Written by Mike Nicol — The Rainbow Nation is developing a well- deserved reputation for excellent crime fiction. Perhaps it’s not surprising since its unfortunate history provides fertile grounds for inspiration. Lauren Beukes’ brand of supernatural-tinged mystery and suspense has already achieved breakout international success. Roger Smith’s nihilistic hardboiled fiction is a regular presence on our annual best-of lists, and Deon Myer has an established track record writing brilliant Cape Town-set policiers.
Mike Nicol is best known so far for his Revenge trilogy – Payback, Killer Country, and Black Heart – which explores the country’s Apartheid legacy through the eyes of Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso, security-company owners with a dark history of gun-running. The books offer no easy answers, and are just as complicated and nuanced as the history they explore. Nicol is a savvy enough writer to offer no judgement on his characters, but is content to let us form our own opinions.
Agents of the State is set in the present day and, as the title would suggest, has African politics at the heart of its story. Its two main protagonists are Vicki Kahn and the oddly named Fish Pescado. Pescado is a Cape Town PI and beach bum whose lover, Khan, has been sent to Europe in her first job working for the State Security Agency. Khan has been sent to Schipol Airport in Amsterdam by her handler, an infuriating man who takes espionage paranoia and secrecy to ridiculous levels, to meet a contact with inside information about a child trafficking ring operating back home. Later, she ends up in Berlin.
Meanwhile, Pescado is hired to look into the attempted assassination of a foreign dignitary in exile, a man who was rumoured to be plotting a coup in his own Central African country and who has been gunned down leaving a Cape Town church.
Khan’s investigation points towards the son of the current South African president and Pescado discovers a possible link between the hit and the State Security Agency. It seems their two cases may be linked. All of South Africa’s various security and espionage divisions have been recently amalgamated and the Agency is so riven with rivalry and secrecy that they never know who to believe. When Khan discovers that her aunt may also have been the victim of a state-sponsored hit, she realises they can’t trust anyone.
Agents of the State is a fascinating look at the machinations of power. The corruption at the heart of government is exposed as Nicol shows us how a democratic movement based on justice and civil rights is being subverted. There are a number of secondary characters including the president, his son, and some other members of the Agency: some loyal to the president, some to the cause, and some only to themselves. The personality and motivations of each are only gradually revealed, not through boring exposition but through their language and actions, in a manner that brings to mind the great Elmore Leonard.
On top of the great writing is a complex inter-woven plot that brings all of the main characters to a finale in a rural palace. Nicol writes action just as well as dialogue and sets up a tense, exciting finish. Throw in a tender love story between Khan and Pescado and you’ll be left marvelling at an intelligent, nuanced thriller that is bound to win Nicol a lot of new readers and maybe some awards.
If you are interested in reading some more South African crime fiction, here are our reviews of City of Blood, Broken Monsters, and 7 Days. Agents of the State is available now on iTunes, and on 21 February on Amazon.
Old Street Publishing
CFL Rating: 5 Stars