This is going to be my last column for a while. My next book has a deadline gun at my head. So, like most people facing an immovable force, I am giving in. I am also conducting an experiment on myself; for the first time in my life I am going to focus on one thing, and one thing only. So, I have parcelled out all the other work I do and handed it over.
The forced passing of the “secrecy” Bill – it would be ridiculous if it was not so frightening – briefly derailed my ambition to be a wallflower. However, South Africa’s grasping rulers have underestimated how pissed off the electorate is with them. Those in power, sheltered from reality as they are, seem to have swallowed their own Orwellian doublespeak and that South Africans have experience at fighting injustice, mendacity and state crime. They will get their come-uppance as people who do wrong sometimes do.
This is one of the things I have learnt during the time that crime has absorbed my writing attention and these column inches for some time. And this column has taken me places. A year ago I was sailing with my family off the Tanzanian coast. We had planned a route further out into the beckoning, blue Indian Ocean, but because of raiding Somali pirates we kept inside the reef that protects Zanzibar. It was fabulous, but the limitations caused by the collapse of the Somali state irked me, although I see that Wilbur Smith – never a man to miss a moment – already dashed a book out about piracy, a distressed, blonde damsel rescued by manly men in khaki.
Piracy has a certain epic drama, so does the nepotism and corruption of the South African government. The borderline criminality of the supine US and British administrations that colluded with reckless banks and helped floor the world economy does too, but I do not find it easy to write about these broad sweeps of public crime. The scale is too large for me, the human fallout too removed from the crimes themselves.
It is the more intimate crimes that transfix the popular imagination that absorb my attention too. Crimes not motivated so directly by greed or politics. These are the crimes that are, in my view, diagnostic of the submerged rocks around which life eddies. They are the rocks that wreck the fragile vessel of our shared, everyday lives. The staged hijacking and murder of Anni Dewani, that lovely bride visiting Cape Town for her honeymoon, allegedly by her wealthy new husband. The murder of a middle-aged, middle class Durban couple by their own children. The brutal slaughter of township lesbians who dare to live their lives out and proud. The men who stalk women and kill them, who knows why. Is it for fun, or to assuage some deep-seated and permanent misogynistic rage or simply because they think they can get away with it? Difficult questions to answer, difficult subjects on which to reflect, anguished ghosts with whom to spend so much imaginative time.
Crime novels are almost always novels about death, written in the firm belief that every body tells a story. The investigator – the imaginary one, the novelist him or herself – recreates the circumstances of a particular death. It is through this lens of death that one can discern what kind of life a murder victim lived. How we die, why we die, where we die tells us so much about how, where and why we lived.
In a country as reckless, as socially and morally fractured as South Africa I have come to think that to know life one must first know death intimately. Four books do teach one a thing or two about writing and about life. And so here I am, embarking on the journey of the fifth novel. One thread of the plot is an investigation into paediatric deaths and – darker, deeper – paediatric homicide.
I sift through the cases – there are so many – making notes here and there of details that catch at my heart. A thick fringe of eyelashes resting on a chubby, bruised cheek, a tiny pair of bloodied sandals, a cable-tie, a box of matches. I want to understand what kills our children, who kills them, why. That is the ambiguous raft to which writers cling in the belief that by shining a light into the human heart, one can make sense of darkness.