Book review: The Top Prisoner of C-Max (Wessel Ebersohn)

I’ve said before that I’m not a wild fan of local crime fiction. But Wessel Ebersohn was the writer who converted me, so it’s highly appropriate that I’m reviewing his latest offering. (And, although The Top Prisoner of C-Max is the sequel to Ebersohn’s The October Killings, I’ve not read the latter and I still enjoyed this book thoroughly.)

To begin with, The Top Prisoner of C-Max brings back oddball Jewish psychologist, Yudel Gordon – who fascinated me in Those Who Love Night – and pairs him with talented lawyer Abigail Bukula. There’s also the improbably named Beloved Childe, an American prisons prodigy, and a cast of highly charged, overly politicised, brightly colourful and deeply scary characters in the post-1994 Dept of Correctional Services.

At Pretoria’s high-security prison, C-Max, convicts are now called ‘inmates’ and warders ‘members’, and Yudel is trying to find his professional feet in ‘the new country’. Enslin Kruger, a brutal criminal, is on his last legs and wants to exact revenge on Yudel before he dies, by establishing a prison contest to choose his successor: The first of two men to murder the beautiful Beloved takes the throne.

Twenty-five years before our story begins:

“Yudel did not see the man with the shovel move. He also did not see Masuku fall, but now he was down on his hands and knees. Exactly what had happened, how he had lost his balance, whether or not he had had been pushed or even where the man with the shovel had been standing, had not been clear to Yudel afterwards. All that he remembered with any sort of clarity was that within a moment of Masuku landing on his hands and knees, three picks had been driven into his skull, and power among the prisoners had passed into the hands of Enslin Kruger.”

Despite a contained start within the prison itself, the story is packed with chases, subtle in its violence and authentic in its dialogue. What’s also interesting is that this is the latest of six thrillers featuring Yudel Gordon, the first of which was penned in the 1980s. My, my – how times have changed for the character and his allies.