Not Your Average Serial Killer Book
Johan Jack Smith’s new novel, ZOLA, starts off as a classic serial killer police procedural: the horrendous murder of a young woman, followed by the police captain and his partner rushing to the scene and starting to understand what they’re up against. But from there it becomes something very different.
Captain David Majola is a black officer mentored by a hardline racist white policeman with a dreadful past from the apartheid days, while Warrant Officer Jason Basson is an old school white policeman who lost the promotion to the less experienced Majola. There is tension between them, but also a fragile friendship.
In this The Big Thrill interview, Smith shares insight into the inspiration for his latest page turner, and what he’s working on next.
A major theme of the book is the tension between the population groups in South Africa, but also the tentative steps to links between them until the past intervenes. Did you set out to explore that in the context of a thriller?
I did. From the beginning I said to my publisher that I didn’t want to write a typical police procedural. I want the story to be layered. I didn’t want to tiptoe about race relations (like a lot of other crime writers do), I wanted to write things the way I’d experienced them before. So I suppose the story is part police procedural, part thriller, and part city novel.
In many ways the location—Johannesburg—is part of the story. It provides the everyday conflict that is essential to the context of the novel. Would you say that Johannesburg was actually one of the “characters”?
I wanted Johannesburg to have a persona of its own, even a character—gritty and unforgivable. The city must be the reason why some characters act the way they do. But it also portrays the contrast of the city and its characters—from Alex to Sandton, and Parkwood to Melville. Many of the readers that live in these suburbs said it worked very well because they recognized so many places. It also made the horror a bit closer to home. I also believe that you should write what you know—and I’ve lived in some of those areas.
Zola is a red minibus taxi the killer uses to abduct his victims. Such taxis are everywhere in Johannesburg and form the lifeblood of the city. Yet Zola is much more than that. What gave you the idea of using a taxi in this way?
I read a book by Elaine Bing, The Unmaking of a Torturer. The author was a psychologist who treated ex-policemen of the apartheid-era South African Police. One of her patients, who suffered from PTSD, told her that he used to drive a modified minibus in the townships during the riots in the 1980s—there was a seat in the middle, and if the people he picked up didn’t tell him what he wanted to know, they got electrocuted. That story stuck with me. I decided to make it a taxi, because they are so universal to South Africa. Let’s face it, they’re everywhere—you either make use of them for transport, or you swear at them for their behavior in traffic.
Majola is a complex character who carries a lot of baggage. At the beginning of the book he is nearly a year clean of alcohol and drugs. But the craving is there, ready to pounce when the pressure gets unbearable. Basson has his own demons. Both have had family issues. Both have hardly any friends except each other. In fact, all the members of the Serious and Violent Crimes Unit have issues of one sort or another. Is this sort of lifestyle inevitable with the stresses and appalling crimes that policemen have to deal with in Johannesburg every day?
I wanted to blur the lines between the protagonists and antagonists a bit in the novel. It’s well known that many policeman drink, especially those from the apartheid days, to forget what they deal with. Those years nobody knew of, or cared for, psychiatric help. I think the same frustrations are still there with today’s police officers—not getting paid enough, corruption, a negative public image, etc. Also I didn’t want to create typical heroes—I wanted them to be human with their own vices.
An issue with serial killer novels is motive. Some are just shadowy clichés pasted on to drive the story. In your case the killer is making a statement and leaving clues to decipher his reasons—he carves numbers and bits of words on the backs of his victims. It is vitally important for the police to understand his motivation and background. Did you set out to develop the murderer into a three dimensional personality—albeit a badly warped one—or did it develop with the story?
I wrote a film script of 25,000 words before the novel. So everything was planned out. I had the idea of the numbers from the beginning; I think that’s the first twist of the story. The words came later. At one stage I was wondering if I should keep the words, if it served a purpose, because the numbers were actually enough. But I liked the religious connotation in the end.
I felt that the police investigation aspects of the novel were particularly strong—both the procedural aspects and the relationships and interactions within the team. How did you research both aspects?
I had a lot of help from Martin Steyn, also a crime writer, with the procedural part. I also spoke to policemen. And you will be surprised what is available on the internet, even from the South African Police Service website. There is always a bit of a guess—do detectives have parade in the morning? Some stations do, others don’t. Do they carry Glocks? It’s the same with the ranks; it changes so frequently you never know what’s going on. I feel for writers years ago who had to sit in libraries to access information. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut-feel.
Finally, are you working on another book?
I actually have an idea for a second and third book. There will be some new characters, even a stronger female lead. I already have the serial killers planned. Most of the characters will be back in the third installment. Still in Johannesburg. Still gritty. But with the third book, I will try to push all boundaries. I don’t know if my publisher will fall for that. But it’s reality, I suppose. Just open a newspaper…