Balthasar’s Gift is an extremely welcome newcomer to the South African crime fiction scene. It is refreshing to read crime fiction that is not a thinly veiled excuse to critique all that is wrong with the country, whether it be the police, the justice system or the government. It does explore the issues of our time but not in binary terms. Ambiguity and uncertainty give more credence to a narrative than do binary opposites. The characters too are real and familiar, yet uniquely themselves. The blurb describes it as hard-boiled, of which there is an element, but not too much, not so much that humanity is lost.
Maggie Cloete is a reporter on the crime beat working for a daily newspaper in Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal. She is a wonderful character; feisty, tom-boyish and with a penchant for getting too involved in the story rather than keeping her distance and reporting on it as her editor, Zacharius Patel, would prefer. She is very contrary; once told not to do something, she feels compelled to disobey. She is a hard drinker, rides a motorbike and can be quite ascerbic and bitchy. She comes from a conservative Afrikaans background but is estranged from her parents and holds very different values. The other members of staff are well-drawn characters such as Aslan Chetty, her former trainee, “who had a habit of quoting Jane Austen” and the elderly Alicia, in charge of the Archives who wafts around in a ‘lavender mist’. Then there is Ed, the photographer, who “had a way with images, not with words” and Sally-Anne, the arts reporter who was talented at propping up the egos of any men who needed it. These thumbnail sketches add colour to the characters.
The other aspect of this novel that I relish is that it is set in Pietermaritzburg, a city I know fairly well. I also know and love Cape Town but there are so many novels set in Cape Town, it gets a little tedious. The writer describes the terrain, the type of vegetation, the bird-life (“a hadeda dressed in housewife brown”) and the townships accurately and vividly; even if one did not know Pietermaritzburg it would be interesting to get to know it through Maggie’s exploits.
In the year 2000, AIDS denialism in government means that the proper medical solutions are not being implemented. An AIDS activist is killed in what appears to be a “robbery gone wrong”. Patel, her editor, sends Maggie to report on the murder and she discovers that the victim is Balthasar Meiring, a man who had phoned her a week ago to enlist her help. He wanted her to cover a case in the High Court; a class action against a doctor who sold local families a fake cure for AIDS. At the newspaper’s daily conference, she discovers that Balthasar is the son of a local farmer, “who had received an incongruously light sentence over a decade ago for killing one of his workers”. Maggie and Ed drive out to the farm to interview the parents and discovers that it is an extremely dysfunctional family.
From there, things escalate; Patel tells Maggie to ignore this case but she cannot let it go. She attends the funeral that takes place at the private school Balthasar attended. There she is able to observe the dynamic between his previous schoolmates, one of whom, Dumisane Phiri, is politically connected and very anti-Maggie. The reasons for this emerge as do his less salubrious connections. She also attends the class action court case and begins to realise that there are many convoluted and corrupt connections in the AIDS arena. Gangsters try to scare her off but nothing will deter her in her quest to discover the truth. Maggie discovers that Balthasar had adopted AIDS orphans and the nanny of his youth, Nkosazana, had been helping him look after them. Now they are stranded in his home but with no source of income. Lindiwe, who had worked with Balthasar at HIV House, opens up to her and together they are able to delve deeper. Action, suspense, twists and surprises are all present, as one would expect from crime fiction. There are various possible suspects and the reader is never sure which characters are red herrings and which is the real perpetrator.
If you want to know the rest, you will have to buy the book. You will not regret it; crime fiction combined with astute commentary on contemporary life in South Africa underpinned by an empathetic and balanced sensitivity to the nuances. I look forward to Maggie’s next assignment.