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Crime Beat: Extracts from this year’s krimis: (3) Sacrifices by Roger Smith

roger smithsacrificesSacrifices by Roger Smith

Michael Lane, riding his wife from the rear, the charge of an approaching climax already boiling his spinal fluid, is left suddenly unsheathed as Beverley crawls away from him, his wet erection cooled by the night breeze coming in through the open bedroom window.

He’s ready to protest when he hears a woman’s scream—had there been an earlier yell, almost lost in Bev’s pleasure-pain scat?—coming from the lower regions of the house.

Beverley clicks on the bedside lamp, swatting a metronome of damp hair from her eyes. “The little bastard’s back,” she says, standing, still breathless, wrapping her compact, gym-toned body in a white toweling robe.

“The little bastard” is the banished teenage son of Denise Solomons, their live-in domestic worker: Lyndall, Lynnie, more recently Mustapha, an eighteen-year-old Lane has been benefactor to since the boy was a toddler but no longer knows at all.

As Lane steps into a pair of shorts, the fabric chafing his semi-tumescent penis, he hears another scream, a thin whine that is abruptly silenced. He stretches for the wall-mounted panic button that’ll bring a car commando of brown men in Kevlar vests, automatic pistols holstered at their hips, to his home for the second time that night.

“Wait,” Beverley says. “It’s coming from Chris’s room.”

Lane’s finger freezes millimeters from the button. She’s right. Five years ago their son, the same age as their domestic worker’s, annexed the pool house, and that is where the noise originates, not Denise Solomons’s quarters in the yard at the rear.

Did Lane hear the snarl of Chris’s souped-up little Japanese cabriolet in the driveway while he was lost in his wife’s flesh?

Beverley, belting her robe, punches the code into the alarm keypad beside the bedroom door—the date of their wedding, a strangely sentimental choice for his brisk, no-nonsense wife. When the keypad bleats twice, telling them that the sensors are disabled and they’re free to roam their double storey, Bev is out the door, making for the stairs.

Lane follows, feeling an atavistic craving for a weapon. As they descend, the darkness broken by the strobing lights on the plastic Christmas tree standing beside the fireplace, he dismisses the impulse. Lyndall is somewhere out on the Cape Flats by now, branding his lip on a meth pipe and Chris is partying with his beery rugby-playing friends—boys grown too suddenly into hulking men, graceful on the field and lumpen off it. The scream, Lane decides, is from one of the slasher DVDs his son ingests.

Lane trails his wife across the absurdly large living room, built in a bygone opulent age to host cocktail parties and soirees. After fifteen years he still feels like an intruder in this sprawling Newlands mansion.

Bev unlatches the door onto the deck and opens it, the smell of bougainvillea, gasoline fumes and chlorine floating like a veil on the hot December night. A fat, livid, moon dangles near the black rock of Table Mountain rising beyond the high walls topped with strands of electric wire that spark and spit.

The pool is a glowing blue rectangle and the automatic cleaner chugs along disturbing the surface, patterning Beverley with ripples of light as she crosses the bricks to the pool house. The sliding door to their son’s room stands open, filled with a gauzy curtain swelling out on the breeze.

“Chris?” Bev says.

There is no reply, the only sound a wet, rhythmic pounding from within, reminding Lane of a sodden towel whacked against a wall.

When Beverley pulls the curtain aside Lane hears the sharp suck of her inhalation. What he glimpses over her shoulder causes a reflex shutting of his eyes in denial.

“Chris?” Beverley says again, her voice strangled in her throat.

Lane opens his eyes onto the full horror of the scene.

Their naked son, his heavily muscled back to them, sits astride a young woman who lies supine on the floor, pounding down on her with a dumbbell, his right hand and arm red with blood.

Lane can see only the girl’s unstockinged legs, her skirt riding up to reveal a pair of white panties. She wears a high-heeled sandal on her right foot. Her left foot is bare and the toes wag when Christopher swings the weight again.

Lane flashes back to four years ago when he took Chris shopping at the Sportsman’s Warehouse in Mowbray, a store the size of an aircraft hanger, his son joshing with the sales assistants, sneering at Lane’s feeble attempts to heft this ten pound weight, deceptively small until you lifted it.

Lane is brought back into the room by his wife’s fingers on his arm and when he looks across at Beverley the terror in her eyes mirrors his own. She sways and the grip on his elbow tightens, as if she’s about to faint.

Then she blinks, visibly composes herself and steps away from Lane, reaching down to touch their son on the shoulder.

“Christopher,” Beverley says. “Stop.”

The weight freezes in midair, as if the boy’s doing a bicep curl, and he looks up at his mother, panting, glazed eyes staring out through a mask of blood. Chris’s hair is blond like hers, some of her sharp features still visible in a face coarsened by testosterone. His flesh is hot with the stink of sweat and alcohol as he stands and turns to them, his face and torso red with gore.

Lane, as he has been since Chris became a teenager, is astonished at the size of his son. Well over six foot, easily two hundred pounds, thick across the shoulders, he stands with the perfect balance of an athlete, the dumbbell dangling from his hand, chest rising and falling as he stares at his mother. His torso is corded with muscle and heavily veined, his penis incongruously shriveled, barely visible beneath the thatch of sandy pubic hair.

“Chris, okay, calm down now,” Beverley says. “We’ll handle this.”

Christopher opens his hand and lets the weight fall. It lands on the carpet beside the girl, amidst fragments of white teeth that lie as if they are ready to be strung onto a necklace. Where the girl’s head should be is a pulped mash of bloody hair, bone splinters and pearl gray oozes of brain matter.

Lane gags, steps back out into the night and projectile vomits his sushi dinner onto the bricks. He wants to run, get into his car and drive until the sun rises over some unfamiliar landscape.

But he pushes the curtain aside and says, “I’m going to call the police.”

“Wait,” Beverley says.
Check out Roger Smith’s website here.
Buy Sacrifices here

What’s been said about Sacrifices:
“Roger Smith is the crime genre’s greatest tragedian and Sacrifices might just be his masterpiece. The downfall of these characters is especially Shakespearean.” Spinetingler Magazine

“Perceptive, bloody and gut-wrenching. Another brilliantly crafted piece of noir from Roger Smith.”

“Violent and brilliant! It’s Crime and Punishment in South Africa.” Le Monde (France)

“A frightening thriller. Machiavellian until the very last line.” Le Figaro (France)

“This dark thriller bites like a pit bull.” Kölnische Rundschau (Germany)

“A thriller that is both brutal and subtle.” Sonntagszeitung (Switzerland) Crime Novel of the Month

“An excellent, violent crime thriller with real depth.” Der Standard (Austria)

“Compulsive reading. Smith plots his tale with a master’s hand, ensnaring the reader, drawing them in and enhancing his growing reputation as one of the best thriller writers around.” The Gamblers Blog

“Through Smith’s eyes, South Africa becomes a noir dystopia where life is cheap and tragedy spares no one. His bleakest, most twisted and very best novel yet.” Dead End Follies

Crime Beat: Extracts from this year’s krimis: (2) Power Play by Mike Nicol

power playwoesPower Play by Mike Nicol

Part One: Lagoon Beach

They ate supper in a steak and seafood joint at Lagoon Beach, Titus Anders not letting go of how their little brother Boetie died.

Trussed in weight belts, dropped over the side of a rubber ducky in six metres of dark water, he went down to talk to the abalone. RIP Boetie.

‘Yesterday I watched him going off with his chommies. Going camping in the mountains. All happy boys. Good boys. Nice boys. Teenagers, you know, joking around, no problems in the world. This morning he’s dead.’

Fishermen found his body chained to a plastic buoy, mistook it for an abalone drop just waiting for smugglers. Property of Titus Anders written on the buoy.

‘Stop it, Daddy,’ said Luc, Titus’s eldest. ‘Leave it now. Please. We all feeling this.’

‘No, man, I can’t believe it,’ said Titus, looking at Luc. ‘Boetie was my boy. Your mommy’s precious because they thought he was dead inside her. She said to me, “Look after Boetie, Titus. You got to look after him for me. Give him a good life.” That’s what she said. I never told you that before. Now look what we got to do.’ He made a gun of his fist, held it up. ‘I thought all this was past times. Over. Finished.’

‘Not your problem, Daddy,’ said Luc. ‘Me’n Quint’ll handle it. Like I told you. We got it sorted already.’

‘You know what it’s like to drown?’ said Titus. ‘Going down there holding your breath till you can’t anymore. Till you have to breathe. Only you know when you open your mouth there’s going to be no air. Only water. You know the panic that’ll cause? The fright? Oh no, man, is there a worse way to die? Your lungs filling up with water.’

‘Daddy, stop it.’ Lavinia, his daughter, sitting there toying with her food.

‘Don’t,’ said Luc, reaching across to grab his father’s hand, lower it to the table. He glanced round the restaurant. Big zooty restaurant with views over Table Bay, the harbour, the soccer stadium flopped like a puffer fish beneath Signal Hill. Family diners at most of the tables. A Neil Diamond loop on the sound system. ‘Not here, Daddy.’

Quint said, ‘What’s the plan?’

Quint the youngest of the family now, a monster man of muscle, neck the size of his head. Quint worked out, daily, ate a lot of meat. Had on the plate before him a five-hundred-gram T-bone, well done. A pile of fries beside it that spilled onto the table.

What Quint meant was what would happen to the boy they’d got chained to a chair in a Montague Gardens warehouse. The boy they’d taken as tit for tat not even an hour after they’d seen Boetie’s body. Quint liked to think he and Luc worked fast.

‘We got to kill him,’ said Luc, cutting into his steak. He forked a chunk, chewed it. Tough, well done steak the way he liked it. The brothers of a similar mind on their steaks, though Luc was a thin guy, weedy. Said, ‘We cut him into pieces. Send him back to his mommy by PostNet.’

Titus said, ‘These boys are too young. You can’t use boys like this.’

‘Wasn’t us that started it,’ said Luc. ‘But we got to finish it. You know that, Daddy. You know that’s what we got to do. It’s what you would of done in the old days before. Nothing’s changed. Then and now it’s all the same.’

‘I can’t eat this,’ said Titus, pushing away his plate.

He’d brought them in here because a family like his had to be seen. Had to act normal in times of trouble. For the sake of Boetie. Show everyone that the Anders family couldn’t be messed with. Titus Untouchable.

Which meant blood in, blood out. Just why’d it have to be Boetie? Why’d she go for him? Not going to be so nice for her now they had her boy.

Titus looked at his daughter. ‘What you think, Lavinia?’

Lavinia, a stunner. Big brown eyes. Delicate nose. Pouty lips that didn’t often smile. His princess. She talked fancy. She gave the Anders name class. Titus thought that except for her dead mother, she was the only other woman he loved. Anything happened to her … He couldn’t hold the thought, couldn’t do that sort of what-if scenario.

Lavinia shrugged, nibbled at her onion rings. ‘You want to do that, you do that, I don’t care.’

‘She killed your brother.’

‘We’ve gotta hurt her,’ said Quint.

‘To even the score?’ Lavinia stared at him. ‘You think that’ll settle it?’

‘No,’ said Titus. ‘But where’s our option?’

Lavinia flicked hair out of her face, it fell back in fine strands. ‘There is always another option.’

‘Like what?’ said Luc.

‘You got a plan?’ said Titus.

‘She’s got shit for brains.’ Luc sneering at his sister.

Lavinia raised her fork, brought it close to Luc’s face. No anger in her gesture, just the menace of the fork millimetres from his face.

‘What you want to do, sis?’

‘Stab out your other eye,’ she said. Luc with a pirate patch over his eye. As kids she’d blinded him in the right. Used a stick she’d found on the beach to limit his vision. So much for fun times at the seaside.

Titus waited until Lavinia lowered her fork. ‘What’s your plan?’

‘I haven’t got a plan.’

‘So what d’you think? Man, girl, don’t get clever with words.’

Lavinia went back to her onion rings. Long, fine fingers picking at the food. Bright gold bands on her fingers.

‘Tamora’s your problem, Daddy,’ she said.

‘Ja, I know,’ said Titus. ‘That’s what Luc’s telling me.’

‘She’s a big problem, Daddy,’ said Lavinia.

‘That’s why we gotta chop her boy into pieces.’ Luc sat back. ‘Teach her a lesson. Like tooth for tooth.’

‘Eye for eye, first,’ said Lavinia, looking at him, unsmiling. Luc frowned at her.

‘We got to do it for Boetie,’ said Quint. ‘Tonight. Quickly like they did it to him.’

Titus let this rest there, thinking he didn’t want it. He didn’t want more blood. But what other way out? They didn’t do this, Tamora would piss in his face.

‘Alright,’ said Titus. ‘You and Luc.’

‘We can chop him up?’

‘You want to do that?’

‘Shit, Luc,’ said Lavinia. ‘Just shoot him. What’s your problem?’

‘No problem.’

‘Just shoot him, okay? One of those slow bullets. No mess, okay? Take him into the sand dunes, okay.’

Quint glanced at her and away, his jaw working at the meat.

‘Pretty little sis giving orders,’ said Luc. Held up his hand, the one with the deformed finger, made it into a gun as Titus had done: ‘Just shoot him, okay. One of those slow bullets, okay. Take him into the sand dunes, okay.’

‘Luc,’ said Titus. ‘Stop now. Enough.’

Wasn’t Luc though, it was Lavinia, always on her brother’s case. Like the two were born to irritate one another. Sometimes Lavinia coming out with stuff like she was a hardarse woman. Use one of those slow bullets! Jesus!

They ate in silence. Titus opposite Lavinia, facing the view. The sun setting, the ocean turned liquid gold. Grief in his heart. Grief for a drowned son. Anger too that he’d been disrespected. That a woman he’d given a break was biting his bum. He pulled his plate back, ate without taste. There would be heartache. There would be tears. He was Titus.

Titus set down his steak knife, his meal half-eaten. He signalled for the restaurant owner. The man hurrying to him, grinning.

‘Mr Anders.’

‘Calvados,’ said Titus. Pointing a finger round his family.

‘Only the best,’ said the restaurateur. He picked up Titus’s plate. ‘Something wrong, Mr Anders? The meal was good?’

‘Fine,’ said Titus. ‘The Calvados, alright? And the bill.’

‘On the house, Mr Anders,’ said the restaurateur. ‘Always a pleasure for your family.’

‘I’ll pay.’ Titus waved his palm over the table. ‘Tax deductable.’

The owner smiled. ‘Sure, no problem’ – calling to have the table cleared.

‘I’m not finished, Daddy,’ said Quint.

‘Get a doggy bag.’ Lavinia shoved her plate at him. ‘You can have mine too.’

‘It’s raw.’


Quint forked her meat onto his plate. ‘I’ll nuke it at home.’

‘You better,’ said Luc. ‘A vet gets that, he can make it moo.’

Shots of Calvados were set down, the waiter said, ‘Mr Titus, that man’ – indicating across the restaurant – ‘says he’s paying for your drinks. He sends condolences.’

‘Thank him,’ said Titus, raised his glass in the man’s direction. The man palmed his hands in supplication, bowed over them.

‘Who’s that?’ said Quint.

Titus tasted the brandy. Got the kick of it at the back of his throat. ‘Someone we helped with a loan.’

Luc snorted. ‘He pays for the drinks with our money.’

‘No, man.’ Titus stared at his son. ‘Don’t always think the worst, man, Luc. He paid up. He acknowledges us. Our grief.’

‘With interest?’

Titus shook his head. ‘Don’t start, okay, don’t start.’

Luc kept his gaze lowered, toyed with his drink. He looked up there was Lavinia smirking at him. He wagged a finger at her.

‘Come,’ said Titus to the waiter, ‘clear the plates. And a doggy bag for Quint.’

Lavinia’s BlackBerry buzzed.

‘Lover boy’s after you,’ said Luc. The sneer on his face now, his tongue snaked at his top lip. ‘Doesn’t matter that our little Boetie’s been killed. Wants to know if it’s his lucky night.’ Luc taking up the song with Neil, singing: ‘Hands, touching hands. Good times …’

‘Shut up.’ Lavinia focused on the phone screen. ‘Just shut up, alright?’

‘Is that Rings?’ said Titus. ‘Tell him howzit.’ Titus holding out his drink. ‘Come, come, chink chink for your brother.’ They touched glasses. ‘Boetie.’

Drank the rest of the apple brandy in a single toss.

‘We got to do this now,’ said Quint.

‘Ja.’ Titus stood, smoothed the sleeves of his leather jacket. Looked round for the owner, saw him standing at the grills, a cellphone to his ear. The owner saluted, saying ‘Ciao, ciao.’ Titus giving him a thumbs up.

The family angled through the restaurant, people saying sorry for your loss as they passed. Reaching out to touch them. Men shaking their hands. Women wanting to stroke Lavinia’s arms. Lavinia holding herself rigid.

Titus unsmiling, thinking bad news got around fast. Was the right thing to be here. Give everyone the message, don’t mess with the Anders.

A waiter holding open the door, offering a bowl of mints. Luc pushed past, turned to Lavinia. ‘Bring you back some pictures, hey, sis.’

Outside the evening warm, windless.


Click through to Mike Nicol’s website here.
Buy Power Play here
Buy Woes here.
Buy Power Play UK edition.

What reviewers have said:
Lynn Harvey in Euro Crime: “…a powerful, fast-paced, well-observed thriller set amongst the gangsters, businessmen and politicos of Cape Town. With its own blend of subtleties and vividly drawn characters POWER PLAY is an absolute recommend.”
Jake Kerridge in the Express: “There is a lot of excellent crime fiction coming out of South Africa at the moment and, although none of it is likely to be mistaken for a Miss Marple mystery, the other writers out there don’t quite seem to match Mike Nicol for grittiness. Uncompromising and unputdownable, this is a must-read.”
Andrew Donaldson in The Sunday Times (SA): “Local crime seldom gets more hard-boiled …great dialogue and a cracking pace.”
Maxim Jakubowski in Lovereading: “…A savage slice of South African thriller of the darkest hue and confirms Nicol as the sole heir to that particular, invidious kingdom.”
Kirsty Lang (BBC): “Reading a gripping thriller Power Play by South African crime writer Mike Nicol.”
Mike Ripley in Shots Crime and Thriller Ezine: “… an absolute belter; a must-read for anyone who likes their fast-pace thrillers red in tooth-and-claw.
Samantha Gibb in CultNoise: “… packed with tension and intricacy.”
Cas van Rensburg reviewing Woes (the Afrikaans edition of Power Play) on Netwerk24: “It’s surprising how many good crime writers have suddenly appeared [in SA]…and often their books are better than those on the New York Times bestseller list.”
Jennifer Crocker in The Cape Times: “Power Play is pure magic for lovers of crime novels, seasoned with wise analysis of political power. A great read.”

Crime Beat: Extracts from this year’s krimis: (1) The Serpentine Road

serpentine roadpaul mendelsonThe Serpentine Road by Paul Mendelson

From the Prologue – January 1994

De Vries climbs out of the van, draws his weapon, holds it in both hands, balances it on the roof of the van; scans 270 degrees, sees no one. This is not a night to be out on the street, not a time to be taunting the armed white policemen, high on a righteous mission. Smith has taken his place at the corner of the tiny plot. De Vries sees him feel the bonnet of the green Ford, check the doors, open the boot, sees him shake his head.

Shouts from inside the dwelling; a shot, screams, then a dozen rounds like frenzied drum beats, a woman’s wails. De Vries swings around, his weapon pointed at the doorway. He can see Smith squatting behind the green car, weapon primed, hears more shouts, a woman begging, imploring; then swearing, Nel’s shout howling, two final shots – an epilogue. A minute flash of silver catches his eye at the side of the shack; a semblance of movement. He thinks he makes out a figure. He raises his gun, aware his hands are wet from rain and sweat, the muzzle shaking. Another movement, perhaps a scraping sound, a high-pitched, almost whispered command. He tightens his grip, feels the trigger bite into the joint of his index finger. Something tells him not to fire: it is a child, children. He tilts his head, squeezes his eyes shut and open, re-focuses, sees eyes stare back at him; too small, too low to be an adult. With his left hand, he pushes down the muzzle of his gun, squints, discerns nothing but the sound of heavy raindrops beginning to fall again on the tin roofed shacks around him. If he has seen children – seen any living animal – it, or they, have run away down the narrow alleyway between the two rows of shacks and tiny houses, beneath the sagging lines which steal electricity from the looming pylons at the end of the encampment, into the maze of the dark and filthy township.

He looks across to see Nel and the three officers exit the building, senses more than sees, shock and fear on the faces of the young subordinates, their legs weak.

“Next junction, grey house. Go.”

De Vries does not know whether this is an order to him or to Nel’s men. He watches them stumble into the vehicle, the sound of the engine revving, back-firing, jolting into gear. It passes De Vries, turns again onto the main thoroughfare and heads away, thick fumes in its wake.

De Vries looks over to Smith, still crouching. He turns full circle, scanning the shacks and passages, sees no movement, scurries across to the van, crouches next to him.

De Vries is dry-mouthed:

“What happened?”

“I dunno.”

“What did you see?”

“Nothing. Nothing.”

“You see anyone come out the back, the side of the shack there?”

“No.” Smith turns around, looks down the alleyway, shakes his head. He stares at De Vries, mouth agape, panting.

“Wait here. Cover me.”

Keeping low, De Vries jumps the broken chain fence around the front yard, runs to the front door, jams his back against the wall, primes his weapon, glances inside the building. He takes a deep breath, ducks inside.

The rain on the tin roof is like a thousand gunshots, the bitter stench of fresh blood clashes with the warm smoky air, thick with sweat and urine. The interior is lit only by a fading hurricane lamp atop a pile of firewood, a faint orange glimmer from a fire against the back wall. To his right, deep, dark blood oozes from the bodies of an old man and woman sprawled on a thin, stained mattress; ahead of him, in front of the fire, a young girl lies face up, her head encased in a solid helmet of hair matted in blood; to his right, two adults, he thinks maybe in their late thirties or early forties, lean against one other, heads touching, one with half his face blown away, another riddled with bullets. In their agony, they have seemed to embrace, arms around each other, ankles crossed.

De Vries fights back vomit in his chest, takes short staccato breaths, squeezes his eyes shut, yet forces himself to see each body, each face. He searches for weapons, sees none. He makes himself step forward, to push aside debris with his foot, with the muzzle of his gun. Still he finds nothing.

He backs out, reaches the cooler, heavy air and breathes it into his lungs; remembers where he is and what he has seen, swings around and sees only Constable Smith, alert, yet somehow mesmerized, pointing his gun at him. He meets his stare, drops to one knee and checks around him. Still, there is no sign of life on the streets. He pulls himself up, scurries towards Smith and the green vehicle.

“What is it?”

“Something set them off. Firefight. Five down in there.”

Smith swallows.



“We follow Major Nel?”

De Vries hesitates.



“We go back to Obs. Back to the station.”

He rises, pulls Smith’s sleeve, scampers back to their own van, fights to get the engine started, jumps away, swings around, heads back in the direction from which they have come.

Above the sound of the straining engine, Smith shouts:

“What happened?”

De Vries grits his teeth, fights the stench in his nostrils, keeps watch either side of the road, alert for ambush; says nothing.

What happened?

Wrong house, wrong car, wrong information – if there ever was any. Trigger happy, angry, vengeful policemen, sick of the struggle, sick of seeing their own cut down, sick of the weather. Out of control commanding officer, venting his hatred, his frustration that at the end of years of toil, decades of faith in the system, those above have capitulated; lashing out at anyone without answers, anyone black…

What happened?

“Don’t know,” de Vries says.

Click through to Paul Mendelson’s website here.
Buy The Serpentine Road.

What reviewers had to say about Mendelson’s debut: The First Rule of Survival

THE TIMES – “The ascent of South African crime fiction continues. In ‘The First Rule of Survival’, an impressive debut, bodies discovered at the bottom of a skip in Cape Town are those of two boys kidnapped seven years before and never traced. Colonel Vaughn de Vries’ life has gone downhill since he had led the police’s unsuccessful inquiries at the time. He’s insubordinate, unpredictable and obsessed with finding the killer. Besides, there was a third kidnapped boy, who might still be alive. The novel fizzes, helped by a vivid backdrop of the country’s post-apartheid transformation.”
THE GUARDIAN – “Paul Mendelson’s South Africa-set The First Rule of Survival begins with a gag: they haven’t yet made CSI: Cape Town, observes senior superintendent Vaughn DeVries, because “they wouldn’t have the lab results from the first crime till the series ended”. It sets us up for a ramshackle ride. But satire isn’t Mendelson’s game here, and what DeVries and his team lack in gleaming forensic technology they make up for in cold wisdom. At this sure-footed novel’s core is the abduction, in broad daylight and on consecutive days, of three boys – a case DeVries had failed to solve in 2007. Now two of them have been found dead, their bodies wrapped in plastic and dumped in a bin, and the race is on to track down the killer and save Boy Three. We may feel like we’ve met DeVries before, a reaction Mendelson pre-empts when he has a character declare of him, “You’re a heavy-drinking, weather-beaten police detective with a broken marriage and anger-management issues.” But he plots so smoothly and writes so powerfully that we’re too engrossed to care.”

THE INDEPENDENT – “I’m in a quandary over this book. It is astonishingly well written for a first novel, has a fast-moving narrative and fascinating characters. Add to this the complex social questions arising from the South African setting, and it must be a sure-fire gripping read. Which it is – until the very last pages, which I found morally repulsive and in denial of recently established facts. I shan’t give the game away: readers must make up their own minds.
In modern Cape Town the police force, reformed after apartheid, is still in need of experienced officers – and that means policemen like Vaughn de Vries, now investigating the killing of two Caucasian teenagers with the aid of his black side-kick, Dan February. The boys have been shot with a hunting rifle and their bodies dumped in a s kip.
Post-mortems show signs of long-term abuse and malnutrition, and it is discovered that these children have indeed been missing for years. One is still to be found and may be alive, a possibility which lends compelling urgency to the investigation.
In this fractured service, older white officers have been moved to head special units and murder is still a divisive issue, even as far as victims are concerned: “I understand white crime,” says de Vries. But does he understand the mind of any human being, black or white, capable of kidnapping and murdering children? An expert is to hand, the psychologist and forensic adviser, Dr Steinhauer, with whom de Vries has clashed on previous cases. Steinhauer has a theory which will relieve all South Africans, black and white, of suspicion and pin the blame on wealthy Arabs abducting boys to the Gulf for their own perverted pleasures. As the story focuses on other individuals, further psychological problems bother the straight-thinking de Vries. How, for example, can a paedophile be capable of illustrating children’s books with great imagination and sensitivity?
The task of solving the crimes is given its own heroic status as both detectives battle racial stereotypes and the deeply disturbing issues in South African society at large. For de Vries, being able to penetrate the gated communities of the rich is an advantage, yet politicians want to get rid of his generation of white officers, and Dan February is constantly aware of the murder rate within the black community, resenting the time devoted to a bunch of overprivileged whites. It is noticeable that the spectrum of characters is not confined to the upper classes – there are poor whites too, trying to find a foothold in the new South Africa. Mendelson suggests other fractures in this complex world – disenfranchisement of the “coloured” population and the favouring of Zulus under Jacob Zuma.
Within such chaos, the enduring mutual respect of de Vries and February is not only a feature of the narrative but gives moving additional depth to the characterisation.
I only wish Mendelson hadn’t added an outcome that disfigures this otherwise distinguished piece of crime fiction.”

Crime Beat: Krimi reads all next week

Coming up next week extracts from the crime fiction titles published this year:
serpentine roadpower playsacrificessibanda and the deaths head mothdetective kubuhour of darkness

Crime Beat: The deep history of SA krimis

Sometimes you can surf up against some really interesting stuff on the interweb. While looking for cop ranks this morning I came across an article by University of Pretoria academic Elizabeth le Roux, titled: South African Crime and Detective Fiction in English: A Bibliography and Publishing History. She delves into all the books published under the vague and broad generic of ‘crime fiction’ up to 1994, concentrating on the period before June Drummond and James McClure. Mostly she shows that there were a number of South African crime novels prior to the 1950s although certainly they didn’t make an impact on our fiction in the way that, say, the Golden Age made in the UK or the hard-boiled school made in the US. But they’re there and they’re now acknowledged.

In her preamble Le Roux writes:

Against the general assumption that crime and detective fiction has only recently emerged as a genre in South African publishing, this essay will consider the publishing history of this genre in South Africa. The question that is considered is whether trade or general-interest publishers targeting a mass audience in South Africa have produced ‘whodunnits’ in addition to their output of cookbooks and romance fiction? The evidence of writers like June Drummond, James McClure and Wessel Ebersohn, at the very least, suggests that they have, but there is also an older history. This article aims to develop a bibliography and publishing profile of this genre. This will enable us to build a contextualised historical perspective and deepen our understanding of a very popular genre.

At the end of her essay Le Roux lists a number of books that feature crimes. It’s a contentious list but then it’s a contentious subject.  To read her essay click here.

Crime Beat: Vlad’s on the whack list

My chinas, there’s a new oke muscling in, ek se. Like he’s wanting territory. Could be we need to get organised. Put him on the list. Make a plan for a hit, a whack job, stick it to him in the mean streets. I tell yous when the larnies start wanting to play in the zone, then you gotta know they’s there for the bucks.

You see I’m reading the other day about this oke, Vlad. From Ukraine. Or somewhere. He’s in on the Joburg scene which is fine by me so long as he doesn’t want a stuk of the Cape. We got enough Russkies here. He comes down here we’ll give him an educational klap, one time, finish ‘n klaar.

There’s this other dame writing about Vlad in the Sunday Times, nogal, she says: ‘This sly humour spreads in the title story, “101 Detectives”, where an anxious private eye attends a convention in a drab hotel. In delirious sequences of wordplay he tries to choose a persona: “He dug this snub-nosed lingo slubbing out of his pug-ugly mug. It was good. It was endings in -ub and -ug. He could get a grip on stuff with it. Solve shit.” It’s a delicious satire of gumshoes.’

Gumshoes? Where does the mama get this language? I ask you with crocodile tears, we’s in the modern age. You not heard of forensic consultants, lady?

But then Vlad gets nasty with a ‘mischievous’ smile, I tell yous quote unquote. He says, “I happen to find that particular world of crime fiction a fruitful area for comedy.”

Right, my bru, so do we all. But we’s got there first. So you stay in Jozi and we’ll be cool. But in the Cape you’s on the list. Doesn’t matter if you’s got 101 Detectives. Hamba kahle, my friend, especially at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. We’s. Knows. Wheres. Yous. Staying.

101 DetectivesForensic file on Vlad

Crime Beat: The politics of crime fiction

Recently, at the massive crime fiction festival in Lyon, the Quais du Polar, there was frequent discussion on the crime novel and politics. Not long ago crime novelists would have fought shy of any mention of political content in their novels but those days seem to be over.

Picking up on the theme Val McDermid*, one of the grandees at the festival, wrote in The Guardian that she and Ian Rankin (also at the festival) believed that given “the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi” [it leans] to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote”.

She went on to argue that the thriller tended towards the right “because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you. And as Bob Dylan reminds us, ‘When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose’”.

Her position was rapidly countered by thriller writer Jonathan Freedland** in the same newspaper.

“Consider the supreme master of the spy thriller, John le Carré. His cold war novels stood against the mindless jingoism of the period, resisting the Manichean equation of east-west with evil-good. In the last decade, Le Carré has mercilessly exposed the follies of the war on terror, probing deep into the web of connections that ties together finance, politics and the deep state. The older he gets, the more Le Carré seems to be tearing away at the establishment and its secret, complacently amoral ways.

“And that kind of fury is typical of the fuel that burns through many thrillers. This is a genre whose most frequent theme is injustice: the urge to right a wrong, even if that means, to adapt Val McDermid’s words, turning the world upside down.”

What does all this mean to the crime novelist in SA?

Our position is an interesting one. Deon Meyer, Andrew Brown and Karin Brynard have written police procedurals with protagonists who are signed-up cops. In other words, civil servants of the state. Of the other writers Jassy Mackenzie, Margie Orford and Michele Rowe have gone for a partnership between the PI and the cops, whereas Roger Smith, with the exception of the bit roles played by his cop Zondi, tends to focus on the horrors of gangsters and gangland – an area where violence occurs without state interference, where the cops are absent. In other words, thrillers by McDermid’s definition, but does this make him right wing?

My own choice was first to avoid the procedural and the PI and to place characters in the security business and then to move into the PI realm. There is much sense in Woody Haut’s contention in his discussion of US crime fiction, Neon Noir, that, “…private-eye fiction always seems to flourish in periods of, or immediately following, government secrecy, duplicity and paranoia”.

This pretty much describes our political situation. Given this condition my own occupations are to combine the crime novel and the espionage novel – the thriller – which places them where on the political spectrum? To be honest I’m not sure it matters. The position of the writer in South Africa has long been one of antagonism towards government. Again today when politicians are not to be trusted, when government is arrogant, when the state teeters towards failure – given the Eskom situation and the ripple effect of this through the economy, a health sector in crisis, an education system that is held to ransom by a teachers’ union – the crime novel and the thriller offer opportunities to question and satirise the rampant corruption, greed, incompetence, criminality, inadequacy, the list could go on that distinguishes the Zuma government.

Some reviewers have pointed at the SA crime novel as a political novel, and certainly it is that, it offers a more cogent critique of the state than any other genre. Roger Smith has said that South African crime novels are “sadly, now probably the most relevant” novels being written here. It’s an interesting observation. I don’t think it is strictly true but then I don’t think that we have the luxury of the British distinctions between the krimi and thriller genres either.

*Val McDermid’s article
** Jonathan Freedland’s article


Crime Beat: French Toast and Poor Knights

bad copof cops&robbersAs we all know crime fiction is less about the violence and gore and more about what the characters eat and drink and how they dress and what cars they drive. German krimi guru, Philipp Elph, who has a really good blog, KrimiLese, recently got in touch to ask about a reference in my novel Of Cops & Robbers – renamed Bad Cop in German -  to ‘arme ritter’.

The reason? Well, there are two occasions when the main character Fish Pescado swings into his favourite hang-out in Muizenberg, Knead, for a cappuccino and ‘arme ritter’. (An aside: he is about to change his venue to Tiger’s Milk the really zooty place that’s opened up next door. Very much his style of establishment, and it’s upstairs so the view is something to behold.) Back to arme ritter.

As everyone knows (admittedly, some of us have to do a bit of googling first) arme ritter is German for French toast or pain perdu. Now the morsel Fish consumes rates highly on his (and my) breakfast menu because it is the standard recipe of old bread soaked in a mixture of beaten eggs and cream or milk which is then fried and topped with fried crispy bacon and fried banana (this last is probably SA’s contribution to the famous dish). Over this is poured a generous helping of syrup.

Philipp was interested to know if this concoction really was served at Knead and what it was called. Once he knew, he responded:

“That’s it! I know it from my grandma, but only as the sweet version, not with fried bacon. In Germany Arme Ritter does not have a good reputation. It is known as a kind of poor cake and hasn’t been popular for about 50 years when the famous German Wirtschaftswunder started. Maybe, South African French toast is more delicious than the piece I remember. Here’s the recipe, found in a German collection of recipes.”

Arme ritter translates as “poor knights” and the Wikipedia entry for French Toast has it that the German recipe dates back to the fourteenth century. Had a hard time of it did those poor knights.
of cops& robbers dienners & donnersof cops&robbers

Crime Beat: Paul Mendelson’s top 10 crime novels

paul mendelsonLast year in April UK-based Paul Mendelson added a title to the list of South African crime novels, The First Rule of Survival, and introduced a new cop Vaughn de Vries. He has a follow-up – The Serpentine Road – due for publication in April. Below is his list of the ten crime novels he most admires.

James Ellroy

I can recommend all the novels from my hero of crime writing, from his raw, simplistically frightening early work to his more contemporary stories in which he pitches his largely amoral group of heroes into the real-life big events of US history over the last fifty years. In particular, his last completed trilogy: American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover, is an epic story encompassing the reign of Edgar J Hoover, Mob domination of Las Vegas, through to the Bay of Pigs and the assassination of JFK.

Using rhythms of language which, while taking a while to get used to, soon transport you to within the conversation, make undertaking an Elroy novel an intensely satisfying experience.

Deon Meyer

A world-class home-grown thriller writer, I read his work and weep. If only I could combine plot and pace and character so brilliantly. Blood Safari and 13 Hours are my favourites; none disappoint. My only regret is not being able to read them in Afrikaans. First, I have to wait months for the translation to be published; second, my friends tell me his stories glitter still more in his native tongue.

Michael Connelly

His first half dozen Harry Bosch novels are masterclasses in the art of contemporary US police procedural. I started with The Black Ice, and just kept reading. If his more recent work has proven slightly less satisfying, this is only testament to how difficult it must be to keep writing at the absolute top of your game.

Robert Crais

His novels featuring PI Elvis Cole and his silent sidekick, Joe Pike, read so fluently, he makes the art of crime writing seem simple. From The Monkey’s Raincoat on, each is a little delight – often devoured in one sitting.

Mark Billingham

Gritty, graphic, violent and nasty, UK based Billingham’s novels make the tips of your fingers tingle. From Lazybones and Sleepyhead through to his latest offerings, Di Tom Thorne and his team unravel the darkest of crimes, and face the most sick and ruthless of perpetrators.

Peter Temple

This Australian novelist won me over with the first book of his I read, In The Evil Day, and whenever I dip into his work I am impressed. Whether his Jack Irish stories or those of governmental and international conspiracy, Temple’s ability to switch from the minutiae to the grand sweep is inspirational.

Crime Beat: Upcoming this year

By an early count, which is certainly not conclusive, there are at least 10 South African crime novels due out in English this year, from, among others Roger Smith, Deon Meyer, Karin Brynard and Michele Rowe.

Last year Roger Smith’s Sacrifices was published in the US and available through Amazon. The good news is that he is concluding a South African rights deal which will see the book out some time this year. He has also released a new novel called Man Down which is available internationally as an ebook. The print release date pending.

Then from that one-man krimi industry otherwise known as Deon Meyer comes Ikarus in Afrikaans in March and the English translation (title as yet undecided) in September.

Umuzi will be publishing Hour of Darkness by Michele Rowe; the translation of Karin Brynard’s Onse Vaders (Our Fathers) and her new novel in Afrikaans, Tuisland. They will also release a not quite follow-up to my Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso trilogy, Power Play, (Woes in Afrikaans, although I’d have liked that title on the English version as well).

Kwela have lined up a new novel from Sifiso Mzobe whose debut, Young Blood, garnered many awards when it appeared in 2010.

Modjaji plan to release, Karkloof Blue, the second in the Maggie Cloete series by Charlotte Otter. Her first, Balthasar’s Gift, appeared last year.

From Mercury later in the year comes Sweet Paradise by Joanne Hichens.

Then UK publisher Constable and Robinson will bring out the second SA-based crime novel featuring the same protagonists from Paul Mendelson, The Serpentine Road. His novel, The First Rule of Survival, appeared last year and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association CWA Golden Dagger for Crime Novel of the Year 2014 in the UK.

Towards the end of the year Canongate will publish Sally Andrew’s Tannie Maria’s Recipes for Love and Murder.

Crime novels with other southern African settings:  include the Botswana-based next Kubu novel, Death in the Family, from the local writing partnership Michael Stanley which will appear in the US in November. SA publication pending.  In April Modjaji will publish a Zambian krimi, Witch Girl by Tanvi Bush.

Word is that Jassy Mackenzie,  MD Villiers, and Amanda Coetzee are working on new crime novels.