Our fascination with true crime
Some weeks ago Elmari Rautenbach, books editor for Media 24’s Afrikaans newspapers, asked me to write a piece on the current popularity of true crime books and the number that are being published. Like crime fiction, true crime is a relatively new phenomenon in South African publishing, although, like crime fiction, there is a thin tradition. Think back not many years to the books of Micki Pistorius or those written by Chris Karsten or books on the Stander gang or the Foster gang before them. Or the true crime stories in the books of Charles van Onselen (The Fox & The Flies; A Small Matter of a Horse) or Tim Couzens (Murder at Morija) or the chapter in Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart on Simon Mpungose, the Hammerman. So why the sudden interest? And does it say anything about South African society or is that still predominantly the preserve of crime fiction?
The published article appeared in City Press. Below is the original. And below that are the thoughts of a number of authors I approached for comments: Antony Altbeker, Mandy Wiener, Barry Bateman, Alex Eliseev and Julian Rademeyer. Most of what they said did not make the final article so here are their opinions for the record.
There are three men in a black Citi Golf Velocity trying to shoot dead a man in a Mercedes Benz. They’re in the Melrose area, heading towards the M1. On the first pass the gun jams. They come back a second time.
‘On every attempt, every time I pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger, he lifted his right shoulder a little bit. This time, I leaned out the window and I didn’t aim at his head. I aimed at his body. I had to make sure. I pulled the trigger once and it started to go off. I just carried on firing. I just saw Brett taking bullets and he had this painful look on his face and he didn’t make a noise. He didn’t make a ‘ah ooh’ anything like that. He was just like that with his shoulder up and as the bullets were hitting him. I kept on firing and Kappie pulled away and the last bullet missed him and went in the back window and Kappie said, “Enough.”’
That’s Mikey Schultz telling about the murder of businessman Brett Kebble. They were engaged in what was otherwise known as an ‘assisted suicide’. The extract comes from Mandy Wiener’s bestselling Killing Kebble and it has all the details of being right there in the moment Kebble was killed.
It’s what happened. It’s the truth, and that’s why readers rushed out to buy the book in their thousands. They wanted the grim details.
Which brings in the question: why is true crime suddenly shifting books by the truck load? We’re a nation where there are enough murders a year to qualify for a small war, and now we seem to be fascinated by the sordidness of our murderous ways.
Take the Griekwastad murders. On Easter weekend April 2011 a family – mom, dad, daughter – were murdered on their farm on the lonely plains outside Griekwastad. The bodies were found by the fifteen year old son. It seemed like a farm murder. Then some months later the teenager was arrested and charged with murder and rape.
Earlier this year the court sat for a number of weeks before the hearing was adjourned until 21 October. New technologies were used in the reading of the crime scene but the defence lawyers have also suggested that the crime scene could have been disturbed. Here we have a case fraught with emotional and procedural issues, let alone the irony of the son’s defence being paid for out of his dead parents’ estate.
There are two books in the writing about this murder: one by Jacques Steenkamp for Zebra Press (Die Griekwastad-Moorde – Die misdaad wat Suid-Afrika geruk het), the other, Moord by Griekwastad by Charne Kemp for Tafelberg.
But did that murder shake South Africa? I’m not so sure. Yes, the murder is fascinating for a number of reasons not the least being that it may be the son whodunit. But there are other factors: the family is white and Afrikaans, the newspapers that have honed in on the case largely sell to a white Afrikaans-speaking market. The books will target this market, although there will also be English editions. The question then becomes: would this murder have disappeared among the deluge of other murders were it not for an interest group and a powerful media machine running with the story?
The answer is probably yes. Why, for instance, is there no book about the 14-year-old who killed four members of his family with an axe in their Etwatwa home on the East Rand in May this year? Could it be that there is no readership for such a murder and consequently no media interest?
In the Griekwastad story it was Tafelberg who approached Charné Kemp to write her book. Why? Because ‘the whole event seems so unlikely,’ says Annie de Beer, Kemp’s editor at Tafelberg, ‘which is what sets it apart it from the many other crimes we hear of daily. Kemp is taking quite a personal approach to this story. It is about the crime and it is about the investigation and the trial, but it is also very much about the people involved. She has become quite close with some of the family members and she looks at the impact that these murders have had on them.’
This, of course, is what we want of true crime stories, the inside information. We want to know why the murder happened. We live in a violent society and most of us have experienced some violent crime and for this reason De Beer believes our interest is less about voyeurism and more a need to make sense of our society.
But I’m still not convinced. I agree with De Beer that ‘the reasons for crime and violence in our society are complex and varied.’ I agree that ‘good true crime books scrutinize these reasons’. I agree ‘that true crime is not a window to our collective soul, as much as a magnifying glass examining that soul.’
Which is the point. True crime is easy to assimilate. It is easy to read. It is often narrowly focused on an individual. And in most cases we already know the outcome by the time we read the book. So maybe there is also a voyeuristic element to our fascination with true crime.
Go back to the Brett Kebble killing. Here was a high profile businessman with a lot of dirt about fraud and corruption swirling in his slipstream. His story was fascinating and it became compulsive daily reading in the newspapers after the murder. Then when the arrests and the court case brought in figures from Johannesburg’s underworld – Glenn Agliotti for one, and the top cop Jackie Selebi let alone the bad guys like Mikey Schultz and Nigel McGurk and Fiazal ‘Kappie’ Smith – then the story needed more than newspaper columns, it needed a book.
Well, not one book only but another two by Barry Sergeant (who is rumoured to have a third on the way).
Again it was a media event. Kebble was the equivalent of a celebrity. He garnered lots of newspaper coverage, lots of radio coverage and so there was a market hungry for the details which a book could supply.
We do have a tradition of publishing true crime, yet undoubtedly a new fervour has entered our publishing industry and our reading when it comes to these books. Apart from being commercially successful, they also make the shortlists of many of the non-fiction prizes which gives them added clout. But their measure has to be taken by their sales.
For instance, Lolly Jackson: When Fantasy Becomes Reality, by Sean Newman, Peter Piegl and Karyn Maughan racheted up 20000 copies at the tills in no time. Again here was a larger than life character. The owner of Teasers with a penchant for fast women and fast cars, found dead in his home with bullet wounds to the back and head.
This was Joburg’s story as much as Kebble’s killing was a tale of the mining city. And in these books there were new details. Behind the scenes glimpses. Facts that hadn’t appeared in the press. With these books an underworld was glimpsed, and maybe this is part of the South African soul.
‘Daily news reports do tend to be quite superficial,’ says Wiener, ‘so the public is never really fully aware of the extent of these crime syndicates and they are often very confused about how all the pieces fit in together. Killing Kebble was able to pull all that together and give an oversight of how politics, business and crime collide.’
Which is true in her case but not all crimes have those three ingredients. Take the Oscar Pistorius case. World famous athlete kills his model girlfriend.
Within two days of that story breaking my UK publisher asked if I wanted to write a book on the murder. I didn’t. I had written on the Anni Dewani killing (published as Monkey Business) because of the social issues involved but Oscar Pistorius seemed to be about one man and his problems.
Of course Oscar was a celebrity, and celebrity sells. Soon enough Pan Macmillan had signed a deal with 702 reporters Mandy Wiener and Barry Bateman; Zebra Press with Jacques Steenkamp and Gavin Prins, and Penguin contracted veteran SA watcher John Carlin. The three books are due to appear after the court case, a court case that people are now scheduling into their annual holiday next year.
This fascination with the Pistorius case raises the race issue again: why is there not a book on the murder of Taliep Petersen? He was a celebrity, a show-biz personality. That story was about dark human emotions and contracted hitmen. Or why is there not a book on the horrible rape and murder of Bredasdorp teenager, Anene Booysen, whose case went to court again this month? There was a story that angered the country and shone a light into social conditions in a small town.
Or if the criteria are politics, business and crime and the mayhem they occasion when they collide then why is nobody rushing out a book on the building of the Mbombela Stadium? If ever there was skulduggery, a tale of murders, irregular tenders, overpayments, conflicts of interest, tax evasion then this is it. But no book.
I can only think that while the book buying market remains largely white the true crime publishing phenomena will be mainly about that part of the South African psyche. Not so much an insight into society as tales about mysterious killings in the dark.
Antony Altbeker has written extensively on the police and most recently on the murder of Stellenbosch student Inge Lotz, Fruit of a Forbidden Tree.
Did you approach Jonathan Ball about the Lotz case or did they come to you given your earlier books?
AA: I approached them: Fred’s brother came to me before the trial started, and I approached JBP a few months later when I was sure there was a book in it.
It seems to me that many of these true crime stories go beyond the immediate incident and people involved and shine a light (sometimes harshly) on our society? I mean, we get an insight into police work, forensics, the judicial system which is way and beyond what we knew when only newspapers offered a way of recording these stories.
AA: That’s absolutely right, although in some respects it’s unusual. A lot of true crime published across the world is just blood and guts and investigation. In SA it’s a bit different, partly because of subject matter (it’s hard to write about the Kebble murder without talking about society) and partly because of who is writing what. My interests are more social/political than is typical of true crime writers in the US, for example. Having said that, there is quite a strong tradition of sophisticated true crime works in the rest of the world, with Janet Malcolm being a very important example, though her issues revolve mostly around the question of what is truth and how it is constructed (another issue that fascinates me).
The non-fiction narrative takes the reader into the lives of those involved and gives details which supply atmosphere and tension and even though we know the outcome we still read with fascination. Why do you think this is?
AA: It may be immodest to say so, but part of ot is craft, i think. In my particular case, generating suspense and interest was made somewhat easier by the fact that reporting about the case while it was on-going was very poor, and many people got very little sense of what had actually happened.
True crime has been on a bit of a back foot in the SA publishing until fairly recently. There were Chris Karsten’s accounts of murderers and then came Micki Pistorius and the scene seemed to open up. Nowadays we get well written gripping accounts of true crimes. In other words we have caught up with the rest of the publishing world. Would you say this is the case?
AA: Yes. I think crime is so symptomatic of all our challenges that it had to eventually attract writers who wanted to tell SA’s story.
Mandy Wiener, the author of Killing Kebble and co-author with Vusi Pikoli on his book My Second Initiation and as a day job she’s a reporter on 702, has been commissioned along with her colleague Barry Bateman to write a biography of Oscar Pistorius.
Killing Kebble was a huge success largely I would argue because it opened a fascinating window into Johannesburg (and SA’s) underworld. It also presented larger than life characters. All this makes for a good read but do you think the book caught the public imagination only for these reasons or because newspapers/news organisations can only do some of the job in reporting on true crime. In other words the flavour and the detail is often (necessarily for reasons of time and space) left out, and it is the atmosphere, the detail that readers want from a book?
MW: I do think that the book struck a chord with the South African public because it fed into that fascination with crime and the ‘underworld’. We all know that it is happening but what was so alarming was how prevalent it is, how deals are being done right under our noses at coffee shops we frequent and malls we visit and often we are actually familiar with the perpetrators. Daily news report do tend to be quite superficial so the public is never really fully aware of the extent of these crime syndicates and they are often very confused about how all the pieces fit in together. Killing Kebble was able to pull that all together and give an oversight of how politics, business and crime collide. It also gave the perspective of the actual perpetrators which is rare – most reporters find it easier to report on the easy angle that is more widespread rather than try and find out what the lesser told story is.
Why do we have this fascination with crime and criminals?
MW: Perhaps it is because crime is so rife in South Africa and every person has a story to share about it? Having said that though, it is not a uniquely South African fascination. I personally am fascinated by criminals because of the characters involved – I find them compelling, multi-faceted and colourful. They’re unusual and their stories are so intriguing. There is also this fascination with what is blatantly unlawful and socially unacceptable and I want to understand why they do what they do.
Apart from the people involved in crime do you think it is also a new public interest in the process of justice: ie the state of our police force in gathering evidence, and then the forensic behind the scene work, let alone the slow machinations of our judiciary that is driving this rise in true crime writing?
MW: I do think that there is a new public interest in the criminal justice system and the process. This has been accentuated by the Oscar Pistorius trial and the overwhelming public interest. We’ve seen people educating themselves about the process, how bail procedures work, technicalities and legal representation because they want to better understand the process and the dynamics. They want to be better informed. With a case like Oscar and Kebble, it is the forensics that ultimately tell the story and it is those revelations that are so intriguing to people.
BB: think there are universal themes in the Oscar story, and a particularly South African theme which resonates through Oscar himself. He is the underdog, who battled against great adversity to be reognised among the greatest in his field. I think as a nation, South Africa is trying to prove that on the global scale. We have come from a checkered past, have fought an evil regime and is, or at leasts wants to be, a big player. Oscar is that symbol of triumph we held up to the world. He was our Golden Boy.
The underlying story here is a tragedy – someone who had it all; fame, money and the girl. And in one night it was all gone.
Do you see your books as windows into the South African soul?
MW: That’s difficult for me, as the author, to claim. However, I do believe that by telling unique South African stories which so define the country and its crime and politics, they do reveal insight into the soul. Through Kebble I think the country was forced to reflect on how compromised the criminal justice system had become and how fallible people like Jackie Selebi were. With Pikoli, I hope that people will get a better understanding of what informs the character of such a man who held the position of NDPP and why he made the decision that he did. It also provides a unique insight into the corridors of power. I always hope that people don’t read my books and become totally disillusioned with the country and its future – I would rather they learn from the problems that are highlighted and find ways to overcome them in the future.
BB: I think deep down there is a voyeur in all of us. There is this curiosity about things, people and places you wouldn’t ordinarily have access to. Non-fiction like this takes people into this world we as journalists or researchers have to some degree privileged access to, and we take it further. It’s also a yearning for answers – why? Where a crime appears senseless people want to understand it to settle their uneasiness about it. After the why question, you address the who and when and al the other details that bring the story together.
It seemed that within days of the Oscar Pistorius story breaking you had secured a book deal. It is almost as if there is a publishing trend to turn major crime stories into longer more thorough narratives. Were you approached by a publisher or did you approach them with the idea?
MW: I definitely think there is a publishing trend to turn major crime stories into longer narratives. When KK was published I often said that I hoped that it would encourage more frontline, younger journalists to write books about stories they cover. Having said that, I do think that we’re seeing reporters attempting to turn every story they cover into a book which I don’t believe is the case. Absolutely more books should be written but I do think that jouranlists should be more considered when deciding whether the story they are reporting on should live in a book.
Do you think this is a public demand for true crime? Or is our publishing industry slowly changing and joining international trends where true crime has long been a part of publishing and we are now jumping on this bandwagon?
MW: I think there is definitely a public demand for true crime and I do think this has increased locally of late. I probably don’t know enough about the publishing industry to really so what the trends are but from a reporting/author perspective, I’ve certainly notice that there is an appetite for it.
Another reporter for 702, Alex Eliseev, is writing a book on the murder of Betty Ketani, a cold case that recently surfaced.
When you first came across the story how long was it before you thought: there’s a book in this one?
AE: Right from the start, the story felt like something that belonged in a film. It had very visual aspects (the disappearance, the murder, the shallow grave, the letter being discovered under the carpet, the bones being found and sent to Bosnia, etc). I began imagining the scenes, characters and the drama of the looming court battle. Pretty quickly, I decided to use my creative tool (writing) to sketch these scenes and to tell the story through newspaper and magazine articles. But the more I investigated the murder of Betty Ketani, the more dark tunnels I stumbled across. Soon, I knew the story had the necessary depth, as well as the human interest aspect, to carry through as a book.
And what was it about the story that convinced you it would make a longer narrative?
AE: I was instantly gripped by the randomness of the events that led to the awakening of the cold case. The discovery of the confession during a regular renovation. The fact that it landed in the hands of adventurous detectives. How some of the arrests came to be made. And then the endless twists and turns in the court proceedings building up to the trial (an ex wife emerging with a bundle of Polaroids, etc). I kept thinking that not to tell this story would be an injustice. I also met Ketani’s family and realised how much damage was done to them. Betty had three children who were looked after by her mother and sister, until both died. I also felt a strong need to tell their story. And finally, the more I spoke about this case in public, the more questions kept echoing back at me: who wrote the letter? why did they abandon / forget it? how was it found? why would a chef from a Thai restaurant get kidnapped and murdered?
All of this – and the fact that it was the most unusual crime story of my career – convinced me this was a book.
Did you approach a publisher or did they come to you?
AE: There was a bit of serendipity here. I was interested in writing the book and my publisher, Pan MacMillan, had also noticed it. With an introduction from a friend and colleague of mine, we connected and I signed up.
You’ve seen the success of books such as Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble and Antony Altbeker’s account of the Lotz murder and court case, why do you think this books grab the public imagination?
AE: I think anyone living in South Africa, and particularly in Johannesburg, has, at some stage, felt like they were walking above a murky underworld. Sometimes the glass beneath our feet cracks (Radovan Krejcir survives an assassination attempt by a car rigged with a home-made shotgun which is remotely controlled / Brett Kebble is gunned down on a quiet street in the middle of the night) and the headlines scream at us. We live with these crime stories on a daily basis and there’s a desire to understand them – to read the story-behind-the-story. Also, there is probably a great deal of voyeurism.
Any way you look at it, crime is a major part of South African life, be it violent robberies or amazing investigations (such as Betty Ketani case). And even in countries where crime is far less of an issue, there’s still a curiosity about the lives of cops, gangsters, drug dealers and serial murderers.
Do you see these incidents as more than themselves. What I mean by this is that do they also give us a glimpse into our society?
AE: Absolutely. In almost every crime story are mirrors that show us glimpses of our existence, both past and present. Consider the Oscar Pistorius case and how it forced us to question our fear of crime, gun ownership, woman abuse and the freak world of celebrities. In the Ketani cold case, there is a story of a woman who left her home in the Eastern Cape to earn money in Johannesburg, vanished and whose case was never really investigated. It’s a tale of corrupt police officers who abused their power and a criminal justice system that was distorted. The conviction of former police commissioner Jackie Selebi showed us how far the tentacles of the underworld stretch and how politics influences everything. The so-called Jeppestown Massacre (where four officers were gunned down) raised questions of training and protocols. Each and every crime story I have ever covered has been about far wider issues than the crime itself.
Have you a title and publication date – I assume that’s dependent on the trial outcome?
AE: The book is due to be published early next year. It will only be released once the trial (which starts in November) has ended and there are answers. I can’t imagine anything more frustrating than asking readers to go on this journey with me without being able to answer at least most of their questions. The best way to monitor the case until then is to go to www.alexeliseev.co.za
Finally, Julian Rademeyer who recently published a book on rhino poaching, Killing for Profit. While this is not about murder it is about organised crime.
Given that true SA crime stories are really good sellers in the local market these days, why do you think this is? This topic leads to a range of questions: for example: Do we get more from books than we get from newspaper reports, radio and TV news? Is it because books give us detail, flavour, atmosphere? Do books carry some higher authority?
JR: I think books certainly give us more detail, flavour and atmosphere that newspaper articles. South African newspapers have largely turned away from long-form writing. I remember a deputy news editor once trying to persuade me that his paper ran 600 word feature articles! With Killing for Profit I found that I could really explore the story, tease out important details and get under the skin of the people I was writing about. It was initially quite difficult because I had spent so long as a reporter writing formulaic news pieces. But the book really gave me incredible scope to pursue stories and explore some of the stranger historic tales that would never see the light-of-day in a paper.
Another reason that true crime sells so well is that as a nation we are obsessed with crime. We live every day with the spectre of crime lurking in the background. Every time we are we open a paper, or go online or watch the news or listen to radio we are confronted by crime. I think people, or at least those who buy the books, want to gain a deeper understanding of it.
These true crime stories seem to open a window on our national soul? Would you agree with this? And if you do what is the vista the window opens onto?
JR: I think they do. South Africa is a corrupt and violent country. All of us have been touched by crime and corruption in some way. It is impossible to emerge unscathed if you were born and lived here your entire life. There are so many themes that true crime stories can and do explore. Issues of organised crime, wealth, poverty, xenophobia, the parlous state of our police force, issues related to land and who has it and who doesn’t.
Among the other issues true crime writing touches on are those from South Africa’s past. In my book’s case it dealt with death squads, bizarre apartheid-era military intelligence operations and a doomed scheme hatched by a group of British mercenaries, the South African police and apartheid South Africa’s “Superspy”, Craig Williamson. These tales were so bizarre that if I had tried to write them as fiction, nobody would have found it believable. They work because they are factual.
By its nature, crime in South Africa is often stranger than fiction. Take the recent supposed “hit” on a Czech gangster in Johannesburg. Who would think of concealing a device behind a number plate to fire projectiles at him. It is fascinating because it actually happened in real life, not in the pages of a James Bond novel.
In my book, I’ve tried to tell the story of the rot that has allowed international crime syndicates flourish in SA and how and why they have flourished. But I’ve also tried to tell the story of the poor – the couriers recruited the streets of Hanoi and the poachers who are used as cannon fodder by syndicates and who go out to kill and die for a few kgs of rhino horn. It is not a pretty picture, in many ways. On the positive side, it is also a story of South Africans and Southern Africans who, despite extraordinary odds stacked against them, still keep struggling and trying to make a difference.
Do you think that maybe we are also fascinated by people who behave badly?
JR: I think we are inordinately fascinated with people who live on the edge and people who behave badly. Deep down, I think many people are drawn to tales of larger-than-life characters and gangsters who get away with the most unbelievable crimes because, secretly, they wonder if they couldn’t do it. There is a vicarious element there. For the writers too. There is something seductive about the darker side of society. I do think we tend to be a little too enamoured with the “criminal underworld”. And some writers do make the mistake of getting too close to the thugs and psychopaths they are writing about, to the extent that they try to redeem even the most irredeemable of criminals.
The issue you’ve raised in your book speaks to much about us: our relationship with animals, with our and their environment, our greed, our weird beliefs and cultural practices – and although this might be returning to an earlier question do you think this is part of our fascination with books such as yours.
JR: Certainly. Greed is at the heart of my book. I can’t say I finished it feeling any better about humankind. And it wasn’t because of the cruelty to rhinos or the fact that there is a species on the brink of extinction because it is being killed for the very thing that evolved to defend it. Something that has no real value. For me, it was the extent of the greed and the lengths that criminal syndicates would go to, to get their hands on rhino horn. The syndicates would stop at nothing. They would exploit anyone and anything to get their prize.
As far as the syndicate bosses are concerned, the poachers and the couriers are all replaceable cannon fodder. Their deaths or imprisonment means nothing. The current trade in rhino horn isn’t really about culture. It is about status, but status linked to 2000 years of tradition.
I think what is happening to the rhino population is also symptomatic of what is happening to the planet and people are growing more conscious of that and their place in the world. I think there is also a growing fascination with wildlife crime. It is a truly bizarre trade. Guns, drugs, even human trafficking, makes sense. But trafficking in animals? By organised, well-funded, transnational and dangerous criminal syndicates. Who would have thought?