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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: Chris Marnewick talks about A Sailor’s Honour

chris marnewicka sailors honourIn 2006 Chris Marnewick published his first novel, Shepherds & Butchers, which was rightly lauded and went on to win an award. Last year he published his second novel and this near brought his third, A Sailor’s Honour. His quirky character, Pierre de Villiers, who really just wants a quiet life, is back in the thick of things. Here’s what Chris had to say about some of the goings-on in his book:

Crime Beat: In your previous novel, The Soldier Who Said No, the past rose up to exact its revenge on the present. In A Sailor’s Honour the past is once again ever present. Why this interest – obsession? – with history and its repercussions? Apart from the fact that it makes for good stories.

Chris Marnewick: To South Africans of all persuasions the past is very real. Just as the events of the Second World War shaped the thinking and policies of the decades immediately after the war, so the events of the seventies and eighties still reverberate with us. On the individual scale, the things that happened to us during our childhood can and do shape the men and women we become in adulthood, and the things we do. That said, there are still many secrets surrounding the events of the eighties and the truth must out.

Crime Beat: Your protagonist, Pierre de Villiers, is back in this book with his family again under threat from the country (South Africa) he has left to try and find some peace. This clash of the private and the public – the interference of the state in the lives of its citizens – is a constant theme in your books. What has led to this?

Chris Marnewick: I hadn’t noticed that. Maybe I am a natural born rebel, to borrow a phrase from Hollywood. I think the uprisings in the Arab countries and the upheavals in European countries (Greece, Italy, Spain etc.) show a rising tide of unhappiness in the citizenry, with people everywhere openly rebelling against the current order. For me that is a natural state of mind. I believe every citizen should be wary of his/her own government. The state does interfere in our lives and does so at every level. It takes our money in taxes; it imposes rules of behaviour on us; it restricts access to information; it indoctrinates us through control of the state media. We must be wary of these controls and question them.

Crime Beat: In fact, institutions – and the way they incarcerate people – play a part in your novel. There are the very moving chapters dealing with the lawyer, Johan Webber’s, boarding school days and his relationship with the older bully, Spokie. There is the institution of the Third Force that has trapped members in a flawed ideal. In your first book there was the institution of the prison (and punishment) system. Standing in defiance of these institutions – another being the New Zealand police force where he is employed – is Pierre de Villiers: he represents a strong argument for individualism.

Chris Marnewick: Yes, Pierre is a non-conformist, a man who thinks for himself. He is loyal to principles and will follow orders only up to a point. We should all do that: Obey the law until the law becomes corrupt and immoral. I think Pierre de Villiers is the type of character who instinctively resists institutional injustice.

Crime Beat: Of course along with the individualism comes a certain amount of chaos as he is strong-willed and pigheaded. These are useful ingredients for a character, but they are also the ingredients that move events in the real world, human desires that often put the world in jeopardy.

Chris Marnewick: I didn’t set out to create a flawed character when I started writing about De Villiers, but then what happened to him shaped and bent him into the man he is now. He tries hard to stay out of trouble, to do the right thing, but then trouble seems to find him each time, requiring him to rear up and fight back.

Crime Beat: You have said that your fiction is built on facts. In this instance the Robey Leibbrandt affair during the Second World War. And the sinking of the passenger liner Laconia by U-boats. Why this fascination with building fictions on factual foundations?

Chris Marnewick: My genre is creative non-fiction. I set the true facts in a fictional environment and use the true historical facts as an aide to persuade the reader that the fictional parts are also true.

Crime Beat: Your Third Force you say is imaginary. Yet this idea of a Third Force is as South African as braaivleis and corresponds in many ways to the prevailing tie-in of rogue security services operations with extreme right-wing groups. Surely events in the 1980s and 1990s as apartheid ended would have influenced your thinking?

Chris Marnewick: Very much so. Who as a parent in the eighties did not worry about the future of their children? Of course the third force really existed – and perhaps still exists. But who are they? Perhaps this book is my way of fighting back against some of the evil forces that kept me awake during the eighties when we knew change had to come but the politicians dragged their feet until it was very late in the day – perhaps too late.

Crime Beat: Pierre de Villiers sorts out these rogue elements from the past with violence. Do you think that sometimes this is the only solution? Or does it just make for a good thriller?

Chris Marnewick: Thrillers thrive on violence or the threat of violence. I have yet to read a crime novel where there was no crime. I also struggle to find a principle that is absolute. Violence ought generally to be decried, but is there no place for it at all? I keep wondering about this just as I wonder whether I can logically defend euthanasia, abortion and capital punishment at the same time. I can’t find a principle that allows me to defend all three. It’s the same with violence.

You ask tough questions, Mr Nicol. Doesn’t the state rule by violence, or the threat of violence?


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