Eager Australian lawyer Kerry Maxwell arrives in South Africa, ready and raring to help veterinarian Graham Baird in his fight against poachers in the country’s national parks. But Baird is not what she expects – he’s drunk, jaded, and, worst of all, he’s behind bars in Mozambique. Baird is responsible for the death of the brother of corrupt politician and poaching kingpin Fidel Costa, and faces a violent form of justice. But when Kerry tries to intervene, the situation only intensifies, throwing the idealistic young professional way in over her head. Kidnapped and betrayed, Kerry faces some hard lessons about the inner workings of the dangerous poaching industry, while Graham is forced to face his own emotional baggage head on, and remind himself why he got involved in the first place.
That author Tony Park has a great love and respect for Africa is undeniable. Throughout Captive, his fifteenth novel, he successfully conjures up vivid scenery and stunning animal encounters. But that love isn’t shared with his human characters, who slot into basic roles in a plot that lacks the thrills promised by the blurb.
Park’s intention is to showcase not only the harsh realities of poaching in African countries, but also to highlight the corruption in the organisations who work to stop these illegal activities – by whatever means necessary. But what should have felt shadowy and murky is instead divided simply between good and evil, with Kerry (the predictably spunky lead female) opening Graham’s (the equally predictably jaded lead male) eyes and putting the fire back in him to do the right thing. Shady characters, such as fundraiser Sarah Hoyland, never feel that shady, just plain ruthless. It’s disappointing, as I expected something grittier, with betrayals, twists, and moral shades of grey that shocked and outraged.
But it’s when Park turns his hand to dialogue things really grind to a halt. Awkward, stilted, and wordy, it’s hard to imagine anyone actually talking the way his characters do, as they over explain themselves, their motivations and their situations. It’s the old refrain: show us, don’t tell us! And when Park is so adept at showing a landscape or the way an animal thinks and moves, it’s really frustrating that his characters can’t seem to find the words.
That said, Captive‘s action sequences give author Tony Park a opportunity to shine, ramping up the tension and getting the heart racing. A scene involving an animal orphanage’s pack of hyenas is particularly stirring, with Park getting into the head of both human and animal alike. He sets the scene wonderfully, his years spent in South Africa serving him well in building landscapes and face to face moments with the animal Big 5, while his army reserve background lends authenticity to shoot outs and other circumstances which bring Graham’s own military past to the fore.
While it may be billed as a thriller, Tony Park’s Captive ultimately moves along like a disappointing safari – enticing, exotic surroundings but low on the exciting sightings you’ve paid for.
Tony Park’s Captive is out now, available through Pan MacMillan.