A review by JIM NESBITT of the first in the Detective Sgt. DICE MODISE SERIES.
One of the finest features of a Peter J. Earle detective novel is the rich and evocative detail he provides of the landscape of southern Africa, doing what too few novelists do these days, creating such a strong sense of place that it becomes a character unto itself.
In Hunter’s Venom, the first of Earle’s novels featuring Botswana investigator Dice Modise, the reader can almost reach out and touch the exotic flora and sometimes lethal fauna of a place the author knows well. But this isn’t exotica for exotica’s sake — Earle’s Africa becomes as real as a dime. And so do the characters that populate this fine book.
Earle also shows a deft touch describing the culture and folkways of the native-born and the understated tension between them and the white ex-pats who call this place their home. It is an uneasiness that never goes away, even between friends such as Modise and safari hunter Nick Cahill and his brothers.
The story Earle tells is a simple one — Carrie Fells, a young Englishwoman, is told the identity of her father by her dying mother years after the affair. Henry Barton, a tea baron and English country squire, is shocked but thrilled when Carrie shows up at his door and tells him who she is. They form an instant bond and Barton changes his will to include Carrie and promises they will continue learning about each other when he returns from safari in Botswana.
That starts a chain of lethal events as Barton’s jilted relatives start a murderous counter-offensive, including Barton’s death in a hunting accident that the grieving Carrie doesn’t believe was happenstance. She’s right and Earle shows the reader Barton’s grisly murder early on in the book while also revealing his killer, a hunter and distant relative named Bertie Vos, who seems more Boer than English.
Earle’s book is more thriller than whodunit as he masterfully sets up two irresistible forces on a collision course — Vos and his obsequious English cousins who want to kill Carrie after kidnapping her and getting her to waive her claim on Barton’s estate; vs Dice and the Cahill brothers, who include Nick, who falls in love with Carrie.
Along the way, Earle takes us on some gruesome side trails that add texture and complexity to the story, including the rape of a German ex-pat by three Botswanans who have been told by a powerful ngaka, or witch doctor, that having sex with a white woman and cutting her pubic hair afterwards would cleanse them from HIV. Earle shows a deft hand here, touching on the AIDS epidemic that still plagues Africa while describing the strong pull of traditional beliefs without making judgment.
Another grim turn: The German woman, Ingi Herder, comes to a singular and painful end at the hand of Vos, who also milks venom from cobras and mambas for researchers and has devised a delivery device for the poison that mimics the fang strike of a snake. Of course, Vos’ intended victim is Carrie.
Will Dice and Cahill find Carrie before Vos and those English fops kill her? Pick up Earle’s book and find out. It’s a crackling read.
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