My first book, Like Clockwork, was born out of a series of images that I collected through my interviews with South African cops and forensics experts. Here is one that has stayed with me.
Imagine a cold Monday morning.
A drying rack that looked like a deli fridge in the medical forensic labs in Valhalla Park on the Cape Flats. Inside were panties. Big, small, expensive, washed over and over, Woolworth’s beige, a lovely wisp of bloodied lace. And one tiny red pair from Pep Stores. It had a label: age 2 – 3. And one unravelling thread that floated above it. I asked a cop who was showing me around what this was and he shrugged.
‘That’s Cape Town on a Monday morning. Those are the rape cases.’
The writer’s gift: the small detail that evokes the whole. It provoked in me a sense of deep moral outrage: somehow I had to find a way of restoring those panties to their owners, of finding the intimate pulse of their lives, of making them back into human beings again. Not these pared down metonymies of degradation and pain.
Here is another: A question this time.
A beautiful, shattered woman I interviewed in a shelter in Atlantis, a godforsaken township forty kilometres outside Cape Town. She had been trafficked from Goma, had escaped, and was looking for her daughter stranded in a refugee camp. On the day I spoke to her, she just had her HIV test results that day. She was negative. She answered my questions patiently and the she said she wanted to ask me something.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Anything, ask.’
‘Why,’ she said, ‘Are there women in South Africa who will hold down the legs of their own daughters so that their husbands or boyfriends or the man next door can rape them?’
That was a moral question that I needed to answer. Yes, I had a serial killer in my first novel, Like Clockwork, but the way I had structured the novel it was to do with a warped mind, the terrifying exception of the stranger with dark dreams. What I needed to address was the social malaise that allows people in the most prosperous African country to prey on its weakest and most vulnerable members. That woman’s question pointed out to me that the location of the most violent betrayals lie in the heart of the family – both the blood-family and the family that is the nation.
It was not an easy thing to address in fiction. It is at the same time central to crime fiction.
Wittgenstein said ethics and aesthetics are one and the same. Tricky that. The writer places you, the reader, alongside the writer in that murdered body, under her permeable skin that will be stabbed, shot and marked for the cops, then the pathologist to read, the bereaved mother to wash and love. That is where I put you. This creates empathy with her, but it also gives you the feel of the killer that you, like our investigative hero want him dead.
In my first book, my victims are beautiful, nearly innocent. Beloved but (briefly) unprotected by their mothers. The trope of femininity and death is close to the surface of our cultural memory. It is there in the paintings and literature of the 19th century; in the films and television series and pornography of the 20th. Edgar Allen Poe’s formulation that the most poetic subject is the death of a beautiful woman holds true. Can one short-circuit the erotic charge of the damaged female body, the building block of pornography, desire and crime fiction?
The research I have done has showed me that the most common victims of violent crimes are men. There are few women in the carnage that is Salt River Mortuary in Cape Town on a Monday morning. And yet, unless that male body belongs to someone you know it is not that easy to get worked up about them. They are mostly young, have often been drunk and fighting: the collateral damage of the mean streets of this century and the last. Dead men don’t mean all that much in literary or cinematic terms, which means it is not easy to write about them either.
In my second book, BLOOD ROSE, I learned the hard way that in crime fiction one must pick one’s bodies with care.
This book was also born out of a single image, a single event. I was working on a film about Walvis Bay in Namibia, a film commissioned by the Town Council. While I was shooting, a fifteen-year-old boy was murdered. His mutilated body was tossed over the fence of a school where he was discovered in the playground on a Monday morning. Beyond the school was a dumpsite with an incinerator that spewed black smoke into the mist and fog that constantly envelops Walvis Bay.
Who killed him, who tortured him and sodomised this child, splitting him open, was never revealed. His body floated there on the edge of my consciousness for a long time, the ease with which his death was allowed not to matter. He was just dead – cleaned up, cleaned away, and everyone shrugged their shoulders and said it was probably a fisherman on one of the boats who’d left port that morning.
And that was that.
It did not seem right to leave this unremembered dead boy on the sand at the bottom end of the playground, that liminal childhood space of bullying, violence and the furtive exchanges of sexual favours. So I decided to imagine his story, stitching it into Namibia’s violent and un-discussed past, unaware of how much literary trouble it would cause me. Because my chosen victims, homeless teenage boys who live on a dump site were a challenge to the easy aesthetic, the tested conventions of crime fiction which likes its plot triggering victims to be innocent, or at least attractive.
Unlike the death of a young woman, the killing of someone male and marginal is not an easy thing to make readers worry about. When you kill a young woman, you bring years of artistic conditioning around pathos, reproductive value and innocence. You kill a delinquent boy and you’ve tided up the street. I had to make these dead boys alive in the text as a beloved child lost, an individual snuffed out, a little chap who had just stepped out of childhood in order to make the plot and your pulse race. I had to create a sensory affect of smell, of proximity, of childishness, of a sense of responsibility in the reader for these dead children. With one boy, I showed his outgrown spider man pyjamas – a child’s garment that carried the imprint of his little body before his death. I had to make the reader care and in the end, it worked for me, the writer. I could bring those marginal boys, those shadows that lurk beside your window at the traffic lights – begging, stealing, unloved – to life in fiction.
Which has meant that in life when I see them on the street I can imagine where they came from, the damage, the loneliness, the danger. And see them for what they are – abandoned children.