SA's home-grown thrills and capers

Barbara Erasmus looks at the ABCs of crime fiction, South African style.

Local readers no longer have to find their way through the unfamiliar streets of Los Angeles or Chicago to get their crime fix. There’s been a remarkable increase in home-grown crime fiction—and there’s no shortage of raw material to trigger the imagination of writers, with South African newspapers featuring a daily alphabet of crime.

A is for abalone

Mike Nicol, well known in crime circles for his lectures and his crime blog (//www.crimebeat.book.co.za), is off-hand about the role of research in his writing.
‘If you can’t imagine it, don’t write it!” is his mantra—but he does concede that the ongoing headlines about abalone poaching with its link to drug-dealing and international trade intrigued him for the social issues it raised.

‘The sort of crime fiction I write focuses on social malfunction rather than individual deviancy,” he says. Nicol drew from his extensive clippings file on drugs, as well as local magazines such as the Big Issue, for background to the rent-boy strand of the plot in Out To Score but it was co-author Joanne Hichens who provided a family link both to abalone and its Chinese connections.

The family in question isn’t the Chinese mafia of triads which determine much of the action in the novel. ‘When my brother started an abalone farm on the West Coast, it was all he could talk about so I listened and learned,” Hichens says. And learn she did. The book includes well-researched details ranging from the layout and equipment used in hatcheries to the rights to seaweed—and that’s before the authors reel you in with high-action sequences involving gangsters and the bosses who sponsor them.

Hichens’s interest in Chinese culture began with early exposure when her father was stationed with the foreign service in Taiwan. She was fascinated by a Chinese propensity to grind, mash and dry various animal parts—the more exotic the better. ‘Every-day eating is as much geared to emotional wellbeing as it is to nutrition,” she says. And when it improves libido, the ethics of poaching and plundering marine life seem to fade into the background.

B is for ballistics

Margie Orford’s newly released novel, Blood Rose, is set in Walvis Bay, which she describes affectionately as a ‘God-forsaken town a thousand miles from Cape Town in the middle of a desert”. The desert location was the catalyst for the research Orford carried out with the International Ballistics Information System (IBIS). ‘Bullets last longer than bodies in a desert location,” she says—and bullets leave traces as unique as DNA and fingerprints. ‘A bullet’s propulsion through a chamber leaves grooves that are unique to a particular gun,” says Orford.

She also worked with Dr Leanne Dreyer, a Stellenbosch University expert on the use of pollen in forensic science. Pollen is indestructible and provides valuable clues in a desert location. ‘The desert has only a few plants which are all-area specific and only flower at certain times and so pollen can provide very specific pointers to a detective interested in the time and place of a murder,” notes Orford.

As she also lived in Namibia, Orford is well able to construct a crime scene where the clues are specifically related to the desert. ‘In a city crime scene, the number of cigarette butts might be a clue to the amount of time a suspect spent on a street corner. In the desert you measure the depth of the depressions left in the sand to gauge how long he stood and waited.” 

C is for corporate crime and D is for diamonds

Andrew Gray deals with both, breaking new ground in South African fiction with his political thriller, The Fence. Gray’s attitude to research is diametrically opposed to Nicol’s. ‘I don’t believe it’s worth writing if it is not informed by reality,” he says. His book delves deep into personal experiences in military service, government, law and politics in a story that moves away from traditional police procedurals and into the air-conditioned boardrooms of corporate crime.

The story flows from a diamond trader who is being investigated by the security department in ‘the largest diamond company in the world”. Comparisons with De Beers are inevitable but Gray had no association with anyone from the company while writing the novel. His current job provided him with corporate experience and he says diamonds were merely a point of entry for the essentially political story he wanted to tell.

‘They’re just one of many different forms of currency. Like guns or money, they are without any inherent morality—until put to one or other purpose. What really interests me is the moral ambiguity that emerges from the cocktail of power, violence and money which is business and politics.”

Gray conjures everything from heat and helicopters to intrigue in the corporate corridors of down-town Johannesburg, with a dexterity that suggests his experience of all these. The main driving force behind the story is his research into the death of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) in Angola. ‘I have tried to tell both sides of a story which moved me quite profoundly—almost as much as the moral callousness of the media with their good-riddance attitude. Political angst and insecurity seems to rule the public domain to the extent that it is forgotten that the death of a person, however demonised, is an overwhelmingly sad event.”

Written from a variety of perspectives, Gray’s story is not a light read. He avoids the formulaic crime ending where the good guys come out on top after multiple hair-raising challenges. The Fence is unsettling because the reader isn’t provided with the truth; the hero is a complicated man as much on the fence as the man he’s investigating—he clearly empathises with the subject of his investigation and there are no clear-cut boundaries between right and wrong.

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