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By Michael Sears

Taking over this column from Mike Nicol, I’m very aware that I have big shoes to fill.  And I have only one foot to do it, because I’m actually only one half of a mystery author.  I’m the Michael half of the writer “Michael Stanley”.  My long-time friend and partner in crime (writing that is) is Stanley Trollip.With luck, he and – from time to time – other southern African writers, will help me report on the mystery writing news from this part of the world and hence fill that other shoe.

This looks like BSP (blatant self-promotion) – and in my first column too – but big news on the South African crime writing front for January was the announcement of the shortlisting of a South African mystery novel for an Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America in the best paperback original category.  That book happens to be DEATH OF THE MANTIS by Michael Stanley.

Whenever we meet readers, we’re asked how the two of us came to write novels together and how we do it. Traditionally, writing fiction is a solitary activity, unlike non-fiction where many books are the result of collaboration.  However, it doesn’t need to be so.

We decided to write a novel in 2003.  About fifteen years earlier we’d been together in Botswana and had watched a pack of hyenas demolish a wildebeest, leaving nothing but the horns and hoofs.  “What a perfect way to get rid of a body,” we said.  And so the idea of our first novel – A CARRION DEATH- was born.

We hadn’t written fiction before, and didn’t know that fiction was for loners.  On the contrary, we both had experienced many successful collaborations as academics.  I’ve always chosen collaborative research, and Stanley has several textbooks and papers under his belt, also written with colleagues.  We had both enjoyed the collaborative process so much that it was natural for us to want to write together.

As we learned about the mystery writing environment, we discovered first that writing jointly was quite unusual and then later– when we started understanding why it was unusual – that it was actually not as unusual as one might think.  There are quite a few successful and well-established writing partnerships – one just doesn’t always realize that because partnerships often use a pseudonym.  For example, PJ Tracy (mother and daughter team writing tense techno-thrillers from the mid-west), Charles Todd (mother and son team writing excellent historical mysteries set at the time of the first world war), and Nicci French (husband and wife team writing nail-biting psychological thrillers).It’s international too.  Recently the Swedish writing team of Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom burst onto the thriller scene, and last year saw the first English translation of Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis – THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE – to very strong reviews.

We weren’t even pioneers in South Africa.  Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens wrote an excellent crime novel together in 2000 titled OUT TO SCORE.  It was the first in an intended series, and they chose the hard-boiled sounding pseudonym Sam Cole.  The effect of this was somewhat watered down by the publishers decision to put their realnames on the cover!  After the first book they decided to develop the novels separately with the characters being shared out between them.  Joanne’s new book – DIVINE JUSTICE – has just been released in South Africa and she’ll be telling us about it next month.  Mike has a complete trilogy, and he’s agreed to talk about that in a future column here too.

Sometimes writing in partnership has downsides, sometimes writing novels set in Botswana has downsides.  Stanley and I were once at an African writing conference in the US.  We were approached by an effusive young lady who didn’t know us, but had heard that we write mysteries set in Botswana.  Breathless with enthusiasm, she said: “I’ve read all your books, and I think they’re wonderful!  It’s so great to meet you!  And I didn’t even know you were two people.  Which one of you is McCall and which one’s Smith?”

Upcoming Book Events in South Africa:

Knysna Literary Festival (which will feature several South African crime writers this year) (27-28 April)

Franschhoek Literary Festival (11-13 May)

Michael Sears
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