Daddy’s Girl is the third Clare Hart novel to come from crime writer Margie Orford’s pen in recent years. As usual, Orford’s writing is elegant, intelligent, well-conceived and perfectly nuanced. Many of these qualities are echoed by her main protagonist, Dr Clare Hart, who is equally elegant, intelligent and full of subtlety. Orford has created an attractive and irresistible heroine who has morality and integrity on her side too. This clever move ensures that a reader is hooked inevitably into Clare Hart’s journey from the opening pages.
In Daddy’s Girl Dr Clare Hart is working on the Persephone project, a project she’s set up to trace the alarming number of girls who go missing in Cape Town and surrounds with appalling regularity. In the harsh world of the Numbers gangs who rule the notorious Cape Flats, the life of a little girl is cheaper and less highly valued than a packet of cigarettes. Especially when killing and raping a young girl is a common initiation practice for gangsters who need to prove themselves worthy of inclusion or promotion in a gang. Unfortunately many of the girls killed in such harsh ways often are neglected from the start as they belong to parents who have long since given up any fight to live a life of normalcy. Sometimes the system has beaten these parents down into hopeless passivity. Others are the victims of poverty themselves and some have taken the easy way out using cheap liquor to escape from their hopeless realities. So girls go missing daily on the Cape Flats. Sometimes their disappearances are reported. Sometimes parents don’t even notice they’re gone until it’s too late.
It is to this world that Clare Hart, former investigative journalist and sometime police profiler has dedicated herself, trying to stop the apparently endless scourge of abuse against women and children. She’s producing a regular television programme called Missing in which she details the missing girls and documents the experiences of the few survivors of brutal abuses. She broadcasts a list of missing girls in the hope that someone will be compelled to look out for those most vulnerable members of society. Her project takes her into the very heart of the world of gangsters, pathologists and criminologists. And her broadcasts set her, and those who talk to her about their experiences, up as targets for the gangsters and others who are trying to keep her work out of the public eye.
When Captain Riedwaan Faizal, an experienced member of the Cape Town Gang Unit, discovers that his six-year-old daughter, Yasmin, has disappeared after a ballet lesson, he’s terrified that she may be the next one to be labelled “dead” on Clare Hart’s list of missing girls. He turns to Clare, as a friend and colleague who has profiled cases for him before, and asks for help to find his missing daughter. Their relationship has always been a little more than just business, so Clare finds it hard to turn Riedwaan down, even though she knows the chances of finding Yasmin alive are very slim. An added complication is that Yasmin’s mother believes that her ex-husband has abducted their daughter himself to stop her taking Yasmin to Canada when she emigrates to escape the violent world of gang warfare in which they live.
As Clare and Riedwaan start working together, they uncover an unholy criminal network with a gangster with a chip on his shoulder at the heart of it. Voëltjie Ahrend has had to work extra hard to prove himself worthy of respect from the seasoned members of the Numbers gang. He is just a new-blood to them as he never spent the requisite amount of time in prison to earn his stripes. Add to this dangerous cocktail of a volatile gangster with insecurity issues and the desires of yet another gangster with a score to settle. Place a few crooked cops into the mix, as well as a wounded victim with a penchant for revenge, and you’ve got one very explosive scenario.
Orford’s delicate writing is unusual in crime novels, but this is what makes Orford a cut above the rest. Daddy’s Girl is a crime novel of unusual depth. On the one hand Orford writes about the brutal atrocities which take place daily in our country with more than enough detail to drive home the horrors of the crimes. As such, this novel is undeniably part of the now well-respected crime novel genre. Where Orford takes it beyond the genre, however, is through her ability to write about characters and places with immense subtlety. She describes the minutiae of settings and the unspoken feelings of her characters, and creates with delicacy and flair an intricately woven, multi-stranded plot with skill. It is a finely crafted crime novel.
This book is one of Orford’s best for yet another reason: Daddy’s Girl doesn’t exploit women in the same way that some crime writers do, by making them the standard victims in their novels. This is an issue that has been bothering me for some time. Where does gratuitous exploitation of women begin and where does accurate depiction of the status quo of the criminal world end when recreating fictional? In other words, where does one draw the moral line when describing atrocities against women? I’ve thought about this frequently while reading novels or watching films where it’s almost always women who are graphically violated and victimised. When the exploitation and violation of women is the central focus of novels such as the much-feted Girl With a Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson, for example, how much do the graphic descriptions of abuse perpetuate the way the world perceives women? I think Larson made his heroine, Salander, an angel of vengeance to balance his graphic descriptions, but somehow I felt the descriptions of extremely violent crimes against women remained the dominant images as they were so overwhelming.
This is where Orford succeeds. Not only is her heroine working against the exploitation and dehumanisation of women, but her descriptions of the deaths and violations of the victims in the novel are written with a woman’s awareness, through her character Clare Hart, of how appalling and offensive the crimes actually are. If her novel succeeds in creating a lack of tolerance for the horrendous acts committed against women and children in this country then I will be the first to champion it. Perhaps this is one of the few ways we can hope to slow down the abuses of such horrific proportions in our so-called civilised society.
Moral rant aside, Daddy’s Girl is an excellent read. It is captivating and creates each step of the complicated storyline with inevitable compulsion. Its ending is deeply satisfying and I look forward with great anticipation to the next Clare Hart crime novel. All I hope is that the protagonist continues to fight for the rights of women and children and that awareness will lead to lessening the abuses against those most vulnerable in our communities.