In his latest thriller, “Trackers,“ South African novelist Deon Meyer casts a gimlet eye on his native land and fellow countrymen. One narrator, for example, fulminates against “Rich Afrikaaners” who live “… behind high walls and alarm systems … with a Mercedes ML, two quad bikes, a Harley, and a speedboat squeezed into their triple garages” and who “… bitch about how bad things are in this country.” Another contemplates suburbia: “Luxurious cold houses without character … all these rich white people, but not a book in the house.” Meyer’s crime fiction has from the outset vividly illuminated life in post-apartheid South Africa. But “Trackers” — his most ambitious and political novel to date — exposes not only domestic but also international skulduggery in a plot that weaves together organized crime in South Africa; the smuggling of arms, diamonds and wildlife; the uneasy alliance between South African intelligence and the CIA and — in a sensational twist — al-Qaida terrorism.
“You know you’re trouble,” Lemmer, a freelance bodyguard, is told after he kills a crime gang boss. “I know,” he replies, “but I don’t go looking for it, it comes looking for me.” Lemmer, last seen in Meyer’s “Blood Safari,” remains haunted by his poor-white past and by his own crimes and conscience. Gloomy but fearless, he now finds himself assisting in the smuggling of a pair of black rhinos from Zimbabwe. Both the cargo and the mission are, however, more lethal than he imagines: Lemmer is soon desperately searching for the wildlife tracker (his female counterpart in many ways) who has stolen evidence that could frame him for murder.
Meyer, as always, choreographs the action and heightens the suspense with elegant efficiency. He also keeps us guessing how Lemmer’s story fits in with that of Milla, the first protagonist we meet in “Trackers” and the one we care most about even when — especially when — she disappears. She is one of Meyer’s finest creations, and his subtle evocation of her marriage and its aftermath draws us into a quiet story that gradually becomes an espionage drama. A Cape Town housewife who finally summons the courage to leave her odious husband, Milla finds an apparently dull job with a government intelligence agency just as a sinister shipment, perhaps linked to al-Qaida, appears to be heading toward Cape Town. Local crime gangs and smuggled diamonds from Zimbabwe are somehow involved, and while South African intelligence and the CIA scramble to intercept the plotters, a maverick adventurer further complicates the puzzle and transforms Milla’s life.
“You, who made this country,” she rages at her new protector, “this mess of hatred and envy, crime and violence and poverty and misery.” All of which inundates Milla’s safe, ordinary existence as the hunter becomes the hunted and as one revelation after another completes Meyer’s intricate jigsaw. Milla’s adventure ends abruptly — with her armed and calling the shots — as Meyer takes us inside the life of Mat Joubert, ex-cop turned private investigator, who tackles a seemingly mundane missing person case. The pace slackens, yet the tension increases as we strain to glimpse the connections between this episode and the preceding dramas. By the novel’s fittingly prosaic conclusion, Meyer has cunningly turned us into trackers, too.