Africa Scene: Peter Church by Michael Sears

Thriller Takes a Dark Look Into a “Nasty” Industry

By Michael Sears

Cape Town author Peter Church’s debut DARK VIDEO made an impact when it was first published in South Africa in 2008. Church’s writing was described as “dark and racy,” and he was hailed as an exciting new addition to the South African mystery writing scene. That novel is now being released for the first time in the US by Catalyst Press, following the success of Church’s Crackerjack last year.

In it, Alistair Morgan is a student at the University of Cape Town. He has looks, money, brains, and as many girls as he wants—but that’s not enough. He wants the thrill of operating close to the edge. There’s a rich market for explicit videos showing sex and violence, but what starts as a game for him rapidly spirals into something he can’t handle and doesn’t want. DARK VIDEO is a scary look at a nasty industry that will stop at nothing to get what it wants.

With a background in IT and a successful career in that industry, Peter brings his knowledge to bear in his thrillers. And he has quite a different take on what goes on below the surface in Cape Town, South Africa’s tourist Mecca.

He talks more about that and much more in this The Big Thrill interview.

What attracted you to the dark video industry as the backstory for a novel, and how did you go about researching it? They rely on secrecy to function. Were you able to explore below the surface at all?

Perhaps rather frighteningly, the inspiration for DARK VIDEO was my own university experience. I stayed in the same Kopano residence (previously called Belsen by the returning WWII servicemen) and also in the “Gorillas” digs (what is called a frat house in the US). I wanted to explore what we could have done as students if we’d had access to the video technology available today. How far would we have pushed the envelope? The characters of DARK VIDEO went beyond my wildest memories of those days. There was lots of material available, both fiction—movies like 8mm—and non-fiction—such as the search for the videos of Paul Bernardo—but no, I never got to meet any of the deviant producers and clients of DARK VIDEO. I promise.

Much has changed since you first wrote DARK VIDEO, yet the theme of the book is at least as relevant today as it was then. What aspects of the dark video industry have changed and was it necessary to update the book to reflect that?

I wrote the outline for DARK VIDEO in 2005/6 following the launch of video sharing sites on the internet. I definitely didn’t realize how prescient it was, and how pervasive video sharing would become in a few short years. At that time most of our knowledge of dark videos involved anonymous old men watching reel-to-reel movies in smoky private cinemas. The mystery and secrecy of the old cults was removed as dark videos became mainstream on the net. We didn’t update DARK VIDEO because it is a tale of those times. I held the launch of DARK VIDEO at a strip club in Cape Town. I told the owner that I wanted it to appeal to an international audience. He opened on Page 1 and said: “Will they know what tackies are?” We changed some South Africanisms (“tackies” stayed!), but not the tech or storyline.

Alistair Morgan isn’t the usual thriller hero. He’s smart and good-looking, but spoiled and exploitive of the young women who share his bed at the University of Cape Town. He becomes involved with dark video mainly to relieve the boredom of his coddled life. He cruises along effortlessly until he falls for one of the victims. Why did you choose him as the protagonist and how did you go about constructing his character?

I remember learning that, when writing a thriller, if you want to break the rules, you better first understand what the rules are. We all know how important a likeable protagonist is in winning a reader over to your story. How he/she rises from a period of failure and adversity before emerging as the star of the show. I didn’t have that luxury with Alistair Morgan because he is a privileged “golden boy” from the outset. I tried to make him interesting enough to appeal, despite his obvious advantages.  I think we are all fascinated by the rich and famous and what makes someone who has it all gamble their reputation and security on matters of fate and chance.

Much of the tension in the book revolves around the friction between the four conspirators at “Gorillas” making the movies. It’s clear that Devon Deacon is the leader, and that he is driven by deeper motivations than just money. You draw him very vividly. Is he based on real people in the dark video industry?

The motivation behind behavior is a subject of great fascination to me. Why are we able to remain calm and cool in certain circumstances, and yet lose it completely in others? How much of this has to do with our past experiences and conditioning? Devon is that person in our midst who you think you know, but don’t. I have met successful people who remain secretly bonded to a past they’d prefer to forget. And when you strip away the sophistication and learning, there remains that little boy/girl still battling to overcome their difficult upbringing.

UCT residences.

A pivotal scene is where Devon persuades the others to film a great white shark attack. By that time, Alistair has come to realize that he is way out of his depth. The results come as a shock, yet seem inevitable in retrospect. Did you always conceive this as the crucial development of the novel?

I guess including a shark scene in a novel or movie is always an ambitious undertaking and it can just as easily flop as succeed.  If mine succeeded, I must give credit to my editor at the time, Tim Richman, who invested a huge amount of time to finetune this scene. It is intended to be a pivotal moment at which the stakes are raised to an extreme that tips the scales of anyone’s moral acceptability.

What can we expect in your next book?

Bitter Pill (originally published in South Africa in 2012) will be released in the US in June 2020. A gang of bartenders at popular Cape Town clubs are spiking drinks and delivering unsuspecting victims to wealthy paying clients. Catalyst Press is marketing the three thrillers: DARK VIDEO, Bitter Pill, and Crackerjack (March 2019) as the Dark Web trilogy.

Michael Sears
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