Mike Nicol is well known to regular readers of this column. He started it when ITW was inaugurated and wrote it for five years. I wanted to start my tenure with News from South Africa with an interview with Mike himself, but he is too modest for that! Nevertheless, he did agree to chat at some point about his Revenge Trilogy – three crime novels which cut through the veneer of the new South Africa in a way no other author has managed. These are must-read thrillers if you want an insight to the dark heart of twenty-first century South Africa, and when you start the first, you won’t stop till the end of the third.
Before coming to crime fiction, Mike wrote four novels, non-fiction, poetry, a memoir, a book on the 1994 election titled THE WAITING COUNTRY and collaborated on the mammoth MANDELA – THE AUTHORISED PORTRAIT. Recently he wrote a true crime portrait of the tragic Anni Dewani murder in an innovative way, highlighting the impact of modern media. He talks about that book – MONKEY BUSINESS – on Murder Is Everywhere.
Mike has been a freelance journalist, author, reviewer and lecturer for thirty years. In 2007 he started the Crimebeat website, which is the window on South African crime fiction. The next year saw the publication of PAYBACK, followed in 2010 by KILLER COUNTRY and last year by BLACKHEART. Here Mike discusses the three book series:
One of the enjoyable things about the Revenge Trilogy is that we get to know the characters – good and bad – better,and they become more focused as they move through the books. Were they always completely defined in your head and you just revealed more detail over time, or did they develop for you also?
I like to think those characters would have worked had there just been only one book, PAYBACK, the first of the three. But what is so nice about a series – even a mini-series like this – is that you have to, and you have the wonderful opportunity of, developing the characters. Which means that you need to reveal a little more about them each time. If there was an aspect of the trilogy that I enjoyed most as a writer, it was working with these characters over a longer haul than I am used to. Previously, my books (general fiction not crime) have all been one-offs.
Pylon seems the smarter and more organized of the two, yet Mace seems to take the lead. Was the juxtaposition of different temperaments (and races) a deliberate tension generator in the books?
Yes, Pylon is the smarter, and, yes, it was deliberate. I used James McClure’s Tromp Kramer and Mickey Zondi as the model. In the 1970s McClure wrote a series of crime novels featuring these two and those novels are really the cornerstone of South African crime fiction today. I suppose it was somewhat of a nod and a wink to him. In those books, McClure has Kramer, as the more senior cop, take the lead, but it is really Zondi who solves the cases. There are political and racial issues at play in McClure’s books and I wanted to replay this dynamic, so Pylon (the black character) was modelled on Zondi, and Mace (the white character) was modelled on Kramer. Of course my books are not police procedurals so rank doesn’t apply and the racial element becomes more pronounced as a result. Or at least I hope it does.
Mace and Pylon have a lot of history, but start out in PAYBACK with a good business protecting well-heeled tourists. But they are lured back into arms smuggling, and that is the top of an oily slope. Were the seeds of KILLER COUNTRY and BLACKHEART already sown in the first book?
I suppose in retrospect they were, but then in retrospect you can read in anything you like. Probably what happened was that when I decided to write KILLER COUNTRY, I looked back at PAYBACK and thought, ah, there are stories here that need to be concluded. Which gave impetus to KILLER COUNTRY. But at the end of that book, the relationship between Mace and Sheemina February (his ‘rival’) had still not been resolved, in fact, there were now some very harsh issues that needed to be sorted out. And thus BLACK HEART. When I began that book I knew it had to be the last because to continue would have been to spoil a good thing.
Sheemina February is one of the nastiest villains in South African crime fiction! And she has good reason to hate both Mace and Pylon, although Mace seems to be the major focus of her venom. Where did she come from and why is Mace her chosen target?
Sheemina February was one of those characters who appears fully formed out of nowhere. All I was required to do was take dictation. I really do not know where she came from. Her physical form – minus the hand issue – was modelled on a woman who’d been a colleague way back in the 1980s, but beyond that the two have nothing – absolutely nothing – in common. Sheemina February was also an easy character to write. She was there instantly and so spoke fairly loudly. Mace is her chosen target for many reasons: a sexual tension binds them; a racial tension affects them; a bad history holds them locked together; she is driven by a desire for vengeance, and I also hope she is emblematic of recent events in the history of our country. In addition her name – the February part – identifies her as belonging to a family with a slave history, so colonialism and the impacts of those times reside in her attitude to the world. In short, Mace, for her, represents everything that has mutilated her family for generations.
KILLER COUNTRY is in part the story of Spitz, a professional hit-man. We start to appreciate that professionalism – at least relative to his side-kick – and his music taste, but that comes back to bite us in the end. Was the music theme in the book a way of getting the reader involved?
I hope so. I had been introduced to US country rock music by a friend. It took me some time to get the hang of it but when I did I became totally hooked. And as I listened to the lyrics I thought, this stuff is crime fiction. I also then discovered that the genre has major South African proponents and extraordinary local musos writing South African versions of those US backcountry songs. So with all this, the music became the counter narrative, as it were. But also I wanted Spitz to be out of the ordinary. I didn’t want to have a black character who only listened to, say, jazz and blues, or kwaito and rap. I needed someone outside the stereotype. To have him a country rock fan seemed appropriate, given his job. This music, Spitz’s music, then binds him to Mace and Pylon even though they are on opposite sides, and I rather liked this paradox.
There are no happy endings. Do you believe that happy endings aren’t realistic in the context your characters inhabit in twenty-first century South Africa?
You said it. Of course the conventions of the genre require a type of ‘happy ending’ in that at the very least the crime must be sorted out and justice (in our case this justice is usually entirely moral) has to triumph. Consequently you have to play by the rules of the genre. But South Africa has a judiciary under strain and I have always written books that reflect the socio-political side of the country. For example, PAYBACK looks at the bombings conducted by the Muslim group People Against Gangsterism and Drugs in Cape Town during the late 1990s, the controversial arms deal which was fraught with government corruption, and the discovery of an eighteenth century slave cemetery which had huge political ramifications in the city when the bones surfaced; KILLER COUNTRY focuses on the corruption involved in land development and the contentious issue of farm killings, while BLACK HEART again picked up on an aspect of the arms deal. In all this corrupt politicians and business people feature heavily. These political crimes are what interest me and what have fed my imagination. The result is that the happy ending doesn’t fit SA crime thrillers. So what to do? Well, you have to solve the issues but you also have to leave a residue of unease that order has not been restored. It’s a tricky one. But no one says we have to confine our crime fiction to the dictates of crime fiction elsewhere. Anyhow I think the happy ending is becoming, what could be called, a nuanced ending in most good crime fiction these days.
Mace is something of an anti-hero. We like him, and he has principals, but he never quite gets it together. Even at the end of BLACK HEART. Where does he go from here?
Mace is not an action hero. In fact a friend of mine said that if she ever needed protection, Mace would be the last person she’d ask for help. And that was the challenge with Mace: create a character who had a bad past but who was also likeable yet who didn’t often come out on top. Part of handling this was giving him a family life. That family represents some stability and order when weighed against the chaos of his daily life and the work he does. Of course, this also makes that family a target. But that’s another part of the story. As for where Mace goes from here, all I can say is wait and see.