By Mike Nicol
Three takes on the South African crime fiction scene this month. The first, an outsider’s perspective, by no less an authority than Tess Gerritsen who had a promo trip through the country in March. Then Roger Smith argues for the need of SA crime writers to face the social and political issues head on and to back-peddle on stressing the entertainment value of the genre. Finally, a short piece I wrote for Crime Time about writing crime fiction in SA.
But first here’s Tess Gerritsen on the SA market. Her piece was originally posted on Murderati.com and you can go there to get the original plus all her photographs.
I prepared for my trip by reading some terrific novels by prominent South African thriller writers including Deon Meyer, Sarah Lotz, Mike Nicol, Andrew Brown, and Jassy Mackenzie.
Many US readers are no doubt familiar with Deon’s work, and some may already know the name Jassy Mackenzie, who’s been published in the US, but if the others are not yet well-known, it’s because they aren’t yet distributed well in the US. In this age of an international e-book market, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before you’ll get the chance to sample their work.
But in the meantime, some of these terrific authors are faced with the tough dilemma of marketing their books in the very small South African market. How small? Despite the fact South Africa has a population of around fifty million — putting it just under that of the UK — the number of those who regularly buy and read books, is probably about a million. That, at least, is what I learned from those familiar with local publishing. The population of readers is further splintered by those who read exclusively in English, and others who prefer Afrikaans. You can see, just by the numbers, that it’s very difficult indeed for anyone to make a living just from writing for the South African market. The only way to make a sufficient income is to also sell to the international market.
It’s a pity that their stories aren’t more widely read, because these books have a perspective that’s seldom heard in the U.S. I characterize Mike Nicol’s books as “Quentin Tarantino” on the page, set in the throbbing criminal world of South Africa. Sarah Lotz tells uproariously funny crime stories that had me laughing out loud during the plane ride over. Jassy Mackenzie and Deon Meyer’s books feature riveting, adrenalin-packed tales that are the equal of America’s best thriller authors. And Andrew Brown’s profoundly moving, gorgeously written Refuge, which I can’t stop thinking about, just about broke my heart with an ending that’s both tragic and inevitable.
These are all accomplished writers, and ever since reading them, I’ve been pondering the question of why, except for Deon, they haven’t yet surged onto the US scene? I suppose some of it may be due to the fact that Americans are by and large unfamiliar with South Africa and its unique history, politics, high crime rate and police corruption. While I was there, in fact, there was a highly publicized contract killing of a major crime figure. It’s an exotic environment for many Americans. But once you get past the occasional Afrikaans word, once you get comfortable with the setting, you’ll be hungry for more.
In March Cape Town crime writer Roger Smith took part in the Quais du Polar in Lyon, France. The previous year Deon Meyer and Margie Orford were participants. One of the panel discussions Roger participated in concerned violence in crime fiction. He’s reflections on that panel were originally posted to Crime Beat but are decidedly worth repeating.
One of the points he makes is that maybe we (SA crime fiction writers) are too apologetic about our books, always emphasising the ‘entertainment’ value. I take his point that it is time to stop this playing up that side of the genre, although after reading a local reviewer’s opinions, I’m hesitant once again. (More of this next month.)
The sense I have from discussions with SA crime fiction readers over the last couple of months is that we have moved somewhat away from the ‘cringe’ factor that used to afflict the local market. Increasingly readers are picking up SA crime fiction for its value – both as entertainment and social critique.
Take this further: in the last three years there hasn’t been a book festival that didn’t feature thriller writers. There are panel discussions again at the upcoming Franschhoek Literary Festival, there is a major crime thriller event planned for mid-year in Johannesburg, and Boekbedonnerd (a festival held in the Karoo desert town of Richmond) in 2012 plans to highlight crime fiction writers.
So as Roger puts it, time for the awkward forelock tugging to end. He concludes his piece with an apposite quote from UK writer David Peace that works rather well as a mission statement. Here’s Roger’s take:
At the end of March I was lucky enough to be invited to attend France’s premier crime fiction festival. It gave me the opportunity to meet legendary French publisher, Robert Pépin, whose new imprint Robert Pépin présente has just released the translation of my first book, Mixed Blood (Mélanges de sangs), with Wake Up Dead lined up for next year. Pépin has the clout to have attracted writers like Michael Connelly and Lawrence Block to his new venture, so I couldn’t be in better company.
I was also on a couple of panels, the most interesting being a very well-attended discussion on violence in crime fiction, where I joined David Peace (multi-award winning author whose Red Riding Quartet used the Yorkshire Ripper’s killing spree as the prism through which to view England in the 1970s), Alexandra Schwartzbrod (who was for some years Jerusalem correspondent for the French newspaper Libération, and has written novels set in the divided city) and Serge Quadruppani (writer, essayist, journalist, translator and well known “man of the Left”.)
The ease with which my fellow panellists wore the mantle of crime writer is testament to the esteem crime fiction enjoys in Europe, unlike in South Africa where some so-called tastemakers still feel crime writing is the poor cousin of literary fiction. I can’t help wondering if South Africa’s more “serious” writers would allow themselves to be so defined. For example, one could easily make the case that Disgrace is the best crime novel to come out of SA (Coetzee was still a South African when he wrote it) but I can’t see him accepting an invite to Quais du Polar any time soon.
There is no question that Peace, Schwartzbrod and Quadruppani place themselves and their work at the centre of political and social debate, and make no bones about the fact that if a crime writer dodges socio-political issues, he’s copping out. Unlike in South Africa where there still seems to be a lot of shuffling of feet and forelock tugging amongst crime writers, with mutterings of “arrrr, it be only entertainment.”
Peace and Quadruppani are both keen observers of institutionalized violence and riffed on policing in the new Europe, evoking a world very far removed from the genial bobby on the beat or the comical gendarme. The cops in today’s England and France, rather than guiding tourists towards Buckingham Palace or the Eiffel Tower, are “kettling” protestors (and innocent bystanders), surrounding and trapping them, so they can kick the living crap out of them.
Alexandra Schwartzbrod brought a distinctly feminine flavour to the debate, reminding us that in the midst of war, oppression and violence, people still have sex and fall in love, and she spoke very passionately about the scents, textures and colours of Jerusalem. When the moderator of the panel, Michel Abescat from the Telerama newspaper, asked her about depicting violence she conjured the chillingly evocative image of a child’s shoe in a gutter after a suicide bombing.
Abescat seemed very taken with Mixed Blood and its portrayal of brutality in Cape Town and on the Cape Flats and asked me if I felt my depiction of extreme violence was justified. I said that when a society chooses to express itself in an explicitly violent way, which ours certainly does, then I feel I have a responsibility to reflect that. I made the point that violence should not be titillating, nor pornographic, but rather shocking and repellent. And if so, then it is justified.
I was fascinated by David Peace’s insights into his Ripper quartet. He believes that crimes happen at a particular time, in a particular place for very particular reasons. The Yorkshire of the 1970s was a hostile environment to live in, especially for women. He discussed the violence of language, how women at the time were routinely referred to as “bloody cows, bitches and whores.” And how the Ripper, as well as the police investigating his crimes, were products of that environment.
This reminded me of contemporary South Africa. For example, on the Cape Flats where the epithet “jou ma se poes” (your mother’s cunt) has become so ubiquitous as to be regarded almost as a pleasantry, rape victims are often reluctant to come forward. Tragically, it isn’t difficult to understand why there is this reluctance in a country where a woman has more chance of being raped than learning to read.
I’ll play out with an extract from an interview David Peace did with Crime Time magazine a few years ago, that, I think, distils the take-out from the debate: “Crime is brutal, harrowing and devastating for everyone involved, and crime fiction should be every bit as brutal, harrowing and devastating as the violence of the reality it seeks to document . . . I believe the crime writer, by their choice of genre, is obligated to document these times and their crimes, and the writer who chooses to ignore this responsibility is then simply exploiting, for his or her own financial or personal gratification, a genre that is itself nothing more than an entertainment industry constructed upon the sudden, violent deaths of other, innocent people and the unending suffering of their families.”
And finally here’s a personal response to writing crime thrillers in South Africa which first appeared in Crime Time:
When, as happened recently, a South African gang boss in his high-ticket BMW is taken out by a helmeted Serbian motorcyclist sporting a fifteen-clip Beretta, or a young British hubby on honeymoon fixes a hit on his lovely wife hours after putting into a Cape Town hotel, then the stakes for a crime novelist are pretty high. What can I say? Except thank heavens (or is this tasteless?), I got in first, and managed to write variations of these hits into Black Heart, and the two novels in the trilogy that preceded it: Payback and Killer Country. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like being a Swedish crime novelist where reality isn’t such a harsh competitor.
Then again I take a rather perverse glee in the reality I see about me. The guys who had the moral high ground when they toppled the apartheid government now stink of corruption, and new stories of greed, fraud, embezzlement, cronyism, assisted suicides, let alone contract hits, open up fresh avenues for fiction daily. Which was an issue I faced with the Revenge Trilogy. What crimes to focus on?
I suppose because I started writing fiction during the apartheid days, social issues have always been a major concern. Nothing’s changed, except crime fiction seems to me a more interesting way of satirising a political situation (and hopefully makes for more compelling reading than the gently cadenced sentences of literary fiction). The crimes that fascinate me are arms deals and the related kickbacks, the blood diamond trade and international drug trafficking, but also property development schemes, which have become a cut-throat business in South Africa. Not to mention corporate malfeasance in the private sector. All these diversions inevitably entail people behaving badly.
All these issues found their way into the trilogy that ends in Black Heart, which focusses on the shenanigans that blew up around the awarding of our armament systems contracts, and the protection rackets that, well, protect local investment and discourage outsiders trying to muscle in.
But the story that binds the three books concerns the relationship between a female lawyer (Sheemina February) who epitomises the ruthlessness of the new elite and two former guerrilla fighters (Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso) who are trying to make a living in the burgeoning security industry. All three are morally ambivalent characters. In one sense they are our heroes from the years of the armed struggle and we should revere them: they suffered and still bear the scars. In another sense, Sheemina February is simply Machiavellian, and Mace and Pylon might just be on the side of the angels but…
With a few notable exceptions, crime fiction is a relatively new phenomenon in South African literature (for a host of reasons I can’t go into here). But, interestingly, it is short on serial killers and sexual deviants. At the heart of the nascent genre is a social concern, and it is this that has made the writing of crime fiction so challenging. Each day I spent writing these three books, I tried to construct a story that turns the pages (and, yes, it’s complete with serial killers and sexual deviants) but also, for those who want it, says something about how we live now.