Crime Beat: A suitable job for Vee Johnson
It’s not often that you’re introduced to a female detective with a child on her hip. But Vee Johnson is not your average woman detective. Emerging from a childhood in war-torn Liberia, we meet V.J. experiencing mysterious blackouts and hallucinations. Not only is this detective navigating the traditionally masculine codes of the crime genre, she is also navigating the South African setting as an outsider.
H.J. Golakia is a fresh new voice on the South African crime fiction scene. She brings a rounded African perspective, having been brought up in Liberia but moving through Togo, Ghana and Zimbabwe with her family becuase of political and economic unrest before settling in South Africa. The Lazarus Effect is her first novel and she is described as writing from her experiences as a “refugee, foreigner, scientist and contemporary African nomad”.
For me, it’s the insight as well as the outsider’s perspective that Golakia’s investigative journalist cum inadvertent detctive brings to the world around her that makes the novel so rich. The world taken for granted by most readers is made strange by Vee’s narration:
After three years in Cape Town, the policy of lines was still beyond Vee. Queues, as they were otherwise affectionateky known. Everyone always stood patiently awaiting their turn, smiling completely inane and unnecessary smiles at each other in agreement at absurdly long waits, admired the ceiling, took obedient half- steps forward when someone was served and left. With the exception of a passport office, this would cause a bust-up in West Africa. the hustle and flow of her people was as rushed and organised as a bloodstream; everyone got what they were after, with no mental gymnastics. She juggled Jeremy from one hip to the other and sighed.
As it turns out, Jeremy is Vee’s godson, the son of her best friend, Connie. These women, together with Vee’s two old flames and several other friends make up something of a West African community in Cape Town. The lilt of Vee’s vernacular and the descriptions of fragrant, spicy and fruity dishes infuse the novel with a distinctly Liberian flavour. The sense of their straddling two worlds, the traditional world of their West African upbringin and the Western influence of Cape Town is apparent and treated with humour and affection in a conversation in Connie’s Claremont home:
Vee stuck her tongue out at her. “Ikenna, you see that your mother? She can never mind her own business,” she wispered to her sleeping godson. “Likes to pretend she’s a white woman, calling you ‘Jeremy’ instead of your real name. Sellout. Please ask her if she got permission from your Igbo father who named you himself before she started calling you fwehn-fwehn. Let her answer that one first.”
Connie laughed once more. “Leave my house, oh, rubbish girl!”
As a detective, Vee is smart and tenacious and her approach is wrapped up in warmth and humour. That’s not to say she isn’t tough. V.J takes an inordinate amount of physical poundings through the novel, she’s attacked at her office, hit by a car and kidnapped. Through all of it, Vee is described with a facinating mixture of physical toughness and emotional vulnerability. One minute, she’s being dragged around by her hair, surprised by her attacked while picking up a pizza for lunch, the next, the reader is following Vee down a lonely, dark road of the memories of losing a child and her experiences of being a refugee. V.J is strong and undoutably sexy. With two men after her, the reader’s desire for romance is fuelled through the novel and, let me say, gratified with one helluvan intimate encounter.
We see a new Cape Town through Vee’s eyes and it is gently refelcted to us with a perspective of warmth and humour. Golakai’s novel is most definitely first and foremost a human story, packed with action, sex and mystery.