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International Noir: "This impressive and distinctive novel is a different angle on the South African crime story."

Date: Feb 12 2010

Zulu, the first novel by French author of "polar," (as the French call crime fiction) Caryl Férey is about Cape Town, South Africa: truly an international crime novel. Zulu (published this spring in English by Europa Editions) begins as a police procedural, centered on the head of the homicide team of the Cape Town police, Ali Neuman, whose Zulu background will become relevant to the plot, though, as it shifts from mystery to pulp noir to thriller (almost to futuristic thriller in its vision of an extreme category of crime), in constantly shifting plot lines circling around the drugs and violence in the townships surrounding Cape Town and the murder of two white women. Férey has a tendency to explain South Africa to the reader, more so than the indigenous crime writers of the country (Deon Meyer for one) whose first audience has been South African readers who don't need the "back story" filled in. In that sense, perhaps, Zulu is a book that could introduce South Africa as a setting for crime fiction to those unfamiliar with the country's history. And Férey gives a very comprehensive "tour" of Cape Town and environs, from the beaches (some with penguins) to the townships to Table Mountain, to the Cape of Good Hope, and several surrounding towns. But a reader will need considerable tolerance for fictional violence as the novel shifts from "policier" to pulp to thriller, as the tone shifts from the struggle against ruthless gangs to drug-induced of almost ritual intensity to sociopathic mass murder and international corporate crime. The novel becomes almost apocalyptic as it leaves behind more and more corpses and any sense of hope for the country (much less for this story) becomes less and less viable. Roger Smith's recent novel of Cape Town gang violence is violent and nearly hopeless, but Férey's raises the violence to another level. And Férey's story shifts from driven by dialogue and action to historical information to the biographical background of his characters and to philosophical and politically impassioned narrative: in that way, it seems more in one of the traditions of French crime writing, a philosophical and tendentious approach--but Férey never forgets about his story and the reader will be pulled along through the various stages and into identification with those who are killed and those few (people and values) that survive. This impressive and distinctive novel is a different angle on the South African crime story, and a bleaker one than some of the viewpoints offered by others in that rapidly developing field. After reading Zulu, the reader, a little stunned by the experience, may be left hoping for the no less jaundiced but perhaps more hopeful (and occasionally myth-making) Cape Town crime stories offered by Deon Meyer, whose new novel is to be released in English very soon.