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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: A quiet chat with that maverick Peter Church

maverickspeter church‘Gorky Park was one of Cape Town’s premier strip clubs: a house of illicit glamour, sexy girls and expensive drinks. The clientele was predictable. Men with power, men with Porches and yachts and villas, men wanted in overseas countries. [...] The room was filled with seated men looking like punters at an auction, topless girls primping on chairs or hustling between the tables; nude girls performing air dances on tables, writhing elastically on shiny poles to Kelis singing “Milkshake.”’

No that’s not a description of Mavericks, it’s a description from Peter Church’s new novel, Bitter Pill. But Mavericks does hold a special place in Peter’s heart and after he’d launched Bitter Pill at a soirée at his home, he headed for another launch at the (in)famous Mavericks. It’s the second time he’s used the strip club as his marketing venue of choice so he must sell books there. And it seems it was quite a party, aah, book launch. According to his publicist, some husbands didn’t get home until 4.30 am. Punters at an auction, indeed!

Well, that must’ve been a bitter pill for some wives to swallow. Anyhow, in eyes-to-the-bright-light tradition, Crime Beat sat down the maverick author and asked him some questions which he answered through clenched teeth.

Crime Beat: With Dark Video you chose two settings for your fiction: the university campus, and the dark, sleazy world of Cape Town’s nightclubs. You’re back here again for Bitter Pill as malevolent forces drug and assault and exploit the unsuspecting and the gullible. What’s it about this terrain that draws you in?

Peter Church: Youth and nightlife is where the action is and provides interesting material for me. It’s all happening out there, like the Kruger Park at night for humans, lots of excited wildlife scampering around while in the darkness the hunters wait.

Crime Beat: The picture you paint of this world is one of a dangerous subterranean nightmare divided into predators and prey? Is that your vision of the afterhours city, or purely a fictional landscape?

Peter Church: Cape Town is paradise and its people rich in culture, charity and diversity. But there are always a few who spoil the party. And that gives me something to write about.

Crime Beat: Let’s pick up on this theme later, but first let’s discuss the characters who crop up in both your novels. Bitter Pill sees the return of Carlos De Palma, the man behind the dark video enterprise. Clearly you hadn’t finished with him, but what is it that attracts you to this character?

peter churchPeter Church: The online world is changing at breakneck speed. In 2008, YouTube and the explosion of video sharing was topical. It was easy to imagine a dark force profiting from this new demand. By 2011, the ability to see what you want, when you want is freely available in the public domain. What impact does this have on the likes of Carlos De Palma? He’s like the sinker on the fishing line. In Bitter Pill, he comes out of the shadows and we get to examine his real character, paranoid and frustrated, craving to emerge from his lair, seeking recognition but afraid of exposure.

Crime Beat: You hadn’t finished with Terri Philips either. She was a victim in the first book and she ends up a victim in the second. Do you see her as one of life’s casualties or are you saying something about the lot of women in general?

Peter Church: In real life, women are unfortunately often the recipients of actions committed by men. Poor Terri. She should never have gone running in Newlands Forest, she should have stayed in bed and slept late.

Crime Beat: Let me rephrase: women are frequently at the wrong end of violence in your two novels. Why is this?

Peter Church: In Bitter Pill, if you do the maths, the men get hit much harder. But the answer above pertains – women often bear the brunt of men’s injustices.

Crime Beat: Perhaps in contrast to this portrayal of some of your fictional women there are Fallon and the police detective Maryka Vermaak. Fallon is playing a dangerous, duplicitous game and can be ruthless; Vermaak, on the other hand, is tough but compassionate. What are you saying about the role of women here?

Peter Church: In Vermaak’s case, it’s not so much about her being a woman, more about her role as a police officer, scarred by the years of service. Fallon, on the other hand, is all smouldering woman, her sexiness woven into the vanilla essence she trails behind her.

Crime Beat: Now let’s turn to the men. The ‘hero’ of the tale is Robbie, he can dish it out and he can take it. Above all he’s an honourable bloke. Perhaps also a bit naive in that he is also frequently duped, in a couple of instances by some much smarter women. Robbie is your empathetic character, the guy we all identify with. He’s not so much a moral compass as inherent goodness. He is innocent and good, and not the most accurate gun in the arsenal. Why did you reckon he made a good hero?

Peter Church: After Alistair Morgan in Dark Video, I wanted to create a character that portrayed more of the positive qualities of kids I met at university. I remember a guy from my residence Belsen who stopped to buy a pie at Greasies in Mowbray and heard a girl scream. Without thinking he ran down this dark side street and climbed into the girl’s assailants. He knocked one of them out clean, got knifed in the arm by the other. Robbie is that sort of guy.

Crime Beat: Now for the bad guys. As in Dark Video with the decadent, wealthy businessman John Morgan, so in Bitter Pill the decadent wealthy businessman Julian Lynch. Even his name is ominous. Do these men, and their social positions, represent the perverted side of the city?

Peter Church: It’s a bit of ‘the evil in our midst’. It’s much easier to handle when the problems are ‘out over there’. Morgan and Lynch infiltrate our security because they are recognised as ‘belonging’. I don’t think they are representative at all, that’s what makes them interesting.

Crime Beat: To take this a bit further and pick up on an earlier point, the world that you describe – in both novels – is corrupt hedonistic, defiled. It is a white world served by black maids and gardeners. When the cops enter towards the end, we see the face of authority and it is predominantly black. Of course there has been the Afro-American hitman but he is a bit player in this racial scheme. Do you see white society as isolated and pampered in the leafy suburbs and because of this depraved and degenerate? To extend this thought: are your novels critiques of a group of people consumed by the shame and guilt of apartheid?

Peter Church: I have little interest whether a person is black, white, blue or orange. My characters have roles: gardeners, students, businessmen, policewomen, wardens… I try and write about communities whose backgrounds I understand and whom the readers will be interested in.

Crime Beat: On a lighter note, there are a number of interesting sidebars which run through both novels, the first of these being your fascination with technology. Dark Video is prefaced on what can be done with cameras and computers and the internet, and so is Bitter Pill. Likewise cellphones and SMSes play a considerable part in your plots. Is this because of your previous life in IT?

Peter Church: Yes. Even if I wrote a historical book, my characters would have to have cell phones! But IT moves so quickly, I’ll need to do some catch up courses for my next book.

Crime Beat: Two other aspects: the first relates to drugs, of the date rape variety. You’ve clearly done considerable research here?

Peter Church: I have been to a party and spiked my own Champagne with vodka. The outcome was sadly well documented on a friend’s camera.

Crime Beat: And then there are the constant references to popular culture, predominantly music and movies. Are these forms of entertainment a meaningful part of your life?

Peter Church: I often think in terms of movies as if the stories form part of my experiences in real life. It can be a cheap way out. Like saying Alistair Morgan, from Dark Video, looks like Jude Law. You’ve instantly cast your character in the mind of the reader. Even if you don’t explicitly say it, you’re thinking it – Hmmm Fallon is a bit like Salma Hayek, how can I describe her? I love music – it sparks memories that connect me to imagery hidden deep inside my cortex.

Crime Beat: Two books down, how far are you into number three? Will it also be crime fiction? And are any of your characters set to make a return?

Peter Church: I will stay with the dark edgy thriller formula. It makes sense. It takes so long to create any type of brand so it would be foolish to throw away what has been created and start again. Most of my characters are down on their knees at this point, so we’ll have to see if any have the legs for another episode.


Recent comments:

  • Willemien
    September 15th, 2011 @17:01 #

    Bitter Pill holds this week's no. 14 spot on the Nielsen bestseller list, and is the no. 1 local English fiction title!


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