Whodunit? Wealldunit. Writing a crime novel about crime-ridden South Africa….
It begins with a gun at a car window and a baby strapped in the back seat. A father is pulled from his new BMW, his nine-month-old daughter temporarily, shockingly, forgotten. The black carjacker drives off with the white child. So far, so very South African.
And that was the problem for my novel, HELD UP. For too many South Africans, crime is a way of life – either earning your living as a criminal (official unemployment is at 40% with who knows how many ‘illegal immigrants’ part of a shadow economy) or paying a lot of money to avoid criminals (by living in expensive town-house complexes with armed guards, eight-foot walls, razor wire, security doors, panic buttons, rapid response units…). It was also part of the creative solution. HELD UP could not be simply a whodunit – in South Africa the simplicity of that question is almost laughable.
For who did do it? Who committed all those crimes? The original Dutch settlers and their slaves? The British and their concentration camps? Verwoerd and his apartheid policies? Who brutalised a country and its peoples so much more grotesquely and more ingeniously than the occasional criminal in your typical Scandi thriller? In South Africa, the land is soaked with blood, its citizens almost impossibly inured to a rape every 15 seconds, to one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. After political ‘necklacings’ (death by burning tyre around the neck) or virginal children raped as a ‘cure’ for AIDS, a European serial killer would be eaten for breakfast.
So, a carjacking would be passé. A stolen child? Well, simply not interested. No Madeleine McCann-style media frenzy when the country faces much bigger issues. When children are being raped, dying like flies, disappearing… and life just goes on because it has to.
And so I decided to shoehorn 11 years of South African life into one crime. It is real – but that particular crime is also representative. Maybe crammed into it was more like 360 years of crime South African style?
And the style had to be tough – very masculine: Cormac McCarthy’s almost ‘unmediated’ writing (minus his more whimsical flights of fancy) with some ‘effeminate’ punctuation banished. Coupled with Ian McEwan’s forensic precision: unflinching. The structure was also vital: the chapters clicked harshly, relentlessly through 1 Second – 11 Minutes – 1 Hour – 11 Hours – 1 Day – 1 Week and so on through to 11 Years.
And, as South Africa is a living patchwork of contradictions, that had to be reflected in the characters: the main protagonist is a pacifist, yet his wife wants a gun. He was a conscientious objector in the South African army, yet must learn to bear arms in this violent country. From the fortress of a sheltered, privileged existence, he must emerge to confront what it means to be South African, to live in squalor in an informal settlement (‘squatter camp’) in Soweto. He must kill and torture – and almost be killed. He learns to earn his keep the hard way.
So HELD UP starts with a crime and is saturated with brutality, but it forces its characters (most of them) to embrace life. I certainly hope it becomes far more than a whodunit. Because, from a South African point of view, ‘we all dunnit’.
HELD UP is published by Headline