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Review Round-Up: Five Novels of Note

New Release: Solace by Andrew Brown

SolaceAndrew Brown's Solace (2012, Zebra Press) begins with the murder of Muslim boy - the body found in one of Cape Town's synagogues. The city's religious tensions are already running at an all-time high, with the Muslim, Jewish and evangelical Christian communities at one another's throats. In the background, the Social Values Act is being debated at the highest levels of government. The Act, which would bring an unprecedented level of government interference into the religious practices of South Africans, is incredibly divisive, with both proponents and opponents that will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

Into this mess walks Inspector Eberard Februarie, an excellent policeman, but, to put it politely, a distracted one. His marriage is ruined, his career is at a dead-end, he's loathed by his superior officers and regarded with polite scorn by his peers. He's floating through each day on alcohol and making it through the nights with the aid of a teenage prostitute. Compared to Februarie, Harry Bosch is Postman Pat.

Februarie's investigation into the murder - and the synagogue's congregation - brings him face to face with matters of faith. He's a policeman and a rationalist, but, on this case, Februarie's asked to take the proverbial leap, and believe in something bigger than himself. Mr. Brown takes Februarie on a tour of many of South Africa's denominations - although the investigation begins within the Jewish community, the Inspector encounters members of a half-dozen religious beliefs, and has ample time to think about them all. Februarie realises that faith doesn't need to be about God - or even religion. But he does have to put himself out there: ask for help, seek answers outside of himself and trust in someone (or someones) to be there for him.

Beyond Februarie's own, internal conflict, there is, of course, a murder mystery - several of them, in fact. The Inspector is up against a ticking clock. At any moment the city could dissolve into riot, and only solving the mystery will stop Cape Town from degenerating into religious violence. The solution is fascinating, and ties back to Februarie's own redemption arc: unless he believes in himself and takes the ultimate risk, he'll fail, and take the city with him. The murder, and the conspiracy around them, are simply too big for one man to tackle. Unless Februarie learns to trust, he's doomed.

Because of the book's focus on Februarie's own turmoil, Solace feels like a late series thriller - perhaps the best comparison is The Green Ripper, the surprisingly cathartic turning point in John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series. I confess that I was surprised to find that Solace is only the second book in the series, although it certainly stands on its own, Februarie's world has incredible depth. There's a convincingly hefty and wonderfully nuanced history to Mr. Brown's Cape Town, which (I can only guess) layers both real and fictional elements in an extremely satisfying way.

In fact, my one reservation about Solace comes in a twist revealed at the book's final pages. [I'm trying not to spoil, but...] I think having an external factor slightly overreaches. The events of the book are certainly worthy of international attention, but that scale simply isn't necessary for Solace to succeed as a thriller. Mr. Brown has already convinced the reader how critical the mystery (and its resolution) is to Cape Town, South Africa and Februarie himself. Embiggening Solace lessens it, as it means Februarie was (inadvertently) fighting for a cause to which neither he nor his reader are particularly attached. [End spoiler]

Solace is a grim police procedural with a flawed and brilliant protagonist. Although it crawls through the darkness (and there's a lot of darkness), it is ultimately an optimistic, and strangely uplifting, story. The religious elements are handled carefully and with great respect for all faiths, but Solace's shining accomplishment is how it handles Februarie's own redemption. Solace is a very adult sort of thriller, in which problems can't be solved by a car chase or a gunshot.