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Margie Orford

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Crime writing’ Category

Quick-fire Questions from Crime Always Pays

Declan Burke from Crime Always Pays recently fired a few quick questions at me. In the following interview I reveal, among other things, the pitch for my next book:

What crime novel would you most like to have written?

WOLVES EAT DOGS by Martin Cruz Smith.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?

Arkady Renko (goes with the above). But some days I feel more like Cruella deVille. I never want to be Bambi’s mother.


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Why Intimate Crimes Transfix the Popular Imagination

This is going to be my last column for a while. My next book has a deadline gun at my head. So, like most people facing an immovable force, I am giving in. I am also conducting an experiment on myself; for the first time in my life I am going to focus on one thing, and one thing only. So, I have parcelled out all the other work I do and handed it over.

The forced passing of the “secrecy” Bill – it would be ridiculous if it was not so frightening – briefly derailed my ambition to be a wallflower. However, South Africa’s grasping rulers have underestimated how pissed off the electorate is with them. Those in power, sheltered from reality as they are, seem to have swallowed their own Orwellian doublespeak and that South Africans have experience at fighting injustice, mendacity and state crime. They will get their come-uppance as people who do wrong sometimes do.

This is one of the things I have learnt during the time that crime has absorbed my writing attention and these column inches for some time. And this column has taken me places. A year ago I was sailing with my family off the Tanzanian coast. We had planned a route further out into the beckoning, blue Indian Ocean, but because of raiding Somali pirates we kept inside the reef that protects Zanzibar. It was fabulous, but the limitations caused by the collapse of the Somali state irked me, although I see that Wilbur Smith – never a man to miss a moment – already dashed a book out about piracy, a distressed, blonde damsel rescued by manly men in khaki.


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South African Courts Belong More to the World of Stephen King than Jurisprudence

Courtroom dramas are in a little bit like science fiction or romance. There are cult followers who follow the increasingly (to me, a prosaic crime writer rooted in science, motive and evidence) weird narrative twists that take place.

John Grisham is the undisputed king of the fictional courtroom drama and his books capture the socially agreed voodoo that is necessary for a justice system to work: the rigmarole of the robes, the standing and rising for judges, the wood paneling, the gavel, the hand on the bible stuff, the swearing to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth – as if that were remotely possible. All this ritual makes us believe the justice system is rational and fair and real in fiction.

Reality is altogether another matter and, seeing as I am not writing a book at the moment, it has diverted me from the plausible world of fictional justice. The cases currently before bemused-looking judges presiding over South African courts belong more to the world of Stephen King than jurisprudence. For example, there’s the case of the high court judge murdered in his luxury apartment Cape Town. His hell-hath-no-fury wife is on trial his brutal slaying alongside with a young man who seems to have confused the roles of toyboy/handyman with hitman. The presiding judge is looking nervy. My advice to him would be that he buys his own wife flowers on the way home.


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Johannesburg’s Utilitarian Relationship with Memory

I have to confess to developing a little bit of a crush on big, brash, bad-boy Jozi. Different cities produce different crimes. The psycho-geography of a place shapes its inhabitants – criminal or not – as it does its crime writers. You leave South Africa’s mountainous Mother City, sedate, and somewhat purse-lipped on a chilly Cape day and a couple of hours later you are landing in Johannesburg. It is like another world.

Johannesburg rushes up at you as the plane banks and circles where the township houses are corn-rowed over the stripped, red earth. As you drop down towards the airport the traffic glints in golden ribbons in the afternoon sun. The swimming pools are blue squares in suburban gardens. The sky is hazed with dust, smoke and pollution. A comforting reminder that the gritty engine of South Africa’s economy is still working.

We slip into the traffic. Jo’burg drivers, by the way, are much better than Capetonians who have a frighteningly creative approach to the rules of the road. The city, the biggest manmade forest in the world is gorgeous in spring. All the jacaranda trees have flowered at once, purpling the streets with blossoms. Even the man-eating potholes look pretty. I am enchanted by the combination of concrete and this extravagant and ephemeral beauty.


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Crime novels exude literary vigilantism

The death penalty is one of those conversational cleavers; it will divide any dinner party neatly into those for and those against. Compelling arguments for revenge and for compassion will be made, but it is unlikely that one side will persuade the other that hanging is right. Or wrong.

Crime writers generally have taken the easy way out of this dilemma. Killing fictional people is our core business, as is the restitution of fictional law and order. Few readers are willing to wait out the length of a trial to see a violent criminal get his come-uppance, which probably explains the high numbers of killings of the bad guys in the final chapters of many crime novels. There is of course that visceral, Old Testament thrill we feel when someone truly bad pays the ultimate price for their sins. This is an unofficial death penalty, a kind of literary vigilantism, that elides the complexity of a democratic society’s desire for punitive and its simultaneous aspiration towards restorative justice.

The spectre of judicial murder has never left South Africa. This is a country that executed a vast number of people. Between 1921 and 1989 at least 4003 convicted murderers, rapists and political prisoners were hanged at Pretoria Central Prison. According to a report in the Sunday Times, at least 130 political prisoners were executed there. But calls for the return of the death penalty are frequent and loud.

South Africa’s constitution outlawed the death penalty and in 1996, two years after the first democratic elections which ushered in Mandela as president, the notorious gallows were dismantled. They have now been restored and will be unveiled on the 8th of December. The Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, whose department has been driving the initiative, says that the restoration and the unveiling was her department’s ‘small contribution towards paying homage and tribute to all South Africans who were executed. I would want SA to see this as part of a healing process and part of nation-building.’

The names of all the executed prisoners – common-law and political – will be commemorated. “We don’t want to leave out the names of common-law criminals who were also executed,’ the minister said, ‘because we are saying that this [apartheid] was a system that was unjust, cruel and inhumane.’

This attempt at bringing ‘closure’ bears witness to the bureaucratic horror of the state’s killing of its citizens. The cupboard with its seven ropes, the yardstick for measuring the height of those about to be hanged, the fan to cool sweating officials as they prepared the prisoners for death. Because, according to this report, up to seven executions used to take place simultaneously.


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John le Carre is a perfect fit for Occupy Wall Street

The world is pissed off and rightly so. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that have swept the world in the past couple of weeks are testament to exactly how pissed off, how desperate ordinary people are. Jobs have been lost, savings have been wiped out, homes have been lost. The robber barons that run the speculative and morally bankrupt banks that are condensed into the moniker ‘Wall Street’ have knowingly perpetrated this economic pillage. Zombie banks is what the Pulitzer prize-winning author and journalist, Chris Hedges, calls them.

Many of them have made money hand over fist during the prolonged fiscal crisis of the last couple of years. They have been bailed out by the American treasury and now European governments are trying to stave off defaults amongst the poorer members of the EU. It looks to me like the money-emperors are stark naked. And it looks like they don’t give a toss.

How to right this situation? How to write it?

My money is on John le Carre. He is able to hold together tales of corporate greed, think The Constant Gardner, as deftly as he held together the moral ambiguity of the Cold War in Smiley’s People.

I even have a title for him – The Men Who Crashed the World. Nicked, I confess, from Al Jazeera. They have run a brilliant series of analytical pieces on the wave of indignation that has swept protesters from every walk of life into their city squares.


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Meeting up with the Boozy, Bloodthirsty Sisters of Crime Fiction in Melbourne

Australia does exist. Every single South African was rudely reminded of that fact last Sunday when the Springboks were pipped (criminally) to the post by the Australians in the rugby world cup. I was forced to watch the slaughter of dreams from a bar in Melbourne. It did not inspire the most neighbourly thoughts in me, I have to confess.

The reason for this sporting torture is that I’ve been at SheKilda in Melbourne, a crime writers’ festival hosted by the Sisters in Crime, a bloodthirsty group of Australian women who seem to have an infinite capacity for gore, alcohol and crime fiction.

The endless flight to this remote part of the globe has introduced me to a whole new world. Australia, like Sweden and Norway, is an astoundingly law abiding country by my rather jaded standards. Drivers wear their seatbelts, the stop at red lights, and they don’t seem to kill each other all that much. There was a mini-spate of mob killings in Melbourne recently, but that seems more like a service to humanity than a crime. And a great saving for the taxpayer too.

There would appear to be an inverse proportion of crime writers in a country to the numbers of actual crimes committed. Consequently, South Africa, with its spectacular display of crime has produced a handful of crime novelists, while Australia is bursting at the seams with them. Perhaps an increase in the number of crime novels in South Africa will bring our crime stats down. I find it difficult to commit crimes while typing. However, a crime reduction in South Africa seems as unlikely as a sunny day in Sweden.


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Cats in Crime Fiction: Pesky Plot Problem or Tactile Treat?

No one has ever asked me how to commit murder, but given my research, this is a subject in which I am better qualified than baking.

But the people who write to columnists clearly prefer cooking to crime, so I was inundated with recipe requests after last week’s column. It was Mark Twain who pointed out that “clothes make the man. Naked people have no influence upon society.” This is not true in the case of Jamie Oliver, whose orange and polenta biscuit recipe I nicked from The Naked Chef.

I’d say eat them with espresso made in an Italian stovetop percolator rather than those poncy coffee machines that look like something from Star Trek and that you need a degree in mechanical engineering to operate.

Coffee, by the way, is a crime essential. Barbara Nadel, who has a delightful series featuring an Istanbul detective, wrote to me saying she had checked on her put-upon lead only to find that she never fed the poor man. All he did was smoke and drink coffee. Considering that he is the father of 11 children, if I remember correctly, he might appreciate the biscuits.


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How I was detained and charged with treason as a student in 1985

I have written an article for the Guardian about the time I was arrested, detained and charged with treason for my involvement in a protest against PW Botha’s state of emergency in 1985:

On 20 July 1985, PW Botha, then-president of South Africa, declared a state of emergency in the areas around Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape. The police were given unlimited powers of arrest and detention without trial. It was the beginning of apartheid’s long and violent endgame.

One afternoon in October of the same year, a friend stops by. The state of emergency has been extended to the Western Cape, she says. I must come. There’s a protest march at the University of Cape Town. I have been involved in student politics (writing, protesting, marching) since 1983, so I abandon the Romantic poets – preparation for my final exams – and we drive up to the university. The police are on one side of De Waal Drive, the protesting students on the other. We hold up placards – mine says Stop the State of Emergency – as the indifferent commuter traffic heads for the cocooned southern suburbs.

I watch the cops. I don’t like tear gas. “Five minutes to disperse!” yells the bull-necked officer, but the police are already charging. Everybody runs. I look back. There’s a cop gaining on me. His skin is raw from shaving and acne. I pass out.


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Is Food Replacing Sex in Crime Fiction?

I have reached the Duke of Wellington’s ‘publish and be damned’ phase of writing. My book is off my hands and at the printers. But danger lurks, in the form of earnest interviewers. ‘What did I think,’ one asked me the other day, ‘about the fact that food is replacing sex as the recreational activity of choice in crime fiction.’

This is a theory that has been bandied about by recently by people who read crime rather than write it.I have not given it much thought as I find wrestling a plot into a semblance of coherence enough. The last thing I need is my heroine slacking off and eating strawberries in bed with handsome men. I am not paid to write Joanna Trollope novels, after all. I have tension to build, innocents to kill, killers to catch. Food in my experience, is like sex. It needs a bit the languid leeway of time, wine and the possibility of seconds to be a pleasure.

That said, it is obvious that crime fiction and the never-to-be-dismissed pleasure of the quickie have a long and entwined history. You only have to look at the covers of early crime classics – the gumshoe with a cocked gun, the bottle-blonde with the heaving bosom in the background – to know that. Crime fiction depends on big-hearted good-time girls. From Damon Runyon’s sassy broads to the high-heeled, wasp-waisted film noir blondes, to the easy lays who smoke their way through the Elmore Leonards. Much of the sex, sadly, has been of the pounce-and-thrust variety. The act itself, a knee-trembler with a new girl every fifty pages or so, never takes long. The etiquette of foreplay and after-cuddle must never get in the way of our hero from putting his fedora hat back on his head and hunting down the bad guys.


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