Africa Scene: An interview with Deon Meyer

Internet Vice Darkens to Murder

icarusBy Michael Sears

Deon is the best known thriller writer in South Africa and the London Times calls him “far and away South Africa’s best crime writer.” His books have been translated from the original Afrikaans into 27 languages, have won a slew of prizes, and been optioned for TV series and movies. Deon also writes and produces movies for the South African market.

His new book–ICARUS–is one of his best, and that’s starting from a high base. Detective Benny Griessel is back with his colleagues from the Hawks–the elite police squad of the South African police–and they are faced with a nasty and difficult case.

The Icarus of the title is an internet millionaire, Ernst Richter, who reaches too high. Having sold a successful web development business, he starts a dodgy internet site called Alibi, which supplies exactly that for people cheating on their partners or needing other cover. It seems that the new venture is a great success and Ernst enjoys the high life, but then he suddenly disappears and his strangled corpse is found three weeks later leading to a media frenzy. Then the names of the users start to be leaked on the internet.

Since you wrote the book we’ve had the Ashley Madison affair (to coin a phrase). Is this a case of life imitating art? Was Alibi based on any real websites and their troubles?

It is absolutely a case of life imitating art. Although I’ve been thinking about the possibility of a dating site hack for a while now. It had to happen, sooner or later.

Alibi was based on the French website www.mon.alibi.free.fr — after I read article about it in Fortune magazine.

Following on from that, ICARUS has a number of other tales of things going wrong with internet dating. Would you agree that anything on the internet is discoverable with enough expertise and resources? So ‘privacy’ means keep it off the web altogether?

The Blaauwklippen valley It really exists: The beautiful valley in which the fictitious wine farm 'Klein Zegen" lies - against the mountain right at the back.
The Blaauwklippen valley

It really exists: The beautiful valley in which the fictitious wine farm ‘Klein Zegen” lies – against the mountain right at the back.

The huge Sony hack is just another bit of proof that nothing is safe and nothing is sacred. Privacy on the Internet does not exist. So, indeed, if you want a modicum of privacy, stay off-line. (But how do you stop Google Street View’s vehicles from driving by…?)

Benny Griessel is involved in a particularly distressing incident involving an erstwhile colleague. It proves too much for him, and he hits the bottle hard after six hundred and two days on the wagon, landing in jail. Is the extreme psychological stress of crime in South Africa simply too much for the more sensitive detectives?

Not only in South Africa. There are well-documented cases of post-traumatic stress disorder amongst law enforcement officers in the USA and UK, for instance. And not only the more sensitive detectives. The therapists I consulted during research tell me that this profession takes its toll on everybody. They each have their own way of coping. Benny’s is the bottle.

Alexa is unable to cope with Benny’s drunkenness and self-delusion and leaves him in the house. Right to the end of the book it’s not clear if Benny can pull back from the cliff of his alcoholism despite wrestling with it, and he is eventually saved – maybe – by chance. Will there ever be light at the end of the tunnel for him?

The Temptation Benny buys lunch for the Hawks detectives here, in the Pane e Vino restaurant. But can he resist the liquid variety?
The Temptation

Benny buys lunch for the Hawks detectives here, in the Pane e Vino restaurant. But can he resist the liquid variety?

It is a good question — one I ask myself all the time. I certainly owe Benny some sort of relief after the tribulations of the past few books. Then again, inner conflict is very much part of the process of creating suspense.

But I do think his struggle will change, now that he has more clarity on the reasons why he drinks …

Mbali Kaleni has been promoted to major and group leader in the Hawks. This bothers Benny’s partner Vaughn Cupido who has never seen eye to eye with her. Yet she puts him in charge of the Richter case. Moreover, Cupido covers for Benny’s drunkenness. The relationships between the three of them have changed. How did this play out for you?

Writing novels is (also) about making creative decisions all the time — and then having to deal and live with the consequences of those decisions, especially the unforeseen ones.

For instance, I knew that Benny would start drinking again, but did not quite anticipate how (and how much) this would influence his relationship with Mbali and Vaughn. But working through it, seeing where this takes the story and the characters, being surprised by these developments, is what makes writing such a fascinating and fun thing to do.

Wine country Benny, Vaughn Cupido and the Hawks team spend most of the investigation in the university town of Stellenbosch, about forty minutes drive from Cape Town.
Wine country

Benny, Vaughn Cupido, and the Hawks team spend most of the investigation in the university town of Stellenbosch, about 40 minutes’ drive from Cape Town.

We discover that in the sanctions years the South African wine industry had pulled off some scams that greatly enriched the perpetrators. This is based on fact. How did you come across this, and what attracted you to the fake wine theme? Do you think the industry still has a few scams underway like the ones in your book?

I had a long and very interesting lunch with the most well-informed and infamous wine journalist in the country. I told him I was looking for motives for murder in the industry. He gave me a rather surprising number of potential candidates. This scam was the best amongst them.

And yes, there are more scams around. There are constant whispers … Then again, there are scams in all industries where big money and reputations are to be made.

What can we look forward to next from your keyboard?

I should be finished with a new novel before the end of January. It is called FEVER. It is a crime novel set in a post-apocalyptic world. I’m having a lot of fun with it.

 

 

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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