Mike Nicol is one of the leaders of South African crime fiction, and his Revenge trilogy—Payback, Killer Country, and Blackheart—are important novels of the dark side of twenty-first century South Africa. After an excursion with new characters, Mike has returned to the next generation of the Revenge trilogy characters in POWER PLAY. For my money it’s his best thriller so far, and that’s starting from a high base. 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.” If you haven’t read any of his books yet, you can start with this one as a standalone. After that you’ll want to read all the others.
Before coming to crime fiction, Mike wrote four acclaimed literary novels, non-fiction, poetry, a memoir, a book on the 1994 South African election, and collaborated on the mammoth Mandela: The Authorised Portrait. Mike has been a freelance journalist, author, reviewer, and lecturer for more than thirty years. In 2007 he started the Crimebeat website , which is the window on South African crime fiction to this day.
I asked Mike about POWER PLAY and how he came to write it.
Christa—Mace’s daughter in your trilogy—is back with a vengeance. She’s grown up, has a spell in an elite army unit under her belt, and has even changed her name to Krista to make a point. She and a partner now run her father’s security firm. What persuaded you to revisit the characters from the Revenge Trilogy in the next generation?
Not sure, actually, what drew me back. I had created two new characters for Of Cops & Robbers (with every intention of doing more books with them) but something about the earlier books kept niggling. I suppose it has something to do with the rise of the serial character, in that it’s difficult to leave them alone. That said, I didn’t want to trot out Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso for another round. I’d taken them through three books and I felt that was enough. Also one of the most enjoyable parts about writing a novel is creating new characters. Serial characters are a bit like old jerseys—comfortable and comforting—but the grit of a new character is exciting. And Krista-renamed seemed to offer new possibilities even as I revisited an old theme—guarding the rich and famous. So I could do two things: continue a series but with a new character. POWER PLAY has become the fourth book in the “trilogy.” Of course there may be more to come.
Your villains always raise the hair on the back of the neck, but the women are the scariest. Tamora is no exception—ice cold and manipulative. Where do these women come from?
Well, this one, Tamora, had a very particular antecedent, but we’ll get to that in the next question. As for the other one you’re referring to, Sheemina February, from the Revenge Trilogy, I have to say I honestly don’t know. Perhaps it is because they are so much the opposite of what women are supposed to be that I really enjoy writing them. And, in a sense because they have transgressed, stepped over a social line, there’s a liberty, an opportunity to go the whole nine yards of badness that is very seductive.
The book has a plot that is a modern rendering of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, even down to some of the events and many of the names. What attracted you to taking that story and rendering it in a different time and space?
I never read Titus Andronicus as a student and a copy of the play has sat on my shelves glaring at me for decades. For no particular reason five or six years ago I decided to read it. The landscape it revealed was the Cape Flats ganglands in another time. However, nowadays, out there on the Flats, on what started off as a dumping ground for the forced removals from inner city tenements during the apartheid years, battles are raging. Gang wars over drugs, abalone, money laundering, weapons, you name it, it’s going down on the Cape Flats. There is a power struggle at the center of Titus Andronicus and that power struggle mirrors the one on the Flats. It seemed to me that the plot begged for reuse. This is not the first time I’ve raided Elizabethan tragedies for their plots and it probably won’t be the last. The Elizabethans had an understanding of human nature that I see reflected all around me. And Titus A has it all, as we know: power machinations, an unspeakably horrible rape, mutilation, betrayal, treachery, cannibalism, murder—exactly what happens on the Cape Flats. The play also has the marvellously calculating and cruel Tamora. She was most appealing.
The Anders family seem more like the Cosa Nostra than the usual gangsters, even down to the patronage and community respect. Sicily as well as Rome comes to the Cape?
About the same time as I read Titus Andronicus I was lucky enough to get an insight into the workings of a number of gang lords known as the Untouchables. Their organizational structure is very similar to the Cosa Nostra—it’s probably very similar to the way most big businesses work. Part of the outreach program—if one can call it that—of the Untouchables was to dispense largesse and patronage. It’s hardly a new phenomenon and it seems to work well at entrenching the gang in a community. Of course it is cynical but it also brings with it such sidelines as job opportunities, career advancement strategies, even short-term loans that can’t be acquired through the banks.
Part of the backstory is the new colonialists—the Chinese in Africa. Where do you see this going?
Chinese colonialism is a fascinating subject. I raised it recently on Facebook and was accused of stoking conspiracy theories about the Yellow Peril. As we have just come out of a period of Reds under the beds and Swart Gevaar (to use the Afrikaans for Black Threat), it is probably understandable why some would caution against seeing the Chinese as colonialists. Yet there is evidence in most shopping malls and most small towns in the rural areas of this sort of expansionism, and I’m not only talking about in South Africa but throughout the continent. Africa has raw materials that the Chinese want and need to keep their economy turning over at its current rate. You only have to look at the collapse of the textile industry in Cape Town due to cheap clothing imports from China to find an example. An industry that was once a major economic driver of my home city and a major employer is now a bit player in that market.
Your writing has passages of short sentences—maybe just a word or two—that heighten the tension and draw the reader quickly on. It seemed particularly powerful in this book. Have you been working on this style for some time?
The style was consciously developed the moment I started writing crime fiction. Previously I had written literary novels in the magic realism vein. The nature of that prose calls for long sentences where the conjunction is king. In an attempt to break with that style and to find something more appropriate for a story that contained violent content, I felt it important to develop a form that reflected the violence. And a way to do that is to play fast and loose with the language. What I wanted to do was create a sound, a rhythm, that would carry the reader and would also render the meaning as effectively as did the metaphors and the imagery.
There seems a lot more to learn about Krista, but you like to move between different themes. What’s next?
I don’t think I’m done with Krista yet, but, then again, right now what plans I have for her are vague. However, her position in the way I see things is important. My concerns—as has probably been obvious all along but more so since Of Cops & Robbers and now with POWER PLAY—is with government crime, which currently runs rampant. Government crime it seems to me evokes the world of espionage, of treachery, betrayal, secrets, lies, conspiracies, murders, duplicity (the Elizabethan age resurrected). We are living this story. Fiction is a way of telling it, and calling it to account. The role of fiction in South Africa has long been one of opposition to the state. Twenty-one years into democracy, nothing has changed.
Mike Nicol is a journalist and writer, and teacher of online writing courses on creative writing and non-fiction narrative. He lives in Cape Town. He has had writer-in-residence positions at UCT and the University of Essen, Germany, and in Berlin under the German Academic Exchange Service’s Artists-in-Berlin grant.
His crime novels are published by Umuzi in South Africa, Old Street in the UK, btb Verlag in Germany, Ombres Noires in France, and De Geus in Holland. Out to Score appeared in the US in November 2009 retitled Cape Greed and under the pseudonym, Sam Cole.
To learn more about Mike, please visit his website.