheid assassins, or the dark present with government corruption, human trafficking, cash-in-transit heists and ritualistic killings.
Unfortunately, many of the topics Brodie addresses are daily realities for a large part of the South African population, in particular femicide. In South Africa, the femicide rate is five times the global average with a woman murdered every three hours. According to Brodie, “…this comes from a society that is inherently patriarchal and misogynistic (this is across all races and cultures, and was literally entrenched in our legal system for not just decades, but centuries)”. Add poverty and violence to the mix and you have ample material for crime fiction based substantially in reality.
That said, don’t let the sombre topics, gritty setting and atmosphere and a dose of real-life South Africa put you off. Three Bodies is a well-written and researched crime novel worthy of international attention and acclaim. Move over Nordic noir, Sunshine Noir is here and it will melt the coldest crime fiction heart.
For more of South Africa’s dark realities unveiled, try a novel by Roger Smith.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars