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Margie Orford

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Crime writing’ Category

Materialism is Fuelling New Wave of Riots

I have been nit picking my way through page proofs for my new book, a task that makes sticking pins into one’s eyes seem fun. Be that as it may, a pivotal scene that recaptured my attention is a riot. Riots, I discovered during the writing, are hard things to construct. They appear to erupt suddenly and without warning. The riot itself is chaotic, adrenalin-pumped and terrifying, there is no centre to it, and there is no form. Riots leave one dazed, confused and, all too often, ashamed of how one behaved during the event. But riots, like all storms, do not come out of nowhere.

Thanks to the British riots I have my favourite punk band, The Clash, doing a permanent rerun in my head; ‘London Calling’, ‘Police and Thieves’, all those great anthems to anarchy composed in the late 1970s, when Mrs Thatcher school-marmed her way into power. She presided over some exemplary strikes and riots that changed British society forever.

When I lived in London in the late 1980s there were the Poll Tax riots. London surged with East End impis armed with dustbin lids and bricks. There was the standard standoff with the cops, a couple of people were clobbered then everyone went home and had cups of tea. Oh yes, and the Thatcher’s poll tax, a very unfair one, was scrapped.

In the late 1990s there were riots against global capitalism. Again, dustbin lids, bricks, Bobbies, beatings; then it was done, order was restored and it was back to business as usual. Global capitalism seems to have done itself in over the last decade, but who knows, maybe it needed that helping hand with a half-brick.

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What Do Women Want?

‘What do women want?’ That was the question that perplexed Freud as he formulated his notions of the subconscious. What women get, that might be a better question to start, because the gulf that lies between what we want and what we get is the reality of a woman’s life.

In crime fiction women all too often get short shrift. They are the default victims of the genre. Their lovely, mutilated and mute bodies trigger the gun-toting heroes – and the odd heroine, my own Clare Hart included – who avenge their gruesome deaths at the hands of serial misogynists.

Freud famously failed to answer his own question. It always amazes me when brilliant men miss the perfectly obvious, so I’ll spell it out. Being a woman myself, I can tell you that I’d rather be alive than be avenged. Living in South Africa one often feels as if one were living inside a crime novel where the author has lost the plot. And the effects of this plot-loss are seen in the astounding levels of sexual violence and the infrequency with which perpetrators are jailed.

But women know what they want, and unless you are a deaf mute, they say it round the world loud and clear. Women want what men want – political rights, economic parity and a safe, warm house where nobody hits them. Women are people, after all, just like men and we don’t like to be messed with.

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Babies and Books Have a Lot in Common

My new crime thriller, Gallows Hill, is going to the typesetter this weekend, so I am deep in the never-ending end of the final edit. Pin-pointing the end of the process of writing a book is a little like identifying that moment when one’s adult children leave home. Just as you think the book is done/the kids have moved out it/they return. But with hindsight, I can see that the end-of-the-end started exactly a month ago with the birth of my tiny nephew. My three year-old niece came to spend the night with me while her bug-eyed parents went to hospital. Both of them were stricken with that look people get when the future in the form of an infant – inexorable, painful and expensive – bears down on them.

That night was dark and stormy; I know this because my roof leaked, soaking my three-year-old niece to the skin. It was midnight before I got her dry again and settled her in my bed, but I couldn’t go back to sleep. Not with the book deadline rushing at me like a bullet train driven by my implacable publisher. So, I just stayed up and worked all night; my manuscript was overdue. It had to be in. Now. Like the baby being born, there was no more give! As I worked later and later into the night, it occurred to me how alike babies and books are; the four a.m. sleeplessness being only the most superficial similarity.

There are others. Both babies and books seem like an astoundingly good idea when you get them started. That’s the fun part. It is usually quick, often done on holiday under the influence of alcohol. These happy origins are rapidly forgotten by everybody except the author and/or mother as gestation takes place out of sight, if not out of mind.

This discreet phase, however, has one inevitable and melodramatic ending: an agonising labour. Books, like babies, require blood, sweat, tears and the occasional star in the east before they will be delivered. In the immediate and exhausted aftermath there is a non-pregnant pause when everyone with a vested interest holds their collective breath and the book/baby is checked. Head, body, arms, legs, fingers, toes for the babies. Plot, style, tension, character, dialogue, profit potential, for books.

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Anders Breivik’s Crime Is Both Stupendous and Banal

Scandinavian crime fiction stormed the world when the Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, unleashed the anorexic and tattooed revenge-hacker, Lisbeth Salandar, and the chain-smoking left-leaning journalist Blomqvist. Jo Nesbo, Larsson’s Norwegian partner in crime fiction, describes similarly bizarre murders that, to a South African, could seem comical at times in relation to the regulated tolerance of the liberal, feminist social democracies of Scandinavia.

But the warning was there, crime fiction when done well, can be both sharply and prescient of the gathering social storms that cause the smooth surface waters of a society to eddy into violence. Larsson’s books, like many of the Scandinavian wave of crime writers, carry in them the spectre of the far right, something dark, furtive and violent prowling on the edges of these novels and on the lunatic fringes of society.

That was until last Friday when a truck packed with a fertiliser bomb detonated in central Oslo. The gun-jump of the western media was startling. The attack was immediately, and without reference to any facts, assumed to have been perpetrated by Muslim jihadists, that familiar and comprehensible enemy without. This was to be Norway’s 9/11. But then the reports started coming in of a man shooting scores of beautiful children attending an island summer camp. The axis of comfort and assumption convulsed when the realisation spread that the meticulously ordered killer was a muscular, blonde Norwegian man.

Difference, challenge, defiance, discussion – all the things that result from the melting-pot cultures that result from immigration, travel, migrant labour, globalisation, the unassailable facts of the world we all inhabit, threaten the narcissistic individual when they change (for better and for worse) previously homogenous societies. The narcissism of Breivik, the perpetrator, is chilling. Hidden away in his manifesto– a weird jumble of medieval Christianity, machismo, violence, and xenophobia – is a fetish with his appearance, his bodybuilding, his visits to the solarium in the period prior to the attacks, his sense of superiority to others. But anything that is different, that is ‘other’, is perceived as a threat because it disturbs a rigid and fanatically held sense of self. This psychotic and fragile vanity, his explosive narcissism, seems to parallel his politics of racial purity and exclusion.

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Royal Weddings and Unholy Alliances with Rupert Murdoch and Bheki Cele

I’m free! My new book, Gallows Hill, is done and is being dusted by my editor. The final stages of a novel require solitary confinement, so I disappeared down my writing tunnel. But I’m emerging back into the world, so last week I fetched the modem that I had exiled to my brother’s house and ventured back onto the Internet. Marriage, the second most-popular theme for novels after murder, still has the world in its grip.

The last time I paid attention to global events was about the time that Kate & Wills were being transformed into the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Both of them had looked so pleased with themselves and their clothes and the weather that I thought I had better check up on the state of their wedded bliss. Kate looks radiant, happy, smiley and beloved as she should. She has singlehandedly saved the economy of the English High Street– that hell zone where teenage mothers smoke Silk Cut and buy on credit – by buying shoes, frocks and having beautiful rich-girl hair. Some Americans have already made a film made about them – quite possibly the most stomach-turning schmaltz of all time – in which a girl flicked her hair around a lot in meadows. Not quite rags to riches but close enough for a world inured to soap opera and reality television. There was enough there to fill a decade of Hello! magazines with tasteful glitz.

But the beautiful Kate has been eclipsed by Rebekah Brooks. The former editor of The News of the World, this is a woman with bad morals, bad judgement and a bag boss, but ball-crushingly great hair. Every picture I see of her she seems to be shaking her blood-red locks like some kind of demented media Gorgon in a sea of little grey hacking men.

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The Complexities of Being a Mother Who Also Has Ambitions

I recently wrote an article for the Daily Mail about the year I spent away from my husband and children in pursuit of my dream of becoming a writer:

Twelve years ago, I abandoned my children – Olivia, ten, Hannah, seven, and Emma, three – and it would be one heartbreaking but exhilarating year before we were properly reunited.

‘Welcome to New York City.’ The pilot’s voice cut through my thoughts. Outside, a hot wind was blowing, but there was no Olivia, no Hannah, to hold down my skirt. The crook of my arm ached at the absent weight of Emma. I had left my children in the care of my parents and my husband Andrew back in Namibia, to start a master’s degree at City University of New York. In my head, accusing voices told me that what I was doing was selfish, unnatural. I have been asked many times, in tones ranging from approval to hissing repugnance, why I did it. It’s not easy to answer, as it is so tied to the complexities of being a mother who also has ambitions.

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Lunching with David Klatzow and Penny Haw

David Klatzow and I were recently interviewed by Penny Haw about forensic science and crime writing while lunching on the Newmark hotel group’s luxury yacht, the Nautilus:

NOVELIST Margie Orford and forensic scientist Dr David Klatzow have at least one thing in common: they’re in the business of crime. In fact, I’ve heard them referred to as “SA ’s king and queen of crime”.

Recently , with the publication of Klatzow’s biography, Steeped In Blood: The Life and Times of a Forensic Scientist, last year and news he’s working on a new book, it emerged the scientist and novelist have another thing in common: they are both accomplished storytellers.

Author of the Clare Hart series of thrillers — she has just put the finishing touches to the fourth in the series, Gallow’s Hill — Orford is among SA’s most eminent crime writers, both locally and abroad.

Her books, Like Clockwork, Blood Rose and Daddy’s Girl, have been translated into more than eight languages; and film rights for Blood Rose have been optioned to a London-based South African film-making team .

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Protesting the Death of Andries Tatane

Ficksburg, in the dusty heart of South Africa, was until last week one of the small, hopeless towns that one accelerated past unless you needed petrol. Towns like it have been the backdrop in recent years to an increasing number of protests, marches, burning tyres, angry crowds with raised fists. There have been the occasional volleys of stones. These have bounced of the armoured cars of the riot squad just as the anguish of the poor has bounced off the plexi-glass shielded consciences of our politicians.

No longer.

Last week a man called Andries Tatane took part in a march against a state that is failing its people at the point where government matters most to individuals – the provision of water, power, health, education and housing. The basic ingredients of a decent life. Tatane was one of the faceless millions of South Africans who have been short-changed by the promise of prosperity that was the pot of gold at the end of our nation’s rainbow.

During the protest, for reasons that remain unclear, he was set upon and sjambokked by a large number of policemen in riot gear. He was then shot at close range and he died in the street soon afterwards.

Tatane is not the first person to die in what are called ‘service delivery protests.’ Some months ago police in another small, anonymous town shot a schoolgirl dead. There was a great deal of political pussyfooting about her death. There have been other deaths in other places. These earlier killings have slipped below the surface of our troubled political waters.

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Ai Weiwei and the Danger of Sunflower Seeds

The Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in London echoes with the feet of the countless tourists who shuffle through, numbed by choice, bad coffee and the head-scratching effect of conceptual art. The space is cavernous, the roof is at cathedral height. The light that sifts through the opaque glass ceiling is viscous with dust. It is an unsettling space that is filled, at the moment, with millions of ceramic sunflower seeds spread across the floor. This artwork by the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, intrigued and puzzled me when I went to look at it last week. You cannot touch the seeds, even though one’s impulse is childlike, tactile. I wanted to burrow my hands into the heap, to scatter them, to build them into drip castles. But this is art, so the tempting little kernels are corralled behind a tasteful wire barrier and patrolled by muscular gallery guards.

This huge display, at first so apparently whimsical, so playful, so mad, is compelling both in its size and in its modesty. This immensity, after all, is created by little grey and black almonds of baked clay. I walked down the side of the exhibit to look at the seeds more closely. They are seemingly identical, but each one has been individually crafted. When you stop and look closely the individual lines, the barely discernible unevenness of shape, become apparent. The vastness of these heaped millions turn unexpectedly into one and another and then another recognizable individual. The desire to touch, to pick one up, to hold it in the palm of my hand is so strong that one of the guards turns and glowers at me. I put my hands back into my pockets.

And then a couple of days after I had been at the Tate, Ai Weiwei was arrested. Many other artists, not as well known, have been picked up, as have lawyers and writers. They have simply disappeared, picked off by the Chinese police who have cracked down on any form of dissent with increasing ferocity. Others like thee Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, have been charged with vague and spurious charges and sentenced.

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Libya’s Oil Worth More in Blood than Ivory Coast’s Cocoa and Coffee Beans

There are two new civil wars in Africa. One is in Libya and it affects the export of oil, the other is in the Ivory Coast and it affects the export of cocoa and coffee beans.

The uprising in Libya was part of the Mexican wave of street protests that has spread across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Yemen, from Egypt to Syria. In Tunisia and Egypt courageous people who had their backs against a wall of poverty and frustration, have swept corrupt and repressive governments from power. Their demands have been simple. The release of political prisoners, freedom of expression, social and economic liberation from parasitic and paranoid dictators in order to determine their own futures.

Colonel Gaddafi met the uprising in Libya by turning the guns on his own people, effectively a declaration of civil war. A no-fly zone was declared and this rapidly led to an aerial bombardment led by the French, the British and the Americans. There is much diplomatic bluster in London, Paris and Washington about protecting civilians. Reports swirl about the CIA trying to find leaders to back amongst the rag-tag rebels rushing up and down desert roads in rusting pick-up trucks. There is talk about arming this rabble of dishevelled and untrained men.

I was struck by the fact, however, that the Libyan stories are in the domestic section of the paper, which reports the presence of ‘experts, consultants and advisers’ in Benghazi. Libya is just on the other side of the Mediterranean. It is part of the ring around fortress Europe that needs to be kept stable at all costs. Libya is a domestic issue as is the precipitous rise in the oil price. Sides have been taken in this war and, despite the bloody lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, a particular outcome is desired. It looks to me like it will end in another bloody stalemate.

Things have gone differently for the Ivory Coast. The conflict there escalated into a murderous civil war in the four months since Laurent Gbagbo was defeated in national elections. He simply refused to cede power to the internationally recognised victor, Alassane Outtara, despite international hand-wringing and wrist-slapping.

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