Local crime thriller describes terror up the Amazon

Review: David Bristow

The Shining Path – a Bernie Bernard crime thriller, by Monty Roodt (Meteoric Publishers)

The cover shout tells us this book is “… a riot of great thriller writing. Hold tight!”* What could go wrong? For Bernie Bernard, in Peru while on sabbatical from academic duties at Rhodes University, quite a lot.

 The Shining Path is the second thriller to involve full-time university lecturer and part-time sleuth, Bernie Bernard. The first, Dead Man’s Land, involved the murder of a local farmer, bigot and possibly worse, who seemed to be embroiled in local politics and land issues. But we’ll leave that one there.

Number two begins in the pub at The Pig and Whistle in Bathurst, possibly South Africa’s oldest pub (there are other contenders), which happens to be Bernie’s local. But the action quickly shifts to Peru and the Amazon. In that way it recalls The Heart of Darkness, with the narrator taking up some slack time on an outward-bound ship to relate to his dark ordeal up the Congo River.

You can tell from the start that the author knows his way around Peru, with vivid descriptions of the country. Especially evocative is his narration of the sticky town of Iquitos and the Maloca Restaurant, a kind of bar at the edge of the known universe frequented by all manner of characters, most of them bad. Iquitos is a smuggling junction on the Amazon River wherein lies the tinder that will spark the action.

Also, Roodt’s knowledge of the area’s politics (not surprising that in real life the author is the recently retired Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Rhodes Uni, up the road from Bathurst), specifically the revolutionary Shining Path guerilla movement, in which Bernie gets himself entangled, much against his will.

There is much to like about the book, from its boozy cast of characters at The Pig, who sit late into the night listening to the tale (with wives and speed cops waiting in the shadows), the colourful and often devious characters at the Maloca, to the ruthless fighters of the Shining Path. The plot has as many twists and turns as the Amazon, with a short, sharp love story thrown into the centre.

The main action kicks off when its narrator decides to go on a journey upriver, where he is captured by river pirates and traded on to the guerillas. From there we are transported by nippy cart-trucks into the rainforest where they have a base. The final theatre of action is among the bleak saltpans and chilly settlements of the high Altiplano where the Sendero Luminoso leaders hide out. But just around the time we are clinging to our chairs, the story loops back to the cosy confines of the The Pig, which the engrossed audience is loath to leave. As are we.

I read the first chronicle when it was published in 2018 (confession: I know the author and helped to edit this second book) and liked it, but it was quite flawed technically – as is often the case with self-published books. Clearly the author learned a lot from that experience because number two is much more polished, the plot complex and compelling, and the characters fuller and more convincing.

Crime writing is apparently the most popular fiction genre in South Africa, as in the world. I have recently read a pile of some acclaimed ones, including Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues (highly recommended by Margaret Atwood) but have not been so impressed. Based on his works so far I believe Roodt, while not (yet) in the mainstream, is one of the better ones and his stories among the more compelling. I sincerely hope he is busy with number three of The Bathurst Chronicles.

 

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