The Recurring Supersleuth Of Crime Fiction
A Literary Feature

South Africa By: Paul Pregnolato on 23 December 2010
Category: Books > Features Comments View Comments

Mike Hammer. Ed McBain. John Rebus and Inspector Morse...a veritable pantheon of fictional supersleuths. To these can be added Benny Griessel, Clare Hart, and David "Kubu" Bengu. Their respective creators - Deon Meyer, Margie Orford and "Michael Stanley" - discussed their characters' virtues and vices with Mike Nicol of UCT's Department of English at this year's Cape Town Book Fair.

In opening the discussion, Mike Nicol of the University of Cape Town's Department of English made the cutting observation that "crime fiction sets up someone who fights crime as someone who also cannot sustain intimate relationships" and that all the characters created by the authors on the panel, while "supersleuths", were also "flawed". According to crime-fiction author Margie Orford, all crime-fiction heroes were indeed "on the outside of society and were looking in to put it right", and usually did admit to one flaw, namely "a difficulty to connect". It was as a result of this that she had given her sleuth - Clare Hart - a sidekick in the form of Inspector Riedwaan Faizal: he wanted to "give her picket fences" and a "normal family existence", while she preferred to remain single. When Nicol put it to her that Hart (strictly speaking) didn't have a flaw per se, she replied that "she [Clare Hart] had Riedwaan".

The authors at the 2010 Cape Town Book Fair

Detective David "Kubu" Bengu - by contrast - was (according to Nicol) "the most endangered" as he was obsessive in the extreme: he appeared (literally) to be eating himself to death [Bengu's physique matches his nickname: "Kubu" is Setswana for "hippopotamus"] and even drank a vile concoction called a "Steelworks". When asked whether or not Kubu was indeed going to eat himself to death, Michael Sears - who together with Stanley Trollip writes under the nom de plume "Michael Stanley" - enigmatically answered "I plead the Fifth!" Just remember: you read it first on! To Sears, Kubu is obsessed with "food, drink, his wife, and trying to make Botswana a better place".

Deon Meyer's characters are especially obsessed with alcohol. When asked why this was the case, Meyer recalled how he had spent two weeks with the South African Police Services' murder and robbery squad while researching one of his earlier books: "Alcohol was a big part of these detectives' lives. They had to have some sort of coping mechanism and unfortunately most found it in alcohol. For someone to be so doggedly on the trail of a criminal you have to have an obsession for, first of all, justice and being an obsessive character you're obviously also going to have other obsessions as well." While many of his previous books have some memorable characters, Meyer's current favourite is Benny Griessel, the main protagonist in Devil's Peak and 13 Hours. However, he also professed a liking for Lemmer - the anti-hero in Blood Safari - who saw the world through the eyes of a "white trash guy" and who had even gone so far as to create a set of rules with which to deal with the world at large. (Example: "Lemmer's First Law: Don't get involved".) To Meyer, a good crime-fiction character "needs to have an obsession with justice but at the same time he also needs to have an obsession with other stuff, for example booze - in the case of Benny Griessel - or 'Lemmer's Laws' - in the case of Lemmer".

Margie Orford was then asked how she had conceptualised and expanded "Clare Hart". According to Orford, Hart came to her while she was visiting Walvis Bay. Shortly before she arrived, a 15-year-old boy had been murdered and what astounded her was that no-one particularly cared whether or not his killers would ever face justice. To her, "Clare Hart" would be "the avenging spirit who would try and put it together". Orford finds that her character takes over and does things her way; a technique that Orford's publisher suggested to help her when she's stuck for writing - "What would Clare do?" - has become her mantra. When asked by an audience member how she progressively developed the characters in her books, she said: "[In each book] you have to create [a character] anew [for new readers] [...] but also go back and see how the character has developed since previous books."

Nicol then asked the panel members how important - in their opinion - was the "bad character" in crime writing. Orford, in responding, cited the example of Milton's Paradise Lost: the fall of Lucifer took up a mere two pages but nonetheless dominated the entire poem. "The problem is that the Lucifers of your book are very charasmatic - they've very mesmerising – and they can easily take over a whole novel. In a way they are a kind of a little pulsating seed that's the heart of the whole book. It's that kind of malignant social cancer that your crime supersleuth has to excise, painfully, or painlessly, depending on their predilictions. That evil character is really, to me, the engine of the book. Your supersleuth reacts," Orford said. Deon Meyer, in turn, said that he had never included a truly evil character in his books but that "most of my bad guys are good people doing bad things or good people gone bad. The reason why people do these things is much more interesting."

When asked whether or not they were on an equivalent moral plane with his "good" characters, Meyer said that "they could have been good guys if the circumstances had been different", yet the reasons why they committed their acts and (invariably) wound up being the "bad guy" were "much more interesting". When asked for her opinion in this regard, Orford expanded on Meyer's comments by saying that "For me the kind of territory I'm interested in is how you write about how crime affects and functions within family relationships and within the domestic realm. One of the things that I can use Clare to do is to assess how it feels for women to experience crime – not just her but her victims and the people that she deals with. [...] How people carry on and how they survive – that interests me a great deal. [..] There's more and more crime fiction where you see the crime but you also see how people fix and heal and carry on. [...] For me a lot of the violence that we have in South Africa is sublimated into the body, into female bodies very often and into the family, and that's an interesting place to look."

Deon Meyer expanded on this by saying that crime writers - in exploring the psychological nuances of their protagonists - were entering "new territory". However, he did qualify this by saying that he wasn't entirely sure that overseas authors were moving into this "new territory" en masse right now: in the United States crime writers were suffering from what Margie Orford dubbed "serial killer fatigue" and were, according to Meyer, increasingly focusing on stories that had "crimes against the state" at the heart of the narrative. "As [the] government gets more restrictive, you start getting more PIs working against the system, and it is this factor that is increasingly being incorporated into American crime writers' works," he said.

The authors at the 2010 Cape Town Book Fair

Another question posed to the panel was whether or not stereotyped characters were a necessary convention. In answering, Margie Orford said that "it takes about five books to develop a character and avoid stereotyping" but also that "[w]hile no writer would like to admit that he or she is writing to stereotype...a lifetime of what you have experienced will invariably influence you".

Finally, the members of the panel were asked what their writing habits are. Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip said that they could - theoretically - write for 24 hours a day by virtue of being based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the US respectively; however, "a lot of the time was spent bouncing ideas to and fro", and the developmental phase of their books was often "episodic". Margie Orford said that she would often write for about eight hours a day, but when she was stuck she would retreat to a wooden shed at the end of her garden free of nuisances such as telephones and email. She also got a good laugh from the audience when she recounted how (while ensconced in her shed) her daughter had once answered the telephone by telling the caller that "Mummy is in her shed killing people again".

While all too brief, the session was nonetheless an interesting excursion into the mindset needed to write compelling modern crime fiction and was for me one of the highlights of this year's Cape Town Book Fair.

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