From torture to humour

Random Violence by Jassy Mackenzie (Umuzi),Double Cross by Tracy Gilpin (Black Star Crime),Chameleon by Barbara Erasmus (Book SA),Street Blues by Andrew Brown (Zebra)

Private eye Jade de Jong has returned to Johannesburg after 10 years in London to avenge the death of her father, a police commissioner. His killer is about to be paroled and Jade, armed with a Glock 19, is ready for him. But there’s some other business to take care of first: a sadistic psychopath is knocking people off at a great rate in a variety of horrible ways. The police detective Jade has been in love with since childhood — not that he’s noticed — has been given the case, which will make or break his career; naturally she offers to help out. It all comes together, inevitably. Random Violence has rather a lot of torture and violence; on a gore scale of one to 10, it rates a nine — maybe even a 9,2.

We’ve always known that Jo’burg is a dangerous city, full of nuts possessed by the Devil. But when it comes to wholesome, straight-up-and-down crime — hijackings, stabbings, blackmail, white collar swindles — Cape Town is the place to be. Or so it would appear from a new batch of books set in the Mother City.

Double Cross can perhaps best be described as a cross between romantic fiction and crime fiction — it is no accident that it has been published under a Mills & Boon imprint. Twenty-something Dunai, whose name apparently means Earth Mother, is employed by an NGO that runs a network of clinics offering contraception, abortion and women’s empowerment programmes. She arrives at her Greenmarket Square offices one morning to find her mentor strangled, “her wild dark hair spread across the carpet — her lips — blue-grey”, et cetera and when the police insist on treating the case as a robbery gone bad, she decides to find the killer herself. Downstairs is a former policeman turned private eye whom she loathes; she goes to him for help because there’s no one else to ask and together they set out to solve the mystery.

It’s great fun and well written, an entertaining example of a genre invented by Stella Rimington, former director of MI5, who took to writing fiction when she retired. Gilpin’s book has just about everything, including secret societies, some interesting cameos and a sufficient degree of peril stalking our heroine, a single mother who lives in the Bo-Kaap (where else?).

Chameleon is very different. It is an examination of the motives of a former hedge fund trader who talks her highly ethical husband into a spot of insider trading. He’s well placed to get up to mischief; he’s a partner in an investment firm’s section on proprietary trading and blessed with a reputation as a conservative operator. Nobody gets killed in Chameleon — nobody even gets hurt, although there may possibly be a rape, off-stage. All in all, it’s a very Capetonian book: it’s basically about the narrator and her relationship with her daughter. Most Capetonian books of any genre seem, in the end, to be about family. I’m not sure why.

Even the very excellent Street Blues makes reference here and there to families, but only by the way. Subtitled The Experiences of a Reluctant Policeman, it’s a series of vignettes detailing some of the highlights of the author’s career as a police reservist working out of the Mowbray station. Among them is the woman who is convinced her ex-boyfriend is lurking outside, prepared to burn down her house, hijackers on the run, high school students with a car turned into a pharmacopoeia of illegal substances and young girls stabbed outside a nightclub. But there is also the student whose clothing has been stolen off her washline by a streetwalker who has distributed it among her colleagues; they’ve kitted themselves out in her fluffy jackets and camisoles and pink silk panties for a night’s work, in one of the funniest tales one is likely to come across.

Brown is a lawyer who was drawn to police work for a variety of reasons — a desire to “give back”, to “get involved” — and there was the attraction of, as he writes, “work[ing] at the point where theoretical law meets human practicality”. An activist in the Eighties, he joined the police at the very station that he and other cadres had once considered attacking. He knows how to tell a good story — in this case, several good stories — and he’s as good at humour as at pathos. He is also apparently good at fiction: his thriller Coldsleep Lullaby won the 2006 Sunday Times fiction prize.

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Barbara Ludman
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