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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dead at Daybreak

Deon Meyer

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Dead at Daybreak

Title: Dead at Daybreak
Author: Deon Meyer
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 465 pages
Original in: Afrikaans
Availability: Dead at Daybreak - US
Dead at Daybreak - UK
Dead at Daybreak - Canada
Dead at Daybreak - India
Les soldats de l'aube - France
Tod vor Morgengrauen - Deutschland
Il sapore del sangue - Italia
  • Afrikaans title: Orion
  • Translated by Madeleine van Biljon
  • Orion was made into a TV miniseries in 2006, directed by Gerrit Schoonhoven and with Neil Sandilands as Zatopek Van Heerden

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Our Assessment:

B+ : gets a bit out of hand, but good writing and a solid thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly A- 26/8/2005 .
L'Humanité . 24/4/2003 Cédric Fabre
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/9/2005 Marilyn Stasio

  From the Reviews:
  • "Leaning more on psychological suspense than action-packed set pieces, Daybreak skillfully alternates between van Heerden's current investigation and his tragedy-filled past." - Entertainment Weekly

  • "Meyer dresse le portrait tendre -- et implacable -- d’un être en quête d’une nouvelle dignité, qui tout au long de son aventure, digresse et raconte sa vie pour dire: "Voilà qui je suis". Pour se distancer du mal. Pour effacer ce leitmotiv dans lequel il s’est enfermé: "Après tant d’années à traquer le mal, je l’avais découvert en moi."" - Cédric Fabre, L'Humanité

  • "Layers and layers of criminal history and political intrigue are exposed in Dead at Daybreak, a bulked-up thriller by Deon Meyer (.....) The reader, however, might prefer less angst and more thought about the state of the nation -- something along the philosophical lines of Tiny Mpayipheli, the much superior protagonist of the author's previous novel, Heart of the Hunter." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dead at Daybreak is presented on two tracks, a third-person account of the present-day countdown in which Zapotek 'Zet' van Heerden has just one week to solve a case, and a first-person account by Van Heerden describing how he got to where he now is (a short-fused former police officer turned PI).
       The case Van Heerden is called in on seems a bit contrived: Wilna van As lived with Johannes Jacobus Smit for over a decade but they never married. He was brutally murdered almost a year earlier, and among the few things that appear to have been stolen (from his large walk-in safe) was his will, leaving her everything. Without the will she stands to get nothing -- and the final court date to decide that is only a week away .....
       In desperation her lawyer, Hope Beneke, hires the close to down-and-out Van Heerden, and the stage is set for a mad hunt for the will as the clock ticks down. Of course, it turns out to be about much more than just the will -- it was a big walk-in safe, so there was room for a lot in there, and the man Wilna van As wasn't married to turns out to have not quite been what he seemed. But then this is a book (and a country, South Africa), where the past and past deeds often weigh heavily on characters, and prove hard to escape.
       As this story unfolds, Van Heerden's own confession is interspersed in the story, as he tries to get down on paper his life-story. Meyer is pretty clever with this backstory, allowing the reader's perception of Van Heerden to shift over time -- and winding up with yet another nice little surprise, of things not being quite what they seemed. He tries a bit hard in creating a 'character', but he makes a compelling enough case.
       Having lost his father in a mining accident, Van Heerden was raised by his loving mother, who went on to become a widely admired painter. Van Heerden joined the police, a classical music aficionado ("There was a time when the contradiction of a cop who listened to Mozart had defined him") who couldn't shoot straight (though he was otherwise very good at his job). He's nudged along in his career by the right people at the right time, and winds up taking the academic route rather than working his way up on the streets. He chases down one of the demons of his past in the form of a serial killer, which is a solid notch in his belt (though, as he notes now, only a few years later, everyone has forgotten his role in that case). But, of course, he didn't last on the force, this part of the account building up to the tragedy that made him leave it.
       There's no woman in Van Heerden's life right now, but he goes through the women from his past, and his longing for some sort of stable family. Perhaps a bit too easily, lawyer Hope -- and her friend, Kara-An Rousseau, whom they need some help from for the case -- are both quite taken by Van Heerden, leading to various complications (but then human feelings always get in the way of everything ...).
       At Quantico (the FBI academy in the US), where Van Heerden got himself sent when he was an eager-beaver policeman, "they taught me to use the media, showed me that television and radio and the newspapers weren't the enemy of the police but an instrument". So when the case of the missing will gets stuck -- he's ready to abandon it -- that's what they try, with results way beyond their expectations. Suddenly everyone is involved and interested, and the shadows of the uglier parts of South African history loom large over what's behind all this. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission only looked so far, and there are truths here that are beyond reconciling.
       Meyer does go overboard in the resolutions, with way too many shoot-outs and smash-ups and some cartoonish villains, but it all happens fast enough to easily hold the reader's attention. In many ways, the book follows the basic Ian Rankin Rebus-template (and too closely, at that): the troubled leading man who doesn't quite fit in with the authorities (and is a music-lover ...), the case that's not what it seems (and is steeped in sordid local history), the over-the-top ending (where the hero's life is in danger) ..... But, like Rankin, Meyer can write, and that excuses a lot.
       Meyer tells a pretty good story and, more than that, he tells it well. The writing isn't entirely consistent, but for the most part it's damn good. He isn't always sure of himself, occasionally resorting to narrative techniques that look positively amateurish, as when he begins the description of an evening with the preview of the end: "Eight hours later she would lie in her bed and wonder how an evening that had started so conventionally could end with so much violence and chaos." But most of the writing is so good that it's that sort of slip -- par for the course in your average thriller -- that already seems jarring.
       There are weaknesses to the story. He doesn't seem to have come entirely to grips with the female characters, from Van Heerden's too-good-to-be-true mother to lusty Kara-An, for example. And then there's the idea that Van Heerden himself turns to setting his (back)story down on paper, becoming a writer ..... And there are one or two digressions -- Tiny Mpayipheli recounting playing rugby in the Soviet Union ... -- that are more padding than is necessary.
       Overall, however, Dead at Daybreak is a very solid thriller, and a fine read, and Meyer clearly an author to look out for.

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Dead at Daybreak: Reviews: Orion - mini-series: Deon Meyer: Other books by Deon Meyer under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South African author Deon Meyer was born in 1958.

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