These Are Not Gentle People, by Andrew Harding, is a gripping true crime thriller set in post-apartheid South Africa

  • These Are Not Gentle People, by Andrew Harding. Hachette. $32.99.

Over the past few years, true crime has mushroomed to the point where it feels impossible to keep up. From podcasts and documentaries to television dramatisations, there seems an almost unappeasable appetite for "who-dunnits" and "why-dunnits".

Andrew Harding's pulsating book is a reminder that true crime's origins are literary. This is a "narrative nonfiction" work, written in the style of a fiction novel, reminiscent of founders of the genre like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer.

Harding is an old African hand who has reported extensively across the continent during a storied career as a BBC journalist. This, his second book, is set in a rural South African town where, more than 20 years after apartheid ended, issues of race and inequality haunt and infuse every aspect of life.

The crime at the centre of the book is the deaths of two young black men in a field one warm summer evening in 2016. Their last hours are brutal: thwacked with a monkey wrench, whipped, slapped, kicked, their bodies jumped upon in a manner reminiscent of wrestling. Both men have lived desperate lives of grinding impoverishment and insecurity.

The suspects? There are forty of them, all Afrikaner men: fathers and their sons, cousins, nephews, in-laws, a farm manager, a community police officer. In his own way, each is as alienated and unhappy in the new South Africa as the two dead men.

Harding follows the story from the dead men chased by dogs through the bush through arrests, the twists and turns of police investigations, changes of plea and the multiple dramas of court proceedings which concluded just a few months ago.

South Africa is rendered a place shackled by history, hobbled by creakingly ineffective government and where the depths of one's pockets determines the justice one will find.

It is a place where communities are both apart and intertwined; one of the dead men's mothers is a domestic servant to a white family closely related to some of the suspects. She finds out about her son's death when serving that family their lunchtime curry.

This is a transfixingly good book. I binge-read it in two sittings, devouring the pages late in the night until I could ignore my drooping eyelids no more, and setting my alarm early the next day to finish before my kids woke. It is thrilling, affecting, well-paced, emotionally deep, utterly satisfying. My only wish was that some photographs were included, so we could picture the dramatis personae.

More please, Mr. Harding.

  • Gordon Peake's "Beloved Land", about Timor-Leste, won the ACT Book of the Year award. He is writing his next book about Papua New Guinea.
This story A vivid post-apartheid true crime thriller first appeared on The Canberra Times.