BLOOD TRAIL by Tony Park (Macmillan, August 2021)
Sydney author Tony Park is one of my favourite thriller writers and his African based novels are always a joy to read.
His latest one, Blood Trail, returns to his favoured theme of wildlife poaching, but is given an up-to-date polish by looking at how COVID-19 has worsened the situation due to the collapse of the tourist industry. The story opens with safari guide and tracker Mia Greenaway being thwarted by a poacher who seems to able to disappear into thin air. Despite having some of the best trackers in South Africa, the anti-poaching team is unable to catch the wily poacher who is mercilessly reducing the numbers of rhinos in the Game Reserve. Meanwhile Tony Park regular, Police Captain Sannie van Rensburg, is trying to locate two missing local girls, while dealing with a devastating personal crisis.
Central to both storylines, is the growing use of ‘umuthi’, African traditional medicine, by poachers to avoid being caught. The poachers believe that the potions and talismans purchased from traditional healers can make them disappear or be impervious to the rangers’ bullets. These magical potions often rely on animal, or even human, body parts, thus increasing the impact on the local wildlife. It is a fascinating twist on the ongoing battle between poachers and rangers and adds an extra dimension to the story.
As with most of Park’s novels, Blood Trail is a fast moving story that is propelled by several exciting episodes of violence and a sense of mounting tension as the battle between the rangers and the poachers intensifies and a tourist goes missing.
Unlike a lot of authors who have recently said that they are avoiding setting their novels during the current pandemic period, Tony Park dives in and makes good use of COVID-19 as a backdrop to the story. The pandemic and its effect on the local population is seamlessly integrated into the plot and, in many ways, is the driving impetus for the action. From heartfelt descriptions of volunteers dispersing COVID aid parcels to local villagers, to the rise of ‘virtual safaris’ that would-be tourists can watch from their homes around the world, Park does a good job of setting out how the pandemic is effecting everyday life in rural South Africa.
There are also evocative descriptions of the African countryside, and the animals that inhabit it and, as usual, Park slips in interesting nuggets of information, as in this bit of giraffe lore:
“‘Look at the two horns on her head, which are actually bony protrusions. You can see tufts of black hair at their tops. The females have hair up there, but the male is bald, with the white caps of bone showing.”
These descriptions and background information, however, does not significantly slow the nicely plotted story and the various strands come together in an action drenched final 100 pages, or so, as the various protagonists engage in a running battle across the dusty countryside of the extensive Game Reserve. The characters are well fleshed out and convincing, and fans of Park’s books will enjoy the reappearance of popular regulars, such as tracker Sean Bourke and his dog Benny. Even former mercenary Sonja Kurtz gets a mention.
In all, this is a really enjoyable thriller with a good plot, some nice twists, engaging characters and plenty of action. A good piece of international escapism, especially for those of us stuck within borders or still in lockdown.
Four stars out of five!
Blood Trail is released internationally on 1 August 2021.