Joanne Hichens, author of Divine Justice, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

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Divine Justice
Joanne Hichens
Publisher: Mercury
ISBN: 9780987005809

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Short review by JvE

Joanne Hichens as an author is no stranger to Krimi readers, having had her first outing with Mike Nicol in their co-authored book, Out To Score. In Divine Justice, Hichens leaps solo into a story of bizarre characters, tensely twisted plots, chilling hatred and a denouement to die for. Divine Justice is a page-turning chiller, with flashes of black humour to illuminate the very large cracks in the dark nature of some of her characters.

PI Rae Valentine, disabled from a past which entailed addiction to seriously destructive substances, is left with only one of her two partners when her usual sidekick, Mullet Mendes, is taken into custody. The fact that he’s under police scrutiny for killing two rapists who’d brutalised Valentine, his then girlfriend, is not enough to stop the police from taking him in. Valentine is left with a depressed and alcoholic colleague, Vince Saldana, to help her with the latest case. It seems simple enough. Elderly Rosa Dieter’s jewellery was stolen on its way to being sold to legitimate buyers. Straightforward robbery it seems. But, as in all good crime novels, things are not what they seem. The plot begins to twist when Valentine receives a call from Rosa’s middle-aged son, Dieter. Unknown to Valentine, he is a pharmacist with a fetish. Neither does Valentine plan for the re-emergence of one her sworn enemies, Arno Loots. Somehow he is also involved with what seems less and less like an open and shut case of jewellery theft. As Valentine discovers the path to Rosa’s jewels is not so smooth, a coven of characters unfolds, bringing her worst nightmare back into sharp focus. It seems she may face the horror of being raped again by a group of right-wing extremists. Will she get away from them before they get her? Or is any hope for the future futile?

Hichens is a powerful writer, getting into her stride as her characters expose their sometimes truly awful sides. Heinz Dieter is more than just the neat pharmacist the public sees. Behind closed doors he becomes a twisted man whose mind has been bent by his mother’s cruel abuses. He has become an unhinged religious fanatic, awaiting the apocalypse, but preparing for a new start with his chosen few. His character, along with a few other specimens, is deliciously awful. Armed with disinfectant wipes, Dieter sinks into complete madness as the novel progresses, and we as readers are very happy to go along for the ride.

The author is not above laughing at her characters with us, though. While there are gruesome and heartless murders throughout, some moments, especially the denouement, are pure black comedy.

Hichens has written a cracking good crime novel set in familiar landmarks in the Cape and Namibia. It’s an excellent book to take along on holiday. It will keep you entertained even if the sun doesn’t shine.

Q&A with Joanne Hichens

Joanne, am I right in thinking that this is your first solo novel? You have written a crime novel with Mike Nicol before, called Out to Score. Is this where you discovered the main character of Rae Valentine?

I completed an MA in creative writing, and have several unpublished novels from that time and beyond. But I suppose novels sitting in the bottom drawer don’t count! I went on to co-author Out to Score with Mike Nicol and I wrote a youth novel in 2008, titled Stained, which was shortlisted for the Sanlam Youth Literature award and which has since been published in the UK and USA. Here the publishers thought a stepfather raping his daughter was too violent. Go figure. As if we don’t read about it every day in the Voice. As for Rae, she had a cameo role in Out to Score.

Have you always written? How did you come to writing, in general, and crime novels in particular?

I have always been creative. I wrote at school and in fact was enrolled at Rhodes University to do journalism, but then decided to follow in the family tradition and go to Stellenbosch instead, where I started a law degree. I’m afraid I went a bit wild after having come from a convent school (not that all convent girls will go wild, of course; there were other factors at play) and switched to art and forgot about my plans to write. I expressed myself through painting. No regrets. But I think I have always been a writer at heart. I have taken a circuitous route to get here, but now reckon the upside is that I have a whole lot to say.

You come up with some of the most bizarre characters I’ve encountered in a long while in a South African novel! This is a good thing, as they are so intriguingly different that the reader is compelled to find out what makes them tick. Where do you find characters as strange as Heinz Dieter and as heartless as Arno Loots?

Arno Loots first appeared in Out to Score. As this novel, Divine Justice, was intended as a sequel, he had a bit part which seemed to take on new life as I wrote into his character. Arno decided he wasn’t one to hang out in the background any longer and was no longer to play second fiddle as a henchman. He wanted his proper glory as a bad guy. Heinz Dieter, Trudie Kellerman, the Boyz all come from the deep recesses of the imagination and once I gave them permission to exist, once I started to run with them as characters, I relished making them as bizarre and surprising as I could without having them lose their sense of believability. I have, in fact, always been drawn by writing that features the bizarrely wicked – contemporary thriller writers Carl Hiaasen, Vicki Hendricks, and Mark Haskell Smith are my current favourites, as well as Ken Bruen, whose earlier novels, such as White Arrest, are laugh-out-loud funny. Then again, I have always had an odd sense of humour. Sending characters up a little also serves the purpose of taking the edge off their inherent evilness.

Your novel portrays some horrifyingly callous characters. It’s chilling to think that you have drawn these creations from real life. How do you manage to sink to the dark side when writing them, and do you manage to extricate yourself from the fictional underworld when you are done?

I wanted to create the kind of horrific character that hadn’t yet been drawn in South African fiction, to explore these characters, to go beyond the taboos. White supremacy, racism, seemed to be the issues I wanted to touch on, although the idea for the novel was triggered around the time of the xenophobic attacks. I think I wanted to explore the concept of hate, without bashing the reader over the head with any moralising. To alleviate the callousness of some of the characters – and I agree, men like JP are despicable – I tempered the callousness with black humour. At times the dialogue is over the top in order to show the characters to be ridiculous in their blatant racism. Unfortunately real-life characters like this exist. They sit at braais discussing the sorry state of South Africa, or in London bewailing the fact that they were forced from their country; there are characters like this in every city: Berlin, Oslo, New York. Deluded racists commit countless atrocities as a direct result of intolerance and hate – not because they are hungry, or poor, or have no choice. Hate crime is the worst kind of crime. I wanted also to explore bad whiteys – so many novels centre around Cape Coloured gangsterism (like, enough already!) – I wanted to show the worst kind of white protagonist there could be and so I came up with this motley crew of racist bastards.

How do I sink to the dark side? I give myself permission. Then I use my imagination. Extricating myself from it is as easy as closing any novel – and there are many violent crime novels being written. Many, too, are written from the point of view of the evil protagonist. I think this might be a difference – instead of having a cop or PI on the trail of the baddies, the baddies are very much part of the unfolding of the story. Placing oneself in the mindset of the antagonist then can be an uncomfortable experience.

The setting of the story is Cape Town and then Namibia. You live in Cape Town, but did you go to Namibia to do research for the book? What made you choose that part of the world for the extremists’ bleak new-world view?

My inspiration for the novel came to me on a trip down the Orange River, and specifically from the guides who took us down the river. I could just see a group of baddies hanging out on the banks of the river, swimming, chewing the fat, planning something evil. So I feel confident about my depiction of what I experienced there: the water, the wildlife, the sparse vegetation. The rest, I confess, was researched via the internet. I have flown over Namibia, but never been there. If my depiction is somewhat unreal, then I beg forgiveness from the reader. I figured, too, the novel is so bizarre in places that I can get away with a little make-believe around Namibia. As far as the new-world view goes, there have been numerous predictions in the past which point to Africa as the continent that would survive a sort of nuclear holocaust, that Africa has the kind of resources in plenty which the rest of the world is clamouring after. But of course, as a fiction writer, one is able to embroider.

Rae Valentine is an intriguing character. It’s quite unusual for a whodunit to have a disabled woman as the chief protagonist. How did you decide on Rae to be your heroine?

In actual fact, disability is quite usual in the ranks of PIs and cops. There are mute, blind and quadriplegic protagonists in many series – and this is no joke! Asperger syndrome, amputation, wheelchairs, canes, epilepsy, almost every disability features in some form when you start to look for disabled protagonists. Like driving a new car and spotting all same models on the road. The most famous disabled detective must be Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, who is quadriplegic and can only move one finger. Now that sucks! As far as disabled women go, there’s Jane A Adams’s Naomi Blake, a blind copper in the midlands of England; or try Sue Anne Jaffarian’s mystery series, which features Odelia Grey in a wheelchair, and she’s plus-sized to boot. In fact, one of my all-time fave female characters was Steve Carella's wife Teddy, a deaf-mute, and his right-hand woman. Ed McBain's detective Steve Carella discussed all his cases with Teddy, and she brought up their children, and just seemed so capable and loving. Her character, thinking about it now, was an influence.

Rae first appeared in Out to Score as Mullet Mendes’s long-suffering girlfriend. There was so much unfinished business between them that she had to come back to sort out her love life. She was always a character I liked too, so spunky and natural and sexy. I wanted to develop her. Get to know her better in a sense. And I decided to develop her as a series character. To really get to grips with her disability. As she says in her own words, “We are each of us licking wounds.” If you look at disability in this way, it seems more “normal”. Everyone of us is disabled, or stunted, in some way or another.

Your style is bold and brassy at times and you aren’t afraid to venture into the bedroom to depict a few racy scenes. I’m thinking especially of the scene when Arno Loots and Trudie Kellerman get down and dirty. The scene is perfectly justified and even though it’s very brutal, it works. Do you find it difficult to write sex scenes? Do you think they’re essential for a modern novel to sell?

I enjoy writing sex scenes, though I’m better at the wham-bam-thanks-Trudie type of scene, the quickie sex scenes. The more tender love scenes are more difficult. A writer has to connect with emotion, and tenderness. It’s a challenge not to make meaningful love scenes sound corny or sentimental. No, they are not essential. I believe that romance is essential, though, some sort of blossoming of a relationship, some sort of connection which is conveyed to the reader – a reader must feel that an emotional connection is forming between two people. Otherwise why read on? Skop, skiet en donder is not enough.

I’m always amused by British whodunits when small villages fall prey to a serial killer and almost the whole population of said village is decimated. Anyone who’s been to Britain knows how rare it is for crimes to take place at such a rate. In South Africa it’s another story – murders take place so often that we hardly blink when yet another gruesome murder or six is reported in the newspaper. In your novel there are a lot of murders, but they don’t seem surprising in their contexts. Do you think that makes it easier for crime writers in this country, or more difficult?

Do I believe that because we have a massive crime problem it is easier to write crime? No. I think, too, that as one scratches the surface of so-called civilised countries such as Britain, you find a callousness which equals our own here. Obviously not on such a large scale, perhaps not as frequently brutal, but we must not underestimate the inherent evilness which lurks under the veneer. In fact, many of the best crime writers, with the most vicious stories and characters, are from the British Isles – Ken Bruen, Irvine Walsh, Niall Griffiths write the nastiest kind of crime, much of it bringing into focus a nihilistic youth which will bash a granny to near death in her own flat just for her welfare cheque. Then laugh about it before blowing the money on drugs.

Something that is more difficult is selling crime fiction in South Africa, as we don't have a strong tradition of crime fiction, though if you look back there are very strong proponents of the crime novel – James McClure, for instance. This is changing, hopefully, but South African readers generally need to be putting their money where their mouths are. If we want a strong literary tradition we have to take risks and buy South African. This debate, as you know, continues unabated – how to get readers and book stores to support South African fiction in no uncertain terms.

Will you always write crime novels or do you long to express yourself in another genre? What is the appeal of writing crime?

I have always read crime fiction, whereas my sister read historical novels, and my father devoured biographies. As I mentioned, I have written a youth novel. I am working on a memoir, as I really enjoy chatting about some of the life lessons I’ve learned along the way. I worked for a number of years at a psychiatric clinic after I graduated with a degree in psychology. I am fascinated by what makes people tick – there is usually a core belief which motivates – in real life as well as in crime novels. It just seems natural to me that I would write a crime novel, as it is a genre I know and love. It appeals to me to read of a chaotic order which gets set right. I am a firm believer in justice, whether it is the rough kind or delivered through a court of law: the baddies should get a dose of their just deserts.

And here is the dreaded question: What’s planned for after the dust stirred up by Divine Justice has settled? 

Why dreaded? I am working on my next Rae Valentine novel, and excited by it. It is set partly in a psychiatric hospital, a setting I’m familiar with. My problem is just keeping my bum on the seat long enough to get the novel done by mid-2012, which is the plan. But I am rather ADD, so it takes a huge effort. This is my major problem – sticking to schedule without being distracted by all sorts of other ideas and plans. And doing so without taking “drugs”, the kind we feed so readily to children.

I know you’ll do it, Joanne, and I’ll be one of the first to read it. JvE.


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