The History of Blood - Paul Mendelson

The History of Blood - Paul Mendelson **

The hero of Paul Mendelson's The History of Blood, Colonel Vaughn De Vries, is an efficient officer in the South African Police Service (SAPS) who is quick to respond to new lines of investigation and likes to get things done. Unfortunately the softly-softly workings of the various departments of the police force, their unwillingness to expose corruption for fear of it reflecting badly on them and the political legacy of the post-Apartheid reforms make life difficult for him. There's too much politics involved and too much that lies beyond everyone's remit. But he's not going to let that stop him.

In The History of Blood it's not so much that De Vries is a maverick who likes to go it alone and operate outside the rules (although there is definitely something of that in him), as much as in this particular case there is a personal angle. Or perhaps it's one that he decides to make personal (no, it's not even that original). A young woman, Chantal Adams has been found dead in a hotel room, the daughter of a prominent figure and friend of the family, her death made to look like suicide. De Vries however soon establishes that the young woman, a former model who has fallen on hard times, has been involved with an operation smuggling drugs into Thailand, but that's surely beyond his remit and more something for the Drug Squad to investigate?

Much to De Vries frustration it's also a political hot potato, as Chantal's father, or guardian to be more accurate, was a prominent pre-Apartheid politician. The Drug Squad are aware of the operation but dragging their feet, refusing to share information with other departments, unwilling to take risks that could open them up to outside scrutiny and criticism. In Mendelson's Cape Town, the post-Apartheid authorities operate with caution and fear of accountability. In its rush to make society more equal it has made life less fair for the ordinary decent white population whose voice doesn't seem to count for much. The operation discovered by De Vries leads him to fear for other vulnerable young white women, even his own daughters, who could be at risk if no one is willing to act on their behalf.

The History of Blood is not so much an effort to present a more balanced view of South African society and the problems it has created for a white minority, as much as seek to redress what the author clearly perceives to be an unjust imbalance. That's the underlying rationale for the novel, and it's one that you might find more persuasive if you could summon up some sympathy for Colonel De Vries. Mendelson's creation however is somewhat brisk and business-like, striding around determined to set things to rights and not really doing emotions other than furious indignation. He's not fond either of the political correctness of rules that restrict his ability to investigate - using threats, intimidation, beatings, whatever is required - and he bitterly resents the need to let go of the past and the old ways of operating. He makes those feelings known in fairly racist terms.

That's not to say that Mendelson neglects to show a more personal side to De Vries nature. His marriage is in trouble, so he is able here to have a brief fling with an female officer from another unit. Like De Vries, Lee-Ann Hayns is a driven officer frustrated by the injustice of a system that she believes has overlooked her qualities and her suitability for promotion simply because she is white and doesn't fit the right profile. There's even something business-like then about their 'romance', since it's something of a tool to help further his case and her career. It's also a tool for the author who (unsuccessfully) tries to use it as an emotional lever to give De Vries the motivation to pursue the case with renewed vigour. Just to give the SAPS Corporal a little more justification to go off and do things his way, his family inevitably are also threatened, and De Vries isn't going to stand for that.

The rationale is all a bit distasteful, but the case and the investigation moves along well and has much of interest to explore in South African affairs. De Vries of course gets away with far too much in the going-it-alone maverick act for The History of Blood to be entirely credible, but there's a fair amount of originality (and reality) in the depiction of organised crime and in the police procedural elements of the book. Considering the history of the country, it's hard to avoid the difficult questions of race and politics, and there is a welcome effort to present a wider historical view of the underlying tensions between the Afrikaners and the ANC, but it's far too complex an issue for Mendelson to cover adequately and impartially much less sympathetically though a character like Vaughn De Vries.

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The History of Blood is published by Constable on the 7th July 2016.

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