News From South Africa by Michael Sears

By Michael Sears

Andrew Brown is practices as an advocate in Cape Town and he is a reservist sergeant in the police. So when he writes crime fiction set in Cape Town, he knows what he’s talking about!  His novel COLDSLEEP LULLABY won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in 2006.

His new book – SOLACE – was released in South Africa earlier this year. Publisher’s synopsis:

“The body of a Muslim boy is found in a synagogue, mutilated in what looks like a ritual sacrifice, and Inspector Eberard Februarie is called in to solve the case. As news of the murder quickly becomes public, a storm of religious violence threatens to engulf Cape Town. Eberard, however, suspects that the case is not as clear cut as it seems. But can he prove this before the storm breaks?

In his investigation, Eberard must steer between Islamist agitators determined to spread unrest, shady security agents trying to trip him up, and a powerful church pastor intent on exploiting the situation for his own purposes. The story moves swiftly from forensic laboratory to drug house, from church office to street demonstration, as the case takes unpredictable and violent twists.”

Mike Nicol caught up with Andrew (not always a trivial achievement as you’ll read below) and interviewed him for Crimebeat. It’s an interesting and entertaining insight into Andrew and his books. Below is Mike’s article reproduced from Crimebeat:

A few weeks ago if you’d emailed Andrew Brown you’d have got an out-of-office reply that he was biking to Angola. All very macho. You get this kind of reply from Deon Meyer too from time to time. Most likely these guys have crocheting break-aways on ocean liners that they’d prefer to keep quiet. Anyhow, to prove he was actually dodging mines on the back roads of Angola (are there back roads in Angola?) Brown sent a photograph. Apparently he had stopped to ask where he could buy a Creme Soda. I wonder why? The full transcript of the conversation will probably never be released. But here are his answers to some questions about his latest book, SOLACE. He ends with an alarming threat. I am taking legal opinion.

You have always been a reluctant member of the krimi genre, with good reason as your books are more about human dramas where crime figures than full-on genre. But with SOLACE you’ve stepped over that thin blue line and written a police procedural, albeit one that is also a character study. Why did you venture forth into the murky territory of the crime writer?

I’m a lawyer – I have principles. And if you don’t like those principles, I have others… The truth is that I wanted to write a book about religious and cultural intolerance, the seemingly unstoppable slide to the right that seems to have gripped the world and the increasing interference by State in our lives. But that sounds more like a PhD thesis or a memo from the Central Committee, so I had to liven it up with some sex and violence. Reluctantly, of course.

And we are all thankful for the sex and violence. Now, seriously, at the center of SOLACE is Inspector Eberard Februarie, a character who has played a part in your previous novels – COLDSLEEP LULLABY and REFUGE – but here he is center stage. It’s taken him some time to get here, will he now feature more often at the center of your novels?

My next book is to be titled “The unfortunate but inevitable demise of Detective Inspector Eberard Februarie” and will cover, in depressing and agonizingly slow detail, the last days of the doomed policeman, never again to trouble the pages of a novel.

Oh dear, that’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?

Frankly the idea of repeating a character even once troubled me and I was really ambivalent about using him again. I understand that readers and publishers like the comfort of a series, but I am hoping to withstand the pressure next time around.

Eberard Februarie is a deeply troubled man. In SOLACE he is drinking, he seems to loath himself and talks about the relief of being dead. Yet he perseveres. In fact, he has a poignant relationship with a prostitute and is caring of her. He is caring of others as well. In one scene he leaves change in a charity box at a cash-out point. Sometimes it seems Februarie’s heart is too big for his job, yet he is also a tough cop.

Eberard is the distilled version of the strange and wonderful policemen that I have worked with as a reservist – perhaps the thing that struck me most (both surprising and impressing me) was the extent to which tough cops who had worked the streets for years, would still show patience and compassion with some intoxicated bergie [hobo] who wanted to explain his complaint. It is extraordinary to me that a man (or woman) who lives in Blue Downs or Kraaifontein can put his or her life at risk to protect middle-class suburbia, for a pittance, and still show up for work, never mind show commitment to the job.

The other thing about Februarie is his doggedness. And, of course, he is not as stupid as some might think.

I was concerned that in COLDSLEEP LULLABY I made Eberard seem a little too dim and gave Xoliswa too much credit in my effort to push her forward as a character. In SOLACE I think that Eberard shows more of himself – emotionally and intellectually. But he is out of his depth in terms of the cultural currents that he has to contend with, and so at times he blunders about like a fool. As for doggedness, that is the single most useful characteristic for being a cop (that and an iron stomach).

Februarie is an ideal guide through the underworld. He can be tough. He can take the knocks and rebound. And he wins out. He also seems to be a babe magnet – from his desk sergeant to his girlfriend, Angel, to the brusque Yael – he attracts them all.

Eberard likes to think that his attraction lies in his rugged good looks and tough masculine appeal. In truth, as is so often the case, he is a basket case who needs mothering: he is more the half-drowned kitten than the king of the savannah. But it clearly works for him.

Cape Town is your home city and the setting of your three novels where Eberard Februarie features. It is now a commonplace to say this, but once more the city features as a character. Of course, it is a difficult character to capture in all its dimensions but you are as careful to include the good sides as the bad. At least we have an idea of a city working beyond the bounds of the crimes. Did you consciously include this side of Cape Town?

There are many nights – working as a cop – that I wish I could take people – anyone, friends, politicians, arbitrary members of the public – and show them what I see. The reality of our lovely city is sometimes quite lost on us and the desire to show people and have them share one’s experiences is powerful. That is probably what motivates much of my writing, and why it often dwells on the unseen and dark shadows of the city. I think that a sense of place is important for a novel, certainly a crime thriller, and the underworld of Cape Town is the perfect spot (or infected sore, if you prefer).

You take Februarie out of his usual territory into Langa, and have him overnight there. You also feed him a roadside breakfast. Fried liver first thing in the morning seems quite extreme, but, be that as it may. What seems to be happening here is more about Cape Town than Eberard’s need for a restful night and his gastronomic extravagances. In fact, your city is a boiling pot (obviously the pun is intended) of cultures, beliefs, attitudes, desires, ambitions. It is a seething city.

The Langa scene was important for me, and a scene that troubled me when I was writing it. I wanted to show an ‘unseen’ side of Cape Town that was not dark and distressing, I wanted to record my own delight at working in Langa, enjoying the people, the hype, the difference of culture. But I was concerned that it would come across as unrealistic, as portraying township life as idyllic, when it is clearly not. There is a significant line in that chapter (significant for me, that is), when the comment is made that for the middle class commuting is dead-time spent in between moments of life, whilst those living in the township, travelling is where life happens, in the taxis, on the trains. And fried liver is excellent for a hang-over, if you can avoid eye contact with the smileys.

Because this novel is a police procedural, you have to deal with plot. You’ve had to do this before but never quite to the same degree. Was it fun? Or a hindrance?

I’ve learned how important plot is to fiction writing. When I first started writing, I rather thought that good writing could captivate an audience without having to resort to plot. In truth, there are very few writers who are good enough to get away with ignoring plot. The storyline (hopefully) keeps the reader engaged, and allows the writer to build the themes and more nuanced characterizations. The danger of course is that it becomes formulaic or lacking in depth. So the balance is critical.

Despite the plot conventions, you also decided to tell the story only from Februarie’s point of view. This can be restrictive and make the novel fairly claustrophobic. You clearly wanted this dark narrow focus to impact on your readers?

I battle with writing – particularly political or crime thrillers – where life is presented as an objective certainty, with a few asides from the author. There is an arrogance in that kind of writing, I find. Everything is a matter of perspective, everything is subjective. You have to adopt a character’s view in order to present, and interpret, events.

If the plot manipulates the reader, then we can extend this theme as manipulation is part of the novel. Initially a boy is found dead and eviscerated in a synagogue with a Muslim shawl round his body. This causes radical elements in both religious groups to manipulate their followers. Without giving too much away, there are elements in the secret services, within Februarie’s own police station, let alone a government minister and a Christian pastor, manipulating the proceedings. It’s enough to make a conspiracy theorist dance with glee.

Truth is almost invariably stranger – and more twisted – than the fictions we imagine. Conspiracies abound – in South Africa and across the globe, and the interests of government and the [political] party are never far behind. So, yes, there are a number of interested parties all pushing their agendas, some more successfully than others, some more overtly than others. How one finds truth in this morass of competing self-interest is another story. That is Eberard’s challenge as a policeman. Rather him than me.

Central to the manipulations is a (fictional) Social Values Act (there is such an Act in the UK but perhaps not in the sense you use it), which has draconian clauses that would close down freedom of expression. What gave rise to this in the real world? It seems to shadow the ‘Secrecy Bill’?

It actually started with the French prime minister deciding what form of dress was acceptable on the streets and what was not – the banning of certain forms of Muslim dress (and making it a criminal offence) was an extraordinary intrusion by State on the rights of individuals and the principle of freedom of choice. Then the Secrecy Bill reared its head here, in conjunction with other intrusive legislation that increasingly regulates our lives and conduct. It seems a slippery slope to me: if “government knows best”, then why not legislate a Social Values Act that regulates our social mores. Of course, polygamy may prove to be a tricky area.

Of course one of the concerns in this conflict is that between state and church. But of greater concern is how the state can control the citizenry?

Does democracy mean that the State represents the social mores of the majority ? If so (which seems to follow), then why should the State not impose the acceptable mores of the nation on the rebellious few? And if the State has any spiritual aspirations, then things really get messy. That’s the underlying argument in SOLACE.

And then in the closing pages the reader learns of yet another manipulation where foreign agencies interfere. The world of the spooks, and the power of the spooks, is high on your list of concerns.

Spooks are intriguing. The extent to which foreign powers are willing to interfere, covertly or overtly, in the affairs of an independent country is fascinating to me. Not everyone adopts the American model of simply marching in the front door and declaring ownership. Some governments are more subtle. Enough said.

Finally, you have Februarie down a Creme Soda to get rid of a hangover. You mention that this is an old police trick. I’m assuming that as a police reservist and an advocate, you have tested the Creme Soda solution?

If you haven’t had to resort to a ‘green ambulance’, then you haven’t been to enough police functions. I shall invite you to the next police braai. Be afraid.

You will not be allowed to get away with such intimidation.

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