South Africa, charming and vibrant as it might be, is a delinquent democracy in which the most outrageous crimes are committed, often with impunity. It is a murderous country where no one is unaffected by violence. It is a place where corruption is corroding hard-won democratic institutions. It is a place where ethics – collective and individual – are increasingly elastic.
So, I ask myself, is it ethical to write crime fiction, to fictionalise crime? What are the ethics of representation, especially the representation of violent and degrading experiences, in a place where everyone has them? I could not find a satisfactory answer, so I put this question to a professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town.
He advised me to consider these two things.
First: That one would have to weigh up the value of public knowledge of things with an individual’s rights to privacy. A solution to this, he told me, would be that a story be told anonymously because once it is linked to an individual, it would be a further assault. This I do in all my books. I sink real people and real interactions deep below the surface of my fiction so that their lived experience is the pulse, the heartbeat of the stories, but the detail of their identities is not. It plagues me though that the murders, the rapes, the fear that one fictionalises are the lived experiences of so many people in South Africa.
Second: there is the necessity of truthfulness, of avoiding the hyperbolic, the sensational. This can be a vexing question for a novelist. Is my account truthful even if I have buried the originating detail? Does it reflect things accurately? Crime fiction is a popular genre – born out of the penny ‘orribles of the 19th Century – and many crime books are filled with the most pornographic violence.
Much of what I think of as ‘good’ crime fiction – well written and ethical – is not hyperbolic. It might be condensed, time might be speeded up a little, but it is not possible to create a good story without being truthful and accurate in the essence of interactions around traumatic events.
This is a challenge if you write about crime in South Africa. The reality is that most actual crime is far too hyperbolic, for too outrageously meaningless, far too sensational. The violence is excessive, too gratuitous to be turned into a good story. There is, in fact, little narrative behind most crime. It is just lots of drinking and fighting, shooting and hitting and stabbing and then people are dead and children are crying. And the cops come and roll their eyes and arrest a couple of people.
End of story.
No reason, no explanation, no gain.
Just loss and pain and no words to say it.
And that is not what crime fiction is about.
So, in life the ethics are messy, the crime fiction the aesthetics complex, but for Ian Rankin, creator of the fabulous Rebus series, that is a good place for a writer to be. He wrote that
‘What crime fiction needs is a sense of the incomplete, of life’s messy complexity. The reader should go to crime fiction to learn about the real world, not to retreat from it with comfortable reassurances and assumptions… Good does not always triumph in today’s crime fiction; evil cannot always be rationalised.’
It was life’s messy complexity that brought me to the subject matter of my last book. DADDY’S GIRL originated in a series of real events. In a two-week period in 2007, eight little girls were killed in Cape Town. Really little girls. The youngest was 18 months. The oldest one was six. I wanted to explore this feral society that picks off the weak and vulnerable.
This was the question that kept on coming at me as I clipped the stories of these deaths from the newspapers. What does it mean when the fathers turn on their (baby) daughters and kill them?
A Jungian formulation, I know, but what other kind of question is there to ask? What should one say when a patriarchal society is stripped to its malignant bones and kills its own children? In the Greek myth of origins, Cronos eats his grown sons.
Here, in Cape Town, there is an easier, a more tender devouring.
The very institutions – families, schools – and the individuals – fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, the man walking down the road – that should protect little girls are criminal. I wanted to explore this feral society, to write about this breathtakingly beautiful place where the weak and the vulnerable are picked off.
So the plot is simple.
A little girl is abducted.
A desperate father looks for her.
In writing this book, I took myself close to the edge of an abyss.
How does one represent violence towards children?
Where do you locate yourself? Your reader? What is your point of view?
There is no shared imagery except in the darkest recesses of the net. Or in Myra Hindley’s tape recordings of the children she and Ian Brady tortured and killed on the Yorkshire moors.
How to write that?
Is there any way to do it that is not exploitative, that doesn’t push the reader closer towards that borderland where it is permitted to torture a child? Is there a way that does not collude with the violence perpetrated against so many children in our midst?
What could I say that was good, that was ethical? That restored the bodily integrity to a violated fictional child? That could mend the social fabric and broken family?
The tolerable location for me was the point of view of the girl’s father, police captain Riedwaan Faizal. It seemed the only ethical thing to do, the only decent place to be. As he hunts desperately for her, he became my ‘everyman.’ He is like so many men who try to be good fathers in a world that kills women and girls all the time. These are the men who can heal this mess we have made here.
I also wrote my way into the minds and hearts of the men who are the perpetrators, the participants. Much as we would prefer to believe that they are born monsters, most criminals are ordinary men tempted, ordinary men corrupted, ordinary men not caught and stopped, ordinary men who do it again because they can.
Of course, there had to be a woman too. My un-motherly Clare Hart helps in the hunt for the lost child. She finds her. What interested me (as a writer and as a mother) is that no matter how I tried to write the end differently, despite the chase scene and the gunfight, it was Clare’s body that was ultimately the place of succour and non-linguistic comfort for the terrified child.
There is an ethical imperative at the centre of much crime writing that interrogates the dark recesses of society. It can probe beneath the surface of things, reach for the complexities and complicities of human identity. And that can enable the reader to become an armchair detective of the world around them.
There is a profound and unambiguous morality in most of the lead detectives in contemporary crime fiction. They might not always do what is legal, but they will do what is right. Is this the golden thread at the centre of good crime fiction that holds the moral centre and your attention? These characters – flawed and emotionally tainted as many of them are – feel the right kind of emotions, at the right moment, and is thus driven by them to the right course of action.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the messy complexity of the world around them.