Fiction – paperback; Hodder & Stoughton; 141 pages; 2018. Translated from Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers.
Deon Meyer’s The Woman in the Blue Cloak captured my attention when I saw it on the shelves of my local library because it was:
✔️ a novella;
✔️ a crime story;
✔️ the crime involved art from the Dutch Golden Age;
✔️ it had an evocative setting (South Africa); and
✔️ it was translated fiction.
It also helped I had read Meyer’s work before (Blood Safari in 2015, which was excellent), so I knew I could trust him to write a well crafted, intelligent crime story with plenty of social commentary.
Murder of a tourist
Despite the fact it starts with a tired old trope — the murder of a beautiful woman (sigh) — The Woman in the Blue Cloak is not a conventional murder story.
For a start, the victim, Alicia Lewis, is a foreigner on a flying visit to South Africa. She’s an American based in London who works for an organisation that recovers lost or stolen works of art.
When her body is found naked and washed in bleach, draped on a wall beside a road in Cape Town, the police investigation begins by trying to identify her, before looking into a motive for the crime and locating the perpetrator.
I’m not going to give away plot spoilers, but I think it’s safe to say Ms Lewis had been in South Africa to track down a rare painting by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius. (Fabritius is probably most famous for his painting The Goldfinch, from 1654, and the one that features in Donna Tartt’s novel of the same name.)
The police investigation traces the root of the crime all the way back to the 17th century, before concluding with a relatively neat ending that, to be perfectly frank, didn’t quite convince me — although it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of this well-told story.
Entertaining police procedural
The Woman in the Blue Cloak (the title refers to the name of the Fabritius painting that Ms Lewis is trying to locate) is an intriguing police procedural set in a culturally diverse part of the world grappling with all kinds of racial and political tensions, long after Apartheid has fallen by the wayside.
It’s the sixth book in Meyer’s Detective Benny Griessel series but it works as a standalone. I haven’t read the previous books in the series and it certainly didn’t impact my enjoyment or understanding of this story.
I particularly liked the camaraderie — and the lively banter — between Griessel and his colleague Vaugh Cupido, and the ways in which they worked together to achieve a result.
Griessel spends the entirety of the investigation being distracted by a personal dilemma — he’s trying to secure a bank loan so that he can buy an engagement ring. His impecunious situation is nicely contrasted with the value of the Fabritius painting, believed to be worth a hundred million dollars.
This is an enjoyable novella, tightly written, fast-paced and well plotted. What more could you want from a crime story?