Shortly after the publication of BLOOD ROSE, my second Clare Hart thriller, a relative of mine asked when I was going to write a ‘proper’ book. This is a fair question. Murder, rape, organised crime, collapsing state institutions, street gangsters, pathology labs, broken hearts and a couple of quickies along the way are not, as Raymond Chandler pointed out in his famous essay, the Art of Murder, proper. I assured my disapproving relative that I had started out trying to write a ‘proper’ book. I had outlined a very literary book that involved (of course) a farm. All books by literary South Africans seem to involve farms with frustrated women immured on them.
But it was a bird without wings and it did not fly. I wanted to write about Cape Town, the cruel and beautiful city I live in. I wanted to write about dislocation and violence, about the survival of love and hope. I wanted to write about South Africa as it is. Urban, fractious, shifting, uncontained. I had no interest in writing about how it was meant to be.
I returned to Cape Town with my family in 2001. I had left South Africa in 1988 when the country was in the throes of an unacknowledged civil war. I went to live in London, then that peaceful backwater, Namibia and finally New York.
The country I returned to a decade ago was at once utterly familiar and yet unknown. I felt besieged by the extravagant violence of the place. I took the fact that we have the highest rape and murder rates in the world very personally. Here the murder of women is so common and fits so neatly to a pattern that it is referred to as femicide. This is a dangerous country for women and for girls and I had three young daughters. I needed to find a way to live here, fully engaged, and the barricaded suburbs patrolled by armed response vans did not do it for me.
I was an investigative journalist and had made enough documentaries in my life to know what to do if there’s a question that bugged me.
Go find out.
So, in order to understand the paradox of the Rainbow Nation – its brutality and its kindness – I turned my lens to crime.
Reporting crime at first. Ferreting around, trying to find the impulses, the logic, the tactics, the effects of the criminal assault that convulsed the country.
It felt like a war. As if the civil war of the 1980s war had been sublimated into the body, into the family, into the vary fabric of the society. I researched gang initiations, special police units, rape crisis centres, organised crime, the sex industry. I started interviewing cops, pathologists, ballistics experts, crime survivors. Trying to get to grips with the victims. Because at the dead centre of crime – real and fictional – are the victims.
South Africa certainly offers up plenty of those. I was flooded by victims, the horror of them, the sameness of them, the blankness of these bodies scripted with violence, the reduction of human being to corspe.
Here, as in most places, the most mesmerising crimes are often those committed against women. The battered punctured corpse that surfaces in the newspapers, in our public minds, in our fearful collective unconscious is usually a woman’s body. It drove me crazy, it drives me crazy, this casually murderous misogyny and how it silences the living, erasing depth, personality, difference, life.
The way I tried to counter this was to turn my own investigative eye, the defiant observer’s eye that looks for truth, back at this invasion. I reported crime to get below the hard glass skin of violence and find the voices of the brutalised and the dead. I studied autopsy reports of the victims and interviewed their heartbroken relatives.
But what to do with them once you hear the clamour of these mute voices in your head?
You write fiction.
As a journalist, you can list a never-ending series of facts, but in crime fiction I have found that one can get at the truth.
All my novels have their origins in my responses to particular, real crimes. Although my books are not about those crimes in any literal way, they are responses to both violent ruptures and the resilience of survivors.
Crime fiction has surprised me in its flexibility and in how it works for South Africa, a country that is embedded, like a stray bullet, both in my head and in my heart. In all countries, but in South Africa particularly because of our segregated past, cops and journalists are the only people who can plausibly navigate through this fractured and stratified society.
Crime fiction parachutes one – writer or reader – into a dramatic moment in the present. Writing about that moment is a way of re-ordering the rupture in time that violence, itself chaotic and beyond language, creates. It reflects a world that has been permanently fractured, it tells of beleaguered individuals disconnected from the ordering comfort of family and clan. It describes a dystopian world of crowded, dangerous modernist cities filled with violent, if not murderous strangers. It is not a pretty picture but it does allow one to put things to rights, to analyse and rationalise specific crimes and to mete out some kind of justice – if only a literary one – for the victims.
Having said that, however, writing crime fiction is essentially killing for others. It is making a living, like so many of my more literal-minded and armed compatriots, from a life of crime. Crime fiction, despite or perhaps because of the enormous levels of violent crime in South Africa, is a recent literary phenomenon. I am often asked about the ethics of writing crime in a country at once so traumatised by crime and so blasé about it.
The answer lies for me in where you take your reader (and yourself) after that first thrilling spectacle of violence that gets the story going. It lies in what you do with the response – yours and your readers’. One option is the pornographic display of violence, a written down version of the slasher movies. And for that you can read South Africa’s startling tabloids.
Or one can go the other way, taking the reader towards an understanding and a catharsis of the violence; the punishment of the perpetrators, and an at least temporary restoration of order.