Black Heart is the third in Mike Nicol's outstanding trilogy, featuring our heroes Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso. However, in this one, Buso is merely a supporting actor as we follow a long litany of Bishop's trials and tribulations. Apparently it is also the final one, which is a pity, as this one is probably the best and certainly the most gripping. In the latter half of the book you oft find yourself in the irritating position where you find yourself speed-reading or even scanning just because the tension is so unbearable, even agonising.
In Black Heart things are at a trilogy low for our heroes. The money is drying up, Pylon gets shot early doors, Bishop's daughter is self-mutilating and as bitter as all hell with him about her mother's death and they are literally and figuratively losing clients. And, to make it worse, the series arch-villain Shameena February is lurking menacingly in the shadows, making Dr Evil look benign. It starts badly for Complete Security and gets worse. And after this frustrating start, and I suppose in the first half, littered with loose ends one can wonder a bit about the book's journey, but, my gosh, when it all comes together it's time to buckle up.
As with the other instalments, we have it all. We have the old-order lurgies, the battling SAPS, sinister euro-trash, the new elite and their state tools. Maybe too much, who knows, but what you do have with Nicol is his rasping social commentary in which we are forced not only to enjoy a locally set thriller, but are led to question ourselves and forced, when we can take a breath, into some introspection as to how we live and engage in South Africa. The author is razor sharp with small, wry, social observations, ranging from the grave to the amusing, such as the messages beeping on a landed plane.
Nicol is very much at the vanguard of the much-documented rise in South African crime fiction, not only by his outstanding work but also in his passion for and advocacy of the genre. I feel he does provide a balanced view of life in South Africa and Cape Town in particular, possibly unlike one or two of his colleagues. It is so much more stimulating and real to read of plots that wind through your own streets. It is a whole other realm of captivation and resonance. You can see the heroes driving over Ou Kaapse Weg, you know exactly where they are on the West Coast. It's just great fun.
Were I to carp it would be over two issues. One struggles to understand whether Mace and Pylon are any good at their jobs. I am sure Nicol intended this, but so much goes wrong, yet due to the fact that they are our heroes we are conditioned to expect a bit better from them. It can jar a bit, the incongruence of this balance. The second carp, and this I am sure it's personal, is that I found the first third lacks the fluidity of later, but then takes off like the space shuttle and you really do, clichés aside, struggle to put the thing down. What Nicol does superbly, while tracing our heroes closely, is to place us briefly in the shoes of other protagonists. It's brilliant — as is this book. It is a great fun South African thriller by a star of a South African author that should be essential, if anti-social, reading, this summer.