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Crime Beat

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Jassy Mackenzie Faces the Demons

Jassy Mackenzie’s debut crime novel, Random Violence (Umuzi), has been picking up the kind of reviews writers dream of. Set in Johannesburg, it gets to the soul of the city – its nastiness, its vulnerability, its anxieties – with a bunch of characters that are as damaged as the world they inhabit. Fast-paced, compulsive Random Violence is a thrill a page. Mackenzie took time off from loading a ‘black, stubby and functional’ Glock 19 to chat with Mike Nicol.

Crime Beat: One of the ideas behind Random Violence goes straight to the heart of an essentially hot issue: land. What brought you to this topic?

Jassy Mackenzie: I’ve always believed that the development of land is a crime. Especially in South Africa, it’s done without thought or consideration for aesthetics or the environment or even for history. It’s accompanied by bribery and corruption and motivated by greed. So yes, I think my loathing for developers did come across in the book’s plot! I took all the qualities I hate about them, and then I personified those qualities and bingo – I had my villain, Whiteboy.

Crime Beat: Was there a specific incident that sparked the idea?

Jassy Mackenzie: I was hijacked in 2005, and while this didn’t exactly spark any ideas, it did make me become much more aware of how vulnerable we all are to crime – and I’m not only talking about South Africans here, because violent crime is on the increase worldwide. Because I felt vulnerable after my hijacking I followed the news more avidly and took more of an interest in crime. I think when you’re getting ready to write a book, even if you don’t know it at the time, your subconscious starts working. It starts storing up everything you read about and hear about – and eventually the skeleton of a plot will loom out of the shadows and you have a choice – start writing, or let your own ideas haunt you forever…

Crime Beat: An horrendous experience. But do you mean to imply that had it not happened your book might have been different?

Jassy Mackenzie: Who can say? Perhaps I might never have written this book at all if I hadn’t been hijacked… I think we all have a choice about how we deal with whatever happens to us in life. We can choose to deal with bad experiences in a positive way, or we can perceive ourselves as victims and become mired in negativity. I certainly think that being hijacked did motivate me to write this book, and I believe that I’m a stronger person for having survived it.

Crime Beat: And this raises another question: writing crime fiction means facing the demons and this is never easy, especially when they are not imagined but relate to actual experience. Was it difficult writing the book’s opening scene?

Jassy Mackenzie: No, because the two incidents were so completely different – Annette’s killer is an icy-cold professional who’s there to murder her. My hijackers were two opportunistic criminals who’d managed to get hold of a gun and a plan. They were as nervous as I was – in fact, looking back, the whole incident was really just one big comedy of errors. In a way I think it made writing the opening scene of Random Violence easier, because I was able to draw on the fear I felt at the time of my hijacking as well as the first-hand experience of what my own reactions were – like Annette, I just wanted to run away, flee, get out of there. The incident also taught me what it’s like to walk away from somebody who’s holding a gun – it’s a horrible feeling. I can still remember I had this burning sensation in the centre of my back in anticipation of a bullet. But the guys didn’t fire a shot, they were too busy trying to work out how to get my car into reverse!

Crime Beat: After that troubling venture into an unsettling place, let’s return to the land issue. While land possession and development plays such a prominent part in the story, the two good characters, Jade de Jong and David Patel are sojourners, both living in rented accommodation. They’re unsettled, adrift. Jade has just returned from a long time out of the country and David is going through his own personal upheaval. Symbolically they’re in transition.

Jassy Mackenzie: Yes, they are, and their accommodation choices reflect that. This is also the reason why their romance is so difficult. You can’t let another person into your life if you’re not sure about what you want yourself. While Jade and David do love each other, their circumstances are not allowing them to make any permanent decisions about what they really want.

Crime Beat: The past plays a dominant role in Random Violence. Most of the major characters – Jade, David, Whiteboy, Mark Myers – are acting out the consequences of earlier decisions. Of course, by its very nature the crime novel is about the forces of the past in the present. Clearly the past – history – has a great interest for you. Or rather how its influences ripple into the future.

Jassy Mackenzie: I’m actually a person who lives very much in the moment. I don’t hold grudges or worry too much about what happened in the past – in fact most of the time I find history rather boring, except when it pertains to a crime and then I’m fascinated by it. When I realised that my novel’s structure required a certain amount of backstory, I took it as a challenge. I thought – well, if it has to be included, then I’m going to make it as exciting and action-packed as I can, because I don’t want any readers to find their eyes glazing over when it’s time for backstory.

Crime Beat: You succeeded. Nobody’s going to skip the flashbacks. Let’s move on to the characters. Most of the characters – be they the good guys or the baddies – have troubled pasts. They’ve all been traumatized in some way. They’re the walking wounded…

Jassy Mackenzie: I think everyone, real or fictitious, has a degree of trauma or trouble in their life. What makes characters – and real people – interesting is how they deal with it. Whiteboy deals with his demons by becoming a psychopath who’s only happy when he’s murdering people in brutal ways. With Jade, the traumatic events that happened in her past have offended her own moral code, and that has made her single-mindedly determined to avenge her father’s death, whatever it takes.

Crime Beat: Jade’s relationship with David and Robbie places her in a kind of nowhere land. She has resources on both sides of the fence and uses them equally. In fact Robbie is actually more effective which some might find controversial.

Jassy Mackenzie: Robbie is one of my favourite characters for exactly that reason. I’ve always been intrigued by people who are a blend of good and evil. Robbie’s a small-time gangster who makes his living from dealing in stolen cars and occasionally killing people, but he’s not all bad and he’s able to help her when the chips are down. That’s true in life as well. Help and redemption can come from the most unexpected, unlikely and even unwanted sources.

I was fascinated by the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons that was around in the 1980s. In that game, you had to choose your character – fighter, elf, thief, dwarf or whatever – and then choose their alignment which could be lawful, neutral or chaotic. Lawful characters were always good and always acted in the best interests of the group as a whole. Chaotic characters were self-serving and much more unpredictable. They might do something to benefit the group, but only if they were going to benefit from it too. After many games of Dungeons and Dragons I realised that neutral and chaotic characters were much, much more fun than lawful ones.

Crime Beat: The position of the police is not exactly saintly in Random Violence. Largely it’s malfunctioning at all levels. This is savage criticism. What justice comes down to in your novel is individual integrity because the police service is a broken corrupt institution.

Jassy Mackenzie: Corruption is a central theme in the book and unfortunately the South African Police Service couldn’t escape it! In South Africa today our police system has a host of challenges and it is going through a tough time. As a result the criminals are often perceived to be winning the war. As you’ve said, it all comes down to the individual. There are many, many cops out there doing the most incredible job, solving crimes, turning whole precincts around, setting things to rights. Then there are uber-cops like Piet Byleveld. I went to listen to a talk he gave while I was researching Random Violence, and he’s an awe-inspiring person and totally, scarily dedicated to what he does. If I were a criminal and I knew my dossier had landed on Byleveld’s desk, I’d turn myself in immediately just to get it over with. But festering among all the good guys, you get the other side of the equation – the bad, disinterested, corrupt cops, and they do feature in Random Violence.

Crime Beat: Random Violence has a blunt, honest approach to violence. Violence is ugly, devastating. One of the top crime fiction reviewers, Barbara Ludman in the Mail & Guardian, gave you a nine point two on a scale of one to 10 for violence. Barbara is known for her weak stomach in this arena and I was certainly untroubled by the violent descriptions. Did you ever have second thoughts about these scenes?

Jassy Mackenzie: Absolutely not, and they didn’t trouble me either. I’d say I slept like a baby after writing the murder scenes but that wouldn’t be true, because babies wake up crying and screaming every half-hour. Seriously, though, on an international scale I think there are many, many writers who have a more hard-core approach to violence than I do: Simon Kernick, who’s one of my favourite writers, Val McDermid, whose depictions of violence often make my eyes water (and I’d say I have a strong stomach in that regard) and of course Lee Child who doesn’t pull his punches either. It’s all about striking a balance. Violence is bad if it’s gratuitous, but it’s great if it highlights the characters and advances the plot and keeps the reader’s eyes wide open and glued to the page.

While readers of Random Violence will definitely get their money’s worth with regards to the body count, I have some unbreakable rules in place when it comes to violence. No harm will ever come to an animal or a child in any of my books, because I think that’s just wrong. And another thing I’ve tried to do is to keep profanity to an absolute minimum. There’s one character – Robbie – who I couldn’t stop from blurting out the f-word once or twice, but apart from that there is no really bad language in Random Violence and I did that intentionally, because although I swear like a trooper in real life, profanity looks stronger and more offensive on the printed page, and I think after a while the reader becomes numb to it.

Crime Beat: The PI novel hasn’t found much favour with local crime fiction writers yet. Instead both you and Margie Orford have gone for the outsider contracted by the police to help on a case. Apart from Jade’s abilities in this area, why did you make this decision? Why not use her as a privately contracted investigator?

Jassy Mackenzie: Jade is a private investigator. It just so happens that in this case, she’s assisting the police. I read up extensively on private investigators during my research and I found that this does happen from time to time. Police detectives will use the services of a private investigator when it is necessary. Equally, private investigators will sometimes need help or favours from the police in the cases they handle, so it’s very much a symbiotic relationship. Any PI worth their salt will foster a good relationship with the police and probably have strong connections or even a history with them.

Crime Beat: Clearly Jade de Jong is too good a character to put aside. Will you use her again? Will you continue to tease out her relationship with David.

Jassy Mackenzie: I’m definitely planning more adventures (or should I say, misadventures) for Jade. Her relationship with David is by no means resolved yet, and I’m afraid Jade is in for a host of problems – professional as well as romantic – down the line.

Crime Beat: How far advanced is the next book?

Jassy Mackenzie: The next book, ‘Gangsters’ Paradise’, is completed. It’s set in Johannesburg but it isn’t a Jade book – the hero is a paramedic who attends an accident scene, agrees to do a favour for a dying girl, and as a result becomes a target for a vicious gang of cash-in-transit robbers planning their next heist. I’m now starting work on book number three which will see Jade picking up her trusty Glock again…


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    October 6th, 2008 @09:06 #

    As a rather hesitant reader of crimis, I found this interview fascinating -- it certainly made me feel more comfortable about reading this book. My own experiences (first- and second-hand) of crime have made it very difficult for me to read descriptions of certain kinds of violence. I can't watch a film (and won't read a book) if animals and children get hurt in it (so a big thank-you, Jassy, and I will be scampering out to get your book), and I can tolerate about 1 in a 100 depictions of sexual violence (the aborted rape scene in Thelma and Louise being the 1). After Bob Woolmer's death, where I sat helplessly in an indifferent USA, dependent on the Internet for news, and thus bombarded by dozens of gory speculative pieces about the autopsy, I found that I couldn't stomach the mortuary crimis (Cornwell, Reichs, etc) anymore. Yet I was fascinated to see in The Bookseller that this class of crimi makes up top-sellers in the UK for middle-aged, middle-class women. Interesting and uneasy web of connections!


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