Fascinated By the Darkness
Martin Steyn got into writing because of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, and then into writing crime fiction because he was fascinated by what motivated serial killers to hunt strangers for pleasure and how they did it. He began by reading books on the subject, while scanning the local paper for reports on a serial killer dumping the bodies of young boys in the dunes not far from where he lived.
Martin studied psychology and criminology at the University of South Africa. After that he studied serial killers and profiling in earnest, following it up with research into the investigation of violent crime in South Africa.
In 2014 Martin’s first crime novel set in Cape Town, Donker Spoor, was published in Afrikaans and the following year it was awarded an important prize for South African suspense fiction. Earlier this year the English version, DARK TRACES, came out in South Africa, and it has just been released in the US.
Martin places a premium on realism, and it shows in the book. But his character study of his protagonist, Jan Magson, and the people caught up in the killer’s wake are riveting.
Authors are often asked where they get their ideas. You mentioned that the idea for the murderer in Dark Traces came from reading true crime. Would you tell us a bit more about that, and how you base your work on real cases?
I prefer reading true crime to crime fiction, although when it comes to writing, it’s the other way around—this might be a Gemini thing. So I read a lot of true crime, particularly about serial killers and profiling, and I came across an article about a serial killer who really piqued my interest. I don’t want to name him, since it could be a spoiler, but I got the book written about the case and the more I read about it, the more I just thought I had to use this for a story. So I took his personality and psychology as a base, built it up with research into sexual sadism, added some quirks like the hangings, and that became my killer. In terms of the story, there are a few elements from the actual case, but I used it mostly for character creation.
Probably due to my love of true crime, I’m very much into realistic crime fiction. When I started writing crime, I wanted to write about killers like the ones I read about, like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Andrei Chikatilo, and Moses Sithole and the Station Strangler here in South Africa, rather than the fictional versions who often bear very little resemblance to reality. Hannibal Lecter is a wonderful character, but Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) is much closer to the real thing. I’m interested in the latter, so that is where I look for inspiration when it comes to building a character. Sometimes it’s an actual killer, as in DARK TRACES, sometimes it’s created from the characteristics of a certain type of killer based on research. I’m quite fond of the work of the ex-FBI profilers like John Douglas, Robert Ressler, and Roy Hazelwood, and rely on that a lot.
I do look to real cases for inspiration. My third novel (I write in Afrikaans first) deals with a kind of crime—a woman held captive indefinitely—rather than a specific case. And the one I’m working on now was inspired by an actual case in Cape Town, although the story, characters, and motivation are very different. So it’s not so much “base on” as exploit as a starting point or a character or a kind of crime. But after that I want the story and characters to have the freedom to develop in whichever way they go. I don’t want to be bound by the events of the actual case.
The serial killer is obviously central to the books. How far do you think a writer is able to understand the mind of a psychopath? How hard should we try?
I don’t know if you can ever completely understand that utter lack of empathy. But if you want to write about psychopaths in a convincing manner, then you have to put in the effort. Research is key, both books like Without Conscience by Robert Hare, who has spent almost his entire adult life studying psychopaths, and biographies about men like Ted Bundy. Scanning the entry in Wikipedia isn’t really going to get you there. You have to immerse yourself, because there is a huge difference between knowing the characteristics of psychopaths and understanding how they act and react (or often fail to react). It’s like knowing the lyrics of a song on paper versus listening to the artist performing it again and again until you can provide a credible rendition.
How hard we should try is a dangerous question to ask a writer who squirted himself with pepper spray to be able to describe what it feels like. (I do NOT recommend this. But do get yourself some pepper spray for self-defense, because it works.) I suppose it depends on the individual and what you’re trying to achieve. The darkness fascinates me, so I am a willing traveler. I want to understand it. I want to know why it happens.
Jan Magson is a rich character. His beloved wife died quite recently from a consuming cancer, his son is in the UK and estranged, and he’s trying to come to terms with a lonely life. At the same time he’s under huge pressure trying to catch a serial killer who viciously murders schoolgirls by hanging. The book is really his story. Was it always your intention to write a novel about a detective under spiraling pressure or did he develop as the right protagonist for this particular plot?
Thank you. Initially, my interest was mainly the killer, what he did and why, and the investigation, because police procedures fascinate me as well. Mags was just kind of the cop who investigated the series of murders. I had to work hard, through several rejections, to really bring Mags to life. He was a grieving widower from the start, but making him a real person took time and several rewrites. It wasn’t always fun at the time, but this book was a wonderful learning process. So I guess Mags grew into his role and as a consequence DARK TRACES morphed from a story about the hunt for a serial killer into Mags’ story, his journey to track down this killer while trying to find peace again. And as a writer, I grew along with him.
DARK TRACES is meticulous in its faithfulness to South African police procedures. How did you manage to research this so thoroughly?
I am deeply indebted to the detectives, forensic pathologists and other forensic experts who generously shared their time, expertise and experiences with me. I did a lot of reading about forensics, but the books available are mainly American or British, and the South African situation isn’t quite the same. Still, it provided me with a basic understanding and then I went to find out what facilities, equipment and techniques were available in South Africa. For instance, I read that American pathologists (or medical examiners in their terminology) use a Stryker saw to open the skull, but in South Africa they use a hacksaw and do it by hand to avoid scattering all those particles of bone and tissue into the air because there are too many diseases, hepatitis and such. The South African Police Service does employ AFIS (fingerprints) and IBIS (bullets), but they don’t have databases for things like the carpets used in motor vehicles. And they only recently started setting up a DNA database.
I wanted to capture an authentic South African police investigation—albeit a high profile one where more resources are invested—and the only way was to go to the people who actually do this work. I was rather surprised at how approachable they were, especially since I wasn’t a published author at the time. The Unit Commander of the Serious Violent Crimes Unit took me through the building, showed me the interrogation room (which looks nothing like the typical American TV version) and the identification parade. A forensic pathologist gave me a tour of the mortuary and later I was permitted to attend an autopsy. I spent a lot of time talking to someone from the Biology Section about processing crime scenes. (This is actually an excellent perk of being a crime writer!) So this allows me to create a close approximation of a South African police investigation.
This is a dark thriller, and part of its darkness is that as the evil builds, so Magson descends into his personal hell. Yet almost the only thing that keeps him going is his job—in a way he’s saved only by the need and kindness of the one girl who escapes the killer. Detectives in the South African Police Service face these types of traumatic conflicts. Would you comment?
Our detectives are extremely overworked. The average detective easily has a hundred or more dockets on his desk at any one time. At the same time they are underpaid and underappreciated. They witness these extreme consequences of violence and the “cowboys don’t cry” sentiment still holds. There is corruption. It’s a difficult job at the best of times and it takes a toll on the psyche, on relationships. Many good detectives and members of the specialized units, Forensics and the Special Task Force, leave for private security firms, where the pay is much better and they don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy, and this loss of expertise and experience really saddens me.
In Mags’ case, he is a career policeman, it’s all he knows, it’s who he is. When he stands next to the decomposing body of a teenage girl at the beginning of DARK TRACES, it’s all he has left as well. He is still grieving for his wife, he is estranged from his son. He comes home to nothing. No lights switched on. No seductive smells from the kitchen. There is no life there and he starts to take longer and longer to lock his service pistol in the safe. Meanwhile, he’s not making real progress in the investigation, there is pressure from the top, from the media, he looks into the broken eyes of the victims’ parents . . .
It’s a tough job and I have a lot of admiration for those police officers—uniformed, plainclothes, forensics—who go to work every day and fight for justice.
Magson’s partner—Menck—by contrast is reasonably well-adjusted with a wife and family and everyday concerns. He seems to cope by keeping the job at arm’s length. He cares about Magson, but his tentative efforts to support him are spurned. Is this driven by Magson’s character, by the nature of the job they share, or is it just men?
As the investigating officer, solving the series of murders weighs heavily on Mags’ shoulders. When he arrives at his empty, dark, silent home, the loss and loneliness eat away at him. He is a man under siege, both from internal and external sources, and consequently he doesn’t quite appreciate Menck’s tendency to find the humor in a situation. He especially doesn’t appreciate Menck’s teasing. There is some resentment, given that Menck goes home to a wife and two children. But mostly, Afrikaner males, particularly the older generations, have never been raised to open up and ask for help emotionally. On top of that he’s a police officer. It’s not in Mags’ nature to admit that he’s struggling. So it’s a toxic cocktail of pride, stubbornness and fear. And not really knowing how to, either.
DARK TRACES feels like a stand-alone. Are you working on a new novel and what can you tell us about it?
I’m in the final stages of my fourth novel in Afrikaans. I don’t like counting eggs or early hatchlings, so I’d rather hold off on details. But it’s a police procedural like DARK TRACES, although it’s a very different case. There is actually no murder in it, which is very new to me (I feel like I’ll have to go on a spree in the next one, just to return balance to the Force). The research was fascinating and I went to a couple of really diverse locations. It was a difficult write, but it’s coming together, which is always exhilarating.