Crime Beat: A quiet chat with Chris Karsten
Two years ago the first of Chris Karsten’s trilogy featuring the scary and extremely disturbing Abel Lotz appeared in Afrikaans under the title, Abel se Ontwaking. The novel won both the 2011 ATKV prose prize and the prize for a suspense novel. His publisher, Human & Rousseau, have taken the unusual step of publishing the work in English under the title The Skin Collector, which appeared last year. Karsten, a journalist, with a long list of true crime works to his name (in both Afrikaans and English), is also no stranger to the novel: his first two works of fiction, Frats (2008) and Seisoen van sonde (2010) both won prizes for the quality of the writing (Frats) and suspense (Seisoen van sonde).
Crime Beat: Crime has been a subject for you for a long time, both as a journalist and now as a novelist. As a journalist was it a beat you came to by accident or was it a deliberate choice?
Chris Karsten: I started my career in journalism as a court reporter and was immediately fascinated by the legal proceedings, from detectives and forensic experts testifying and building up a case against an accused to particularly the thoughts and motivations of a criminal’s mind.
Crime Beat: Without a doubt the dark side of human nature intrigues most of us but what is it about murderers and rapists and criminals that has fascinated you?
Chris Karsten: After researching 60 South African murder cases for a series of true crime books and attending dozens of court proceedings I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that everyone of us, seemingly “normal” and law-abiding citizens, could potentially overstep that same thin line to the dark side. We are just more in control of the same emotions that pushed other people to commit sometimes horrendous crimes: love, sex, jealousy, envy, greed.
Crime Beat: Reporting on true crime is one thing, creating fictional crime stories is another thing altogether. For starters you have to create a situation and you have to create characters – both good and bad. This allows for a certain amount of creative freedom, but it also moves into a realm which has more to do with entertainment than with the mundane horror of true crime. Why the shift?
Chris Karsten: Two reasons for the shift to fiction. The first is that I was emotionally drained after reliving 60 terrible and sometimes bizarre cases involving real people with real emotions, because I tried in the true crime books to be as objective as possible by also portraying the perpetrators as human beings with human emotions. Secondly, I wanted the freedom to create my own characters with their own feelings and motivations. Truman Capote once said while writing In Cold Blood: “Journalism always moves along on a horizontal plane, telling a story, while fiction – good fiction – moves vertically, taking you deeper and deeper into character and events.” But In Cold Blood deals with characters and events from real life and Capote was “fenced in by the barbed wire of fact”. Shifting from true crime to fiction I wanted to be able to move my stories more vertically and create characters and situations from my imagination free from those boundaries of fact.
Crime Beat: Let’s move to your novel, The Skin Collector. It has two major characters at its heart: the above mentioned Abel Lotz, and a young female cop, Ella Neser. Lotz first. He is a collector of animal artefacts and decides to expand his repertoire on his fiftieth birthday to include a human skin, effectively a new face. This launches him on a series of murders. Two things: (1) forensic experts now believe that South Africa may have more serial killers than anywhere else in the world, yet they have not featured in our crime fiction, certainly not in those novels published in English. (2) Of course the serial killer rejuvenated crime fiction internationally and has been the mainstay of Swedish crime fiction for the last decade at least, but what drew you to the phenomenon?
Chris Karsten: I’m intrigued by the complicated and warped mind of a serial killer. In real life some of them are highly intelligent but all of them are highly delusional, qualities that present an interesting challenge to a fiction writer, as opposed to mass murderers and once-off killers. In most serial killings the motives remain opaque because their own minds are so deranged and unfathomable. Are these psychopaths born with short-circuited genes, or are they products of their upbringing? The old debate between nature and nurture. I’m more interested in this human condition or mental state of my characters than in the bloody and gory tally of corpses in their wake.
Crime Beat: Abel Lotz is a highly complex and perverted character and in many respects is a child of our tortured history. Clearly this is deliberate and he tends to exist on a metaphoric level as well as on a very physical and visceral level. We are not dealing here only with an individual’s perversions, we are also dealing with a man who represents our past and our future. Is this how you see him?
Chris Karsten: Abel is indeed a perverted product of a specific slice of South African history. But in the next two books in this Abel trilogy it becomes apparent that he is not unique and that other countries and cultures can produce similar tormented individuals. It is no surprise though that diverse kinds of criminals, especially serial killers, are hatched in the South African context, seeing our history (and in present times) of violence, uprooting, displacement and the dissolution of family ties. Rather than exploiting this environment with more undiluted horridness, I’m trying to explore the dark corners of our troubled South African soul.
Crime Beat: There are a range of nasty characters in our English crime fiction, but Abel Lotz is different in that he also has fairly sophisticated tastes, which makes him all the more monstrous? One does think of Hannibal Lecter, was he a model in any way?
Chris Karsten: I’m also regularly asked if Abel is loosely modelled on Norman Bates or Sweeney Todd or Dexter or Leatherface or maybe Freddy Krueger. The truth is that Abel’s deranged mind is an imaginary composite of all the above and others, mainly inspired by the real-life case of Ed Gein(who also inspired Norman Bates in Psycho, Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs).
Crime Beat: Hunting Abel Lotz – and perhaps being hunted by him – is the alluring Ella Neser. In contrast she is a character that is easy to empathise with. She has lots of very human vulnerabilities but she is also a tough cookie. Again there are not too many female cops – in fact perhaps only Deon Meyer’s Mbali Kaleni – in the English version of our crime fiction, so she becomes a special character. You clearly enjoyed writing her. Is she modelled on any cop(s) you’ve come across?
Chris Karsten: In this first book Ella Neser is still a little unsure of herself in the typical male environment of seasoned homicide cops. But she has the same doggedness as her real-life counterpart on which I’ve loosely modelled her – a female police officer who is also pretty and slender and tenacious, but not a murder detective. As the reader knows from the first page who the bad guy is this is not a traditional Whodunit; the suspense depends on the dynamics of the interaction between Ella (the normal face of the coin) and Abel (the dark flip side).
Crime Beat: There is a growing market for locally produced crime novels in English, is it likely that the other two books in the Abel Lotz trilogy will also be published?
Chris Karsten: Last year my publisher did raise the possibility of a translation of the second book.
Crime Beat: And finally, what’s next?
Chris Karsten: My next book (’n Man van min belang) will be published by Human & Rousseau in April. It was runner-up in the “Groot Afrikaanse Roman” competition. Although a literary competition, the book is also a contemporary crime novel based on events in more recent South African political history.