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Thursday, March 19, 2009


Time of the Writer’s latest festival focused on crime writing. (Report by Margaret von Klemperer, courtesy of The Witness)

Crime is South Africa’s hottest topic, cutting across groups and classes. It crops up at dinner parties, in taxis and in newspaper letter columns. You might think that would be enough, but it seems we still want to read about it – the country has a growing stable of writers whose books, whether thrillers or crime fiction, sell.

On Monday, the first morning of the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, I tracked down three who are finding that crime does pay, if only in terms of royalties from their publishers – Angela Makholwa, author of Red Ink, Mike Nicol (Payback) and Margie Orford (Like Clockwork; Blood Rose). My first question to them all was: why do South Africans want to read about crime?

“If it’s written as fiction, it distances it a bit from people’s fears,” says Makholwa.. “For some reason people find it fascinating to read about serial killers. They love it, and they love the fact that it scares the wits out of them.”

Nicol and Orford see it slightly differently. Both say that crime fiction is fantasy. “For the most part, things end well, and the baddies go to jail,” Nicol says, although he does admit that local crime fiction is often more ambiguous and open ended, perhaps a reflection of the society we live in. For Orford, whose third novel about investigator Dr Clare Hart is due out this year, it is first and foremost a way of showing contemporary South African society. “When I came back here in 2001 from Namibia, I was overwhelmed by the sense of violence and fear here, and I wanted to write about how South Africa is in the present. Crime writing parachutes you right into that.”

The novels the three write are very different, but all fall into the crime genre, although the line between crime fiction and thrillers is increasingly blurred. As Nicol points out, South African retailer CNA refuses to have shelves labelled “Crime”, presumably because they are concerned that it will put people off. So they display them as “Thrillers”. But call them what you will, they are attracting a growing readership.

Makholwa wrote Red Ink as a way of making sense of an experience she had by turning it into fiction. “Doing that liberated me,” she says. “I could explore it voyeuristically, bringing in fear, suspense, humour.” This is not trivialising or glamorising crime, though killers like the idea of being the subject of books and films, and copy-cat killings have happened. “That’s something to think about as a writer,” she says.

In the years immediately after 1994, South African writing was heavily ‘literary’, and locally produced popular, or mass market, fiction was a rarity. But good crime writing is good writing.

“I have a literary background,” says Orford. “I can ‘litter’ as well as anyone! And I am finding that the more I write, the more nuanced I can make my work. We live in an ambiguous society – we have the nicest people here, unless they are trying to kill you. There’s not much in between. I’m interested in violence and its effects, and in the resilience of people. But you don’t want to belabour readers. You have to tell a story. South African readers think South African books are going to ‘klap’ them, and we have to get away from that.”

Makholwa admits that in a country where literary writing has been at the forefront, she was concerned about how Red Ink would be received. “I thought it might be dismal,” she says. “But mass market fiction is very important; it’s how people get into reading.” And she has had a great response from across the spectrum - from high school kids, black men and white women. Invited to speak at a book club in Soweto, she found herself with fans who had taken her book to heart, and were eager to give her an in depth analysis.

Nicol admits that for many years after he went to university he became a snob. “If it wasn’t high literature, I wasn’t reading it. It was only ten years ago that I went back to crime, and there is a whole lot of stuff that is really good – good writing, good characters, good dialogue, and social commentary. There’s everything we want in a book and you can read it on the beach, and leave it in the sand if you want.” He agrees that post 1994, there was a perception that South African writers were wagging their fingers at readers. “The crime genre doesn’t do that.” And increasingly, it offers humour as well as a good scare.

Those wagging fingers and klaps have made some readers reluctant to go local. Also, Nicol feels publishers must try harder to make their authors into celebrities. “They’ve got to make writers entertaining and attractive, make them sexy. Already the book launch is changing. You used to get a lecture – and all you could do was try to get as pissed as possible before it started. Now authors know they have to sing for their supper – they have to get a couple of laughs, and then people will think: ‘great, funny guy. Let’s buy the book’.”

If you enjoy crime writing and thrillers, for your next beach or fireside read try something local. The settings are familiar which adds to the fun and there are some excellent reads out there. Check local crime writing out at the Blog Nicol runs - - and catch local writers this week in Durban at The Time of the Writer. For the full programme, visit – Margaret von Klemperer