Heidi Holland’s The Colour of Murder could well make the shortlist for the Alan Paton literary award next week. In my opinion, it could actually win this year.
The book tells the extraordinary story of a man who became one of South Africa’s most sensational mass murderers, and his daughter who commissioned one of the country’s most sensational single murders in her own right.
Louis van Schoor is an ex-soldier who turned into a rogue security guard in East London, notoriously shooting — to kill — a range of black people in a range of locations. When he was finally brought to book, tried and jailed for 19 such murders, he was unrepentant, boasting that he had been doing the right thing all along. In fact, he was proud of the fact that the actual tally was higher than this — just that further horrors on his grisly road to fame had not been proved.
His daughter Sabrina was 12 when Van Schoor was sent to jail. When she was 22, she hired a young black man to murder her mother in the bedroom of her own home in Queenstown. The mother had taken Sabrina with her when she divorced Van Schoor and set off to make a new life for herself.
Her father’s killing spree went on for many years, crossing over from the apartheid era into the era of Mandela’s release and the beginning of the end of his long walk to freedom. Van Schoor would shoot people in cold blood, often at point blank range, and made no distinction between children and adults. They simply had to be black. Sometimes they were guilty of some misdemeanour like theft or breaking and entering. Sometimes they were completely innocent.
His daughter’s murder of her mother was gruesome, carried out with a level of unbelievable brutality by her hired killer with a carving knife from the kitchen. Sabrina was in the next room with her small child, and could obviously follow every moment of her mother’s long struggle to stave off the butcher, which resulted in her being almost decapitated. Sabrina arranged for the killer to pretend to steal her car, while she ran hysterically into the street.
Holland’s book is, in a way, two detective stories in one. The one tells of one policeman’s dogged work to solve the murder. The other is Holland’s own investigation, not just of Sabrina’s matricide and its motives, but the very nature of South Africa’s complicated, inter-woven webs of race, class and persistent violence.
Both Sabrina’s parents come across as not very likeable people. What brought them together in the first place is a first-class mystery of its own. There wasn’t much in common.
But not being likable is no reason to kill your mother, although, of course, it has happened before, and many people make grim jokes about considering it. Money in this case could have been one of the motives. It seems like race was a far stronger one.
The mother, Beverley, made it clear that she did not care much for black people. She especially hated the fact Sabrina had a series of black boyfriends, by one of whom she had fallen pregnant. Her black child lived in the family home with warring mother and daughter.
In fact, the child was one cause of frequent battles between Beverley and Sabrina — more than a tug of war. Beverley would frequently threaten to separate Sabrina from her child. Sabrina would grow hysterical at the possibility of such a separation. She loved her jailed father but hated the mother whose home she shared.
Then there are the twisted racial realities of Queenstown itself. It is a busy little commercial centre surrounded by farmland. The inevi-table standoff between farmers, white businesses and labourers, built on long colonial and apartheid tradition, still stains the air.
There isn’t much to do in Queenstown. For young people, entertainment is limited.
But boredom isn’t an excuse for murder either. Except that boredom did play a major part in Sabrina’s seeking and finding solace in the arms of a string of schoolboy and young adult lovers — all of whom happened to come in various shades of brown, while she was a rather large and awkward white girl.
Queenstown has a seething black population mostly tucked away in sprawling townships on the outskirts of town, although a certain amount of movement has been evident over the years. It has bred some of the country’s finest black musicians over several generations, and still enjoys some of their traditions. It has some of the country’s best educational institutions — one of which was the integrated school where Sabrina studied and made friends.
But Holland’s The Colour of Murder is about more than Queenstown. It is about South Africa itself, and Holland unveils it steadily in the course of getting to the bottom of some very South African killings, carried out by father and daughter. For anyone living in it, or wanting to be more deeply informed about this country’s psychological make-up, the book is essential reading. No matter how well we think we know it, the book comes up with some interesting surprises.
It might well owe something to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in some ways. And, like In Cold Blood in its American setting, The Colour of Murder could well be turned into a fabulous South African movie one of these days.