News from South Africa by Michael Sears

By Michael Sears

Deon Meyer is the best known current mystery writer in South Africa.  The London Times called him “far and away South Africa’s best crime writer,” his books have been translated into twenty-five languages, and have won a slew of prizes.  His many fans at home have become used to the idea of a Meyer novel each year – a new one in Afrikaans and the previous year’s release translated into English – the South African equivalent of a “Christie for Christmas.”  Regrettably, there will be no new book in 2013 but, with SEVEN DAYS releasedat the end of last year, there is much to enjoy.  It’s back to a focussed narrative with flawed hero Benny Griesselworking with the South African Police’s elite Hawks unit.  It’s a police procedural but with plenty of thriller elements.

Mike Nicol from Crime Beat interviewed Deon about SEVEN DAYS and his variety of current and future projects:

The police procedural is a fairly claustrophobic place: it’s about cops tracking down the baddy to minimise the mayhem. I seem to remember you saying that you found it quite a relief to get back to a closely focused narrative?

I absolutely did. The previous book (TRACKERS) was an experiment in structure, a deliberate mixture of genres, and a mammoth first draft manuscript of more than 650 pages. So to return to the safe haven and familiarity of the traditional crime novel was a real relief. And I did not find it claustrophobic at all.

The subject in SEVEN DAYS is more about an individual’s twisted logic than about any major social issues, although these are woven into the background themes. In fact it is the Hawks (South African elite police squad) who really are the focus of this novel. You have great empathy with this branch of the police, although the book is also highly critical of some systemic problems in the police services. Obviously novels are dictated by their stories and their characters but was there any significance in your closer focus this time round?

It started off as a very practical issue – Benny Griessel had to move on from his THIRTEEN HOURS role as mentor to young detectives, and the obvious place for a man of his talents, is the Hawks. And after spending a number of days with the elite unit in Cape Town, I came away hugely impressed, and rather inspired.

The great thing was that the structure and modus operandi of the Hawks (very much in contrast with the Lone Ranger approach of Benny) gave me lots of interesting material, and new sources of conflict. And then, there’s the very advanced technology the Hawks use, which came in rather handy.

Your character Benny Griessel has a large following and reviewers often mention his hesitancies in dealing with the opposite sex, his battle to stay off the bottle, let alone his dogged persistence as a cop and his rather shambling approach to his job. Shambling in the sense that he does his own thing in a sort of pig-headed, yet self-deprecating way. These are the characteristics that have endeared him to readers. But what does he feel like from the other side. When you’re writing him, is he there instantly? Does he influence your stories?

Of all my protagonists, Benny is perhaps the least complicated. And yes, after four novels featuring him, he is indeed there instantly. But as Benny gets older, as his issues, circumstances and children (not to mention the SAPS) change, he fortunately changes too. So I have to keep up, and find new understanding. And then he hasn’t lost the ability to surprise me either.

Now let’s have a look at Captain Mbali Kaleni. She appeared as the rather too large cop with an eating disorder – more of that is revealed in SEVEN DAYS – in THIRTEEN HOURS. She had a fairly minor role in that book but a great presence and seemed ready for development. Like Griessel – who started out as a minor character – Kaleni is now centre page. You have a soft spot for your minor characters.

Like people, and George Orwell’s animals, all minor characters are equal, but some are more equal (and boring) than others. So not all have interested me enough to use them again. But Kaleni – and Benny, who started life as a minor too – just jumped off the page straight away. I have a real soft spot for her.

Kaleni is a complex woman and although we don’t get much insight into her private life in SEVEN DAYS, she is probably the only female cop in our crime fiction – certainly in English. And like Griessel she is driven to an almost perverse degree, which has much to do with her personality. In fact there’s a vulnerability there that suggests that without her cop work the meaning of her life would cease.

Absolutely. Although I think she could have chosen any vocation and made a success of it (she’s a smart, dedicated and very focused individual). But a cop is what she wants to be, how she wants to make a real difference. The problem is, the pure, by-the-book way she approaches her work is always in contrast with most of her more laid-back male colleagues. But Benny gets her. I think she’s the cop Benny would have wanted to be if it wasn’t for his drinking problem.

Do you plan to return Kaleni in future?

She’s already in the new Afrikaans book I’m writing (provisionally titled ‘Kobra’). Making life hell for the men. And maybe finding a bit of romance?

A question that’s not about crime at all but about music. There have been plenty of references to opera in your novels and to Afrikaans rock music (THIRTEEN HOURS) and again in SEVEN DAYS. In fact Benny plays a mean base guitar. What is this thing you have with music?

Like all (crime) authors, I’m a closet rocker … I love music. A lot. It is by far the most powerful art form, and because I really suck at making it, I want to write about it …

What’s next? Are you hard at work?

We’re in post-production with a new movie called DIE LAASTE TANGO, my first directorial experience (and it was fascinating and very rewarding). But I’m furiously writing the new novel, and after a slow 2012, which I really needed, I’m enjoying the writing very much, and having a lot of fun.

Michael Sears

Michael Sears writes with Stanley Trollip under the name Michael Stanley. Their novels, featuring Detective Kubu, are set in Botswana, a fascinating country with magnificent conservation areas and varied peoples. The mysteries are set against current southern Africa issues such as the plight of the Bushman peoples of the Kalahari (DEATH OF THE MANTIS, shortlisted for Edgar and Anthony awards, won a Barry award in 2011), the pervasive power of witch doctors (DEADLY HARVEST, shortlisted for an ITW Thriller award in 2014), blood diamonds, the growing Chinese influence, and biopiracy. The latest book in the series is DYING TO LIVE.

Michael has lived in Kenya, Australia and the US, and now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Find out more at www.detectivekubu.com, www.facebook.com/MichaelStanleyBooks and Twitter (@detectivekubu).

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