By Mike Nicol
Last month at the winelands village of Franschhoek there was a literary festival that has become something of an attraction on the calendars of most South African writers. There were two crime fiction panels but the one – Exactly What is a Krimi? – had only local writers in discussion and raised some interesting points. The panelists were Jassy Mackenzie, Sarah Lotz and Sifiso Mzobe.
The debate started off a few days before the festival on Crime Beat with a rerun of Roger Smith’s contention that some international crime writers ‘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.”’
At the time I confessed to being one of the forelock tuggers, and said that maybe the time had come to stop muttering about the entertainment value. Then I came across a column by one Tammy on Woman24.com (a South African website) who got her column underway with these paragraphs:
‘I rarely read South African books and when I do, it’s usually under extreme duress. Yes, yes, shame on me for not being a little more patriotic toward our home-grown literature.
‘Truth is, I’ve come across too many local books that deal with the topic of, yep, you guessed it, Apartheid. I’m not dismissing it, but surely our country is not just shaped by our past? And surely we have more stories to tell?’
That got me to thinking that we still have to stress the entertain value over the socio-political. Goes without saying that our books are all shaped by our apartheid past. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading – and worth reading at a purely escapist level too. At least Tammy ended off her column by saying: ‘I think it’s high time I started reading more local reads…’
At the Franschhoek Literary Festival an important question was asked at the end of the discussion that couldn’t be answered as we’d run out of time. More or less it went like this: given the nature of South African society should the endings of our krimis follow convention or should they be more contentious? Convention demands if not a happy ending then at least one where the crime is solved and justice of sorts (moral or judicial) is meted out. I think the question challenged this, and asked if South African crime fiction couldn’t be more adventurous and end with the issues unresolved? Or even with major characters killed? Or at least give some hint of the fractured nature of our society. Here’s how Jassy, Sarah, and Sifiso (now shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Award with his novel Young Blood) answered from the quiet of the festival aftermath.
Jassy Mackenzie: I thought this was a very interesting question, but for me it all depends on the story. Some stories lend themselves to satisfying endings. Others just beg for that cliffhanger at the end where the reader is left thinking, “Oh, no, I need a sequel!” And a few others just would not feel right without a dark and bloody conclusion.
It’s important to be fair to readers, and I do feel that killing off a major character at the end of the book is generally not advisable as it can shatter their trust and leave them feeling cheated. After 300-plus pages, they have an emotional investment in the main characters, so if you do kill one off, I feel you have to provide a compelling reason – for instance, by first revealing the fact that he’s been the bad guy all along.
Sifiso Mzobe: Endings can follow real life because the reality of SA is that a number of crimes remain unsolved. In fiction there is room for everything. Endings where everything is resolved are the norm, a safety net. You can have your ‘hanging ending’ but, personally, I found it extremely hard to do that in Young Blood. If a writer has the skill to pull it off, I have no problem with this. Especially for a series or trilogy, the ‘hanging ending’ would be perfect.
Anything is possible in fiction, if a writer can pull it off to the satisfaction of the reader I’m all for it. Like Sarah Lotz angrily said in our discussion at Franschhoek, “I have a problem with writers that say, ‘Writers have to do this, have to do that.’” I’m with Sarah on that one, in my view we should have only one rule in fiction: There are no rules.
Sarah Lotz: I think it boils down to an issue that came up during the discussion – the answer depends on what each individual writer is hoping to achieve with his or her novel. A cosy mystery, fast-paced escapist thriller, or socially relevant crime story will each demand a different denouement. But I suspect that the majority of readers of crime fiction tend to prefer the utopian ending – (as Jassy brilliantly put it at the Bookex CrimeWrite panel in Johannesburg last year) – where loose ends are tied up and the baddy is incarcerated, which rarely happens outside of fiction. If we can’t get justice in reality, at least we can see it unfold in fiction – although the jury is out if this is acceptable in South African realist fiction. In short I don’t think there is any ‘should’ about it, unless the author is concerned with social realism, in which case a tidy ending would more than likely stretch the limits of credibility.
And Mike – you seem to be quite happy to kill off your main characters – what’s your take?
Mike Nicol: An ambivalent one. My endings still follow convention and I’m not sure I’d want to change that. At the end of Payback, Sheemina February walked off leaving much unresolved. At the end of Killer Country she literally got away with murder. Black Heart, well, it’s too early to give the game away but let’s say I contracted out the ending to the state – the state’s extra-curricular servants rather than the judiciary, that is.
It would seem from the replies from Jassy, Sifiso and Sarah that our fractured society is not necessarily going to influence the endings of our crime novels, that, as far as they are concerned, the ending is determined by the story. From my point of view the story will be determined by our fractured society, and the ending will come as close to reflecting that troubled condition as possible.
What interests me about the endings of local crime novels are the fairly sentimental final sentences that bring many of our krimis – the most hard-bitten among them – to a close. I posted the examples below on Crime Beat and one reader responded that they varied from Raymond Chandler to Barbara Vine and Barbara Cartland in style.
Endings are tricky things for crime novelists and usually involve a double take: the plot ending (which is often violent and deeply satisfying because of that), and the character ending which is frequently of a very different nature.
Here are some final sentences from the crime novels published in South Africa last year:
My mind never again drifted in class. They teach about things of interest to me, I told myself. But, in retrospect, I know that I concentrated in class because of everything I saw in the year that I turned seventeen.
Young Blood by Sifiso Mzobe.
‘Naude!’ Jade shouted.
As he spun round, she pulled the trigger.
Stolen Lives by Jassy Mackenzie.
Carmen stares straight into my eyes. ‘I’m pregnant.’
I don’t even bother to acknowledge Patrick’s triumphant grin as I dig in my pocket and pull out my cigarettes.
Tooth and Nailed by Sarah Lotz
She took Robbie’s hand and joined in the singing.
Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith. (Wake Up Dead is currently in development as a movie due for release next year.)
It was a long day and a difficult one. I thought about you and missed you. But I did meet a famous singer and I was promoted. Your father is a Captain today.
Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer. (He is also shortlisted for the 2011 Sunday Times Fiction Award and was one of the featured guest authors at the fourth CrimeFest in Bristol, UK.)
It was only when the muezzin in the Bo-Kaap called the dawn prayers that Clare fell asleep, shifting from Riedwaan’s embrace. Sighing in his sleep, he turned over and relinquished her.
Daddy’s Girl by Margie Orford
De Villiers put his hand behind Emma’s head and played with her hair, unwilling to let go.
‘It’s time to go home,’ he said and turned the key.
The Soldier Who Said No by Chris Marnewick
He was a man, the newspaper said, who had been tipped to be that body’s next director general. The minister had been quoted as saying that the nation could not afford the loss of so dedicated a senior executive. ‘He is a man who has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of justice.’
Those Who Love Night by Wessel Ebersohn
They took in the background: above, a sky of wide and dying crimson. Behind them a terrace and parapet wall. Standing at the wall, a woman in a long coat. A woman with a black glove. Sheemina February.
Killer Country by Mike Nicol