Crime: Fact Or Fiction
A Literary Feature

South Africa By: Paul Pregnolato on 24 December 2010
Category: Books > Features Comments View Comments

Everyone loves a well-written crime thriller, but in a country such as South Africa where crime is rampant, how exactly do local crime writers spin their yarns and at the same time captivate an audience that has become inured to violence? This was the topic of a Cape Town Book Fair panel discussion hosted by local author Andrew Brown. Best known for his Sunday Times Fiction Prize-winning work Coldsleep Lullaby Brown is also an advocate at the Cape Bar as well as a South African Police Services reservist. Joining him were authors Margie Orford, Antony Altbeker, and Deon Meyer.

The panel at the Cape Town Book FairPerhaps the most telling quote during the "Crime: Fact Or Fiction" panel discussion held at this year's Cape Town Book Fair - as well as indication of the obstacles faced by local crime writers - was author Deon Meyer's pithy comment that "we have adventurous, no-holds-barred criminals in South Africa". In particular, he said that he could not have written the books he has written if he hadn't lived in South Africa, and referred to some of the more bizarre aspects of the Brett Kebble murder trial to reinforce his point. Meyer said that crime writing had to be seen in the context within which it was written; however, he qualified this by also stating that (as far as he was concerned), there was no relationship between "real-world crime" and "crime fiction". Antony Altbeker (in turn) - when asked to comment on his book Fruit Of A Poisoned Tree (which dealt with the 2005 murder of Stellenbosch student Inge Lotz and the subsequent trial of her estranged boyfriend Fred van der Vyver) - said that it "transcended crime fiction" and was "real life".

One question put to the panel from the audience was whether or not one could write compelling crime fiction in a country in which there was a low crime rate. Antony Altbeker wryly commented in response that "There have been more Swedish crime novels published in 2010 than Swedish murders", an indirect allusion to the massively successful "Millennium Trilogy" by late Swedish crime author Stieg Larsson. When asked why people nonetheless still lapped up crime fiction when they were daily surrounded by real-life crime, the panel was unanimous that readers have "a fascination with the dark side" of the human psyche.

Polizei by Libertinus Yomango, by-sa 2.0 on FlickrHowever, just as people are fascinated by crime and criminals, they are equally fascinated by the police, and reference was made to Andrew Faull's Behind The Badge, which chronicled the experiences of former SAPS members as well as those still serving on the force. Asked whether or not they felt a loyalty to the South African Police Services (SAPS) when writing, Margie Orford - while conducting research for her novels Blood Rose and Daddy's Girl - said that she had wanted to capture the essence of what policing was like, and was struck by "the willful blindness and the kindness and generosity" of the SAPS, commenting that "a lot of what the police do is morally peculiar". Brown - who was detained during the State of Emergency but is now a SAPS reservist, admitted having conflicted notions of loyalty towards the SAPS but said that one - as a local crime writer - ultimately had to be loyal to it. Deon Meyer, in turn, said that crime fiction often required that protagonists, such as the "Inspector Benny Griessel" character in his books Devil's Peak and 13 Hours , had to have flaws but that readers would nonetheless accept them as such. To him, "criminal fiction is about our internal sense of justice", but he also tempered this with the observation that "we judge the police in ways we don't judge ourselves".

Bearing this is in mind, Brown then asked Altbeker if he had "pulled his punches" in Fruit Of A Poisoned Tree and whether his "measured conclusion" had been "loyalty to the police". [The Fred van der Vyver murder trial was wracked by allegations that the SAPS had fabricated evidence during its investigation.] In speaking for the entire panel, he responded that "we felt we should be respectful to the police, because of what they do", while Margie Orford managed to raise a few laughs when she described the SAPS as - given some of the tasks it performs - being akin to "armed social workers".

Day 106 by Chris Costes, by 2.0 on FlickrThe next issue raised by Brown was whether or not it was important that good triumphed over evil in fiction. In fielding the question Margie Orford compared her depiction of "good" and "evil" with that of another acclaimed local crime writer, Roger Smith. To her, Smith's writing was unrelentingly brutal, while in her books she created a world in which certain events happened and moral choices were made because of them. Drawing upon her experiences while compiling Fifteen Men: Images And Words From Behind Bars [in which she describes teaching creative writing to inmates at Groot Drakenstein Prison outside Paarl, South Africa.], she said that none of the prisoners she had encountered were "intrinsically evil". As an SAPS reservist, Brown (in turn) said his job was to go after criminals and catch them, yet once he actually got to talk to them, he realised that they were not that different from anyone else.

One question posed was whether there was a need for finality in crime-genre books. Deon Meyer said there was definitely such a need, as "people need closure and justice", while Margie Orford said that crime novels "have internal logic and drive within the book...if it peters out in a bad ending, [readers] get the moer in!"

Brown then asked if there was a responsibility for crime writers to portray situations "reasonably accurately". Altbeker said that there wasn't but acknowledged that there was a responsibility to strike a balance between one's self and one's readers, irrespect ive of whether the work was one of fiction or non-fiction. To him, this responsibility was complicated by the nature of the South African market, in that many of one's readers would - given our stratospheric crime rate - have been exposed to crime in one form or another. Margie Orford subsequently commented that "[writing about crime] is an easy sell in Europe, but here it affects real people".

Finally, Deon Meyer was asked how South African crime literature was perceived overseas. According to him, it was "heavily influenced by the perception of a racial war threatening to break out at any moment" and he would often have to rectify this perception when giving interviews and participating in panel discussions overseas. Notwithstanding some of the more outlandish stories dreamed up by the foreign press in the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup (such as this, this and this) it was "now much easier" in the aftermath of South Africa's successful hosting of the tournament.

One interesting fact I noted while sitting in on this discussion was the relatively large audience compared to the other talks I observed earlier that day. While many will simply put this down to a morbid fascination with crime, the sheer scale of crime in South Africa means that some of those attending would invariably have been affected by it in the past. The panelists' insights were thus a fascinating glimpse at the fine line local crime writers have to tread between fact and fiction and the enthusiastic applause they received at the end of the discussion thoroughly vindicated their views.

On The Internet Share
Deon Meyer: Official Site | BOOK SA

Shop online Daddy's Girl: |
Shop online Fifteen Men: Images And Words From Behind Bars: | |

Antony Altbeker: BOOK SA 1 | BOOK SA 2
Shop online Fruit Of A Poisoned Tree: | | |

Shop online Coldsleep Lullaby: | | |

Shop online Behind The Badge: |

Stieg Larsson: Official Site | Wikipedia
Shop online The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: | | |
Shop online The Girl Who Played With Fire: | | |
Shop online The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest: | | |

Roger Smith: Official Site | Facebook | Twitter

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