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By Mike Nicol

After missing the March issue of The Big Thrill, sorry about that, – partly because I was on holiday, partly because there was nothing to write about on the SA crime thriller scene – here’s a long make-up column, most of which is a Q&A with Tess Gerritsen done days before she visited the country last month.  Following that discussion are also some thoughts on what the crime fiction fan wants from a thriller, and to end, two book trailer videos.

The discussion with Tess included local writers Chris Marnewick, Sarah Lotz, Jassy Mackenzie, and Michael Sears.  As Tess was our guest we asked her to put the first question.

Tess Gerritsen: Where do you get your ideas from? Have any of your books been inspired by true events?

Chris Marnewick: The genre (pretentious word!) in which I write is creative non-fiction, or faction, or historical fiction, so the inspiration has to come from real events. But not all real events are interesting and the ones that are interesting are not necessarily inspirational. So I am inspired by interesting real events that are not well known, or have been hidden away as state secrets. I love giving away a secret, especially a state secret!

In my novel Shepherds & Butchers that secret was the truth about the death penalty process and the way it was applied in SA. The vehicle was a fictional court case, but the underlying facts were true.

In my second novel The Soldier Who Said No, there are two underlying secrets. The one is that our security forces tried three times to assassinate Robert Mugabe. The other is that the treatment of cancer can be botched up and leave a man/woman in doubt for the rest of their lives. The vehicle was a fictional account of an attempted assassination and the investigation the detective undertook to solve the crime.

Speaking generally, I think all crime fiction is in a way inspired by true events. Those events occur in different social settings, but the suspense of the chase is essentially the same in all of them.

Michael Sears: Since Stanley Trollip and I write together as Michael Stanley, we often bounce ideas between us and – we hope – the outcome is more than the sum of the parts.  The idea for our first book came from watching hyenas consume every scrap of an animal (except for the horns).  We immediately thought that was a great way of getting rid of a body!  It took us another twenty years to get round to writing the novel though…

Personally, I find that I often wake up with ideas – not worked out and often useless – but my subconscious seems to be at work overnight.  I find that with mathematics research too.

Do you believe in handing things over to the subconscious for a while, or do you think that’s just a form of procrastination?

Sarah Lotz: My first crime novel, Exhibit A, was very much inspired by true events. A close friend of mine was raped in a police cell by a policeman and as the case dragged on and on I was so angry at how it was being handled that I had to write about it. The narrative and characters are fictionalised, but the main focus of the novel is on the implications of how rape survivors are treated by the SA judicial system.

One of the plot threads in my second legal thriller, Tooth and Nailed, was also sparked off by a true-life incident. A couple of years ago my family and I were attacked by lions while camping in Botswana – and this seemed too good an opportunity not to use in a book!

My main characters – lawyers Georgie Allen and Patrick McLennan – are loosely based on my husband, a sartorially-challenged lawyer and used car dealer, and his best friend (albeit seriously toned-down and fictionalised versions of the real thing). When a reviewer recently remarked that she didn’t believe that such scruffy, foul-mouthed and contrarian individuals would be tolerated in the legal profession, this caused great hilarity in Cape Town legal circles – but I guess it just goes to show that ‘real life’ is way more bizarre than fiction

Several of our local reviewers and academics have commented that South African crime writers should be more concerned with highlighting the country’s many socio-political issues rather than entertaining readers. As someone who’s an internationally acclaimed writer of best-selling thrillers, how would you respond to this?

Tess Gerritsen: As thinking citizens of wherever we may live, socio-political issues will naturally become intertwined in our stories because we’re preoccupied with them in our day-to-day lives. In Vanish, for instance, I write about the horrors of human trafficking in the US, a grim and alarming trend that so horrified me, I felt compelled to write about it. In The Killing Place, I write about the sad plight of the “lost boys,” sons of polygamists who are cast out of their communities to fend for themselves. I don’t purposefully set out to write “issue” books, but I do write about what stirs my passions, what makes me angry or sad or shocked.  And often, those happen to be current issues.

The danger, however, is that the issue overwhelms the story, and the reader feels hammered over the head with it. So we must remember that readers primarily come to us for the story — and if we’re able to artfully weave issue and plot together, those readers will finish the book feeling not only entertained but also enlightened.

Jassy Mackenzie: I draw a lot of my ideas from current events and news. My latest book, Stolen Lives, is about human trafficking, and this was inspired by the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup. I discovered that human trafficking reaches epidemic proportions in a host country when a major international sporting event is held. And my first book, Random Violence, was inspired by my own experience with crime, when I was hijacked at gunpoint in my own driveway.

I love your two strong female lead characters, Rizzoli and Isles. Which one do you identify more strongly with, and why?

Tess Gerritsen: Definitely, I identify more with Maura Isles. Like her, I’m a medical doctor, I want to believe there’s a logical and scientific explanation for everything, and I’m quite introverted.  A number of Maura’s biographical details are taken from my own life — where she was trained, what wines she drinks, the fact she plays the piano.  But thankfully, unlike Maura, I don’t have a mother who’s a serial killer!

Mike Nicol: While on the topic of your twosome Maura Isles and Jane Rizzoli, who bring very different perspectives to your stories, was the introduction of a duo a conscious decision when you started what has now become a series, or did their relationship grow organically?

Tess Gerritsen: Nothing I’ve done in this series was planned ahead of time. In fact, I never planned to write a series at all. Both Jane and Maura were introduced as minor characters.  Both somehow outgrew their roles and became far more fascinating than I’d expected, and I felt compelled to write more books about them because I wanted to see what happened next in their lives.  The romantic complications, Jane’s pregnancy, the quirks of their personalities, all seemed to develop on their own.  With every book, these ladies manage to surprise me.

MN: There are enormous advantages to the duo relationship in crime fiction, it certainly helps move a story.  You clearly enjoy writing them but what is it that gets the chemistry working?

TG: The chemistry arises because of how different they are.  Jane is aggressive and outspoken; Maura is quiet and a bit Aspergian.  They aren’t a natural fit together, and it’s that contrast that makes their interactions so interesting to write.  They continue to discover things about each other, to feel their way toward an unconventional friendship.  As a writer, I can sometimes get tired of spending too much time with one character, so having a duo allows me to bounce back and forth between the two, which keeps the stories more lively.

MN: I’d like to go back to your initial question about books being inspired by true events and your comment to Sarah regarding your novel The Killing Place that it incorporated a current issue.  While I take your point that it was the lost boys who drew you into the story, it is also, without giving the game away based on the phenomenon of religious cults.  Surely what has been dubbed as the Jonestown massacre was somewhere in the back of your mind?

TG: I was living in San Francisco, the original headquarters of the Jonestown cult, when the massacre happened down in Guyana. Like everyone else in San Francisco, I was riveted by the tragedy and couldn’t believe how easily one charismatic man can exert control over so many people.  Years later it happened again in a mass suicide known as Heaven’s Gate, which took place near the town where I grew up. These incidents continued to haunt me over the years, which meant it was only a matter of time before they turned up in one of my stories.

MN: What intrigued me about The Killing Place was the dominance of the story – the story you wished to tell – over the real events, we’re well into the book before we have any idea of what’s really going on.  As you said to Sarah, the trick is not to let the issue overwhelm the story.  Central to many of your books and it occurs again in The Killing Place is the nature of evil, which you also used to great effect in The Mephisto Club.  Why this fascination?

TG: I think that all crime fiction is, at heart, a rumination on the nature of evil. Why do some people murder? Are they born evil, or do they become evil due to outside influences?  Are they inherently different from the rest of us? It’s a question with a very personal twist for me, because as a child, I was very attached to a much-loved “uncle” who later killed his sister-in-law. How could I have missed spotting that streak of violence in him?  I never would have called him evil, yet what he did was shockingly brutal.  To this day I want to understand something that, in the end, is probably inexplicable.

MN: A final question: what is the one thing you absolutely have to do while you’re in South Africa?

TG: I’m headed to Kruger Park after the tour, and will spend a week in a game park.


I got to chat with Tess on two separate occasions while she was in Cape Town and it came as a bit of a jolt, although it shouldn’t have, to realise how tied to contracts and fans the international big sellers are.  One wrong move in a book and the fans jump up and down in exasperation.  Write something a tad to the side of what you’ve become famous for – and I remember John Connolly lamenting this too – and sales drop.

So here’s where those of us who don’t have the contracts (or the long bucks) or the fans actually score: we have a freedom to write what we like.  Then again, it seems to me, there are a lot of big name crime writers who write exactly what they like because that is what their readers want.

But talking of what readers want, I did get to hear some of that both from Tess Gerritsen and those who attended the Good Times dinner arranged for her.  It seems sex is an unwelcome intervention for many readers who are in it for the violence and the killing.  By extension domesticity, family life by another name, is a decided no-no.  For these dedicated readers it slows down the plot, and why slow down the plot with a bit of realism when you’re there for the thrills and spills.

And don’t waste time on descriptions.  No sunset moments, no excessive dress details.  Nor is realistic dialogue much of an issue.  These hard core readers want the characters to talk but if the way they talk isn’t that different from the narrative voice, well, who cares?  Thing is here that many of these readers were into police procedurals where the forensic information is what counts.  The more of it the better, particularly if the minutiae are not forgotten.  Trouble is the serial killer has become passé in crime fiction although you wouldn’t say so by the tons of serial killer books that still get published.

Interesting, though, that the serial killer has never caught on in South Africa.  Chris Karsten has written two serial killer novels in Afrikaans.  Margie Orford tried it out in Like Clockwork and Deon Meyer’s first novel Dead Before Dying has a series of killings that turn out to be about revenge.  Of course there’s the bag lady who has a thing for blondes in Roger Smith’s Wake Up Dead but she’s a sideshow.

Maybe our fictional serial killer has yet to appear.

On another topic entirely, that veritable US bookstore, Barnes & Noble did a short take on SA crime fiction recently and it is always instructive – if frustrating – to read how we’re viewed from across the water.  Obviously many names were left out either because the reporter needs to get out more or because most SA crime novelists are not published in the US.  But here’s his take:

“The history of South Africa is proving to be some of the most fertile soil for crime novelists today and is threatening to edge Scandinavia, (and formerly what Ireland, Los Angeles) out of the top spot for setting dark tales of corruption, survival, revenge and redemption, (I know they’re out there, but Latin America and Mexico have got to have some top representatives out there outside of Roberto Bolano, Paulo Lins and Rolo Diez – please clue me in. And Balkans – you’re next.) But the recent past is nothing but a rich starting point. What makes a movement out of it is the participation of master stylists the calibre of Roger Smith, a native of Johannesburg, but now living in Cape Town, and whose Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead will leave scorch marks on your bookshelves, constructing what will most likely come to be recognized as the blueprints for writing about life in the Cape Town Flats for a decade or two or three. Still, what you just can’t get away from are the nearly unbelievable conditions and realities that existed and continue to persist today for much of the country’s poor. (And just like good science fiction, the microcosm of social crime fiction is never really about somewhere or somebody else living in some other time. It’s you and me right here and now.) The disparity of life quality and the contrast between the natural beauty of the land and the squalor of the slums… well, you just don’t get more potent places to launch a story from.

Wessel Ebersohn’s The October Killings is only the latest tale of life in the new post-apartheid reality and of the fallout in the moral-social-economic-chaos, but if you can lay your hands on it (and I know you can – ordering is easy) pick up Caryl Ferey’s blister-bomb Zulu. Or catch up with some films first. Try Ralph Ziman’s Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema, or Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi, or the true story of South Africa’s apartheid era cop turned bank robber Andre Stander, in Bronwen Hughes’ Stander. Just dip your toe into these dangerous waters and then try to get out without succumbing to the depths. I dare you. New York, L.A., London and Stockholm will still be there when you want to come back, but I’m betting you become a Cape Town regular awful quick.

The original can be found here.

In the new cross-media advertising campaigns that sometimes accompany new titles, Deon Meyer’s South African publishers produced this trailer for his book Spoor – due out as Trackers in September.  The trailer is in Afrikaans but it’s the visuals that count.

And as a bit of self promotion here’s the trailer my SA publisher made for the last in my Revenge Trilogy, Black Heart.

Mike Nicol
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