Margie Orford is an award-winning journalist and internationally acclaimed author, widely regarded as one of South Africa’s best writers of mystery thrillers. Her novels have been translated into twelve languages. She recently signed a five-book deal with a UK publisher, and her books will be released in the US soon through the new digital imprint of Harper Collins—Witness Impulse.
Margie was born in London and grew up in Namibia. A Fulbright Scholar, she was educated in South Africa and the United States. She is Executive Vice-President of South African PEN, the patron of Rape Crisis and of the children’s book charity, the Little Hands Trust. She lives in Cape Town.
Her protagonist—Clare Hart—is likeable and complex and has developed through the series. I’ve enjoyed all the books—LIKE CLOCKWORK, BLOOD ROSE, DADDY’S GIRL, GALLOWS HILL—but for my money WATER MUSIC is the best of a very good bunch. It’s a tense and grueling thriller which is impossible to put down. As Jake Kerridge (leading UK crime fiction critic) said in THE TELEGRAPH, “Orford plots so brilliantly that to stop reading is as harrowing as to carry on.”
In WATER MUSIC, Clare Hart’s mission is to use her psychological expertise to solve, if she can’t prevent, crimes against women and children. A young girl is discovered emaciated and on the point of death, yet no one has reported the child missing. Shortly after that, Clare learns that a brilliant young cellist, Rosa, has suddenly resigned her scholarship at a classical music college and vanished. Most people shrug it off, but her grandfather believes something terrible has happened to her. Clare tries to follow her movements over the last days before she disappeared, but her investigation leads nowhere. There seems to be some connection between the two cases, but it’s hard to fathom. By the time Clare learns the answer, she is in deep trouble.
WATER MUSIC has a shocking theme, but no one who follows the news will claim it’s not believable. Why did you decide on this particular scenario?
Enslavement, domination, control, exploitation, resilience, survival. All things that fascinate me. So is the potential for dysfunction and perversion in the nuclear family held to ransom by men who feel entitled to the power they exert over others—the women and the children who come under their sway. The story line—of a missing girl, of a child of whom there is no record—emerged from earlier books I have written. This one just homes right into that darkness. Without much relief, I do confess. I have spent a lot of time imagining the ways women find to survive extreme pain and fear and the loss of their freedom.
Your Clare Hart series concentrates on violent crime against women in South Africa. What brought you to that focus?
Ahem, you might have noticed that I am in fact a woman. I am also a feminist. It pisses me off not to be safe simply because of the random allocation of anatomy. The violence against us focusses in on me, on my daughters, on the women I know, and those I do not but for whom I feel great solidarity. It pisses me off, but I need to know it, to understand why so many men feel this compulsion to harm women. Most crimes against women are motivated by psychological dysfunction—and emotions like hate, or fear, or simply the will to power. I write to know why. I write to understand and reflect the courage of survivors. I write also to wreak at least a literary revenge on the perpetrators.
In WATER MUSIC Clare has to face a number of personal issues as well as a challenging case. Her relationship with police detective Riedwaan is rocky as ever but is suddenly forced to a different level, she is under threat in her job, and she is emotionally worn down by the grueling task of trying to find and protect missing children. Was it a deliberate decision to make her more vulnerable in this way?
Clare Hart has always been an interesting character to write—she is tough, cerebral, and controlled to a fault sometimes. She has managed very well to work in a hyper-masculine environment. But she is a woman, she sleeps with a man, contraception is not one hundred per cent reliable. And that accidental pregnancy raises for her—as it does for many women, myself included—the paradox of bodily desire and maternal impulse that is often at odds with ambition, power, and control in the public world of work and men. The area in which she is least equipped is dealing with her own feelings and emotions. It was interesting to write her as vulnerable, to shift her relentless fight for children or women she does not know personally into her own need to protect herself. Motherhood—the theme of the novel I suppose—is a complex and messy and often violent experience. Not something that is visible from the anodyne and sentimental cultural images we have of mothers—from washing powder ads to the great tradition of paintings of the Madonna. But it is very important and it is—I think—the messy terrain from which so much male hatred/fear/envy of women arises. Freud was right. Men and their mothers have a lot to answer for.
Rosa is a deep character mainly drawn through the recollections of others, most of whom have reasons not to tell the whole story. Was it hard to build her that way?
Rosa posed the problem of the absent female victim—the staple of so much crime fiction. I felt I had to imagine her fully and, in the earlier drafts, I had written several chapters from her point of view. So I got to know her and understand her by writing her—by making her very much a real person who tries her best to survive what has happened to her. This did not work well for the tension in the way that I had structured the plot. It did not work for the revelation at the end as the mystery is unfolded very much from Clare Hart’s investigative point of view. However, it meant that getting other characters to tell the story of Rosa was easy because I had written so much from her perspective. It was a matter of distilling that sense of her—and of her absence. A way, I suppose, of trying to work out how to solve the problem of the erasure of the female victims of crime.
Water and music are linked in the book in a variety of ways. The music provides joy and solace, but also a mask to hide a degrading and vicious (but apparently legal) industry. The rain provides a depressing backdrop to the search, but also sparks a tremendous climax. Which came first, the title or the book?
I have had the title for years and for some reason it was always meshed with a woman’s disappearance. Sound is so complex—those subliminal sounds we hear and don’t initially notice but that return to us later as something that indicated that a thing was out of place, or wrong. It was also a way of exploring how the human mind copes with darkness—we listen for sounds to orientate ourselves and then we use those sounds to compose meaning and to differentiate the terror of unbroken time—the terror of the prisoner. Music—especially classical music—does provide solace and delight and I sought to weave the two together—the beauty and civilisation of music with the degradation and pain inflicted on the victims—ultimately the survivors—of the novel. In earlier novels I have written about a woman artist (GALLOWS HILL) and about ballet (DADDY’S GIRL). Creativity is part of what enables us—and my characters—to survive.
The “coda” gives us a glimpse of the future, but many issues, particularly the professional ones, are left unresolved. Will those be picked up in the next book?
I have to! I had no intention at the outset of landing them both in the middle of an extended personal crisis. I am as intrigued as some of my readers have been to know what happens next, what they do next, and if they find a way through the disruption to both their personal and professional lives.
While we’re on the subject, what can we expect next from Clare and Riedwaan?
SWEETHEARTS is the title of the next Clare Hart. It looks as if it will be as dark and perverse as WATER MUSIC is. Riedwaan Faizal is adrift, trying to find himself and a way to make money after he has left the SAPS. Clare is equally adrift—she is not at all suited to the maternity that was so roughly thrust upon her. And the violence on the Cape Flats shows no signs of abating. Neither does the corruption that seems to pervade so much of South African society—both public and private. I’m keeping them anguished and busy.
There is more about Margie Orford and her books at on her website. You can follow her on Twitter @margieorford.