When, as happened recently, a South African gang boss in his high-ticket BMW is taken out by a helmeted Serbian motorcyclist sporting a fifteen-clip Beretta, or a young British hubby on honeymoon fixes a hit on his lovely wife hours after putting into a Cape Town hotel, then the stakes for a crime novelist are pretty high. What can I say? Except thank heavens (or is this tasteless?), I got in first, and managed to write variations of these hits into Black Heart, and the two novels in the trilogy that preceded it: Payback and Killer Country. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like being a Swedish crime novelist where reality isn’t such a harsh competitor.
Then again I take a rather perverse glee in the reality I see about me. The guys who had the moral high ground when they toppled the apartheid government now stink of corruption, and new stories of greed, fraud, embezzlement, cronyism, assisted suicides, let alone contract hits, open up fresh avenues for fiction daily. Which was an issue I faced with the Revenge Trilogy. What crimes to focus on?
I suppose because I started writing fiction during the apartheid days, social issues have always been a major concern. Nothing’s changed, except crime fiction seems to me a more interesting way of satirising a political situation (and hopefully makes for more compelling reading than the gently cadenced sentences of literary fiction). The crimes that fascinate me are arms deals and the related kickbacks, the blood diamond trade and international drug trafficking, but also property development schemes, which have become a cut-throat business in South Africa. Not to mention corporate malfeasance in the private sector. All these diversions inevitably entail people behaving badly.
All these issues found their way into the trilogy that ends in Black Heart, which focusses on the shenanigans that blew up around the awarding of our armament systems contracts, and the protection rackets that, well, protect local investment and discourage outsiders trying to muscle in.
But the story that binds the three books concerns the relationship between a female lawyer (Sheemina February) who epitomises the ruthlessness of the new elite and two former guerrilla fighters (Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso) who are trying to make a living in the burgeoning security industry. All three are morally ambivalent characters. In one sense they are our heroes from the years of the armed struggle and we should revere them: they suffered and still bear the scars. In another sense, Sheemina February is simply Machiavellian, and Mace and Pylon might just be on the side of the angels but…
With a few notable exceptions, crime fiction is a relatively new phenomenon in South African literature (for a host of reasons I can’t go into here). But, interestingly, it is short on serial killers and sexual deviants. At the heart of the nascent genre is a social concern, and it is this that has made the writing of crime fiction so challenging. Each day I spent writing these three books, I tried to construct a story that turns the pages (and, yes, it’s complete with serial killers and sexual deviants) but also, for those who want it, says something about how we live now.
Killer Country and Payback are published by Old Street