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Taut, tense, snappy and shocking – Die Onaantasbares (The Untouchables) by Steve Hofmeyr

Die Onaantasbares (“The Untouchables”), by Steve Hofmeyr (Afrikaans, fiction, softcover. Publisher: Zebra Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa, October 1, 2017, 197 pp.)

Readers who can manage Afrikaans will get a real kick out of reading Die Onaantasbares (“The Untouchables”) by South African author and enfant terrible Steve Hofmeyr. Contrary to expectations, even doughty critics like Joan Hambidge says that he knows his stuff and writes thrillers that are breathtakingly scary. Why read it? For a couple of reasons:

  1. It is in Afrikaans, and pretty good Afrikaans as well. He uses the proper Afrikaans word unless his character speaks in slang. Considering how badly Afrikaans has become degraded and mixed up with English, Hofmeyr manages to tease readable, fresh writing out of the standard body of language.
  2. He is a celebrity in South Africa – an award-winning singer, songwriter and actor – and a contentious social and political commentator. You’d think a guy who is continually stirring up emotions and tackling holy cows would be a hothead. He is not. I’d say he is in full control of his actions and his fan base. His image is one thing – his intellect entirely another. Ever heard him in a serious interview? He’s no fool. And this is clear from the expert way he constructed the novel to play with the reader’s emotions as the plot thickens and he switches perspective.
  3. He has produced a string of best-selling novels. And this one is no exception. It is taut, tense, snappy and shocking. What more do you want in crime fiction?

Steve Hofmeyr, from his website

I hope that publishers will soon realize that Hofmeyr, perhaps because he is new to the writing profession, suffers from none of the hackneyed ideas, guilt complexes and  tiresome trend-consciousness of many South African authors. His voice is fresh, aggressive, angry and succinctly vicious.

The novel contains thinly veiled criticism of the present political regime in South Africa, which he describes as generations of “onaantasbares” (“untouchables”), who murder with impunity and are utterly corrupt, getting rich and comfy on waves of crime. Considering that Jacques Pauw’s expose of the Zuma government, The President’s Keepers – Those keeping Zuma in Power and out of Prison, was taken off the shelves on order of the State Security Agency almost as soon as it was published on 29 Oct. 2017, Hofmeyr is playing with fire. Lucky for him, his book is fiction.

A classic hero who is also a killer

The plot is about a former mercenary who turns to assassinations to make a living. He becomes an ace killer for hire, called “Die Sluiper” (“The Creeper”) who does most of his work for a security unit within the untouchable government apparatus – hence the title. One murder too many makes him a victim of the very people who hired him. And then all hell breaks loose.

The Creeper is a killer in the classic Ancient Greek hero style – like “James Bond”, “The Terminator”, “Dexter Morgan” and “Jason Bourne” – almost superhuman and in control, except for the core problem of hubris. And hubris always gets them into trouble. Hubris in The Creeper’s case is the belief that he is smarter than anyone else, including the woman he loves. Like some of these cool killers, The Creeper is practically sociopathic in that he kills efficiently, and only on commission. (This reminded me of the Assassins Guild’s creed in Terry’s Pratchett’s Discworld novels: nil mortifi, sine lucre. No payment – no death.) Up to a point of course – and when that point is crossed…well…sit tight and wait for the blood to finish flowing and the bodies to stop twitching.

Sex and violence

The novel has interesting technological angles since the main method of espionage are leading edge and described in great detail. The Creeper’s main methods of murder, however, are, shall we say, classical with a twist. Hofmeyr excels in his descriptions of stalking, death and sex. In a TV interview he said he wouldn’t want his mother to read chapter 2, which is particularly juicy and detailed. And now I can see why.

Generally though, his descriptions are concise, and Hofmeyr is good at snappy closing lines:

    “Niks anders pantser jou beter as koue apatie nie.” – “There is no better defence than cold apathy.” (p.15)
    “Normaal is relatief en al was dit nie, het dit niks met fokken enigiets uit te waai nie.” – “Normal is relative and even if it were not, it has nothing to do with fucking anything.” (p.77)
    “Dit was ’n padkaart van verdoemenis.” – “It was a road map to damnation.” (p.111)
    “Ons sielsiekes kan so voorspelbaar wees.” – “Nutters like us can be so predictable.” (p.188)

The end, and I do mean the end, is a real shocker. I had to read it a couple of times. Then I paged back and understood all the veiled references and red herrings. Wow. It really took my breath away.

Time to go international

In terms of style – taut, tense, snappy and shocking, with a focus on one main character and few wasted words – Hofmeyr is like best-selling crime fiction author Jo Nesbø. However, he is limited in his success because his books are only available in Afrikaans. If he sells the rights and has them translated worldwide, he would be even more successful because his novels combine mastery of the conventions of the crime fiction genre (for instance plot, protagonists and antagonists, crime, investigation, clues, violence, modus operandi, foreshadowing, false leads, etc.) with unusual and authentic South African themes, settings and subjects. That’s a sure-fire way to score a hit – pardon the pun.

About the author

You can read all about Hofmeyr’s interesting and unconventional career on Wikipedia and on his website.

About the header: The Creeper silhouetted against an actual tunnel in an 18th-century sea fortress in Finland, Suomenlinna, on an island off the coast of Helsinki. Photo by M.F. O’Brien, 2017.


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