High noon in the badlands

Black Heart is the novel that completes Mike Nicol’s trilogy of what his publisher, Umuzi, categorises as “crime thriller” fiction. I think it is more than that — in South African writing the well-turned “crime thriller” is ­becoming one of the few forms that can ­combine readability with socio-political analysis.

Some recent “serious” political novels, despite polite reviews full of faint praise, are quite unreadable and yet they contain excellent sociopolitical content. In contrast, a ­whodunit novel like Michiel Heyns’s Lost Ground is so gripping that I bunked a day off work just to get to the end of it.

Nicol’s novel reads with the same kind of racy pace, although his style is different from Heyns, who creates gentle social satire, a veritable Henry James in the veld. Nicol, by contrast, is Elmore Leonard in a politically greased Cape Town — a Mother City where the dark mother, femme fatale Sheemina February, spins a web of political machination with appalling effect.

Sheemina is out to get Mace Bishop, former ANC operative turned private security consultant. Bishop, in turn, wants to kill her because she has murdered someone he loved. It is high noon in the Cape Town badlands of hired hit men, corrupt National Intelligence Agency operatives and dirty arms deals.

Sold-out ideals

More pertinent than the plot is the political topography of the novel. The entire machinery of ­liberal democracy and black economic empowerment is here depicted as a fig leaf for a criminal accumulation of goods — essentially, late capitalism overrunning socialist idealism.

The ideals of the Freedom Charter have been decisively sold out.

Money is God and the only difference between South Africa and any other global polity is the degree to which the pay-off effectively runs the country. In Nicol’s South Africa consumptive greed is massive and pervasive.

Whether you agree with this or not is up to you as a reader. Call it a typical neoliberal kneejerk perception, if you like. Call it an incisive analysis that cuts through the crap. It depends on where you stand, what you want to believe and how you read the situation.

In a sense, then, the real question is: how convincing is the depiction? And the test here lies in the ­question of form: structure and style. The answer to this test, in the reader, is a measurement called “recognition” or “adequation”.

For example, the style in Nicol’s trilogy is “hard-boiled” or “hard core”. His characters are depicted with less individual interiority, less “roundedness” and more outward style within a Byzantine plot, because the political game of capital accumulation is a class thing: ­individuals are pulled into a game that is bigger than themselves.

Does this “click” for you as a reader? That is the real question and the answer lies in the reader’s hands. It also lies in the form’s adequation to real social conditions, but short of an ultimate sociological analysis it all comes back to every reader’s reading of society, based on the available data.

Schizophrenia of late capitalism

Here is my reading: Nicol’s analysis is similar to that of Marlene van Niekerk’s in her newest work and both are indebted to Deleuze and Guattari: the social body is so stricken by the schizophrenia of late capitalism and the orgy of spectacular consumerism — so split across lack and want, desiring and dying — that its behavioural symptoms have become morbid and deadly.

In Van Niekerk’s new play, Die Kortstondige Raklewe van Anastasia W, the social body is presented symbolically as a funeral parlour in which necrophilia is practised, with political zombies stuffing the social body for their pleasure and gain. In Nicol’s trilogy, the motives to action (political and moral) are a will to the power of what money can buy so deadly that the only morality is a consumptive vampirism, a power that both consumes everything in its path and leaves a trail of waste — death — in its wake.

In a diseased social body, illness is analogous to an act of “crime”. Crime is the cancer that routs the healthy order of things. And the crime-thriller genre is the most convenient form, with which to write about the diseased social body because its narrative quest involves a protagonist ­”solving the crime” — that is, going to the heart of the sickness in the social body and staring it down.

It is not as though crime is a new condition in South Africa; the statistics show that it has always been there. Under apartheid it was largely locked away in the townships, but now the democratisation of social violence — the effects of want — has created a greater public discourse around crime. And there are more people wanting, and more people dying of want, for want, in want, and for the sake of want, than ever before.

In such conditions, the crime thriller contains the generic elements best suited to social analysis. Action, pace, chase, kill. Grab it, get it, take it, fake it. The amoral imperatives of our necrophilic society find a fitting parallel in the crime thriller genre. Whatever means is necessary to the end. Content meets form. It is a perfect match. Nicol has found the pitch pretty much spot-on.

Leon de Kock is coordinator of the Stellenbosch Literary Project, which can be accessed at www.slipnet.co.za. It also has fuller reviews of Marlene van Niekerk’s new play

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