A pretty girl on an autopsy table in Cape Town.
Newly budded breasts.
A pink hair slide in her braids.
One hundred and two identifiable stab wounds on her slender body.
Not much of her left, really. She only weighed a hundred pounds.
When I first started writing about South African crime, I did so because the sheer number of victims flooded me. The horror of them, the sameness of them, the blankness of these mute bodies scripted with violence. The language of the perpetrator.
Crime and violence are highly sexualised, particularly in South Africa. But everywhere the most mesmerising crimes (in terms of TV coverage, movies, crime fiction) are committed against women. The battered punctured corpse that surfaces in the newspapers, in our public minds, in our fearful collective unconscious is almost always a woman’s body, a girl’s.
It drives me crazy, this casually murderous misogyny and how it silences the living. Erasing depth, personality, difference, life.
As a journalist, you can list a never-ending series of facts, but in crime fiction I have found that one can at least start to scratch at the truth. Crime fiction parachutes one – writer or reader – into a dramatic moment in the present. Writing is a way of re-ordering the terrible rupture in time that violence, itself chaotic and beyond language, creates.
So, how to write about that girl murdered by her own father? A man who had raped her since she was seven and finally she had told on him?
Where do you start?
What do you say?
There are strong taboos against the representation of violence. The painter Marlene Dumas, one of South Africa’s most famous exports, argued it this way:
‘It has been said that addressing or depicting subjects like sex and violence is the easiest way to attract attention. This is hard to deny, but as far as painting is concerned, it’s not entirely true. For a long time, trend-setting painters thought that the most respectful and intelligent way of dealing with this, was simply to ignore it…’
This is true, I would argue, of writers too. Many literary writers turn away from the subjects like sex and violence and raw power. But just as Dumas paints sex and violence, I wanted to write about sex and violence and power directly. I want to understand them using the representational tools of the twentieth century.
The imagery, the sense of foreboding and feminine as corruption of film noir; the conventions of suspense and revelation of crime fiction; the salaciousness of the tabloid press; the forensic ferreting of modern science that carries with it a desperate belief that its revelatory powers will vanquish death by explaining how it happened. The form of crime fiction, with its set limits and containments seems to me as much part of modernity as crime itself. Just as the modern, alienated city has spread across the globe, so has the form of crime fiction.
The end of the 19th century and the turn of the 20th saw the birth of the detective in the fictional form of Sherlock Holmes. It also shepherded in the actual detectives who went after the first and defining serial killer, Jack the Ripper. He came to life with the tabloid press’s love affair with the sensation of his frenzied misogyny, perhaps the hallmark of crime fiction since them.
This was time too of Freud, the first profiler, who invented or discovered the unconscious. That dark site where secrets lurk and us writers and readers ferret for answers to apparently inexplicable crimes. It is the time of the birth of brutal modernist cities – the Gotham cities – evoked by crime writers who set their books in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, New Orleans and Cape Town.
In these mean streets strangers lurk and prey on the innocent. It is here that the serial killer, the ultimate stranger without conscience stalks. His is the inner voice that is never still and small. It tells him what to do and he does it. Ordinary people like me and you, the potential victims have a conscience that tells us what NOT to do.’
And it is into these streets that the crime writer slips the lonely hero (ine), to walk these streets our behalf, to investigate the darkness and put it to rights. In a sense, the hero (ine) of crime fiction is a prosthetic eye/I who can look at the medusa-head of crime, the psychic drive behind violence and fear, and not be turned to stone.
But this is not a monster to be slain. In much contemporary crime fiction, the dragon often wins. Crime fiction with its compulsive and endless serial novels – only partly driven by the dark desires of publishers’ marketing departments – is that return to the moment of rupture, the murder. In Freudian terms it is the compulsive return to an originating trauma, the return of the repressed, that patterns compulsive behaviour.
It is impossible to integrate violence, no matter how many times one tries (the source perhaps of profit for publishers of crime fiction), but as a reader and as a writer one does get some temporary relief. As you well know when you get to the end of a good thriller you sigh in satisfaction as the evil-doers get their just desserts and our lonely investigator gets to settle down at the bar with a double scotch, if (s)he’s unlucky. And finally gets laid if (s)he’s lucky. And crime fiction has produced some of the sexiest, most fuckable women in the literary canon. Who better to smoke in bed with than Elmore Leonard’s raunchy broads so direct about shedding their kimonos?
A little note here on the problem of women. My lead character is a woman. And she spends time out and about alone. She must. She has murders to solve, victims to rescue. All that.
The twentieth century city produced two kinds of street walkers. One is male, the flaneur who walks endlessly, is able to everywhere. Walter Benjamin’s man of the crowd, the PIs like Philip Marlowe and his many cousins. The other street walker is the flaneuse, the prostitute. A woman alone on the streets at night is always suspect, always a target. Especially where I live.
This is the problem that a female lead throws up.
The city is different for women, your presence on its mean streets means that you are both dangerous and endangered. It is an interesting place to write from.
But it has not helped me find a way to write about that dead child I saw in the mortuary that Monday morning.
She was thirteen.
Laetitia, was her name.