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... for The First Rule of Survival

LEE CHILD - "An excellent, uncompromising crime thriller made even better by its setting ... the story is two journeys in one, and I'm glad I took both."


PHILIP GLENISTER - "A jaw-droppingly brilliant crime thriller. The characters, the setting, the layer upon layer of mystery are all masterfully realised. Imagine The Killing being moved to Cape Town and the icy Scandinavian landscape transformed into the relentlessly hot and dusty African veld. Just read it."


BRIAN MCGILLOWAY - "The First Rule of Survival is an incredibly atmospheric, complex and dazzling debut from a thrilling and authentic new voice in crime fiction."


THE TIMES - "The ascent of South African crime fiction continues. In 'The First Rule of Survival', an impressive debut, bodies discovered at the bottom of a skip in Cape Town are those of two boys kidnapped seven years before and never traced. Colonel Vaughn de Vries' life has gone downhill since he had led the police's unsuccessful inquiries at the time. He's insubordinate, unpredictable and obsessed with finding the killer. Besides, there was a third kidnapped boy, who might still be alive. The novel fizzes, helped by a vivid backdrop of the country's post-apartheid transformation."


THE GUARDIAN - "Paul Mendelson's South Africa-set The First Rule of Survival begins with a gag: they haven't yet made CSI: Cape Town, observes senior superintendent Vaughn DeVries, because "they wouldn't have the lab results from the first crime till the series ended". It sets us up for a ramshackle ride. But satire isn't Mendelson's game here, and what DeVries and his team lack in gleaming forensic technology they make up for in cold wisdom. At this sure-footed novel's core is the abduction, in broad daylight and on consecutive days, of three boys – a case DeVries had failed to solve in 2007. Now two of them have been found dead, their bodies wrapped in plastic and dumped in a bin, and the race is on to track down the killer and save Boy Three. We may feel like we've met DeVries before, a reaction Mendelson pre-empts when he has a character declare of him, "You're a heavy-drinking, weather-beaten police detective with a broken marriage and anger-management issues." But he plots so smoothly and writes so powerfully that we're too engrossed to care."


THE INDEPENDENT - "I'm in a quandary over this book. It is astonishingly well written for a first novel, has a fast-moving narrative and fascinating characters. Add to this the complex social questions arising from the South African setting, and it must be a sure-fire gripping read. Which it is – until the very last pages, which I found morally repulsive and in denial of recently established facts. I shan't give the game away: readers must make up their own minds.
In modern Cape Town the police force, reformed after apartheid, is still in need of experienced officers – and that means policemen like Vaughn de Vries, now investigating the killing of two Caucasian teenagers with the aid of his black side-kick, Dan February. The boys have been shot with a hunting rifle and their bodies dumped in a s kip.
Post-mortems show signs of long-term abuse and malnutrition, and it is discovered that these children have indeed been missing for years. One is still to be found and may be alive, a possibility which lends compelling urgency to the investigation.
In this fractured service, older white officers have been moved to head special units and murder is still a divisive issue, even as far as victims are concerned: "I understand white crime," says de Vries. But does he understand the mind of any human being, black or white, capable of kidnapping and murdering children? An expert is to hand, the psychologist and forensic adviser, Dr Steinhauer, with whom de Vries has clashed on previous cases. Steinhauer has a theory which will relieve all South Africans, black and white, of suspicion and pin the blame on wealthy Arabs abducting boys to the Gulf for their own perverted pleasures. As the story focuses on other individuals, further psychological problems bother the straight-thinking de Vries. How, for example, can a paedophile be capable of illustrating children's books with great imagination and sensitivity?
The task of solving the crimes is given its own heroic status as both detectives battle racial stereotypes and the deeply disturbing issues in South African society at large. For de Vries, being able to penetrate the gated communities of the rich is an advantage, yet politicians want to get rid of his generation of white officers, and Dan February is constantly aware of the murder rate within the black community, resenting the time devoted to a bunch of overprivileged whites. It is noticeable that the spectrum of characters is not confined to the upper classes – there are poor whites too, trying to find a foothold in the new South Africa. Mendelson suggests other fractures in this complex world – disenfranchisement of the "coloured" population and the favouring of Zulus under Jacob Zuma.
Within such chaos, the enduring mutual respect of de Vries and February is not only a feature of the narrative but gives moving additional depth to the characterisation.
I only wish Mendelson hadn't added an outcome that disfigures this otherwise distinguished piece of crime fiction."


THE SPORT - "Over the years there've been some great writers out there to give you a flavoursome taste of South Africa...the haunting Doris Lessing and the miserable J M Coetzee are two in the classic mould.
Paul Mendelson isn't in their Masterchef league yet but he still serves up a pretty satisfactory feast of intrigue under those southern skies.
He's a Brit but he clearly knows his Cape Town where he's placed his character Vaughn DeVries, a middle-aged white top cop in the Special Crimes Unit.
DeVries is a difficult type, a bit mixed-up and obsessive. Following the discovery of the bodies of two white boys he soon realises he's back on a case he failed to clear up years earlier when the lads went missing.
Race was an issue in the early days of his career and it seems it's still a big political problem now as old attitudes struggle with new realities.
So the further DeVries digs into the case, the bigger the blocks he finds in his way.
The First Rule of Survival is a tense psychological thriller which will find you questioning yourself as much as the hero as he battles to pick up the threads of a cold case and untangle them."


CRIMESQUAD.COM - From the opening pages of this intense novel, you can smell the heat and the dust of Cape Town. You can tell from Mendelson’s prose that he is in love with the country he is describing and at the same time frustrated by the people and their politics who live in such a beautiful part of the world. DeVries is a marvellous conundrum of a man. At the beginning he is brusque and appears a relic of the old Aparthied regime and yes, there is a dash of racism in the man which has been indoctrinated since birth. However, as the novel progresses you see that all DeVries wants is a good, solid policeman he can rely on and that comes in the form of Don February. To begin with I just love the name of this man, but he is so much more. A black officer in an ever changing political landscape, February is a man who believes in the law but is also a family man at heart. You would think that this odd couple would not mix but with DeVries’ determination coupled with his heavy drinking habit and February’s calm nature the two opposites attract and work well, garnering respect for the other as this cruel and labyrinthine case progresses to its shocking conclusion.

Being a playwright, Mendelson’s tale is dialogue driven which enables him to give his characters their own distinctive voice and like the proverbial Poker player that he is, Mendelson keeps his cards close to his chest and reveals his cards only at the right moment. DeVries is a relic, old-school and the powers that be would like nothing better than to see him gone, but nothing can stop them from seeing his determination to bring justice to those victims of this heinous crime. I was totally transfixed by this novel and loved the way that Mendelson layered his character’s personalities so that just when I believed I had the measure of them, another facet was uncovered. I look forward to seeing more about DeVries, February and certainly of the mysterious Marantz whose life and past is deeply imbedded amongst the shadows. Mendelson has a real winner with ‘The First Rule of Survival’ and is a series that is definitely worth keeping an eye on.


THE FINANCIAL TIMES - Paul Mendelson’s expertise in the poker field is enshrined in several bestselling books on the subject, and he has clearly been salting away observations of human behaviour acquired in that discipline. His debut novel bristles with a command of language and narrative that suggests someone with a slew of novels to their name.
A decade ago in Cape Town, three white schoolboys were abducted – a mystery that has not been solved. Colonel Vaughn de Vries finds a cold case getting hot when the corpses of two white teenagers are found and the troubled policeman becomes obsessed with bringing a vicious criminal to justice. Mendelson, who writes the FT’s weekly Bridge column, demonstrates a sense of place to rival old hands such as Deon Meyer (and, like him, introduces racism as a key element).
Some will have trouble with the uncompromising directions in which he takes his narrative but most will find this to be authoritative and unblinkered fare.


lovereading.co.uk asked a select number of members and browsers to review The First Rule of Survival. You can read their reviews here.