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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: Jonathan Amid reviews Finders Weepers and Balthasar’s Gift

Jonathan Amid reviews two new krimi authors and says they’re worth laying out hard bucks for. One of the novelists, Penny Lorimer, will be at the Bloody Book Week in Johannesburg from Wednesday 6 August to Saturday 9 August. Visit the website to get the programme.

While we wait for new offerings from the likes of Margie Orford, Mike Nicol, Roger Smith and Deon Meyer (CB note: Meyer’s Cobra is launched next week), two new crime novels from female authors Penny Lorimer and Charlotte Otter make the wait much more bearable. With Finders Weepers, Lorimer’s debut, and Balthasar’s Gift, Otter’s first major release in South Africa, readers will encounter a highly satisfying and socially-conscious form of crime fiction that marries a commitment to strong storytelling with ethical awareness and social justice.

Finders Weepers introduces readers to Nix Mniki, a journalist from a mixed background (her father German, her mother Xhosa), who sets out to investigate the disappearance from a mission-school of a principal motivated by the consuming desire to see better social and schooling conditions for her learners, who are faced with various socio-economic and political obstacles. Under the guise of writing an article, Mniki makes her way to the Eastern Cape, where she is to be confronted by an array of complications and impediments, which include revelations about her family history and identity, the convoluted truth around the disappearance of the subject she is searching for, the unwillingness of those with information to come forward, and a number of case-specific quarrels with locals, which put her own life in danger.

While it is certainly nothing new for a crime thriller to utilise the possibilities opened up by having an outsider exploring a specific environment, Lorimer maximises both our interest in Mniki’s own personal narrative and the narrative of her family and reveals just how appropriate the figure of the journalist can be for the crime fiction author as a protagonist and driver of the action.

Journalists, like detectives, are allowed to be the ones asking questions, and in this case, the questions being asked relate not only to the disappearance of one woman but to various larger, more pressing questions which extend outside of the novel’s borders: what has happened to the various mission schools around the country? Why is our education so immensely compromised in poor and rural areas? Which macro and micro factors have brought the Eastern Cape education system and its many poor communities to its knees? Can one individual, in a climate of institutional decay, still make a clear difference, and how would they do this?

Crime fiction, of course, still has to have pronounced entertainment value, offer good, rounded writing, surprise the reader with various twists and turns, and make the reader care for the characters. Lorimer’s debut achieves all these feats, but she is also exceptionally attuned to the need for the thrills to be rooted in credible, logical, well-developed strands of plot and impenetrable verisimilitude. While reading Finders Weepers – which cleverly alternates between the mystery investigation set in the present, and the poignant diary entries of the missing principal, well-crafted, moving, never compromised in terms of being self-conscious or manipulative – you are immersed in a world that is immediately recognisable, drawn with empathy and compassion, coloured with texture and plenty of dark humor. Whether giving the reader a true taste of what it must be like to keep a child-headed household afloat or to live with the crippling fear and shame of sexual abuse, Lorimer always stays afloat.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which gave me much insight without the hassle of proselytising, and I can see Mniki becoming a serialised character in the near future. She deserves it. Charlotte Otter’s Balthasar’s Gift, like Finders Weepers, has a social crisis as its centerpiece: set some years back at a time when Aids denialism was still rampant and the HI virus was still seen as a death sentence, this hard-hitting thriller pulls no punches as it excoriates those powerful and manipulative, bigoted and back-stabbing, as they relate to the life and death of AIDS activist Balthasar. He was, at the time of his death, making friends and enemies due to his personally-funded supplies of ointment that he provided to victims of the disease.

Investigating his murder, which is cloaked in several complex layers of lies and betrayal, will be no easy task, but falls to community newspaper journalist Maggie Cloete. Magdalena straddles the lines between English and Afrikaans, and is not a university graduate. She has learnt from personal experience what it is that makes people tick, and her distaste for criminals and wrongdoers is palpable. She has attitude in spades, a very smart mouth, and never takes no for an answer. I took to her immediately. She’s also quite the looker, evidently.

Let me start off by saying that Cloete is a fantastic character, drawn by Otter as a tough but genuinely troubled outsider who finds it far more appealing to have many stiff drinks and to take a ride on her bike (dubbed the Chicken) than trying to make small-talk with nitwits like the paper’s arts writer. I am loath to give away details that relate to the quirkiness of her office colleagues and the love interest angle of the novel for Cloete, but readers can expect to regularly chortle at Otter’s excellent dialogue and find much to enjoy in her battle of wits between our tough leading lady and her love interests. Like Lorimer’s Mniki, Cloete is dogged, intelligent, vulnerable and likeable, precisely because of her flaws. It’s a pleasure to follow her investigation and to root for her, all the way.

Otter propels the novel’s various narrative strands along with an assured hand and with a keen interest, like Lorimer, in the real men and women that either fought (and still fight) against the AIDS virus, the poor treatment of those diagnosed with the disease and their victimisation and stigmatisation, and a vitriolic critique of those that would seek to exploit the suffering of others, men like gangster Lucky Bean Msomi and the German quack Dr Schoessel. These men, rather than being portrayed as ridiculous, over-the-top, stock-in-trade villains, come to figure as being peripheral, ultimately, to the truly horrific figures of Balthasar’s parents.

Although a tad melodramatic at times, Otter’s whodunit, which snakes across spaces and places in the Natal area, races all the way into the home of Balthasar’s father, whose own darkest secrets ultimately hold the key to unlocking the truth of his son’s brutal murder. Before we get to the meaty twist that sets up the novel’s frantic final action, the novel takes us to various dark places: the troubling relationship between Cloete and her Afrikaner upbringing and schooling; Cloete’s brother’s own suffering and continuing anguish; the excruciatingly violent clashes between the Inkatha and ANC factions in Kwazulu-Natal; farmer and worker conflict in the Midlands area; the schism between parents, and between parents and children, in households tainted by abuse.

Otter’s novel, like Lorimer’s, is feminist in the sense that it has a female investigative lead, a strong focus on social issues, and an insistence on exploring issues such as sexual violence and abuse against women and children. These novels, however, are arguably about telling cracking crime stories that are also able to shed light on other important matters that we need to address and come to terms with as a society, twenty years after democracy.

 

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