Cops, a sangoma – this thriller could only have been written in Africa

Review: Vivien Horler

Knucklebone, by NR Brodie (Picador Africa)

Knucklebone takes the SA-based detective thriller to a whole new level.

Set in a vibrant and rather sinister Johannesburg, we have a burglary, a company that helps foreign big game hunters, and the butchering of poached animals.

Then there are also a coven of witches, a sangoma, and a tokoloshe.

Ian Jack is a former cop known to his friends as Cousin – I suspect you need Cornish links to get the reference – who is doing some extracurricular work as a security guard towards his MA in political studies at Wits.

He goes out on a night call with the security company to a panic button activation. An elderly couple have raised the alarm after someone jumped over their wall from a neighbouring house. Within minutes the guards and police have caught a teenager hiding behind a garden shed.

While the cops and security are talking about going next door to see if everything is all right there, two shots are fired from behind the wall. They all scramble over to find a white woman crouching over a skinny body on the floor. The woman is holding a snub-nosed pistol.

And so begins a tangled tale that leads to some pretty murky stuff. Or as the shout on the cover says: “To be read with the lights on.”

The surviving boy is taken to the police station, where he is slurring and mumbling, apparently uninjured but in a bad way. Then he collapses and is raced to hospital. While Ian is sitting in the waiting room, a nursing sister comes over to him. She tells him: “That one will be fine if the spirits want him to be.” She explains: “That boy has the calling to be isangoma.”

Later Ian meets up with Captain Reshma Patel, a former cop colleague who was on the scene the night before. He tells her about the sangoma, and Reshma nods. She pulls a Ziploc bag from her handbag containing what looks like a lump of fur that was found in the surviving boy’s pocket.

The fur has fingers – and fingernails. It’s a monkey’s paw.

Their investigations lead them to Ma Rejoice, with whom the surviving boy had been training. She tells them he had lost his way, and refuses to say any more. So Reshma produces the monkey’s paw and Ma Rejoice jumps as though she has been bitten by a snake.

She tells them to get out, and to bury the paw very deep, where no one will ever find it.

Ian is lonely, and so is Reshma. They’re also old friends, and it seems as if their relationship might go somewhere – provided they survive the horror they have stumbled into.

Apart from seriously creepy moments, this is a rollicking good read – and could only have been written in Africa.

*This review was also published in Weekend Argus on Sunday March 18, 2018

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