The genres - crime, thrillers, historical romance, etc - haven't attracted many proponents over recent decades in SA (probably for obvious reasons, at least as far as cop stories were concerned), but it could be that we are maturing and this might be set to change. A crime novel, you could argue, is about as cool as it gets these days, but why aren't there more people doing it?
The good news is that this is changing. I was invited to speak at a crime-writing seminar in Gauteng last year, and there were more than 70 participants. Moreover, I've been asked to comment on two Afrikaans crime novel manuscripts in the past six months, one of which was pretty damn good. There was also a young SA author who published a crime novel in English last year to some critical acclaim - I unfortunately can't recall his name. Let's hope this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
- Your books owe more to US crime fiction than the cosy UK or European mystery; do you think that's where we need to go for our models?
Yes and no. I think both styles of crime-writing will remain popular locally and abroad, and a good story in either can be successful. But I do find it interesting that a number of new UK and continental crime authors are writing in what one may call the more gritty American tradition. Frenchman Jean-Christophe Grange is a good example - and someone like Sweden's Henning Mankell has always had more in common with James Ellroy than Agatha Christie. But wouldn't it be great if we could develop a truly African model of the genre?
- Dead Before Dying was about revenge and justice - a cop novel; in Dead at Daybreak and Heart of the Hunter the world is a more treacherous place with dark currents welling out of state rather than personal pathologies. James Ellroy reckons that the crime novel is dead, and that the new crime novel is about the crimes of the state. Would you be heading in this direction?
The crime genre seems to go through phases - we had the serial killer phase some years ago, and, lately, a number of authors have been working with so-called crimes of the state: Connelly, Lee Child, even Ian Rankin (in A Question of Blood, with a politician being a major part of the intrigue), to name but a few.
I think it is the genre's way of commenting on the world we live in. And the world is constantly changing. Since 9/11, politics has been weighing heavier on everybody's minds …
So I don't think the crime novel is "dead". It is still the basic framework for most writing in the genre, and I'm pretty sure that in a few years we will see a trend back to it.
As for me, at least the next novel will have significant political themes, but, hopefully, the core of the story will be how they impact on ordinary people.
- Do you find the conventions in crime fiction a hindrance, or an advantage?
I must admit that I don't quite agree with the sentiment that crime fiction as a broad genre has strict conventions. There is simply too big a variety of interpretations out there. To quote PD James: "The crime novel can include a remarkable variety of works from the cosy certainties of Agatha Christie, through Anthony Trollope and Graham Greene, to the great Russians." (Source: www.randomhouse.com/features/pdjames/faq.html.) She goes on to say that the detective novel, as a "subspecies" of the crime genre, is perhaps "more limited in scope and potential. The reader can expect to find a central mysterious death, a closed circle of suspects each with credible motive, means and opportunity for the crime, a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it, and a solution at the end of the book which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues presented by the writer with deceptive cunning but essential fairness. What interests me is the extraordinary variety of talents which this so-called formula is able to accommodate."
Moreover, I've always been slightly uncomfortable with being labelled a "crime author". Only one of my books, Dead Before Dying (Afrikaans title: Feniks), can be viewed as a detective novel in the way James describes it above. I have tried, with all subsequent novels, to develop a style that mixes crime with thriller.
Having said all that … Early in my writing career I did find the conventions of the detective novel an advantage. It gave me the opportunity to learn the craft within those boundaries. Like learning to drive on roads already mapped by others, one could concentrate on clutch, gears and gas, and not worry so much about taking a wrong turn.
- Crime fiction is a deviant genre, and, some have argued, less interested in reconciliation than in alienation and disorder. Yet hard-boiled prose can be wonderfully poetic; is this part of the crime novel's inverted world?
I've often thought of good fiction as being very similar to a good symphony: the theme goes from order to disorder and back to order again (if you know what I mean). So I will have to beg to differ from those who say that crime fiction is about disorder. Crime is about disorder and alienation, but crime fiction is very often about the quest to rectify this state - and this quest is such a wonderful source of conflict and tension.
Extrapolating this, I would like to think that this is the fabric from which all, or most, stories are woven. Take JM Coetzee's incredible Disgrace, for instance - perhaps not quite "hard-boiled" prose, but stripped, driven, brilliant and powerful anyway, it deals with disorder and alienation in the same inverted relationship you are suggesting.