News from South Africa by Joanne Hichens

WHLBy Joanne Hichens

This month Joanne Hichens interviews Michele Rowe.

Michele Rowe, a new voice in South African crime fiction, has just published, through Penguin, her debut novel WHAT HIDDEN LIES, an intriguing mystery in which detective Persephone (Persy) Jonas is forced to work with retired criminal psychologist Dr. Marge Labuschagne to solve the murder of an escaped sex offender. Although Michele works primarily as a screen writer, it seems that a life of ‘crime writing’ is really what she’s cut out for, and has been from an early age.

‘When it came to crime fiction,’ says Michele Rowe, ‘I read widely and indiscriminately. I started out reading Agatha Christie as a child, then in my teens developed a taste for Gothic horror, writers like Poe and Wilkie Collins. I still prefer the almost Gothic suspense mystery novel, rather than the classic thriller. WHAT HIDDEN LIES falls between the two. It is a mystery but has action and suspense. That’s my film background I suppose. Chases and shoot outs are de riguer!’

And in this case it’s all paid off as her manuscript won a CWA Debut Dagger. So my first question has to be: How high did you jump (for joy) when you learned you’d won a prestigious Dagger?

My first feeling was one of disbelief. I never imagined I’d get short-listed, let alone win. When I heard I felt sort of stunned and thought they may have made a mistake. But it gave me a huge boost. I’ve always coveted a Dagger award, and now I have one, and for my first book.  It still seems a little unbelievable.

What lies behind the cryptic title WHAT HIDDEN LIES?

The title refers to how lies and rumors can cause untold damage, even incite violence. It’s also about what lies hidden beneath the surface of our society, like the covering up of the fate of people, particularly South Africans who were removed and displaced. It also alludes to things hidden or buried in the character’s past histories. Hopefully, once the reader finishes the book, the title will make perfect sense.

Summing up the story for twitter what would you tweet?

A detective hunts down the childhood sweetheart she suspects of murder.

And Persy learns more about Sean Dollery, this childhood sweetheart – and Cape gangster – than she cares to. But to get back to the story – a man’s body washes up on Long beach, one of Cape Town’s premier beaches and tourist spots. Cape Town often comes under scrutiny in South African crime fiction. How important is setting to you?

Character and place are inseparable I think. In WHAT HIDDEN LIES, the Noordhoek valley, encompassing Masiphumelele and Ocean View, Fish Hoek and Kommetjie (coastal areas beyond the suburbs of Cape Town), is probably the most important character in the book. I think we’re more defined by our geography than we’re maybe aware of. Beauty or the lack of it in our surroundings can heal or wound us.

I think the apartheid forced removals for example did untold damage, destroyed cultures and social ties going back generations. They also denied people an aesthetic, a cultural identity and a social history. Losses by and large unacknowledged. Imagine being moved from the Constantia farms to a place of wind and sand, no trees, no nature except in its harshest most inhospitable form. Geography is very much a sub text in Cape Town. Race and class and power are defined by who owns the beautiful places. In the second book I look at the forced removals from Constantia under the Group Areas Act, the same themes of land and ownership that I explored in WHAT HIDDEN LIES.

Tell us more about the star of the novel, the female detective Persy Jonas. Is this the character the reader will love to love?

Michele Rowe
Michele Rowe

I wanted to write about a young woman who is tough but vulnerable, courageous but full of unresolved fears. I identify with underdogs and outsiders and Persy is an outsider in the power structures of the police by dint of her gender, age and race. She’s also full of contradictions. Persy’s small but fiercely strong, even aggressive. She’s androgynous but a sexual predator; she is perceptive of others, yet blithely unaware of her own blind spots. Also her background interests me.  She was displaced, lost her family and her roots and has remade herself. She’s from a Colored township but does not feel she belongs there. She went to an exclusive Catholic school, but has lost her religion. She has no family ties but is devoted to her grandfather. She is relentlessly hunting down a dangerous thug, but still has loyalty to their childhood bond. I think her sense of not belonging, of displacement has deeper echoes in feeling she belongs to neither the black or white world.  She is also umbilically attached to this geographically extraordinary place that holds so much of her history, yet from which she is excluded.  I think readers relate to all these aspects of her and that’s why they like her so much.

Who will the reader love to hate?

There’s a fairly large cast of oddballs and creeps in the book. But I think one comes away having some sympathy for most of them, although one of them is absolutely irredeemable. One of my main characters, Marge, the retired criminologist seems to divide the readers. Most seem to love her, but some absolutely hate her. I can’t really work that one out.  I think it depends on whether you share her slightly cynical view of the world or not.

Now Marge plays a dual role – she helps solve the crime, but she also helps Persy deal with her troubled past. Are you consciously exploring the underlying pathology of many of your characters?

Yes. I’m interested in the effect of trauma on human behavior.  I sometimes think most of the South African population is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. That goes especially for police officers. I always wanted to write about a criminal psychologist character like Marge. I did extensive interviews with one for a documentary film. This was during the period of the attorney general’s investigations into apartheid killers, prior to Tutu’s Truth Commission hearings. Trying to discern which killers genuinely sought forgiveness versus those who did it for expedient reasons was a fascinating question for me.  Like most crime writers I am preoccupied with good and evil, with nature as opposed to nurture, with what drives people to murder.

Why do the duo, Persy and Marge, care in the first place, about the murder of a sex offender?

It was the moral ambiguity of Sherwood’s murder that intrigued me. The murky grey area between accusation and proof.  An alleged pedophile is murdered. It’s good riddance as far as most people are concerned.  But a cop has to find a killer, no matter who the victim is, or how much the public think he deserved to die. Persy has a professional and moral obligation to investigate the murder. In fact Sherwood, the victim, had in a sense already died long before the murder. Character assassination is a type of murder. The murder of someone’s good name, of someone’s integrity.

Persy wants to hang the crime on a person who is the only witness to a trauma from her past. Marge is equally compromised because she has a history with the victim and feels guilty. I was interested in how an investigation can be slewed depending on the character of the investigator.

But the law could not operate if it acknowledged that truth is largely subjective. Punishment demands moral absolutism. You are either guilty or not guilty. Is that justice? This is great territory for the writer.

Now that you’re tackling Book Two of what will be a trilogy, what are the joys and challenges of writing this trilogy?

I can’t imagine why I thought it would be a good idea to embark on writing a trilogy. Maybe because I think I have some experience of overarching narratives because I’ve written TV series. I realize now that that was a bit of a conceit.  I know a trilogy is going to be extraordinarily difficult to pull off. I am already struggling horribly with the plot of Book Two, and know Book Three is likely to be even worse. The problem is I only really enjoy doing something if it’s a huge challenge. The need to tackle seemingly impossible tasks is one of my big character flaws.

Tease us a little about Book Two….

It’s called HOUR OF DARKNESS, and is about a series of crimes that happen during Earth Hour, when all the lights are out.  Persy Jonas is sent to investigate. But her personal life has become complicated by an addictive and risky love affair that could jeopardize her career.  Yet again, she can’t escape her family’s tortured history, and she enters into dangerous territory when she tries to find some answers. The title also refers to the line in the Beatles song “Let it Be,” but if I tell you why I will give away one of the surprises in the book. But it has to do with the phenomenon of Marian sightings, or visions of Mary, as experienced by one of the characters.  It also features a missing hippo called Houdini!

And lastly, what do you think of the crime writing scene in South Africa in general and what will an international reader love about SA crime fiction?

I think we are by far the most interesting crime writing nation at the moment. It is fast becoming our most compelling literary form, which is hardly surprising considering the kind of society we are. But I think the landscape, the humor, the characters and the passion are unique. And the range of social milieus is fascinating. This is where our diversity comes to full flower. We can write about the madness and excitement and terror and joy of living in a country filled with extraordinary life and culture. So dark and so light at the same time. It’s a very natural form for us because we can examine our deepest fears, as well as social and historical and political issues in an entertaining form. The range and style of writing is very impressive, ranging from hardboiled noir, to police procedure, to almost Grand Guignol humour, to traditional heist and capers, to mystery and psychological studies, even science fiction and supernatural or allegorical work. The non fiction is also superb, absolutely first class journalists and researchers are writing about crime at the moment.  I think once an international readership becomes familiar with South African crime fiction they will be fascinated.

*****

Hewlett-PackardJoanne Hichens is an author, editor, blogger at News24, and creative writing teacher at Rhodes University. Her novel DIVINE JUSTICE, featuring PI Rae Valentine, was named a Top Ten KillerThriller by the Sunday Times and a Top Ten LitNet Read for 2011.The sequel, SWEET PARADISE, will be out in 2014. BLOODY SATISFIED, an anthology of South African crime-thriller fiction, edited by Joanne,has just been released by Mercury.

To learn more about Joanne, please visit her website.

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