Detectives, scientists and a cook


Detectives, scientists and a cook

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH's house is being renovated, so he sits on the stoep reading. We reap the benefit.


WHEN something works, you don't mess with it, right? But can the laws of the kitchen and yard be applied to the writings of those who ensure year after year that people have reading material for long vacation days or inspiration for the pile of gifts under Christmas trees?

The answer is that most of those writers are painfully aware of their writing formula, their story pattern, and are trying hard to break away from it without really breaking away. I've devoured books by those kinds of writers in the past few weeks: John Sandford, Lee Child and Richard Osman.

Their new publications are excellent holiday fun — and international bestsellers. And something is happening; there are shifts in the machinery of the three writers' works.

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Seniors’ swansong

After completing the delightful story of The Last Devil To Die, Richard Osman says he's giving his four weirdo detectives (Joyce, Elizabeth, Ibrahim and Ron, all senior citizens) a bit of a break so he can write a book about a father-in-law/daughter-in-law detective duo. You might think it's so Elizabeth can focus on her husband Stephen's dementia, and you're probably not wrong. But the harsh truth may be that Osman is perhaps a bit bored with his four pensioner detectives, or that they no longer entirely captivate him.

The story itself is cleverly plotted; Osman is not a slouch. The four detectives have to investigate the murder of their friend Kuldesh Sharma (the same one who helped them in The Bullet That Missed). Yet, it seems as if Osman is struggling to uncover new depths in the pensioners. You don't discover any new facets of their history or personalities.

The Last Devil to Die by Richard Osman was published by Penguin and costs R332 at Exclusive Books.

Scheming widow

John Sandford's Lucas Davenport series has meandered over the past few years between Davenport's old sidekick, Virgil Flowers, and his daughter, Lettie. Earlier this year, Lettie Davenport took the spotlight in Dark Angel, and in Judgment Prey it's Virgil's turn to help Davenport keep his temper in check while both of them recover from serious gunshot wounds sustained in a previous story.

Sandford's efforts to renew the dynamics of his Prey novels can be found at the core of the plot. Davenport and Flowers investigate the murder of a judge and his two sons. The widow is someone who excels in manipulating people and she eventually complicates things for the detectives.

It's one of the best Sandford novels yet because he opens the door to an exceptionally cunning killer, thereby bending the boundaries of “normality" to the highest curve of the spectrum.

Judgment Prey by John Sandford was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R577 at Exclusive Books.

Over-refined Reacher

The Secret is the latest effort by Lee Child, assisted by his brother Andrew. Lee, 69, announced his retirement as early as 2020, saying  Andrew, 55, would eventually take over from him. The transition has been relatively seamless, yet one still feels that Lee has not fully handed over.

However, The Secret bears the signs of a publication with a brief production cycle. The typography is sloppy, to mention an external indicator. The content is also somewhat sloppy. Anyone who has read the first batch of novels about Jack Reacher and now encounters him early in his life (in a period before the days of Killing Floor, Die Trying and Tripwire, when Reacher was still an MP in the military) will feel he is too civilised. In later years, Reacher was the epitome of toughness but he now appears with the kind of semi-polished manners he has displayed since Night School and Past Tense. It doesn't quite align with the image created in the previous 27 novels about him, especially not with the handful of short e-books Child wrote between 2009 and 2016, where the MP-era Reacher often appears.

The story itself is thrilling and the twist at the end is genuinely surprising. Overall, Andrew Child has only a few seasons of apprenticeship ahead of him. But I have a specific reservation: I will return to new work from Osman and Sandford next year, but for now I will retire Lee and Andrew Child's Jack Reacher.

The Secret by Lee & Andrew Child was published by Penguin Random House SA and costs R380 at Exclusive Books.

Genius vs common sense

Labatut is the Chilean author of When We Cease to Understand The World, a book that I openly admit I didn't fully comprehend. He makes it a bit easier for his readers with The Maniac, in which he creates fiction from the lives of three scientists, Paul Ehrenfest (a physicist), John von Neumann (a mathematician) and Lee Sodel who, as a master of computer games, became the first person defeated by artificial intelligence (AI). It's fascinating to discover how all three, in their own way, pushed the boundaries of human genius; less beautiful is the way their lives ultimately became failures. Labatut certainly has something to say about morality and the greater dangers of AI; I was more interested in how brilliant people can sometimes lack common sense.

The Maniac by Benjamín Labatut was published by Penguin and costs R580 at Exclusive Books.

Olive oil seasons

Well, the premise is that everyone who wants to cook well will have regular olive oil for cooking as well as extra virgin olive oil for salads and finishing dishes, along with red wine vinegar, sea salt and black pepper. Those are the five ingredients of the book's title. After that, you just have to start browsing, looking for potential candidates for your diligence, then go searching for the ingredients. Things  Jamie Oliver finds at every turn in Europe and around the Mediterranean are either scarce or unknown here in sinful South Africa. What I can attest to, however, is that Oliver makes darn delicious meals possible for us. Especially among the pasta dishes — the Tunisian shrimp, harissa and lemon sauce with spaghetti is fantastic, but it's the mussels and mushroom sauce with tagliatelle that turned me into a glutton. So you can go on — I still have to get to his meat and fish recipes. But I'm not in a hurry. With Oliver, you can embark on a delicious eating adventure and it stretches across seasons.

5 Ingredients Mediterranean by Jamie Oliver was published by Penguin and costs R555 at Exclusive Books.


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