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Margie Orford

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Writers Gifts: The Flexibility of Crime Fiction and The Trope of Femininity and Death

Shortly after the publication of BLOOD ROSE, my second Clare Hart thriller, a relative of mine asked when I was going to write a ‘proper’ book. This is a fair question. Murder, rape, organised crime, collapsing state institutions, street gangsters, pathology labs, broken hearts and a couple of quickies along the way are not, as Raymond Chandler pointed out in his famous essay, the Art of Murder, proper. I assured my disapproving relative that I had started out trying to write a ‘proper’ book. I had outlined a very literary book that involved (of course) a farm. All books by literary South Africans seem to involve farms with frustrated women immured on them.

But it was a bird without wings and it did not fly. I wanted to write about Cape Town, the cruel and beautiful city I live in. I wanted to write about dislocation and violence, about the survival of love and hope. I wanted to write about South Africa as it is. Urban, fractious, shifting, uncontained. I had no interest in writing about how it was meant to be.

I returned to Cape Town with my family in 2001. I had left South Africa in 1988 when the country was in the throes of an unacknowledged civil war. I went to live in London, then that peaceful backwater, Namibia and finally New York.

~ ~ ~

My first book, Like Clockwork, was born out of a series of images that I collected through my interviews with South African cops and forensics experts. Here is one that has stayed with me.

Imagine a cold Monday morning.

A drying rack that looked like a deli fridge in the medical forensic labs in Valhalla Park on the Cape Flats. Inside were panties. Big, small, expensive, washed over and over, Woolworth’s beige, a lovely wisp of bloodied lace. And one tiny red pair from Pep Stores. It had a label: age 2 – 3. And one unravelling thread that floated above it. I asked a cop who was showing me around what this was and he shrugged.

‘That’s Cape Town on a Monday morning. Those are the rape cases.’

The writer’s gift: the small detail that evokes the whole. It provoked in me a sense of deep moral outrage: somehow I had to find a way of restoring those panties to their owners, of finding the intimate pulse of their lives, of making them back into human beings again. Not these pared down metonymies of degradation and pain.

 

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