You may be forgiven for not having heard of Afrikaans crime-thriller writer Deon Meyer. In a genre dominated by big-name American authors such as James Patterson— or the British reaction in the form of the Curzon Group, created to support homegrown talent—Meyer is something of a minnow here in the UK, racking up just two top 5,000 hits, with sales of less than 3,500 apiece.
But in his native South Africa, where he claims to be the first post-apartheid crime writer, Meyer is a bigger hitter than his namesake Twilight author, whom he jokes is his cousin. His books regularly slay the vampire romances in the charts, with their gritty realisations of the seamier side of South African life.
And with his latest, Thirteen Hours (Hodder, April), published to coincide with his appearance at this year's London Book Fair, where South African literature takes centre stage as guest of honour, 2010 could see him step up a level in the UK.
"It's extremely difficult for South African authors to break through here, so I will do as much as I can for the country," Meyer says. "It's absolutely a great time to be at LBF, because there has been an explosion of South African literature in the past few years, and there are some great new authors— a lot of black authors I think—not getting the recognition they deserve."
On a personal level, Meyer is keen to use the platform to promote his own work, but recognises he has to "keep plugging away" to grow sales book by book. Thirteen Hours is his ninth novel, although only his sixth to be published in the UK.
One of the challenges is perhaps the traditional British lack of engagement with translated fiction— all Meyer's novels are written in Afrikaans first— but he finds it "harder work, more effort" to write in English, his second language, and prefers to leave it to the finesse of his "really great" translator.
Perhaps he is right to. Thirteen Hours does not come across as a translated book, despite—or maybe because—of the Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu words that pepper it. The fast pace of the action—held together by chapters segmented into fixed periods—spans a wide cast of characters, whose lives are gradually brought together for the book's climax. For a generation used to the structure of "24", this simple-yet-pacy device is appealing and draws the reader in.
"When I write, I am very conscious of time, because it's such a wonderful mechanism for creating suspense," explains Meyer. "For the past two or three novels I have been playing around with time, to see whether I could write one that takes place in one day or less than a day. Thirteen Hours started as more of a concept than a story."
Getting to know you...
For a concept-led book, however, the characters are immediately accessible. The main protagonist is the detective and troubled ex-alcoholic Benny Griessel, who is fighting against time to track down a young American backpacker in Cape Town.
Meyer is clearly fond of Griessel, who is a recurring character and was first introduced in Dead Before Dying. This is done with one eye on brand building—although none of Meyer's novels form part of a series— but it is also because of the familiarity. "One of the good things about using characters again and again is that you know them so well– to use someone that you [know] so well like Benny makes it a lot easier to get into their head from the start," explains Meyer. At the end of Thirteen Hours, Griessel gains a resolution of sorts, but there is more to come from the detective. Says Meyer: "His story is not finished yet."
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