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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: An interview with Jassy Mackenzie’s about Worst Case: a new setting in KZN, Jade’s mother and her rocky road with David Patel.

Time for the bright light and the questions. Wired to the hard chair is Jassy Mackenzie, and, more particularly
her new Jade de Jong novel,
Worst Case. Here she talks about the on-off love affair of her main characters, Jade and David Patel, not to mention the bad guys planning an environmental disaster that will smother the St Lucia wetlands.

Crime Beat: In your other two Jade de Jong novels (Random Violence and Stolen Lives) as well as the standalone My Brother’s Keeper, Johannesburg is your setting. This time you’ve moved locale to the KwaZulu
north coast, Richard’s Bay to be precise where Jade has gone on holiday. Was this change of setting a holiday for you too?

Jassy Mackenzie: Although Jo’burg is my home turf, I don’t want to become too stuck there in terms of my writing. Change is good, especially since in the Jade series, the main characters remain the same from book to book. So, since I’m not ready to kill off any of my leads for the sake of introducing variety, I need to explore different settings from time to time.

Crime Beat: Obviously this brings with it new material, new descriptive opportunities, but presumably also new
challenges in getting the setting right, the light, the sounds and smells?

Jassy Mackenzie: Yes, as well as doing research on the area. I think you see places very differently as a tourist compared to the way you see them as a writer. As a tourist you can just lie back and enjoy the sunshine, but as a writer you have to location-scout the area, assessing each place you visit for its crime novel potential.

Crime Beat: Before getting to the main story, there are two ongoing stories from your series which are played out to a degree in Worst Case: the one relates to Jade’s mother; the other to her relationship with David Patel. Let’s look at the mother-issue first. Clearly you felt it was time to tell this story. Without giving anything away, were you surprised by any of the detail that presented itself while you were writing, or had you worked it out while you were writing the earlier novels?

Jassy Mackenzie: When I started writing Random Violence, I decided Jade would have grown up with only
one parent – her police detective father. I thought this would help to explain why she ended up being the fiercely
independent, tough-minded woman she is. I didn’t have any idea at that stage who her mother had been or what had really happened to her. Luckily all this came to me in a blinding flash while I was writing Stolen Lives, so Worst Case is simply a continuation of the story.

Crime Beat: Why didn’t you put it into Stolen Lives?

Jazzy Mackenzie: Because it is an ongoing process of discovery. There may well be more discoveries in subsequent books and, who knows, the demons of Jade’s mother’s past might just come back to attack her daughter at some stage…especially if she keeps on digging.

Crime Beat: And then to David Patel. Her relationship with him has always been one of promise and disappointment. With each book this pattern is repeated. This is quite a tough ordeal for them, a reminder that they might succeed professionally, but personally they’re failures. Why keep them in this state of insecurity?

Jassy Mackenzie: I don’t want to sound sadistic, it’s more fun that way! Like watching reality TV – when
I sit down with my partner Dion to watch Master Chef, I always say to him, “Yay… it’s time for our daily dose
human suffering and misery.”

Crime Beat: You’ve managed to manoeuvre them into a cliffhanger in Worst Case. Give us a hint, does their relationship continue?

Jassy Mackenzie: It continues, but the question of course is – on what grounds? And even I can’t give a clear
answer there just yet.

Crime Beat: You’ve used a classic crime fiction opener – the murder. What advantages does this have?

Jassy Mackenzie: A murder always provides an attention-grabbing start. I personally love reading crime novels where there’s a dead body by the end of chapter one, because it raises the stakes. I tried to make this chapter punchy and memorable because the reader will only realise much later in the book exactly where it fits into the story.

Crime Beat: Was it the first chapter you wrote, or did you go back later to do the scene setter?

Jassy Mackenzie: It was the first chapter. Which makes a nice change, because quite often with my chaotic writing style, the first chapter is scrapped in the rewrite and chapter two becomes the new chapter one.

Crime Beat: Of course the murder opens up to reveal a larger crime, one of a potential environmental disaster. Once again this is new ground for you, in fact each book has tackled a new theme. Is this your intention with the series?

Jassy Mackenzie: Yes – although perhaps I should say, so far so good. I’m hoping that even if I write forty books I won’t end up covering the same ground twice, because I think that would be an insult to the ingenuity of criminals.

Crime Beat: What triggered the environmental concern in Worst Case?

Jassy Mackenzie: Worst Case is set in the iSimingaliso Wetlands Park – previously known as the St Lucia
Wetlands Park – one of the most beautiful, unspoilt areas in the world. I chose this setting because Jade’s mother died in Richards Bay, which is very close by, and part of the reason for Jade’s choosing to go on holiday here was to visit her grave. The BP oil spill was all over the news when I started to write this book, so it was an easy decision when I asked the question: what is the biggest threat to a coastal estuary with a vulnerable ecosystem?

Crime Beat: Pedantic question: is that area a favourite of yours?

Jassy Mackenzie: Not specially, although it is a truly beautiful and idyllic part of the world. I’m more of a
mountains person than a sea person, but sadly an oil spill in the mountains just wouldn’t have the same environmental
impact!

Crime Beat: You did a fair amount of research into the technical consequences of pollution, for example the effects of a used engine oil spill (p175). Was this information difficult to come by?

Jassy Mackenzie: Luckily, I was able to summon up the services of a tame ecologist. Chris Davies, a family friend, was kind enough to compile a full report stating exactly what would happen to this estuary in the event of a toxic oil spill.

Crime Beat: Why did you decide to lay out the toxic consequences in such detail?

Jassy Mackenzie: Personally, I am fascinated by the “what-if” consequences of catastrophes like this, and as
a reader I love getting all the details because it helps me to visualise the full extent of the disaster. Oil seems to have been a headline subject in the news for a few years now – from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Refuge drilling controversy, to the proposed fracking by Shell in the Karoo. Because of all of this, I didn’t want to underplay the toxic damage to the environment that can result from human greed.

Crime Beat: In Stolen Lives you tackled – among other crimes – the corruption in our department of home
affairs. In Worst Case you have the private sector in your sights. It seems that large organisations are anathema to you?

Jassy Mackenzie: Absolutely. Corporates terrify me, meetings bore me to death, bureaucracy enrages me and red tape makes me want to brandish my machete at a yelling run.

Crime Beat: And now a completely different issue, this time related to style. Not far into the story there is a short second person intervention. This doesn’t occur again until Chapter 57, why did you decide to break with the third person narration to include these interludes?

Jassy Mackenzie: Because they are so widely spaced in the book, I needed them to stand out and also to be different. I wanted the reader to understand this was not part of the story – that it was an intervention by another, unidentified narrator.

Crime Beat: It has the effect of making one think, who’s this now? It’s unsettling. Also the second person
makes the reader complicit in the coming deed. Are you saying something here about the reader as voyeur?

Jassy Mackenzie: Definitely. Using the second person brings the reader closer to the unknown narrator, and makes them an unwitting participant in this story within a story.

Crime Beat: You ended Stolen Lives with Jade dispensing justice, which was very satisfactory. In Worst Case matters are not that tidy. Now you will tell me this is what the story dictated but it does leave a sense of unease. Obviously you intended this, why?

Jassy Mackenzie: The main reason is that after having a fair amount of action throughout the book, I battled with the ending at first because having yet more action just didn’t seem right – it was overkill, if you will excuse the pun. Then I stepped back, looked at it again and thought up a different approach. I wrote this ending, and it felt perfect even though, or perhaps because, the reader will end up wishing there were just a few more lines… (It also has the additional benefit that if you are weak of character like I am and you skip to the ending first, you still won’t know what has happened until you read the whole book.)

Crime Beat: After reading the opening paragraph I always read the last paragraph next, so, yes, you had me
puzzled. Finally, there is a significant departure with this novel, in that it is more thriller than crime novel. For one thing Jade gets into some tough spots involving a lot of action as is required in a thriller. Was this thriller plot part of your holiday in a different setting?

Jassy Mackenzie: The thriller genre is actually something I’d like to write more often because I enjoy it so
much and find it easy to write. I’d like to do it again and it may well be that the next Jade novel, which I’m currently busy with, turns out more of a thriller than a crime novel.

Crime Beat: We can’t leave it there. What’s it about the thriller that turns you on?

Jassy Mackenzie: For me, a thriller is one step further towards true escapism. I think it allows the writer to push the boundaries more than a crime novel does.