Mike Nicol is one of the leaders of South African crime fiction, and his Revenge trilogy – PAYBACK, KILLER COUNTRY and BLACK HEART are important novels of the dark side of twenty-first century South Africa in any genre. Deon Meyer has said of Mike’s style that it is “by far the best in South Africa” and that he creates “deliciously complex characters.” His latest book – OF COPS AND ROBBERS – certainly maintains those very high standards.
Before coming to crime fiction, Mike wrote four acclaimed literary 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. 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 to this day.
There’s been a two year gap in Mike’s crime fiction since BLACK HEART, but his new book was worth wait. It was released in South Africa a few months ago, is already available on Kindle worldwide, and will be available in paperback in the US in February.
I asked Mike about his choice of setting and characters in OF COPS AND ROBBERS.
OF COPS & ROBBERS introduces a cast of new characters, but I recognize the Cape Town of the Revenge trilogy – seedy gangsters, suited politically-connected gangsters, and the detritus of Apartheid and Struggle gangsters. Is this the Cape Town where you find the most interesting characters, the most intriguing stories?
Yes, it is. I suppose I could find the same sorts of characters in Johannesburg or Durban for that matter but I prefer to set the stories in Cape Town, partly because the city offers such a dramatic backdrop for a thriller and partly because I live here. Of course Cape Town also provides an interesting urban geography and simply by moving characters around in this area you can cover and reveal the various sides to the city: the rich mountain suburbs, the city within the mountain bowl, the poorer areas on the Cape Flats from Mitchell’s Plain to the townships and squatter camps. In Cape Town you get a compression of the country, the people and our history.
Fish is part time PI, part time pot dealer, full time surfer. His mother tells him to grow up, but – hardly surprising – he doesn’t listen to her. On the surface he’s very casual, and yet a strong moral sense comes through. Vicki is also an ambivalent character. Corporate lawyer, addicted poker player, manipulated. Are Fish and Vicki the perfect match for each other?
I guess that question should more rightly be answered by a reader. But that said, I wanted two characters who had ambivalent lives: yes, Fish does have a moral sense but he is also a drug dealer; and yes, Vicki, is a lawyer with an admirable pro bono bias but also an addiction which makes her vulnerable not only to the lure of gambling but to the traps and compromises that can come with a habit like that. So whatever venture they set out on, they have their own frailties to overcome and deal with let alone whatever comes with the task at hand.
When the surf’s up, that’s where Fish wants to be. He knows his stuff and we feel the thrill of the big wave bringing him in. Are you a keen surfer yourself? If not, where did you learn the moves?
Surfing was something that happened in previous years. I stay out of the water (and more importantly the sun) these days. However, in the surfing times I knew the pull of a sea that was pumping, it stirred an excitement in your gut. And it was a bit like an addiction I suspect. You just have to drop everything and get out there.
Some of the characters in the book seem to have strolled in from the newspapers headlines. Mkezi, the disgraced police commissioner being tried for corruption over a pair of shoes, the murders of the Icing Unit, Dr. Gold. Did you feel that it added to the realism to bring in these anti-iconic real people and events (albeit disguised)?
No, I can’t say that adding to the realism was a consideration. What was more a consideration was how events from the past could ripple into people’s lives in the future. And how a corruption in the past could corrupt the present. I borrowed events from our history but they were launching pads into the fiction and are in no way an accurate reflection of what really occurred. Reality has a way of defining and trapping fiction, and I didn’t want that to hamper the story, nor do I think any writer can afford to let that happen.
You share with Deon Meyer a talent to use music to help define your characters. Is this a deliberate strategy or is music so important to you that you can’t see it not being as important to them? Anyway, what are your favorite types of music?
Music is important to me and it is a way of defining characters and it is a deliberate strategy so it is yes to all those observations. My musical tastes are fairly broad. I’m no longer a great fan of classical music apart from requiems so I tend to stick with country rock, blues, pop, and a lot of the music from Africa. Indeed the music in the books is the music I like.
Cops and Robbers are usually on different sides. In your novel that seems to be more a matter of what current alliances are in place, rather than breaking the law versus upholding it. Do you see corruption as the ultimate collapse of law and order?
No, I don’t think corruption is the collapse of law and order. It is going down the path in that direction but the absolute breakdown of social institutions is still some way off. On the other hand I do think that, as in the children’s game of cops and robbers where you got tired of being a robber and wanted to be a cop or tuther way round, it is difficult to tell the difference between the two in real life. Then again this is a game we’ve long been playing.
You chose to write this book in the present tense – even the historical flashbacks to the Icing Unit. What motivated that decision?
The decision to use the present tense was technical. I’d never written in the present tense because it is not an easy tense to handle and I felt the challenge was something I could no longer resist. Whether I’ll write in the present tense again is a moot point but it seemed the right thing to do with this book. I suppose for all the obvious reasons such as immediacy, the sleight of hand of putting the reader into the action, it appealed with a subject matter that was of the past and of the present and I feel, as Eliot put it in the Four Quartets,‘If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable.’
The book ends with many issues unresolved and many characters off stage but waiting in the wings. OF COPS & ROBBERS doesn’t have the feel of a stand-alone. Can we look forward to a new trilogy?
One thing I’m sure about is that this isn’t the beginning of a trilogy. I’m not sure what it is the beginning of but I’m certain that there is more to come from these two characters, and, indeed, from some others in the novel. As the cliché has it: time will tell.