The Leopard Hunts in Darkness (Ballantyne #4), by Wilbur Smith

Seven stars (of ten)

As the Ballantyne series comes to a close, Smith pulls out all the stops to tell a riveting and powerful story, set in the mid to late 1980s. After fleeing the country during its independence wars, Craig Mellow wants to return to the newly named Zimbabwe. While in exile of sorts, Mellow has written a very popular novel about his ancestors’ struggles in the region, based on a collection of journals he was able to take along with him. Returning to this political cesspool, Mellow’s main goal is to reclaim his family farm. While he begins to get things in order, he discovers a massive poaching ring slaughtering animals in and around the farm territory. Working with one of the local politicians, he casts blame on a government minister. When the frame-up is discovered, Mellow is accused of being a CIA operative and has everything he owned confiscated and is declared an enemy of the state. Fleeing the scene with American photographer Sally-Anne Jay, they go into the jungles of Botswana as they hide from Zimbabwe officials. Falling in love is but one of their adventures along the way as they remain below the radar until things are resolved and their names can be cleared. A wonderfully illustrative way to end the series, which parallels the struggles the Courtney series depicts in South Africa. Readers will not be disappointed with this novel or the entire series. 

Smith has worked hard to show the political and cultural machinations in southern Africa. Depicting the Mugabe iron-fisted rule of Zimbabwe, the story looks at the treatment not only of colonial whites, but of the means by which African politicians sought to rule their own people and distance themselves from colonial oppressors beforehand. Alas, these independence movements have not always been free from corruption, as Smith shows repeatedly. The Mellow struggle for land and recognition is surely not an oddity, though his courage to return after fleeing is also to be applauded. Amidst the political upheavals, Smith has also used this series to show how the African riches (from flora to fauna, to minerals) have helped to corrupt the entire country and that power has caused more problems than it solves. Pitting the indigenous against the colonizing forces, Smith shows how tribal populations were bullied or forced into a lifestyle not their own, as well as the fallout that came from it. The Courtney series began looking into this from the South African perspective, but in these four Ballantyne novels, the issue of diamonds and animal slaughter rises to the forefront of everyone’s minds, depicting a group more interested in profit than learning about the lands. Well written and thoroughly researched, Smith has done a marvellous job in showing how a region that has received so little ink in the world of fiction has so much on which to draw, given the time.

Kudos, Mr. Smith for a splendid series on the perils of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. I took away so much and am eager to look into some of the historical documentation of the region and its people. I hope the remaining novels in the Courtney series are as explosive as these four books have been.

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