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by Jassy Mackenzie
Reviewed by Tad Deffler

Jassy Mackenzie's sequel to her 2010 Random Violence is simultaneously more engaging and less so than its predecessor. The series' protagonist is Jade de Jong: a young, South African private investigator who has lived as an expatriate for many years following the murder of her famous police inspector father and who has returned to South Africa at the behest of a friend, also a police inspector.

Overall, I enjoyed that first book. There was a raw vividness to it that distinguished it from other series of the female private investigator subgenre. My quibbles with it were that the plot was structured a bit awkwardly, requiring a small amount of suspension of disbelief, and that the villain had a whiff of caricature Hollywood Slasher Psycho rather than coming across as 100% Real Sadist. However, Mackenzie got both of those fixed in this time around. The human trafficking story line of Stolen Lives shifted smoothly up through the gears, never causing me to raise my head and say, "Hmmm…I dunno…" Jade's antagonists are appropriately repellent without stepping over the line to become clichés. My opinion is that one book's worth of practice made Mackenzie a noticeably better mystery writer.

On the other hand, some of the complexity of Jade's character has been toned down. In the first book, she was an intriguing character: she admired her father and was anxious to partner with the police to solve the crimes; yet, she was planning a bit of murder on her own. The disparity between her two selves—moreover, her concern that she was actually okay with this disparity—separated her from the run-of-the-mill series detective. In Stolen Lives, this turmoil seems to have drained away. Somewhere in the interval between the two books, Jade has accepted her dual nature, regretting only the problems it causes in her love life. In fact, in a subplot twist at the end of this book, it appears that Jade's killer side might become somewhat of a signature hook for future stories. I like these formulaic approaches less than I do the complexity of character.

These are not books for the squeamish. Mackenzie has a talent for giving you a brutal picture of the underside of life, whether it's the actions of a sadist in the first book or the reality of what happens to trafficked women in this novel. It's not unrelenting violence; the moments are intermittent but, when they occur, they are telling. They form part of her larger perspective that gives (assuming it's accurate) a thoughtful glimpse into the wild and contradictory nature of post-apartheid South Africa. Her stories have an element of social consciousness to them that caused me to engage more than I might have with just a suspense novel.

This series has three things going for it: competent plot lines, an intriguing protagonist, and a perspective into modern South African society. The first is sine qua non for any series that expects to have some longevity. The third, perhaps, may be of more interest to non-South African readers for whom it might be unfamiliar—but the majority of readers worldwide fall into that category. The future of the second aspect is likely to determine whether the series becomes one where the next book is highly anticipated or only something that will be picked up casually if you happen to notice it has come out. If Mackenzie can keep Jade from becoming a formulaic Willing to Walk the Dark Side for Justice character and keep her rich and complex, Jade will be a character worth following. For now, I'm anticipating the third episode, The Fallen (Worse Case in South Africa), due out next April.

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