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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: A suitable job for Clare Hart

Margie Orford’s Clare Hart has appeared in three novels so far with her latest book, Gallow’s Hill, being released next month. Today, I’m going to have a look at this smart, strong, compassionate investigator and how both Orford and Hart navigate the traditionally masculine waters of the crime genre.

Margie Orford

Orford’s approach is captured in a brief conversation between fellow woman detective, Rita Mkhize, and her protagonist, Clare Hart, in Daddy’s Girl. Mkhize is battling to be taken seriously in her macho department. She complains:

‘All I have is feminine intuition. And how am I going to table that as a point on the agenda?’
‘Call it “gut feel”, said Clare ’That’s what they call it.’

This joke shows how Orford does not attempt to make her protagonist fulfil the hardboiled expectations of the genre. Clare is woman who is most definitely not trying to be “one of the guys” which is the fate of many protagonists before her. Rather, Hart is a capable woman who is physically, mentally and emotionally up to the task of investigator.

Orford’s woman detective is a white, middle class investigative documentary maker with a PhD in rape and femicide. These factors alone within the status quo of the novel give this protagonist access to places and people not granted to the majority in South Africa. Beyond these, Hart is street-wise, she has a razor sharp mind which is served by both her intuition as well as scientific expertise. She uses her attractiveness and the assumptions made about her blonde hair and slim physique to her advantage, often assuming a disguise with them to investigate. She drives a sporty green Mini Cooper and knows how to shoot a gun from growing up on a farm. She is physically adept, capable of defending herself with violence but she is never depicted within a scene of gratuitous violence or in a way that allows her physical actions to trump her thoughts and ideas.

Hart is seemingly tied down by little other than her pompous cat, Fritz. She is well-off financially, she has no ostensible dreams of family, and she does not take to domesticity as the contents of her fridge demonstrate. In chapter five of Daddy’s Girl, she has: “a punnet of strawberries, a jar of mayonnaise, whiskey”.

Hart’s most striking characteristics are her compassion and her infallible moral compass. Her methods are rooted in communicating with people connected to a crime, rather than just questioning them. Her ability to empathise and her emotional intelligence often combined with just a little manipulation get people on her side. Hart often gains crucial information from often-overlooked sources.

In terms of family, both of Hart’s parents died by the time she was a student, but she has two sisters in the Western Cape. Her twin, Constance who features in Blood Rose, was raped and beaten during a gang initiation and lives on an isolated farm outside Cape Town in a community of violated people and carers. Hart’s elder sister, Julia is a vision of domesticity with a husband two young daughters who adore Hart. One could say that these women provide distorted mirrors of what Hart could be and it’s clear that she is driven by the guilt and anger she feels about the attack on Constance. Her drive to investigate missing and abused women and children clearly stems from these feelings.
A conversation with friend and pathologist, Ruth Lyndall, in Daddy’s Girl reveals Hart’s desperation:

‘You’re running on empty, Clare.’
‘I’m just running.’
‘It won’t fix things.’
‘It might fix me.’

It’s impossible to examine Hart without considering her on-again-off-again partner, Captain Riedwaan Faizal of the Organised Crime and Drug Unit. It’s through Faizal that Hart gains access to the authority and support of the law enforcement establishment when her assistance is requested in complex cases. Faizal embodies the hardboiled detective: he is tough, physical, short-tempered and has a penchant for whiskey. He battles to marry his job and his personal life with the mother of his daughter, Shazia. However, Fazial, like Hart, has an infallible moral compass. His detective partner, Rita Mkhize says that he “doesn’t break the rules just because he doesn’t like them”.

Faizal is a crucial access point for Hart and he fulfils the hardboiled expectations of the novel, allowing Orford to explore her feminist concerns through Hart as well as the narration of the novel’s settings and their norms without stretching the genre beyond its boundaries. In fact, Orford’s narration of Walvis Bay and Cape Town are some of the most successful aspects of her crime fiction in that the hauntingly realistic and disturbing worlds stay with the reader long after the resolution of the investigation. The treatment of Herero street children, the abuse of women and children, the oppression of the poor is all too close to home and draw the reader out of this supposedly escapist genre and into reconsideration of the world they live in.

Like Clockwork

Book details

Blood Rose

Daddy's Girl

Next week I’ll be taking a look at Jassy Mackenzie’s female private eye, Jade de Jong.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Mack</a>
    September 26th, 2011 @16:58 #

    A great profile of Clare Hart, Elizabeth. I finished Like Clockwork yesterday and immediately ordered Blood Rose. I like the way Margie created the character of Clare without letting her become a stereotype. Having Clare being a documentary film maker is a brilliant way to bring up issues like human trafficking and the abuses of women and children. Also, as an outsider, I appreciate the details that give me a feel for the location.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    September 26th, 2011 @21:27 #

    @Mack. Glad you like Clare. She is a tricky character, I can tell you, but four books in and I can't live without her.


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