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Mystery Books - Deon Meyer - Dead Before Dying

Buy Dead Before Dying
Deon Meyer
Translated from Afrikaans by Madeleine van Biljon
Originally published in South Africa 1996
Little Brown 2006
Hardcover
342 pages

Dead Before Dying, the third novel by South Africa Deon Meyer is most certainly not your usual mystery novel. This is far from the usual popcorn for the brain whodunit by Robert B. Parker or Harlan Coben mystery fans are used to. Dead Before Dying is a dark, complicated, bizarre, and very different kind of mystery novel.

South African detective Mat Joubert is a very different fish of lead character. If, as I was, you are unfamiliar with the series, Dead Before Dying, the third mystery novel, is a bit of a rough start at first. Deon Meyer opens the novel with Joubert still mourning the loss of his wife (and police officer) Lara and you definitely get the feeling you should read that previous novel before embarking on Dead Before Dying to fully enjoy it. This, however, quickly dispels as you get caught up in Joubert’s life and job.

Dead Before Dying finds Mat Joubert in really bad mental and physical shape. He is not pulling his weight at work and a new boss, Bart de Wit, fresh from a couple years in London, England, has decided that a sound mind must be in a sound body and so forces Joubert not only to lose weight but also consult a psychiatrist. When someone starts blowing huge holes into a series of seemingly unconnected people with a very old and rare gun, de Wit first blames the Chinese Mafia, gets in Joubert’s way, and tries to pull him off the case. Fortunately, some of Mat Joubert’s colleagues are still behind him and through the good luck of having another murder happen just as he is about to be pulled off the case, Joubert can keep on investigating the Mauser Murderer as the papers have nicknamed him.

The reason Dead Before Dying by Deon Meyer is so different a mystery novel is not because of its South African setting or the fact it is a translation. The South African setting is only somewhat disquieting when you read of another murder in Boston only to realize a line later on there’s also a Boston in South Africa. The translation by Madeleine van Biljon seems flawless. Not that I know anything about Afrikaans but I can usually smell a translated novel and I only realized Dead Before Dying was a translation while looking at the publishing info in preparation for the review and to see what else Deon Meyer had written.

This mystery novel is also different because Mat Joubert is not your usual police detective and much closer to your tortured ex-cop turned gumshoe. This is due in part to Deon Meyer being more interested in his character than in the mystery itself at times. In many ways, Mat Joubert himself is dead before dying and the novel is the story of his resurrection after some dark time swimming in a deep pool of existential angst. The reader not only gets Mat Joubert’s day investigating the murders and a series of bank robberies committed by a very suave bank robber but also Mat Joubert investigating himself. It is also refreshing to read about a detective who doesn’t physically investigate whatever female secondary character who comes his way (although Lord knows Joubert would like to sometimes).

Dead Before Dying is also a very different kind of mystery novel and whodunit because of its constant darkness. Joubert brings one of his colleagues to a detox center before de Wit can fire him and you get the scene where this colleague goes through a very rough drying out period. This secondary character’s redemption near the end of the novel perhaps hints at a similar redemption for Mat Joubert. This is a brooding mystery and police detective Mat Joubert is a very brooding character.

The case the detective is investigating, the Mauser Murderer, is itself a very different and strange whodunit. None of the victims seem to be connected though Meyer does introduce a secondary character who definitely tells the reader there is a connection somewhere. Meyer is clever enough to have that character say enough to stimulate the reader’s interest (not that it really needed it) without revealing enough to make you think you can figure it out so you know you will need Joubert’s assistance in solving the crime. He also teases you with a clue here and here from time to time just to keep you going along.

Mystery fans will notice in this detective novel from South Africa that though Afrikaans police detectives may be quite different from their British or American counterparts, their immediate superior and the higher ups play by the same underhanded, very aware of the press, cover your own ass rules.

Dead Before Dying is most certainly not the kind of fast-food mystery novel you buy at the airport bookshop in preparation for yet another nightmarish Air Canada flight with all the delays usually associated with such an experience. Dead Before Dying by Deon Meyer is one of those mysteries you can picture yourself reading in your favorite leather chair in your own personal library while a storm is raging outside. Add a snifter of cognac to get the full experience. Be prepared to stay up the night because although Dead Before Dying is a bit slow going at first, it definitely gets you for the long haul.

Other Deon Meyer Reviews

Dead At Daybreak: Unusual and totally different mystery novel.

Devil's Peak: Fourth mystery by this Afrikaans writer, Excellent stuff.

Devil's Peak - Review 2: Great mystery author from South Africa

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