Dead at Daybreak (2000) is my first Deon Meyer. Which isn't seem a huge confession in the great scheme of things, but after seeing Mr. Meyer's blurbs on the covers of all the South African literary/crime fiction that I've been reading, well, it seemed inevitable.
Daybreak's protagonist is Zet van Heerden, an ex-cop turned self-loathing mess/private eye. At the start of the book, he's living in a shed in his mom's garden (more on that later). An idealistic attorney, Hope (more on that, too) hires him to find a missing will. If the will turns up in a week, a mourning widow (at least, "unmarried life-partner that deserves to inherit") gets her money. If it doesn't, she doesn't. A nice simple scavenger hunt with no moral ambiguity. At least... to start.
For one, the will belongs to a man killed in extremely awful circumstances (involved: blowtorch, M16). For another, the man doesn't even seem to exist: his entire identity is fabricated. What exactly is going on here? As the mystery thickens, a half-dozen different figures all get involved - sinister crimelords and even creepier government agents, well-meaning cops and innocent-ish civilians.
The book begins in fits and starts, with Zet quitting the case an infinity of times, only to think better of it and return after an appropriately dramatic interval. But Daybreak picks up speed, and, by the time it hits the end, everything is crashing together like a waterfall. Two waterfalls, in fact. Zet's childhood nostalgia, a parallel narrative thread, quickly develops into a second mystery with its own climactic resolution.
Daybreak is extraordinarily seductively - perhaps addictively - written. I devoured the book in one sitting, although that term is misused as I was also holding it as I walked around the house, did laundry and stirred pasta.
The book's success comes from the fact that it is both immediately recognisable and almost universally relevant. Zet is a familiar archetype, the self-loathing, romantically-damned investigator. The story itself is oddly - not generic - but germane. Despite the political and military elements, or even because of them, Daybreak feels like it could easily be talking about the United States, Great Britain or any other country with an embarrassing war, creepy homeland security and dodgy race issues (basically, anywhere).
Ultimately, it is boils down to Zet as a character. As noted, he's a sterling representative of his hard-drinking, overly-introspective, line-crossing ilk. His past is filled with predictably unpredictable decisions - a series of "wrong" choices that weren't really that bad, all culminating in a single moment of human frailty that may or may not even be his fault. Further befitting his archetypal status, the symbolism around him isn't particularly subtle. He still lives in the past (see above) and his nihilistic worldview is balanced by an optimistic crusader named "Hope" (also above).
Zet is also inexplicably (rather annoyingly) attractive. Despite being a serious grump with a penchant for deliberate rudeness, the ladeez love him. This makes it easier for him to wrestle with questions of good and evil both conceptually and, er, literally - like any Bond film, the women come in naughty and nice. But, like Zet's "wrong" choices, everything is within safe boundaries. The nice woman doesn't want to change him, the naughty woman just wants a bit of controlled frisson in the bedroom. Zet's "rock bottom" isn't. As a failure, he's, well, a bit of a failure. Everyone respects him, he gets favours merely by asking for them and he's living in a very nice little cottage on his mother's land. Zet may have his issues, but he's a long way from being Eberard Februarie or Matt Cordell.
Again, this also explains why the book is so easily readable and why Mr. Meyer has international commercial appeal. Zet's dark side isn't that dark. Nor is his dangerous side all that dangerous. His closest comparison is the ubiquitous (at least, round these parts) Travis McGee - Zet may whine a bit and over-think things, but the reader never seriously doubts that he'll come to the right answer in the end.
[As a broader question - when did mysteries become more about the detective than the detection? Anne argues that Dorothy Sayers kicked it off (and she's got a compelling case). Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie - hell, Arthur Conan Doyle - all had named detectives, but they were more representatives of a type of mystery rather than being the central characters of a story about them. Whereas, by the time you get to MacDonald's Travis McGee or Harris' Red Dragon the books are far more about the 'detective's' inner conflict than the actual crime (or process of solving it). I suspect that, like most things, we could solve this by going through Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, as I still see him as the bellweather for commercial trends. Cop Killer (1956) was a procedural. Lightning (1984) was a drama. So sometime between? DISCUSS.]
Meanwhile, back in South Africa...
Dead at Daybreak is two mysteries and an archetype, and the ensuing sandwich is something carefully composed and immediately successful with the reader. And, to give him credit, despite recognising who he is and knowing what he'll do, Zet is fun to follow. Pairing the book's two mysteries is mostly about fleshing out Zet's character, but it also keeps them fresh: whenever the present day investigation hits a narrative dead end we flip to the confessional acrobatics of Zet's youth. Likewise, whenever his autobiographical introspection gets a bit tired, the modern day investigation brings in the gunfire. As a result, even if the individual elements of Dead at Daybreak occasionally falter, the overall book is good fun - impossible to put down with a satisfying (if anticipated) payoff. I'll be reading much more of Mr. Meyer in the future.