Fresh Blood

Name: Paul Mendelson

Title of Book: The First Rule of Survival

'Mendelson has a real winner with ‘The First Rule of Survival’...'

At a farm stall in Cape Town two bodies have been found in the skip behind the premises. Two teenage boys have been shot and then wrapped in Clingfilm before being dumped. It isn’t until closer inspection that it is discovered that these teenagers are two of three boys who were kidnapped in 2007 over consecutive days and never seen again. Despite a big scale investigation that didn’t get the police force (SAPS) anywhere near finding the three boys, everyone involved believed them all dead or trafficked and spirited abroad. Now two of them are found and have only been dead a matter of days.

Colonel Vaughn DeVries was the leading officer on that particular investigation and it is a failure that still cuts deep seven years later and the realisation that these boys were alive and still local reopens his wound of failure. With a new deputy in the form of Warrant Officer Don February, DeVries is determined to find their killer and find the third remaining victim in this tragic tale. But with internal politics from on high hindering his every step and a cold trail from seven years before, DeVries feels the case taking a personal toll on him as he searches for the truth which is a lot closer to home than he could ever have imagined.

From the opening pages of this intense novel, you can smell the heat and the dust of Cape Town. You can tell from Mendelson’s prose that he is in love with the country he is describing and at the same time frustrated by the people and their politics who live in such a beautiful part of the world. DeVries is a marvellous conundrum of a man. At the beginning he is brusque and appears a relic of the old Aparthied regime and yes, there is a dash of racism in the man which has been indoctrinated since birth. However, as the novel progresses you see that all DeVries wants is a good, solid policeman he can rely on and that comes in the form of Don February. To begin with I just love the name of this man, but he is so much more. A black officer in an ever changing political landscape, February is a man who believes in the law but is also a family man at heart. You would think that this odd couple would not mix but with DeVries’ determination coupled with his heavy drinking habit and February’s calm nature the two opposites attract and work well, garnering respect for the other as this cruel and labyrinthine case progresses to its shocking conclusion.

Being a playwright, Mendelson’s tale is dialogue driven which enables him to give his characters their own distinctive voice and like the proverbial Poker player that he is, Mendelson keeps his cards close to his chest and reveals his cards only at the right moment. DeVries is a relic, old-school and the powers that be would like nothing better than to see him gone, but nothing can stop them from seeing his determination to bring justice to those victims of this heinous crime. I was totally transfixed by this novel and loved the way that Mendelson layered his character’s personalities so that just when I believed I had the measure of them, another facet was uncovered. I look forward to seeing more about DeVries, February and certainly of the mysterious Marantz whose life and past is deeply imbedded amongst the shadows. Mendelson has a real winner with ‘The First Rule of Survival’ and is a series that is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) Colonel Vaughn DeVries is not a particularly likeable character. Although he has a strong sense of justice, he is of the old-school and not quite in favour of all the changes within the new South Africa. Why did you choose DeVries, who could be classed as ‘undesirable’ as the driving force in your debut novel?
I’m actually pleased that you find him not particularly likeable; that is what I intended. I believe that he has strong redeeming qualities but, ultimately, he is opinionated and prejudiced, driven by an inner desire to right wrongs, and this attitude encompasses not just his work life, but his entire existence.

Hollywood and, increasingly, TV drama, insists upon overtly categorising each character as good or bad so that the viewer knows who to root for but, as we all know, in real life, our judgements about peoples’ characters are nuanced and often show huge variance as we get to know them better. I was striving to create that effect for readers of De Vries’ exploits. I want them to decide for themselves what kind of man he is, and whether or not they agree with the decisions he makes.

All white SAPS officers struggle to a greater or lesser extent with the positive discrimination principles introduced after the election of the ANC in 1994 – in fact, I have to say, De Vries’ views would be considered mainstream by many white officers.

Ultimately, whatever readers make of him, I hope that they will decide that they want him on their side if things get bad…
2) The abduction of three young boys in 2007 leads to the possibility of child trafficking. Was this a difficult subject to deal with?
I knew that this was a subject I wanted to write about, but I feel that readers have a good enough imagination for me not to have to make any description graphic or exploitative. By the end, everything is really left to your imagination – and it is the threat and menace of what happened – and what might be happening again – which I hope will chill the reader.

In terms of the possibility of child trafficking, the plain fact is that such crimes are on the increase and children from African countries are at risk because, put simply, the value of human life in many African countries ends up being much lower than anyone would want. Need and greed are strong incentives to traffic children: a crime with potentially big payoffs, involving relatively little risk. Emotionally, I should imagine, it helps if you are psychopathic.
3) Warrant Officer Don February is an educated black man in a police force that is inexperienced and, in the case of his department, predominantly white. I thought he was a stand-out character in your novel. Are we going to learn more about February and the prejudices he faces in future novels?
Yes. Don February is a character about whom we will learn more in future novels. He represents the first generation of university educated black South African men entering the SAPS (South African Police Service). Where his boss is impulsive and emotional, Don takes time to consider what is happening before questioning or stating. I hope he comes across as a good foil to De Vries, from whom he can certainly learn many skills lacking in the training of new SAPS officers and, from Don February, De Vries can begin to appreciate that not all black police officers are lazy or corrupt or undisciplined.

I was always taught that the best form of partnership is where each member is skilful at different tasks, so that you compliment one another and don’t spend all your time thinking that you could do your partner’s job better than him. I think that this is what makes De Vries and Don February’s working relationship tick.
4) You are British and live in both Cape Town and London and yet you placed your novel in Cape Town. Why did you decide to construct your novel in SA instead of London?
First and foremost, I am in love with Cape Town and the Western Cape. It is a wonderful, life-enhancing city, with extraordinary natural beauty and an inspiringly entrepreneurial vibe.

South Africa is so full of contradictions, pressures and comparisons that it makes it a gift to write about, as so many different types of people are struggling in different ways to live their lives in this extraordinary country. Despite the almost exclusively negative press South Africa receives in the media worldwide, the ANC have done incredibly well in the last twenty years and, although there is huge progress still to be made, the transformation has been remarkable.

Finally, I just felt that Cape Town had not been used widely as a backdrop for thrillers and that it warrants much more attention. The celebrated Afrikaans thriller writer, Deon Meyer (who is, in my opinion, a thriller genius) uses Cape Town wonderfully in his writing and, if I can emulate his work, then I think readers will really enjoy the setting.
5) You describe in vivid detail the beauty of the SA landscape whilst also describing the attitudes of people living there. Do you believe the juxtaposition of the stunning scenery alongside the antagonism of people of different race and creed makes for a more interesting dynamic?
Yes. South Africa is a country of massive contradictions and constant stresses. Within a few kilometres of towns and cities, you can be in breath-taking wilderness; within a kilometre of millionaires’ mansions, you can be surrounded by hectares of stacked shacks of corrugated iron and cardboard boxes. Adding to the disparity of wealth and poverty, hope and hopelessness is the fact that these divisions are no longer simply down racial lines. Black Africans drive Rolls Royces and buy up whole streets of the townships to develop, whilst there is a growing underclass of poverty-stricken white working class people, finding themselves isolated and ignored in ghettoes. It is a capitalist society, a plutocracy, but one changed in appearance in the last twenty five years. This makes for both optimism for the future, but also an extraordinary challenge as everyone fights to shape their country as they would want it. Politically, South Africa must be one of the most extraordinary democratic experiments ever undertaken.
6) You have written many manuals on card games like Poker and Bridge. Do you think that tactical thinking during these games has lent you a way of thinking tactically in your crime debut?
I think so, in so far as the skills required for mind-sports are a discipline of mind and a clarity of plotting your campaign. When I write fiction, I know a lot about my characters, but at the start, I am not entirely certain where they will all end up, as I want to try to ensure that where they arrive has been reached logically and believably.

As a reader, I find myself upset by illogicality, or by people acting out of character and, once I lose my belief in a character, so my interest in what happens to him or her, lessens.

My editor commented that my mind-sport background shone through in my writing since everything is tied up logically. I hope, in terms of plot, this is so, but in regard to my characters, I hope that there is plenty unresolved for readers to consider both at the time of reading or subsequently. If a book tells me everything, then I find it dull; as a reader, I want to feel engaged sufficiently to do my own thinking and question what I might do faced with such dilemmas.
7) How different was the writing process of developing your novel to when you were a playwright and scriptwriter?
As a novelist, you do have the luxury of prose. I love writing dialogue, and ‘The First Rule of Survival’ is dialogue-heavy, but it is a relief when you can describe something without a character having awkwardly to pull it into the conversation. Equally, swathes of exposition can be deadly dull, so I have found it liberating to be able to interweave dialogue and prose to – hopefully – best effect.

I have been lucky enough to have been approached already by some television producers who have an eye on a series and they have all said: the screenplay’s almost done. I do write in scenes, and I hope that this helps bring to life what are, in a novel, just words on a page. I want to help the reader to imagine the action and inter-action, and to feel that they are party to something that others are not.
8) Who do you see as your influence as a writer?
I’ve been influenced by my parents: my mother was a ballet dancer and, even in his eighties, my father has continued as a professional artist, so my background was always artistic.

I have always loved stories and always believed that good art – in any form – should transport you from your own life into a different world, if only for a few moments. So, I have tried to envelope the reader of this thriller in a different world and I think, I hope, that they will find the journey intriguing and exciting.

In both his raw, early work, and in his later broader, slicker writing, James Ellroy has been a huge inspiration for me. He uses language utterly brilliantly, and creates extraordinarily frightening scenarios seemingly simply, but with such skill. His writing leaves me almost overwhelmed by his talent and my brain infested with the characters and situations he has created.
9) What do you look for when you pick up a book to read?
A character or characters with whom I can empathise. If I cannot relate to the attitudes or emotions of anyone on the page, then I simply won’t be gripped. I want a style of writing which combines description with sufficient suggestion to leave me with plenty to imagine - and I definitely do not want to be told who to like or dislike, who to trust or not trust. Lastly, make the plot believable and logical; ensure that the emotional journey of characters is reasonable, and that the conclusion is satisfying. To me, these all seem like simple demands – and I hope that I have fulfilled them in what I have written but, all too often, I am disappointed by one or all of these elements and that, ultimately, leaves me unsatisfied.
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
I have to put James Ellroy at the top of my list and, even then, I’m struggling to narrow the field. There is a group of three books, published as LA Noir – The Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy, which is some of the most raw, disturbing, visceral writing I have ever encountered. Each of the three novels: ‘Blood on the Moon’, ‘Because the Night’, and ‘Suicide Hill’ has left me wondering how I, as a writer, could ever get close to that level of intensity and brilliance.

In his more recent works, ‘American Tabloid’, ‘The Cold Six Thousand’ and ‘Blood’s a Rover’, he charts the lives of several, mainly amoral characters, as they pass through American history from the end of World War Two, through some of the momentous happenings of recent US history. His weaving of fact and fiction is utterly intoxicating, illuminating landmark events, seen from the view of The Mob, the FBI, the movers and shakers of the underworld.

Michael Connelly and Robert Crais – two more hugely successful American crime writers have impressed me with the seeming ease of their writing (so hard to achieve), the drawing of their central characters and their development, and the ingenuity and brilliance of their plotting. Connelly’s ‘The Black Ice’ and ‘The Black Echo’ both stand out.
British crime writing has truly come of age in the last twenty years, and there are many writers whose work I follow as each new novel comes out.

As a child, I loved both Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming. I suppose then, in many ways, these were the books which influenced me but, having spent a lifetime reading, there must be many wonderful moments of storytelling lodged in my brain and sub-consciously influencing every word I write.