Paul Mendelson began writing at school, when he should have been doing other things. On leaving school, he ran a fringe theatre company, performing classic plays, his own new writing, and revue shows. From there, he moved to the National Theatre, first front-of-house, then as an assistant director and, finally, as a playwright. His play You’re Quite Safe With Me was performed at the National Theatre when he was only 21. He also wrote for popular television shows.
Over the following years, Paul concentrated on non-fiction, producing a dozen titles on mind-sports such as bridge, poker, and casino games, as well as a weekly column on bridge for the Financial Times. He has interviewed business leaders, written about travel, and contributed on diverse subjects to many publications, in the U.K., the U.S., Australia, and South Africa. During this time, he also wrote Across the Veld—a monologue about the political and cultural transitions in South Africa, and numerous short stories.
After a number of ideas for books in other genres, he returned to his first love—crime fiction—and produced The First Rule of Survival, snapped up by Little, Brown and published last year. Lee Child said of the book: “An excellent, uncompromising crime thriller made even better by its setting.” The novel was an immediate success and was shortlisted for the most prestigious U.K. crime-fiction award—the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger. The sequel, THE SERPENTINE ROAD, was released worldwide in April.
I asked Paul about his move to writing fiction, and his choice of South Africa for the backstory.
You’ve had a long and successful writing career in the non-fiction space. What attracted you to writing a mystery novel and what made you choose South Africa as the setting?
I have always written stories—and loved police procedural and crime fiction—but started off attempting to write serious literary fiction, both for television and in prose form. An unplanned career path took me into the world of mind-sports: bridge, poker, backgammon, and odds-based decision-making of casino games, and I spent 25 years writing books and articles on these subjects. A desire to return to my first love prompted me to write a thriller just for my own pleasure a few years back but, having shown it to a couple novelist friends, I was persuaded to develop this story into something more serious. The First Rule of Survival was the result which, to my delight, was embraced by publishers and readers alike.
The choice of South Africa was simple. I have been visiting Cape Town annually for 25 years, adore the city, its people, and the large group of friends I have there. The cultural and political background of the country is fascinating for an author and, despite my characters seemingly facing increasing problems, I remain optimistic for South Africa to develop into the success story the entire continent desperately needs to progress.
Your protagonist, Vaughn Dde Vries, is what we sometimes call here an “old South African,” showing many of the attitudes of the apartheid days. He now finds himself on the outside of the new administration. Despite a choppy relationship with his bosses, he is driven above all by a desire to find justice for the victims of violent crime and never accepts the easy way out he is sometimes offered. Was the tension between these different aspects of his character what interested you about him?
Definitely. I think many of us have faced times where we have felt outside of a new group, aging and fearing irrelevance. Much of De Vries’ character is based on a group of British and South African police officers whom I know. The pressure on them is immense, to the detriment of their family life, health, and, ultimately, safety.
The desire for justice is stoked by the increasing evidence that there is one law for the rich and privileged and another for others. For De Vries, this is an instinctually painful realisation and he strives to prove to himself— and others— that justice is worth fighting for, however much trouble it might cause him. He is a happy heavy drinker, satisfied with his now broken marriage, content that he is a friend to his two grown-up daughters. His new middle-aged freedom allows him to pursue his one great passion in life— his work.
De Vries works closely with Don February, who, although loyal, is not blind to Dde Vries’s faults. Their relationship reminds me a bit of James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi. Was taking that relationship and moving it from the white government context to the black government one— – and seeing how it would play out there— – part of the motivation for February?
I wanted to describe a complex character, the first of the university- educated black men to join the SAPS, to witness the procedural and cultural strains that would occur when combined with an “old school” cop. The rebalancing of the SAPS through positive discrimination has indisputably proved troublesome, but 20 years on, the service is settling into its new form, as properly trained, well-educated black and coloured officers rightfully take their places amongst the higher ranks.
That De Vries and Don February are so different, yet respect each other’s talents, makes them a strong team. Don seems to accept that men like De Vries have a place in the new South Africa and, while he might hope that they will change and develop, he focuses on the positive contribution he can make. That De Vries is beginning to admire Don is down entirely to the fact that his Warrant Officer is proving an insightful, intelligent colleague.
De Vries’s only real friend is John Marantz, a shadowy figure with an unclear past but many contacts. Neither has a family any longer, and both seem comfortable in each other’s company, yet there are boundaries. Is this a key relationship for De Vries to balance the alienation he feels at work?
Many serving police officers have told me that they wish they had friends with whom they could discuss their work who were not in the job, since all of them seem to want to protect their family from the horrors of what they see and have to do. In Marantz, I think De Vries sees a man who understands the decisions which have to be made, and the costs that must be borne. Marantz’s job, for the British government, has cost him the lives of his wife and daughter. For him, De Vries is a friend who does not judge, who accepts him in his new life in Cape Town and, in due course, accepts his help. De Vries realises that, restricted as he is by SAPS rules, the lack of trust within the force, and the overwhelming threat of corruption, Marantz’s contacts and assistance give him an edge which balanced the playing field.
Ultimately they are rehabilitators of one another.
In The First Rule of Survival De Vries is faced with the realization that an old crime—that he failed to solve—has come back to haunt him. He is almost as much a victim of his failure as the three boys who were abducted years before and never found. Although he manages to understand what happened, he has to rely on Marantz to help bring the case to a conclusion. This disconnect between law and justice is a persistent theme in crime fiction. Did you have any doubts about De Vries’s choices here?
This is really the question I want to pose to readers. Do you agree with De Vries’s decisions? Marantz has contacts, and also a numb pragmatism which makes the course of action he suggests to De Vries seem, to him, logical and obvious. De Vries is clearly exhausted emotionally and physically by the case and, perhaps, this state contributes to him acquiescing to Marantz’s suggestion. Whilst many readers may find the conclusion shocking, I suspect many others feel that it was the only way to deal with the situation which had developed.
I dislike novels which tell you how to feel. I want people to think about the actions of the leading characters and judge for themselves whether they agree with them. So little in life—and indeed in South Africa—is black and white. Those gradations of grey are what makes decision-making so fascinating and difficult.
THE SERPENTINE ROAD is a more political thriller, and again De Vries is faced with resolving a case which his bosses would like to see tidily put out of the way. The message seems to be that the animosities from the struggle against apartheid not only remain, but will remain at least for another generation. Is that how you see the country, or do you think this is a facet peculiar to the South African Police Service with its checkered past?
I think there is no country on Earth where recent political history has more bearing on everyday lives, and I think that will remain the case for at least another half century. If extremism is curbed, the historical political tensions will abate slowly but, for now, there are too many disenfranchised people for South African society to have a chance of cohering. With the rise of global migration and the growth of extremism, this is a likely scenario throughout the world, but South Africa has so much promise, we can only hope that it may prove a beacon in an otherwise bleak outlook.
The SAPS will remain tainted for as long as there are people around who remembered its use as a tool of oppression to shore up the apartheid state. Part of THE SERPENTINE ROAD explores whether all governments ultimately turn to the police to repress challenges to the doctrine and, indeed, to their survival in power.
I hope there will be more De Vries cases. Can you give us some idea about your next fiction project?
Vaughn De Vries is returning in my next book—half written now—and I would love to continue writing about him, but I have a couple of other ideas which my publishers seem keen for me to develop, so there may be a break before he returns for a fourth outing. Ultimately, if readers want more of him, I would love to provide him for them.